In popular music, lyrics are less important than the music. Often the words of popular songs float past innocuously. Stringing together meaningless words that sound good together can be an effective strategy – ask Jon Anderson or A.C. Newman. Bad lyrics can be a deal-breaker; I enjoy Flea’s bass playing but I can’t get past Anthony Kiedis’ lack of subtlety.
Some lyricists are genuinely talented writers. Here are ten lyricists from the rock era who, in my opinion, write legitimately good lyrics. Also-rans include Warren Zevon, Paddy McAloon, Chuck D., Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen.
Presenting, in alphabetical order:
Australian punk and singer-songwriter Nick Cave writes on a typewriter. He’s published two novels – And the Ass Saw the Angel and The Death of Bunny Munro – but his literary streak carries over to his music. His words are often filled with Old Testament Biblical imagery and darkness.
And the mercy seat is waitingThe Mercy Seat
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die
Canada’s Leonard Cohen only switched to a musical career at the age of 33, after disillusionment at his lack of financial success as a writer. His literary abilities translated over to his songwriting, fuelling acclaimed records like The Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs of Love and Hate.
Ring the bells that still can ringAnthem
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Early rock’n’roll lyrics were often simplistic, about subjects like puppy love and cars. Robert Zimmerman came from folk and initially wrote protest songs. When he switched to rock and roll, he was influenced by writers like Arthur Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg, and his surreal imagery expanded the vocabulary of rock and roll. In 2016 Dylan won a Nobel Prize in Literature.
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, do they think could bury you?
The Hold Steady play bar-band rock, reminiscent of Springsteen and The Replacements, but front-man Craig Finn is clearly indebted to hip-hop. His lyrics are full of quickfire cultural references and narratives that cross over between albums, of Catholic guilt and youthful hedonism in the twin cities.
Lost in fog and love and faithless fearCitrus
I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.
Joni Mitchell‘s music is sophisticated, particularly in her peak years between 1971 and 1976. Her accompanying lyrics are introspective and elegant. Coincidentally, the song quoted below (‘A Case of You’) is rumoured to be about another writer on this list, Leonard Cohen.
Oh, you are in my blood like holy wineA Case of You
You taste so bitter
And so sweet, oh
I could drink a case of you darling, and I would
Still be on my feet
New York rapper Nasir Jones emerged with 1994’s Illmatic, a contender for the best debut album of all time. Writer William Jelani Cobb later referred to Nas as the “poetic sage of the Queensbridge projects”.
My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses.Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)
Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real.
A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja.
Here’s my basis my razor embraces, many faces.
Your telephone-blown, Black, stitches or fat shoelaces
Randy Newman‘s satirical streak puts him among rock music’s preeminent lyricists. His songs have covered a variety of unsavoury subjects; an advertising jingle for a slave ship, a conman convincing parents to let their large son join the circus, and more recently, a skewering of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He’s better known as a soundtrack writer, penning songs like ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ from Toy Story.
Asia’s crowdedPolitical Science
And Europe’s too old
Africa’s far too hot
And Canada’s too cold
And South America stole our name
Let’s drop the big one
There’ll be no one left to blame us
Like Bob Dylan, Reed was fascinated by literature. His lyrics with The Velvet Underground bought seediness into rock and roll; key track ‘Venus in Furs’ was based on a novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Reed later released a entire solo album, The Raven, based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leatherVenus In Furs
Whiplash girl child in the dark
Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart
Gillian Welch‘s Americana is economical and unassuming, but she’s a talented wordsmith. She’s able to recreate the atmosphere of a haunted, early 20th century Appalachia with her words, and she’s just as eloquent writing about herself.
I met a lovesick daughter of the San Joaquin.Wrecking Ball
She showed me colors I’d never seen
And drank the bottom out of my canteen
Then left me in the fall
Like a wrecking ball.
The Replacements were a shambolic and drunken outfit, but their front-man had the heart of a sensitive poet. Westerberg clearly enjoys playing with words, as titles like ‘What a Day (For a Night)’ and ‘Best Thing That Never Happened’ demonstrate. I don’t know what’s in the water in Minnesota, but Westerberg is the state’s third entry in this list.
Well you wish upon a star that turns into a planeValentine
And I guess that’s right on par
Who’s left to blame?
Did I leave out your favourite lyricist? Any suggestions?