Chapter and verse: what makes perfect lyrics? | Pop and rock

In the weekly magazine of the Resolute Guide! chronicle, we’re taking a look at a crucial pop culture question you’ve been dying to know the answer to – and we’re fixing it

When it comes to defining what really makes a great talk, there are many things involved, from the emotional context and how a line stumbles on the tongue, to how it might make you whisper “So true.” In your breath as you try not to cry into your 8am Americano on a train platform.

Good words can be categorized into a handful of categories. There is the emotionally devastating: “You just wasted my precious time” (Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right). The witty understudy: “Could you be dead?” You have always been two steps ahead ”(Everything except the girl is missing). The Cultural and Political Hand Grenade: “Elvis was a hero for the most part, but he never meant shit to me / You see, downright racist” (Public Enemy, Fight the Power). Those which are absolutely absurd but which sound like the answer to all the problems in the world when you sing them out loud: “I have a soul, but I am not a soldier” (All These Things That I’ve Done by the Killers). And the simple but joyful; “Go out, sail, sail-hey-hey! ”(Enya, Orinoco Flow).

Leonard Cohen was fabulously good at devastating emotions, but we won’t dwell here on his sublime work, because – due to his early career as a poet – he has an unfair advantage. Instead, we’ll watch his longtime fan Nick Cave, whose grim but ironic approach has given us grim joys such as, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God / But I know, honey, that you do. do “(Into Your Arms). Much like Patti Smith’s (Gloria) ‘Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine’, this kind of religious skewer – which Cohen also loved – adds a timelessness to a song, uplifting it from yours. Spotify redesign into something altogether grander.

Nick Cave recently used his Red Right Hand newsletter to claim that one of the biggest opening lines ever was Fairytale of New York “It was Christmas Eve / In the Drunk Tank”. “The lyrics… emanate from deep within the lived experience itself, existing in the very bones of the song,” wrote Cave of Shane MacGowan and the festive creation of Jem Finer. “He doesn’t condescend, but speaks his truth, clearly and without frills. “

Truth is vital for good words. When Joni Mitchell sings “I could drink a case of you… And I would still be on my feet” (A Case of You) and you know his breakup with Graham Nash, it hits even harder. Even Streets’ “I’m a 45th Generation Novel” (Turn the page) works so well because of Mike Skinner’s self-identified – but honest – way, while Jay-Z is adept at “If You Have problems with girls, i feel bad for you son / i have 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one ”is a brutal but brilliant humble brag. Even Kris Kristofferson “And the beer I drank for breakfast wasn’t bad / So I had one more for dessert” (Sunday Morning Coming Down) works so well because of its pure alcohol and simple.

But a twisted approach to whimsy also has its place in great songwriting. When Courtney Love sings “I’m Miss World Someone Kills Me” (Hole’s Miss World), she addresses the gnarled root of the impossible expectations felt by modern women in six simple words. This is proof that whatever the subject treated, the best words are generally also the most economical.

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