Then there is the witty description of jazz musicians in “Sultans of Swing”.
Knopfler always has a fine eye for the detail of situations, but despite this, Dire Straits are rarely discussed as a ‘lyrics’ band.
It got me thinking, just how important are lyrics to music fans?
Lyrics may complement or contrast with the music, but I don’t understand how you can hear the words without processing them on some level (as long as they are in a language you understand), and that affecting your response to the track.
At the other extreme are people who take lyrics far too seriously. Music critics are the worst for this. Because the actual sound and emotional impact of music is hard to describe, they tend to base album reviews around lyrical themes, trying to sum up what the album is ‘about’, rather than it just being a collection of songs that worked out alright in the studio (or didn’t).
This kind of analysis then becomes the basis of long interviews, with lyric scribblers being treated like they were the authors of great literature, as if anyone listens to an album in that way.
I guess most of us sit somewhere between those extremes; song lyrics may wash over us in a pleasing flood without us catching all of the meanings, or necessarily wanting to. We relish certain lines as they come up, and check on lyric sheets or online to find out the exact words, but it’s rarely a subject for detailed study.
As for my personal favourites among lyric writers, I love the wit of Morrissey and the ‘beat poetry’ style of Tom Waits, but I also like lyrics that I don’t understand. Michael Stipe’s lyrics for REM were affecting as well as often being experimental and opaque. I’m not sure why a “Candy Bar” and “Dr Seuss” crop up in this tune but it’s a beautiful slice of left-field pop.
When interviewed in 1989, a journalist asked him:
“In the song Man in The Long Black Coat you sing ‘People don’t live or die, people just float’…what do you mean by ‘people just float’?”
Dylan: “well…I needed a rhyme for ‘coat’”
Originally published on Tom George Arts