I was always a “lyrics first” person when it came to listening to songs. I’ve always been inclined towards English Lit and poetry and am endlessly curious about why and how certain songs work and/or don’t work. As will likely become obvious, I spend probably far more time than a person should in the minutiae of individual lines and structures trying to decode the ways lyrics can direct the listener and deliver meaning. (In this way I am the exact opposite of Sean, who doesn’t really hear lyrics at all, but experiences vocals primarily via the melodies.)
So here’s some thoughts I’ve had about lyric work that I like.
Some Days Are Better Than Others - U2
Smile - Pearl Jam
Life Goes On / Hit ‘Em Up - 2Pac
I Hung My Head - Johnny Cash
Miss Atomic Bomb - The Killers
1. Some Days Are Better Than Others - U2
“Some Days Are Better Than Others” is a strange little song on an album full of strange little songs. The Zooropa album was recorded during U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1993, and most of the tracks have a fun, novelty, B-side quality to them. (With the exception of “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” which I think is one of the best songs in U2’s catalog).
Pretty much all of “Some Days Are Better Than Others” is a series of couplets with each line having a “Some day you’re this, some day you’re that” internal structure. My favorite line is in the second verse:
Some days you're quick, but most days you're speedy
Some days you use more force than is necessary.
The second line of the couplet is unbalanced; the natural conclusion to the segment, to preserve the couplet rhyme and meter set up by the first line should be: Some days you use more force than is needed.
The use of the word “necessary” rather than “needed” is rather clever. Bono has used more syllables than he needed to finish a line that is about doing exactly that. Whether it’s overly cute or the perfect amount of clever depends on your taste, but I’ve always found it to be on the right side of the line.
2. Smile - Pearl Jam
One of my favorite Pearl Jam songs is also one of the simplest.
Don’t it make you smile?
Don’t it make you smile?
When the sun don’t shine (it don’t shine at all)
Don’t it make you smile?
I miss you already
I miss you always
I miss you already
I miss you all day
That’s basically the entire song, with the first four lines being the verse, and the second four being the chorus. It’s a case of a simple sentiment presented very simply. The song structure is Verse Verse Chorus Chorus, with the second verse being sung an octave higher than the first. The song is a rising crescendo of volume and intensity, and since the lyrics don’t change the effect is achieved purely through the delivery of the vocals and the instrumental arrangement.
The structure itself contributes to the theme of the song. Since it proceeds lyrically in one direction, from verse to chorus without a return to the lower intensity verse after the first chorus, it gives a sense of being unresolved. There’s an escalation without a release, and a sense of trailing off. There’s no ending or return to the past for the narrator, who is resigned to missing a lost person indefinitely, and the song is set up to leave the listener in the same state.
Descriptively / semantically the song is sufficiently vague as to allow the listener to determine what sort of relationship the narrator is singing about. The one variation in the second chorus is the changing the third line to the cryptic:
Three crooked hearts swirl all around her
I suppose that’s a hint of author’s intent, but it isn’t much of one. “Smile” is a case study in the ways a lyrical song can direct the listener to an area of meaning without being explicit, and suggest an atmosphere just through its structure.
3. Life Goes On / Hit Em Up by 2Pac
“Life Goes On” is a song that is run through with nostalgia. It’s a song that not only reminisces about a friend that’s passed on, but also resonates with the sense of life’s fleetingness and fragility. One of my favorite passages:
Saying goodbye at the cemetery
Though memories fade
I got your name tatted on my arm
So we both ball till my dying days
I think the specificity and personal touch here is a great piece of writing in the pure description sense, but additionally the line “Though memories fade” has a larger poignant effect. No matter how important his friend is to him, he knows time will still erode all that specificity of memory. Shakur here is getting at the same idea that resonates so strongly in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time:”
“For in this world where everything wears out, where everything perishes, there is one thing that collapses and is more completely destroyed than anything else, and leaves fewer traces than beauty itself: and that is grief.”
The tattoo honoring his friend is more permanent than his memory, but even that attempt at a permanent memorial will die with him. As Shakur returns to this again in the song’s outro:
Last year we poured out liquor for you
This year, n****, life goes on.
On 2Pac’s Greatest Hits album, “Life Goes On” is immediately followed by “Hit ‘Em Up,” a song that in a lot of ways is the exact opposite. Where “Life Goes On” is bittersweet and almost tender at times, “Hit ‘Em Up” is a crescendo of rising fury and hatred.
It lacks the lyrical specificity of “Life Goes On,” but has a distinct emotional specificity: it was written in response to Shakur getting shot five times during a robbery in 1994. If there’s any posing or artifice in what he was feeling, it doesn’t show. The delivery is vitriolic, venomous, and authentic.
Grab your glocks when you see 2Pac
Call the cops when you see 2Pac,
Who shot me but you punks didn’t finish
Now you’re ‘bout to feel the wrath of a menace
N**** I hit ‘em up
It certainly isn’t a subtle song, but the ferocious earnestness of the delivery elevates the material past something so prosaic as merely insulting a rival. Shakur is out for blood.
It's like a sherm high
N****s think they learned to fly
But they burn, motherfucker, you deserve to die
(Side note: I don’t think I’m reaching when I think I see in the above line a reference to Icarus, the kid whose hubris led him to fly too close to the sun. Shakur went to Baltimore School for the Arts and studied poetry, jazz, and Shakespeare.)
The song is all mounting anger with no denouement. In its long outro, Shakur is no longer rapping. He’s off the beat, switching to prose from verse, as it were. It’s as if he’s barely holding himself together and his delivery approaches a ranting fury:
All of y'all motherf***ers, f*** you; die slow, motherf***er
My .44 makes sure all y'all kids don't grow!
The song to me is not so much badass, as disconcerting and uncomfortable and therein lies its power and its greatness.
To Part II