This week’s question is from commenter Subway Justice: I recently listened to the mostly lovely Jets To Brazil song “Sweet Avenue” for the first time in a while, and I enjoyed it until toward the end, when [he says], “Soft and sweet along your lips now / I go ‘oh wow,’” which always makes me shudder/shake my head/laugh. Are there any songs you enjoy but for a cringe-inducing lyric that takes you right out of it?
Like more than a few sensitive middle-class dudes my age—some employed by this very website—I have a yen for the baritone laments of Matt Berninger, the dapper-depressive frontman of The National. But as often as the guy’s lyrics strike a chord with my inner sad sack, they also occasionally graze my gag reflex or bludgeon my funny bone. “Conversation 16,” off of 2010’s High Violet, is the perfect demonstration of how easily Berninger’s eloquent ennui can curdle into self-parody. For most of the song, he’s in fine (if slightly vague) form, chronicling an ailing relationship through evocative references to black dreams, silver cities, and Hollywood summers. And then the bridge arrives, at which point Berninger evidently decides to convey his self-loathing by adopting the metaphoric perspective of a zombie. “I was afraid I’d eat your brains,” he croaks, twice, before bellowing, “’Cause I’m evil!” It’s unbearably silly role-playing and it kills the whole song for me. “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” on the other hand, is pure poetry. As in any relationship, you take the good with the bad.
My relationship with New Order is frequently complicated by Bernard Sumner’s lyrics, which range from the accidentally transcendent to the accidentally awful. It’d be easy to call out some of his later songs for their terrible lyrics (“Rock The Shack,” anyone?), but I’d rather reach back to a song I really love, so that the fight is a little harder. Let’s examine these two couplets from “Thieves Like Us,” a classic that was both a standalone single in 1984 and part of the classic Substance not-quite-hits collection. “Love is found in the east and the west / But when love is at home it’s the best.” Okay, that’s pretty clumsy but heartfelt and easy. It’s followed, though, by “Love is the cure for every evil / Love is the air that supports the eagle,” a lyric that I still can’t quite believe is true, having always heard “eagle” as “ego,” perhaps in an attempt to improve it in my mind. But still, I can’t stay mad at early-’80s New Order, who gave me so much listening pleasure.
This seems like a cliché, because I’m citing one of the weirdest lyrics of all time, but I’m always confused by “The movement you need is on your shoulder” in “Hey Jude.” I know Paul McCartney has explained it dozens if not hundreds of times, explaining it’s kind of a clunky line about shrugging, and that even John Lennon loved the line, but, man, it stands out like a sore thumb to me. That’s not to say I hate it, exactly, but it really yanks me out of the “na na na na” zone every time, if only for a second.
Living with The Postal Service’s Give Up for the past 11 years has also meant maturing past the point where the record’s candor makes me excuse some of its lyrical shortcomings. Jimmy Tamborello’s 8-bit atmosphere hangs over a handful of clunkers, the goofiest of which is this section of “Nothing Better”: “And I will block the door / like a goalie tending the net / in the third quarter / of a tied game rivalry.”
Disregarding the action the line describes, the kind of borderline behavior that briefly made Louis C.K. TV’s most hated villain this summer: What sport is being described in this simile? It’s not basketball, which is played in quarters and has nets, but no goalies. Hockey goaltenders camp out in front of nets, but they play games composed of three periods. Soccer is played in halves. Of course, Ben Gibbard’s main act, Death Cab For Cutie, was either recording or touring on its best material in the time Gibbard and Tamborello prepared Give Up, so maybe he was just saving the accurate sports metaphors for use with his flagship band.
The late Ronnie James Dio was a prince among men—a somewhat tiny prince, but a prince nonetheless—whose cloud-piercing vocals defined metal for generations to come. Largely, though, his lyrics stank. “Holy Diver” by his band Dio was the biggest hit of his career, and it’s a jam I’ve heard so often throughout my life that the words barely register anymore. But sometimes I’ll hear it and remember just how bafflingly bizarre those words are—the most sublimely dumb lines being “Ride the tiger / You can see his stripes, but you know he’s clean / Oh, don’t you see what I mean?” Dio, bless his heart, is asking me if I see what he means, which makes me want to formulate an answer. And that nanosecond of lyrical analysis is enough to make my brain curl up like a bug that’s been sprayed with insecticide. Luckily those lyrics are delivered with an extra dose of Dio-tastic melody and majesty, otherwise I might be slightly less sane than I am today.
I’m a sucker for anything fuzzy, sunny, and even vaguely girl-group related, so of course I have every Best Coast album. But my relationship to the band isn’t all good vibes and stoned cats, mostly due to singer Bethany Cosentino’s well-documented propensity towards lazy lyrics. When she sings “Honey, you’re so fine / I wanna be with you all of the time” on “Honey,” for example, the Pavement fan in me wants to pull her aside and say, “Bethany, I hate to harsh your West Coast mellow, but could you try just a little bit harder next time?” And then there’s the follow-up track, “Happy,” which is basically just Cosentino singing “I’m happy” over and over and over again. It’s embarrassing—not embarrassing enough to make me roll up my car windows or turn down the stereo, but embarrassing nonetheless.
While I don’t insist on superior lyricism in all of the music I love—I have all of the Oasis albums, after all—there are a few bands and musicians whose consistently great lyrics enhance my love of almost everything they do. These include John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, both Johns from They Might Be Giants, Lewis and Sennett of Rilo Kiley, and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady—who, at his frequent best, writes with the specificity, casual poetry, and ear for dialogue of a great short-story author. It seems churlish, then, to point out the rare Hold Steady lyric I dislike, especially in a song as good as “The Only Thing.” But if you’re as gifted as Finn, it’s a lot harder to get away with tossing off a clunky, canned observation like “what tangled webs we weave,” which pops up in the first verse. The rest of the song is packed with terrific detail about the weavers of said webs: the girl who’s “sleeping at a storage space by the airport” and only talks about TV, and the narrator who flips common anxiety-dream imagery when he admits that “last night her teeth were in my dreams.” This only throws Finn’s uncharacteristic and almost Oasis-worthy use of a twist-free cliché into sharper relief, and I always flinch a little when he drops that placeholder of a line. But the song always manages to win me back by the end.
“Get Em High” is far from the best track on Kanye West’s debut, The College Dropout. But it’s got a guest verse from one of my favorite rappers, Talib Kweli. In a clever pair of verses that become hilarious in hindsight, West tries to impress a girl by boasting of his more famous friend, who then takes the mic to scold West for wasting his time and for his taste in women. When the track was recorded, West was best known as a producer and no one was sure his rap career would take off, but listening to the track now, it’s funny to hear someone more famous than God trying to ride a relatively obscure rapper’s coattails. West does manage some solid rhymes, opening with “My flow is in the pocket like wallets / I got the bounce like hydraulics / I can’t call it I got the swerve like alcoholics,” So, it’s a fun track, with some clever interplay between rappers, until it comes to a screeching halt with the arrival of Gap pitchman Common on the final verse. He starts off with “Get ’em high like noon, or the moon, or a room—” and I have no idea what the next line is or which picture book he lifted the rhyme from, because that’s when I skip to the next track.
For me, the music of alt-rock band Polaris is the sound of my childhood. As a sort-of house band for Nickelodeon’s The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, the group (actually New Haven-based indie rockers Miracle Legion, minus guitarist Ray Neal) had a blend of weirdness and wistfulness that perfectly captured the show’s bizarre but welcome take on suburbia. The group gets the spotlight in the first-season episode “Hard Day’s Pete,” appearing as a garage band whose song “Summerbaby” captures Pete’s heart and sends him on an odyssey of musical discovery. It’s always jarring for me, though, to hear the studio recording of “Summerbaby” (off of the group’s unabashadly awesome album Music From The Adventures Of Pete & Pete), because of one line: “Every drop of sex and every little mess I make.” For whatever reason, that mild reference to human sexuality (the line was changed for the episode to “Every time I guess and every little mess I make”) knocks me out of the nostalgic reverie the music provokes in me, and it always takes me a minute to get back into the groove.
Oh, how I love Marc Bolan and all of his T. Rex output, and I do think he put out some truly wonderful lyrics, but he had some intensely weird ones, as well. “The Slider” is a song notable for its chugging guitar, backing strings, and a chorus that Bolan makes almost onomatopoetic when he sings, “And when I’m sad, I slide,” breathlessly eking out the last word so it sounds like it’s literally sliding out his throat. But, woe, the verses. I remember sitting in my bedroom trying to parse “I have never never kissed / A car before / It’s like a door / I have always always / Grown my own before / All schools are strange” for hours before deciding I wasn’t as dumb as I thought I was and that I could still sing along even if I had no idea what the hell Bolan was talking about.
Between constantly canceling concerts and forever bemoaning how nobody appreciates him quite as much they should, it’s increasingly difficult for me to defend Morrissey to others, but between The Smiths and his solo work, he’s gotten me through some tough times, so I forgive him quite a lot. That said, no matter how many times I spin his 1991 album, Kill Uncle, I can never forgive him for tarnishing “Driving Your Girlfriend Home” with the word “worser.” When I first heard the song, I was, as it happens, seriously smitten with the girlfriend of one of my best friends, a fellow who at the time was decidedly prone to infidelity, so the lyrics really spoke to me… right up until the girlfriend in the song asked the narrator, “So how did I end up / Attached to this person / When his sense of humor / Gets gradually worser?” Ugh. Twenty-three years later, and it still makes me cringe.
Is it a cheat to just say an entire song and call it a day? If not, I know choosing a song from this band is probably too easy, but Weezer’s “Can’t Stop Partying” (featuring Lil Wayne, but it might as well be Lil Jon at this point) is my choice. I can enjoy a lot of terrible Weezer, because it’s typically easy to ignore the lyrics, but even with the entirety of this song’s awful lyrics, there’s just one section that upsets me beyond all reason. “Just follow the smoke, they’re bringing bottles of the goose / And all the girls in the corner getting loose / Screw rehab, I love my addiction / No sleep, no sleep, I am always on a mission.” How can anyone defend this? Who are the girls in the one corner in this nondescript club? Are you always on a mission, Rivers? Is there a rehab for writing such terrible song lyrics? If so, maybe don’t screw that. This isn’t a “Beverly Hills” situation where I want to believe there’s at least a little bit of self-awareness left; the lyrics could literally be “I want to get paid right now” on repeat, and it would all have the same effect. At least then it would finally be honest, and maybe I wouldn’t want to listen to it ever again. It’s basically a love/hate relationship between me and this song, because I can never skip it when it comes on and I always bop my head along with it, but I also want it eradicated from my mind and the world.