Friday, December 04, 2009

Lyricist #1 - Will Sheff

I follow the blog of the poet Ada Limón, and she posted recently about an assignment given to her by Indigest Magazine to interview an artist who works in a different genre. She chose Will Sheff of Okkervil River. And I'm so glad she did. He is a truly brilliant lyricist. He rhymes without sounding compromised or cheesy, he uses repetition without it turning to filler, he can use tricks without sounding forced or contrived. He chooses his words so carefully. The lyrics read brilliantly on their own, but are understood more deeply when coupled with the music (not always the case with good lyrics). There might be a danger to approaching songwriting in too literary a manner, lest the words overshadow the song and melody itself. But whether his songs are whispy or loud he always maintains a balance. Will Sheff, a lyricist himself adored by poets.

Here are two examples:

"A Stone" is sad & superb. The narrator doesn't give any reasons why this girl should love him instead of this stone. He doesn't vow to lay her down in a bed of roses, so to speak, or raise her up so she can stand on mountains, as it were. He just flays her with this indictment of misdirected love. The end just kills.

"Unless it Kicks" is a tour de force. How many songs have we heard over the years about the trappings of rock and roll, and life on the road, etc.? None is more forthright about "living the lie" as Sheff is here, but through shared experience Sheff is able to find some jubliance, some wonder, some meaning despite the doomed nature of the whole affair.

A Stone (mp3)
Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy (2005)

Hot breath, rough skin, warm laughs and smiling, the loveliest words whispered and meant - you like all these things. But, though you like all these things, you love a stone. You love a stone, because it's smooth and it's cold. And you'd love most to be told that it's all your own. You love white veins, you love hard grey, the heaviest weight, the clumsiest shape, the earthiest smell, the hollowest tone - you love a stone. And I'm found too fast, called too fond of flames, and then I'm phoning my friends, and then I'm shouldering the blame, while you're picking pebbles out of the drain, miles ago. You're out singing songs, and I'm down shouting names at the flickerless screen, going f*&%ing insane. Am I losing my cool, overstating my case? Well, baby, what can I say? You know I never claimed that I was a stone. And you love a stone. You love white veins, you love hard grey, the heaviest weight, the clumsiest shape, the earthiest smell, the hollowest tone - you love a stone. You love a stone, because it's dark, and it's old, and if it could start being alive you'd stop living alone.

And I think I believe that if stones could dream, they'd dream of being laid side-by-side, piece-by-piece, and turned into a castle for some towering queen they're unable to know. And when that queen's daughter came of age, I think she'd be lovely and stubborn and brave, and suitors would journey from kingdoms away to make themselves known. And I think that I know the bitter dismay of a lover who brought fresh bouquets every day when she turned him away to remember some knave who once gave just one rose, one day, years ago

Unless It Kicks (mp3)
Okkervil River - The Stage Names (2007)

What gives this mess some grace unless it's kicks, man - unless it is fictions, unless it's sweat or it's songs? What hits against this chest unless it's a sick man's hand, from some midlevel band? He's been driving too long on a dark windless night, with the stereo on, with the towns flying by and the ground getting soft.

And a sound in the sky, coming down from above, it surrounds you and sighs and is whispering of what pulls your body down, and that is quicksand. So climb out quick, hand over hand, before your mouth's all filled up. What picks you up from down unless it's tricks, man? When I've been fixed I am convinced that I will not get so broke up again.

And on a seven day high, that heavenly song punches right through my mind and just hums through my blood. And I know it's a lie, but I'll still give my love. Hey, my heart's on the line for your hands to pluck off.

What gives this mess some grace unless it's fiction - unless it's licks, man, unless it's lies or it's love? What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan, floating up from the stands with her heart opened up. And I want to tell her, "Your love isn't lost," and say "my heart is still crossed!" I want to scream, "hey, you're so wonderful! What a dream in the dark - about working so hard, about glowing, so stoned, trying not to turn off, trying not to believe in that lie all on your own."

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