And they're coming to the chorus now...
June 10, 2007 5:34 PM   Subscribe

DissectingArtFilter: I'd like to start to understand how certain (in my eyes, fantastic) lyrics are devised. Specifically, Stephen Malkmus's lyrics, as a part of Pavement. For instance, Gold Soundz. I can pick out some slant rhymes, and certain other techniques but can't figure out how they work in the context of the entire piece. I know that melody plays a huge role in making the song what it is, but sort of focusing on the lyrics part - any words of wisdom. (and yes, I'm possibly writing lyrics for my band at some point)
posted by tmcw to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Tough question because songwriters are very idiosyncratic. I prefer to work with near rhyme a lot, and sometimes work with near rhyme in positions other than the second to last syllable.

I tend to write in a very indirect way--I try not to impose my own interpretation of the song on the listener. I therefore tend to eschew narrative for a suggestion of tension between two persons for love songs and for others, focusing on an event which is only partially described. I prefer it this way because then people can take the lyrics and make it about what is going on with them. I got this from a painter friend who does abstract art but puts shapes in the work which were designed only to make people think about them and put their own meaning to them--my friend attached no meaning to them at all. A good example of this technique is "Its a Shame About Ray" by the Lemonheads. You know something bad has happened to Ray, but the listener has to speculate about what it is that has happened.

Start out simple and be unafraid to write crappy songs to start out--songwriting is as much about throwing out stuff as it is about writing it.

As for the melody--remember you can stretch out words anyway you want. I also avoid three-syllable words a lot because they are hard to work with melodically for me.

You can work on doing little things too. For example, I reviewed my own work and realized that I have a tendency to put chord changes over certain types of consonants, like t's or d's. This tends to signal the change to the listener, in my opinion.

The best thing you can do is to have another songwriter to play with--that way you can be influenced by others in a way which makes your work better.

Most importantly, don't try to be perfect--there are going to be some filler lines in there, even for the greatest songwriters, and you can't write only mindblowingly great songs.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:53 PM on June 10, 2007

Best answer: I haven't read it myself, but I've heard good things about the book Songwriters on Songwriting, though it skews rather heavily to boomer-approved artists (though Yoko Ono, Madonna and Stan Ridgway from Wall of Voodoo are also there).

John Lennon said that he tried to make sure that every lyric could stand on its own without the music (though he wrote some real clunkers). I think that's generally good advice. You should able to read what you wrote out aloud without cringing (or better yet, have someone else recite it for you, nothing like hearing your words coming from someone else's mouth to hear them afresh).

You should get someone whose aesthetic judgment and forthrightness you trust to read over your lyrics and give his or her opinion.

Lastly, you should write, write & write and read, read & read. Writing doesn't necessarily make you a better writer, but it's hard to get better without writing. Challenge yourself, write sonnets or lyrics that don't use the letter 's' or something like that. Reading is also essential. Read poetry, both lyrical and otherwise. Pay attention to sounds especially, because they're probably the most important part of lyrics. Take heed of how the sounds coming out of your mouth interact with the sounds coming out of the instrument(s).
posted by Kattullus at 8:42 PM on June 10, 2007

well, you certainly picked an idiosyncratic songwriter.

listen to the extra stuff on the deluxe edition of that album, he basically works to the completed instrumental (or in progress instrumental) and just kinda stream-of-consciousness says whatever (including making references to what is happening in the song - 'and we're coming to the chorus now') and whatever lasts through repeated sessions works as the lyrics. Slanted, for example, was pretty much done all instrumental- he drove around with a vocal-less cassette of the album until he made up enough words.

in some songs, he's more blatantly ripping the style of the Fall in dada vocabulary.
posted by tremspeed at 9:30 PM on June 10, 2007

Oh yeah, I forgot the la la las--sometimes I have a riff I like and I just sing la la la or something like that to get the melody first.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:01 AM on June 11, 2007

Best answer: Alex Ross wrote a decent article on Malkmus's lyrical technique in the New Yorker back in 1997.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:11 AM on June 11, 2007

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