Magazines and websites celebrated Bob Dylan’s recent 70th birthday by writing 700 tributes — there were so many, in fact, that the Guardian followed their coverage of his 70th birthday with a column asking “Was There Too Much Coverage of Bob Dylan’s 70th Birthday?” Maybe there was just too much of the same — most tributes asked music writers to pick their favorite Dylan song or Dylan lyrics (or Dylan haircut). But is there really any difference? (Between the first two, that is — I know my favorite Dylan haircut is Justin Bieber’s current haircut.) I’m asking about his lyrics as someone who’s not a Dylan fan. For me he falls into that category of things — like dishes made with rabbit and Michael Haneke movies and daggering — that I appreciate and respect without enjoying. Years ago I listened to as many Dylan albums as I could, mostly out a sense of duty. Now I only listen to them by accident. So last week’s tributes confused me, because most people quoted lines to songs as evidence of the quality of the music. These were songs I never cared for, yet I found myself enjoying the quotes writers picked: “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him,” or “I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest / Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty / Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters” (from “Visions of Joanna” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” respectively). Dylan got me thinking about the difference between lyrics that made good reading and lyrics that worked only in context of the music.
And then Gil Scott-Heron passed away. I wanted to hear “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” again, but first I reached (Googled) for Scott-Heron’s lyrics. You can read the anger and arrogance just as well on the page as you can hear it on the track. The bongos in the background of the recorded version mark time and pace — they’re scaffolding for his words, but those words are just as potent without instrumentation: “If there was any individual initiative that I was responsible for, it might have been that there was music in certain poems of mine, with complete progression and repeating ‘hooks,’ which made them more like songs than just recitations with percussion,” Scott-Heron wrote in the introduction to “Now And Then: The Poems Of Gil Scott-Heron.” You can hear the sneer in that definition, can’t you? I once got a more Canadian version of this from Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown songwriter Spencer Krug. I asked him for the lyrics to an upcoming album for a story I was writing; he politely refused: “They’re for hearing, they’re not for reading. Dan Bejar’s lyrics, they read off the page fine because he’s very gifted with words. He wouldn’t call himself a poet either, probably, or maybe he would, but his stuff reads fine. Most of the time, with pretty much everyone, except a couple key people, I think lyrics look terrible. They read off the page terrible,” he explained. Krug was asserting his role as a writer of songs, not poetry, a different way of stating Scott-Heron’s position. Is that what separates a genuinely good lyric from a bad one, that you can read it apart from the music without cringing? Dan Bejar just released Kaputt under his Destroyer moniker (his ninth full-length), as did two other songwriters with beloved lyrics, Okkervil River and Bon Iver. I’ve hung out with these records a little, but not enough to link words to melodies, which made them perfect for this exercise.
On Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon writes lyrics that read like a couple’s in-jokes and pet names repeated in front of friends. They’re romantic in context, but embarrassing and vaguely gross in the wrong setting. “Love” appears frequently: “Our love is a star” (“Beth/Rest”), or “love can hardly leave the room with your heart” (“Michicant”). Don’t get me wrong: Vernon is a craftsman. Stanzas refer back to earlier lines in syntax and rhyme. “Calgary” in particular, locks into a pattern, each first line using a stilted noun-to-adjective construction that feels like Vernon is recalling a dream’s objects before describing them (“hair, old, long along / your neck onto your shoulder blades”). Once they’re set to music, Vernon’s words flow thick and sweet, like they were squeezed from a pastry bag. But they’re not good reading.
That’s also true of Will Sheff’s lyrics for Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far. He’s a mean writer, and there’s little romance on the album, unless you find threats romantic. Sheff’s vocabulary is full of violence, and drama, and big words. He prefers long, swinging lines whose impact relies on Okkervil River’s persistent musical build. In some ways he reminds me of Bejar’s lyrics — coils of words that resist straightening, analogies that keep unfolding and qualifying themselves: “A slicked back bloody black gunshot to the head, he has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead.” But Bejar’s lyrics to me are more tangled, their ends hidden. There’s no build. “You leave her. You try to achieve a breadth of vision that she has from the start.” “Nicole — she, blasted on ecstasy in some East Pender hovel circa 1993.” These are highlights from a novel that doesn’t exist.
You can be a Dylan fan and dislike Dylan’s music and Dylan’s voice because of this: Aside from his mythical persona, he reads well on the page. He was a folk singer even when he didn’t want to be a folk singer because he was setting verses to song, just as Scott-Heron was, though in more explicit terms. The song is not the only context for their lyrics. Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron wrote lyrics that refer to something larger than chords or melodies — they’re political writers with a particular talent for molding hope and outrage into language. With that talent, they made politics meaningful in the way poetry is meaningful. Trade hope and outrage for humor and resignation and you’ve got Bejar, and the one thing that he’s kept across his nine albums of MIDI rock, soft rock, folk rock, and rock rock. What makes the lyrics of Dylan, Scott-Heron, and Destroyer read well on the page is their separateness from the linear nature of songs. Songwriters take their best lines and repeat them, but for these writers, every line begs to be repeated. The page is good for that.