Given the way in in which people typically consume music nowadays, all too often the lyrics are sidelined, if not completely overlooked. But great lyrics are often what make the best songs truly memorable. The following is the first in an occasional series about songs with great lyrics. Mark Underwood explains what makes the following 10 tracks so special.
Warren Zevon – ‘Desperadoes Under the Eaves’
“And if California falls into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing, until I pay my bill.” Just brilliant. Is there anyone else in the history of popular music who could write songs on subjects as diverse as mercenaries, headless Thompson gunners, Mexican revolutionaries, hula boys, unpaid hotel bills, Elvis Presley, heroin, werewolves, and necrophilia. And what a life. You wouldn’t want to have been married to him as Crystal Zevon’s brilliant book, ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ testifies, but Warren was a genius.
Jackson Browne – ‘For A Dancer’
While not wishing to appear too focused on West Coast 1970s acts, there’s no denying this guy is still right up there for me. We played this song at my mother’s funeral in January, so it’s particularly poignant for me, but it’s not only great lyrically – the metaphor of life as a dance and how “in the end there is one dance you’ll do alone” is perfectly realised – but the melody and musicianship are terrific as well. David Lindley’s fiddle playing is mournful and hugely evocative. A really special song.
Bob Dylan – ‘Hurricane’
“Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night/Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall/She sees the bartender in a pool of blood/Cries out, “My God, they killed them all.” There’s no lead in or introduction of sorts here – Dylan just pitches you straight into the heart of the action right at the start of the song. It’s almost novelistic it’s so good. And it’s also a deeply moving story song about the false trial, conviction and imprisonment of the box, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
Lucinda Williams – ‘Lonely Girls’
There are plenty of songs by Lucinda Williams I could choose but what’s terrific about ‘Lonely Girls’ is the brevity of the language. Something we should all seek to emulate. In this song she manages to add one attribute of the Lonely Girls per verse with almost impossible economy – “heavy blankets” that fall upon them; “sweet sad songs” sung by them; “pretty hairdos” that they wear; “sparkly rhinestones” that shine upon them – until Lucinda Williams herself puts herself among them with the pay off line “I oughta know about lonely girls.” Pop perfection.
Joni Mitchell – ‘Amelia’
“I was driving across a desert when I spotted six jet planes/Leaving six white vapour trails across the bleak terrain” – I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms/Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms.”
So many of Joni Mitchell’s songs are about flying and what’s also great is the sense of space she creates which means her music and lyrics aren’t structured in a rigid way. True art.
Townes Van Zandt – ‘Pancho and Lefty’
Should be in everyone’s top 10 songs of all time. No one is as capable as Townes of writing from a dark place – and with such beauty. In the early 90s, his friend Roxy Gordon, a Native American writer and musician, described the “perfect darkness” of Van Zandt’s music: “So now I’m thinking maybe Townes Van Zandt’s time is at hand. I hope so … But of course, it don’t make any difference. Townes Van Zandt knew all the time and the rest is just gravy anyway.”
Robbie Fulks – ‘I Just Want To Meet The Man’
A song that starts off in gentile enough fashion but soon develops into something far more sinister. It turns out the protagonist is a deranged stalker ex-husband.
“Don’t tell me it’s just the two of you, I see his shadow on the blind/He can’t hide in there forever, And darling, I’ve got so much time/No, that’s nothing in my pocket, Just a toy I brought for Jane/I couldn’t stand to see her hurting, Now Daddy’s here to kill the pain.”
Mary Gauthier – ‘Bullet Holes in the Sky’
Given how much we fret occasionally about how to properly define Americana music, it was immensely gratifying to hear Mary Gauthier interviewed on James Hodder’s excellent radio programme, Tin Can Review, say how grateful she was to be included under the Americana banner because what she called her “collision of country and folk” had never previously found a natural home. Her description of the SongwritingWith:Soldiers project of working with war veterans as “spiritual medicine for a world gone wrong” is a great way to sum up a truly inspiring project. I feel grateful to be alive at a time when Mary Gauthier is writing songs as good as this.
Lori McKenna – ‘People Get Old’
“Time is a thief, pain is a gift/The past is the past, it is what it is/Every line on your face tells a story somebody knows, that’s just how it goes/You live long enough and the people you love get old.”
I can’t listen to this song and not get emotional. It’s not so much in the vocal delivery, but Lori McKenna’s songwriting is fantastic for its meaning and simplicity. This could have turned out overly sentimental and mawkish, but instead it speaks to a truth we all recognise.
The Byrds – ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’
Another song I played at my Mum’s funeral. While it was a humanist service and this song has inevitable religious overtones given its basis in the book of Ecclesiastes, it’s still a song for all people and for all the ages. And its unmistakable chord progression and chorus mean it will never fall out of favour.