Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Banality of Song Lyrics

Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum minces the new Wilco record, Sky Blue Sky, and calls it “dad-rock.” A sentence from the review:

Case in point, the drowsy opener "Either Way" sleepwalks through a list of indecisive sentiments ("maybe you love me, maybe you don't") before breaking for a Cline solo that's straight-up Weather Channel Local on the 8s.
These are the lyrics of Either Way in their entirety:
Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will blow away
Maybe I won’t feel so afraid
I will try to understand
Either way

Maybe you still love me
Maybe you don’t
Either you will or you won’t
Maybe you just need some time alone
I will try to understand
Everything has its plan
Either way
I’m gonna stay
Right for you

Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will roll away
Maybe I won’t be so afraid
I will understand everything has its plan
Either way
It’s not Dylanesque poetry but even on the page, those lyrics are something more than a list of indecisive sentiments. Anyone who follows the band, even loosely, knows that a large percentage of the songs on the last four Wilco albums concern Jeff Tweedy’s sometimes quite frayed relationship with his wife (and more generally, with anyone outside of his alienated self). It’s possible that that knowledge is required in imbuing the lyrics to Either Way with a greater meaning than Mitchum recognizes. But if you listen to the song, it sounds like a prayer: for the sun to shine, for fear to abate, for greater understanding of your self and your place in the world (best analogue in the Pearl Jam song catalogue: Sometimes on No Code, also an album opener). It’s in the way Tweedy sings it, with a question and a catch in his voice in every line and with hope for self-knowledge. “Maybe you just need some time alone” suggests trepidation and a situation just about spun out of control. The tentative resolve is more meaningful in light of this sense of genuine risk.

Either Way is not even one of my favorites on SBS and I still see in it much more than indecisive sentiments. This may be a result of the compact struck between artist and fan, the agreement that they will do their expressive best and we will give full faith and credit to each of their paintings or chapters or songs. (No one pays me to pick apart music, so I can speak as a member of the flock rather than as a theologian.) It strikes me however that the banality to which Mitchum alludes is a fundamental attribute of popular music when words and lines are read in isolation and apart from the context of the songwriter’s and listener's life and passion. It is roughly analogous to judges like Antonin Scalia who (sometimes, when it fits their ends) seek to read legal language in “plain text” rather than finding meaning in the words through a broader reading of the historical moment in which a statute was first passed and adapted to fit the current context. It feels to me like a lazy or ends-oriented approach to both law and music criticism, rather than a genuine attempt to engage with the text. Mitchum wanted to find that Sky Blue Sky is dad-rock so he lifted a few lines from the first song and made light of their banality.

In the commentary track to Moulin Rouge, I believe during the Elephant Medley (one of my favorite movie scenes of all-time), Baz Luhrman talks about how music transforms words into poetry. He’s right, of course, and that’s why the film makes such splendid use of modern pop music. Another film more centrally about music that I just saw earlier tonight, Once, has a humorous scene in which the male protagonist strums and sings his romantic history to the female lead on the back of a bus. It is genius because the history is at once banal (his girlfriend cheated on him) but incredibly meaningful for these two people falling for each other. And singing the words allows the cynical, lonely singer-songwriter to add underlying emotional depth, to express how he feels and to connect with this lovely new woman who has come into his life. All of the songs in Once have this quality and provide a rationale for an otherwise questionably fast melding of interests and understandings between the two leads.

The transformation of plain words into something much more profound and connective is magical, alchemical, two separate acts of faith by the songwriter and the listener. It’s an essential part of what makes modern music so important to me. After all, life itself is mind-numbingly banal. It is only through magic, alchemy, and faith that we gain the fortitude to persevere.

8 comments:

Ganesh said...

the onion really liked the new album. here's what they said about "either way":

Sky Blue Sky starts with one of Wilco's most gorgeous songs, "Either Way," which sports a classic lilting melody, slightly truncated and well-supported by wobbly organ and strings. Like a lot of the songs on this record, "Either Way" circles gently and never fully lands. But that isn't a complaint. Songs like "Impossible Germany" and "Side With The Seeds" build quickly from lovely, breezy openings to rough-hewn jams, spotlighting loose guitar interplay and chunky rhythms. Again and again, the band starts a song that sounds like it could be a new pop-folk standard, then abandons it after a minute or two to go rooting around in the soil.

lbc said...

I trust the onion a.v. club more than most other review sources these days, especially on music.

Ganesh said...

i like them across the boards: literature (they liked alarcon's latest), movies and music -- mostly because they rarely give out anything above a B. it's like college all over!

on a sidenote, i think that we should write to each other daily using a variety of pseudonyms. if you get an email from 2cool4skul6735, that's my alterego. then you can respond with IWillCrushYouIntoTinyBits777.

Ganesh said...

AV club interview with tweedy here

boughtitatthefiveanddime1969 said...

brilliant, thanks.

lostandfound said...

The transformation of plain words into something much more profound and connective is magical, alchemical, two separate acts of faith by the songwriter and the listener. It’s an essential part of what makes modern music so important to me. After all, life itself is mind-numbingly banal. It is only through magic, alchemy, and faith that we gain the fortitude to persevere.

Well said, and I agree wholeheartedely. Were you going to make this blog private?

Artemia Van De Lei said...

A particularly moving analysis of what it means to be both an artist and an art-lover. It doesn't seem like Mitchum understands either quite well.

Exile Fan said...

"Either Way" strikingly recalls the Grateful Dead's "Box of Rain," with lyrics written by Robert Hunter:

Look out of any window
any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging or
rain is falling from a heavy sky -
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago
Walk out of any doorway
feel your way, feel your way
like the day before
Maybe you'll find direction
around some corner
where it's been waiting to meet you -
What do you want me to do,
to watch for you while you're sleeping?
Well please don't be surprised
when you find me dreaming too

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear through to another day
I know it's been seen before
through other eyes on other days
while going home --
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
It's all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land
Maybe you're tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through

Just a box of rain -
wind and water -
Believe it if you need it,
if you don't just pass it on
Sun and shower -
Wind and rain -
in and out the window
like a moth before a flame

It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there