Last week Bob Dylan became the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. So we thought we’d offer up some more Nobel-worthy lyric writers to join him.
Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
This beautiful three minutes tells the story of Dylan’s lover leaving him and was written in reaction to his then-girlfriend (and inspiration behind The Freewheelin’ album) Suze Rotolo deciding to stay in Italy and not return to him.
The gorgeous guitar is the perfect backdrop to allow Dylan to weave his words and transport the listener into how he’s feeling about it and his resolute message to Rotolo: that’s it’s OK, he’s moving on.
It’s always staggering how brilliantly Dylan uses the simplest words and phrases to transfix you, enabling you to walk by his side to wish her fare thee well. An utter poetic genius.
Bruce Springsteen – My City of Ruins
I’m all for giving Dylan the Nobel Prize. Despite almost every human alive having uttered, “Jesus, that’s beautiful” about some lyric by someone, somewhere, songwriting has never truly had the kudos other writing has.
If it’s a sign of things to come (and I don’t think it is) Springsteen should be next in line, for crafting an astonishing catalogue of poems, odes and short stories in his mighty career as America’s chronicler of the working people.
It’s ludicrous to pick one out, right? Because it has to be The River, a perfectly formed vignette that’s probably encouraged more guys to wear a condom than any public health campaign. Or Thunder Road, which has opening lines so evocative it’s commonly used to teach scriptwriters how to set a scene.
Springsteen’s strength is in making the ordinary extraordinary, loading real power into incredibly simple statements: “I come and stand at every door” from The Wrestler or “Your momma’s pulled the sheets up off your bed” from Gypsy Biker. They create an instant and indelible picture and one that is sadder than 1,000 power ballads. (I can’t think of a better example of how little lyrics are valued than the fact that My Heart Will Go On won an Oscar and The Wrestler wasn’t even nominated.)
I’ve picked My City of Ruins because it’s the greatest example of making the ordinary extraordinary. Springsteen (and co) performed the as-then unreleased song at a benefit concert soon after September 11 and the bleak picture of loss it paints, combined with the plaintive refrain means it’ll forever be associated with that day. (As well as a number of natural disasters. Eddie Vedder’s performance of the song at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony was later released as a charity single to help victims of the Haitian earthquake, for example.)
But, for me at least, the real punch is that it’s actually a much more personal song than that. Springsteen wrote it to perform at a series of benefit concerts in 2000 in aid of local charities in his stomping ground of Asbury Park, New Jersey. When you listen with that in mind, it’s impossible to deny the poetry of a truly great love letter home.
Joni Mitchell – Song for Sharon
Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira is full of journeys, escapes and exiles. Cross-country drives, leaving lovers behind; the sight of jet plane trails across an otherwise empty sky; the melancholic romance of the road. And yet Song for Sharon, an eight-and-a-half minute poetic tour de force at the heart of the album, features the shortest of journeys: a ferry ride back to Manhattan from Staten Island after a trip to buy a mandolin.
“When I was a teenager, after listening repeatedly to the album The Eminem Show, I told my mother with total conviction how Eminem was as good a poet as Shakespeare.”
But in fact it’s a much longer journey. The sight of a wedding dress in a shop window sparks a meditation on love, marriage and sense of purpose that – as the tune circles insistently, and as massed Joni Mitchells harmonise on backing vocals – reaches back in time and place to her small-town childhood in Canada.
As the tone switches between humour, nostalgia, frustration and sadness, Mitchell picks obsessively at what is one of her predominant themes: those tensions between ‘normal’ settled love – represented by her old childhood friend Sharon – and the restless path of creativity that she has chosen for herself.
The song resolves, in a way; but the tune continues to circle restlessly to a fade. It’s a thing of poetic beauty.
The Pogues – Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six
It took masses of willpower not to go for A Rainy Night in Soho, Shane MacGowan’s hymn to his missus and his whiskey. It’s heart-meltingly romantic, nigh perfect love poetry, despite being written by a man who looks like he eats soup with his fingers.
For despite the years of bad teeth, bad life decisions and bad health (he was a really odd shade of green last time I saw The Pogues live), MacGowan is a genius. There, said it.
His lyrics sing without any musical accompaniment. And he is a consummate storyteller, tapping into his London Irish heritage and – crucially, like all the best literature – talking about stuff that matters.
And yeah, love matters, but there’s a metric shit-tonne of songs about love, whereas it takes a special kind of brilliance to write about police injustice as sharply as MacGowan does in the second part of 1988’s Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six:
There were six men in Birmingham
In Guildford there’s four
That were picked up and tortured
And framed by the law
And the filth got promotion
But they’re still doing time
For being Irish in the wrong place
And at the wrong time.
Kate Bush – A Coral Room
It’s tough to pick just one Kate Bush track because she’s all about poetic lyrics. There are so many contenders but eventually I settled on A Coral Room from 2005’s Aerial.
One of her more personal songs, it is a simple piano-only accompanied study of grief and the passing of time. It is incredibly moving but you’ll have no idea why until you listen to it a second, tenth and hundredth time.
Ostensibly it is about the death of her mother but the lyrics invite the listener to imprint their own feelings on it. I got images of 9/11 from some sections (“and in the half-light…it looks like every tower is covered in webs”) and the final line directly encourages your own interpretation: “Put your hand over the side of the boat and what do you feel?” I’ll tell you what I feel, Kate, I feel everything. Thanks for A Coral Room.
Tom Waits – Heartattack and Vine
I have to choose one? Tom Waits’ work oozes the gamut of gutter-to-the-stars beat poetics, from the seedy lyricism of Blue Valentine to the razor strut of Walking Spanish.
“Boney’s high on China White Shorty found a punk / Don’t you know there ain’t no devil / There’s just God when he’s drunk,” Waits drawls on the title track of Heartattack and Vine. Those lines, which will hit home for anyone that ever walked off the line, have been going round in my head since the first time the needle hit the groove on that particular song.
This is Charles Bukowski (who would have been the prime contender for Nobel Prize for Underclass Literature if such a thing existed) with afterhours syncopation: every lowlife chancer and flophouse failure Waits captures comes to full, flawed life thanks to his pointed poet’s grace with words.
Eminem – Lose Yourself
When I was a teenager, after listening repeatedly to the album The Eminem Show, I told my mother with total conviction how Eminem was as good a poet as Shakespeare. As a huge fan of both, this was a big statement to make.
Now that I’m a little older I may need to revise that statement, but the fact that Eminem’s lyrics brought out that level of passion in me is telling. He uses wordplay, multiple meanings, puns. And it’s really catchy.
This year I made Lose Yourself my pre-show tune – the tune I’d listen to before getting on stage every day to perform my show at Edinburgh Fringe. I am now obsessed with learning the lyrics. There’s clever hidden meanings in every line; cramming double and triple meanings into every cluster of words; no wonder it was the first hip-hop song to win an Oscar for best original song.
My wordcount doesn’t allow me to explain all the meanings behind every lyric but head to this site and click on each stanza – sorry, I mean verse – to get detailed analysis of why this is pure poetry. He knows it. He refers to “This whole rhapsody” – an epic piece of poetry, but also a rap-city referring to Detroit. JUST. SO. CLEVER.
Some of Standard Issue's brilliant women's carefully crafted words for your reading pleasure.