A startling number of talented up-and-coming singer/songwriters with beautiful voices, charming stage presence, lovely melodies, and impressive instrument skills seem to struggle to put together a fresh or meaningful song lyric. Walking the tightrope between extraordinarily cautious and extraordinarily cool, a songwriter who is more confident of his musical abilities than his language skills can land smack into the safety net of boring. As songwriter Todd Rundgren once said, “They’ll get lyrics that rhyme and don’t seem too stupid and that’ll be good enough.”
A song by definition has a lyric. If the song is the platform you’ve chosen as your art form, it just makes good sense to use it to convey a message, to make your listeners laugh, or to move them in some way. Why not re-phrase that cliché in a more engaging way? Why not be a little stricter about finding some gorgeous rhymes and then sprinkle them in unconventional places in the song?
The great songwriters find different ways to say the mundane. Their song lines don’t act as filler, there are no wasted words, lost opportunities, or just plain limp lyrics. A lyricist who works at his craft doesn’t settle for an old stand-by like “I was walking down the street”. How much more interesting was Paul Simon’s opener, “Kickin’ down the cobblestones”. Using two fewer words even, Simon paints a textured image of a cobblestone street and mimics the lyrical percussion of heels on pavement with the clickety-click of the repeating ‘k’ sounds. When Ellis Paul walked down a street (lyrically), he wrote, “Stumbling on the sidewalk” where he also uses repeated consonant sounds, the s’s in his lyric, to give the listener an entirely different sense of how his fella is making his way down the street. In place of the mundane “there were no clouds in the sky” or “by the light of the moon”, listen to the almost startling punch of the Leonard Cohen line, “The moon was shining naked”. Instead of “I drove my car”, Don McLean made songwriter history with “Drove my Chevy to the levee”. It’s an effective and memorable lyric because McLean adds interesting detail (the Chevy), throws in a perfect rhyme (Chevy and levee), and kind of makes you smile all at the same time. Now that’s making good use of a lyric line! (Note to Kenny Chesney: If you’re going to use a famous rhyme like Chevy and levee, I think you should make it a tad clearer that a tribute is being paid to the earlier song, hm?)
And let me count the ways to say I love you: You fill up my senses like a night in the forest (John Denver), I feel the earth move under my feet (Carole King), I left my heart in San Francisco (Douglass Cross), or, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree (Johnny Burke). These lines convey the same meaning while adding detail, beautiful imagery, or unusual metaphors. This kind of depth helps tap the listeners’ full attention and sets them up for a stronger emotional response to the song.
I’ll close with a suggestion from Leonard Cohen, a songwriter who is considered as much a poet as a musician:
You don’t really want to say “the tree”, you want to say “the sycamore”. We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems that our days are made of details, and if you can’t get the sense of another person’s day of details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by”. It’s better to say, “watching Captain Kangaroo”. Not “watching TV”. Sitting in my room “with that hopeless little screen”. Not just TV, but the hopeless, little screen. I think those are the details that delight us. (Leonard Cohen, 1992 interview with Paul Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting)