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Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Music versus lyric
One underrated art in the construction of popular music is the writing of lyrics. As just one example, take Joy Division / New Order: Ian Curtis was a brilliant lyricist, and his successor Bernard Sumner has struggled at it. I'm here less concerned with quality and more with the lyric matching the tune. The lyric can be the height of poetry and the music can be the next Mozart; but if they don't match, it takes you out of the mood. I don't want to be listening to, say, "Blue Monday" played as classical.
Let's look at a non New Order example first. Yesterday on the road, listening to iTunes stuff, I flipped to material I hadn't properly heard since the 1990s and gave it a whirl. This time it was Mark Gardener's and Andy Bell's guitar band Ride.
Explaining Ride is hard because the band themselves didn't ever figure out what they wanted to do. Musically Ride started off like labelmates Swervedriver, both aping Jesus and Mary Chain; then the band in "Fall EP" and "Nowhere" went more into shoegazing; and they ended up indie-rock. (Shoegaze always seemed to be, like Ecstasy, something British bands dabbled in and then hurriedly abandoned.)
I liked "Nowhere" at the time, the earliest 1990s, but now... well, I can't recommend it so much. A strong theme of "Nowhere" (and "Fall") is entropy. "Taste" is about the initial magic of a relationship dying down. "Decay" is about how everything dies. "Taste" is thrash and "Decay" sounds like an alarm going off. In my opinion their lyrics and tune don't match.
I like my celebrations of entropy as much as the next Joy Division fan, but Ride didn't always do it right. Well, okay - "Vapour Trail" (prequel to "Taste") was done right (structurally), and I'll concede "Dreams Burn Down" too. But "Taste" is too loud and energetic for its theme (its model was clearly "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; itself overly danceable). "Decay" is warning against something against which there's no value warning. Either the lyrics needed a rewrite to match the song the band actually composed, or else the band needed to focus the lyrics and compose new music.
I wonder if this disconnect between lyric and style reflected different aims between the bandmates.
As a postscript - I'll say the same for Ian Curtis versus his band. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was a New Order song with Joy Division lyrics. This means that sometime during the end of the "Closer" sessions - New Order was already forming, under Curtis's nose. The only question I really have is whether Curtis saw it coming.
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