Sunday, September 02, 2007

This Is Not A Blog Post Or Maybe

I once had a very long instant message conversation, which led almost directly to the end of my marriage.

At some point along the way, the interlocutor and I had an argument about whether lyrics or music were more important in the grand scheme of things. I reckoned lyrics, since in those days they were all I was really equipped to appreciate.

The interlocutor didn't think much of this. 'What if a song had great lyrics, but was musically rubbish?,' said he. 'Would you still buy it?'.

I reckoned yes. The interlocutor told me I had a lot to learn. This led into an argument about Badly Drawn Boy, and the next thing I knew my marriage was over and I was living on my own in Shepherd's Bush.

But I was reminded of that snippet of conversation today upon investigating Okkervil River's new album, The Stage Names. As previously advertised, this band have really quite fantastic lyrics that are really more like intensely intricate prose poems set to music, which is all very wonderful and everything, and they do also have some marvellous instrumentation, with trumpets and accordions and what-have-you, but I can't really be doing with singer Will Sheff's voice (and also his long face freaks me out, but that's face-ist, and anyway you can't see it when you're listening to the CD), and sometimes they start a song all promisingly alternative-y and alt-rock-y, but it all turns a bit mainstream rock by the end (see also Calexico's last album), or sometimes you think if only Will Sheff could growl a bit more and whine a bit less, then Okkervil River might be a bit like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds*, but the lyrics are brilliant.

Here's the opening song off The Stage Names; it exhibits most of the traits outlined above, but it has some excellent 'ooh ooh's in it. And great lyrics.

Okkervil River - Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe (mp3)

(Buy from Amazon)

I do really like them, though, despite their flaws. Although apparently their latest flaw is to be less flawed than they used to be. I don't know, tricky stuff, this indie music.

* Someone on iTunes has suggested that this album is more reminiscent of Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, which makes a lot more sense (same sort of combination of pop melodies and wordplay and vitriol), especially as 'the' River have covered Elvis Costello in the past. This is why it's important never to listen to anything I say about music, as I know nothing.


Valerie said...


Thing is, there's more than lyrics and music (at least melody/chords), as you've just pointed out -- there are also arrangement and execution. Many people consider Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen to have great lyrics and music, yet there are larger divisions of opinion regarding their arrangement and execution. (In Cohen's case, I love his lyrics and execution (perhaps surprisingly), find his music acceptable but often uninspired, and frequently hate his arrangements.)

On the other hand lyrics trumps the rest of them every time, for me. But then, we are word people..

ScroobiousScrivener said...

Oh my, have you read the story of the band on that website? It's marvellous. Partly because it seems to be mostly high school reminiscences about people who aren't actually in the band... but anyway.

I think I have to vote for music. It's true that good lyrics will capture my heart, but despite being a word person, I'm crap at listening to words. (This caused some difficulties at university, with the whole lectures thing.) So I may start out listening to the lyrics and by about the third line my mind has wandered off somewhere completely different and by the end of the song, all I remember is the tune and maybe the chorus or the first line.

Mind you, I get reallyreally irritated by catchy songs that have stupid lyrics, so there are limits.

Oh, and then there are things like Cocteau Twins and Sigur Ros, to prove that lyrics (in the sense of understandable words) are entirely optional...

Oli said...

If you're a fan of great lyrics and questionable singing, can I recommend Art Brut?

patroclus said...

Valerie: Actually I think it's just his voice. It's really annoying. And also the fact that they sometimes have these really dark lyrics, but put bouncy indie-pop tunes around them in a way that doesn't really work for me.

I don't know why I'm doing so much slagging off of what is essentially one of my favourite bands.

Scroobious: I thought I didn't like songs with lyrics that were impossible to understand, and but I do like the Gotan Project, where I can only understand about one word in every twenty, so perhaps I'm not as narrow-minded as I thought.

Oli: I only know 'Emily Kane', which immediately got filed under 'too shouty for me', but am willing to be educated. It's about time I suspended my tedious boycott of all British indie bands.

Valerie said...

Good point scroobious... I'm a fan of both Sigur Ros and Cocteau Twins, where I think music, arrangement and execution are king.

And now I will (finally) go listen to the track you loaded, P...