Words. I am immersed in them every single day. Magazine articles, stuff on the Internet, books, poetry, newspapers, song lyrics.
Lyrics? Did I just type that?
Yeah, well, with my history of full-on immersion in books and all things literary, you would think that lyrics would matter to me. They sort of do, but mostly they don't.
People are shocked when they discover this odd trait of mine. I'm not drawn into arguments about this since I'm well aware that I'm far outside the mainstream on the issue. Heck, look at your average record review and there's all sorts of text about the songs, who the characters are, what they're doing (or yearn to do). What's usually missing is what the music actually sounds like. Apparently, the story is more important to most people, the sound being separate.
Though this is clearly a personal quirk of mine, it's not like I'm fully immune to the power of a great lyric but the question remains: When I am drawn into a song's phraseology, why am I there? First, let's get to a loose description of the three ways I take in songwriting.
If I don't like the music and/or the singer's voice, then I usually end up in ignore mode. The singer is the key here. If I don't like the voice, then the words and music are irrelevant — I've already stopped listening. This particular stance gets me into no small amount of trouble when I have to admit that I don't like artists such as The Smiths, Joy Division, Roxy Music, Elliott Smith, and Bonnie Prince Billy. Sorry guys, those voices just bother me.
At the other end of the scale is when the voice, music, and words resonate at a high level and my ear parts are at full attention. This is a pretty short list and usually involves singer/songwriters like Greg Brown, Ellis Paul, Dar Williams, and Ani DiFranco, though there are others in there like Tom Waits and Joe Jackson.
In the middle is the most common (and perhaps the oddest) listening mode: I like (or even love) the artist but only hear fragments of the lyrics. Though I'm thoroughly digging the song, I don't hear the words taken together, with only certain words or phrases popping up to my attention level. I don't know why I listen like this but I do. Even stranger is that some of my favorite artists fall into this category: Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are at the top of the list. To make things slightly more complicated, it's quite common for me to step up into full engagement during particular songs. This may not even happen during every listening session involving the same song.
One other thing that happens is that sometimes a fragment of a song will send me over the top emotionally, though usually by then I'm fully engaged. I've described this before as "forgetting who you are." During Dar Williams' "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You," there's the line: "It all goes by so fast, like waving hands" that gets to me every single time.
By the way, all of this ruminating came about because of a short discussion about Bob Dylan's lyrics in yesterday's Verse Chorus Verse entry by Josh Hathaway. Behind the scenes, there was some email that discussed this question: What's your favorite Springsteen song strictly from a standpoint of lyrics? That's an easy one for me: "Thunder Road." The opening lines — "The screen door slams/ Mary's dress waves" get to me every time. Bruce sings them and forget who I am… I'm gone. Every time.
So let's generalize: What's your favorite song strictly from a standpoint of lyrics?