Image based on the top 30 words used in songs based on 1 million recordings.

In this year’s  BBC John Peel lecture, Brian Eno said that one of the failings of modern-day music critics is that they pay too much attention to song lyrics. As part of Roxy Music, Eno played on two of the greatest pop singles of all time – Virginia Plain and Pyjamarama – where the words add to the atmosphere but when considered apart from the music are ,at best, enigmatic, at worst, plain jibberish.

Even when songs do have an obvious meaning or tell a story, they should not be viewed in the same way as poems or works of fiction. This is why the ‘Rock In Translation’ slot of Italy’s Virgin Radio makes for such a torturous listening experience. On this, a woman earnestly reads the translated lyrics to popular tunes as though she were helping to impart some meaningful insight into the human condition. Lines in the vein of “come on baby rock me all night long” are rendered into Italian as though they were some kind of profound comments on the nature of loving relationships.

This always reminds me of the classic ‘Not Only But Also’ sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in which Moore (as Bo Duddley) explains the lyrics to a song: ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, with hilarious results:

In a Guardian interview, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker said: “Ever since lyric sheets started to be included in my record releases, I have included the instructions, “NB Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.” This is because the words only exist to be part of something else, a song, and when you see them on a printed page you are seeing them taken out of their natural habitat – away from that”.

61lrjwmvualThis probably explains why Bob Dylan never included song lyrics on his albums. The irony of this is self-evident. Rock’s most celebrated song-writer, a man who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, seemingly does not want his words to be read. Of course, this has not prevented critics and fans deconstructing his lyrics in search of hidden meanings.

In ‘Bob Dylan Revisited’, first published in 2008 by France’s Sony ATV , thirteen of Dylan’s songs are interpreted by graphic artists.

In Matteotti’s rendering of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, the song becomes a tale of horror and cruelty while Like A Rolling Stone looks like something you might  find in a True Romance comic strip.

notdarkyet-zepThe most striking contribution is from the Swiss artist, Zep (Philippe Chappuis) who doesn’t try to turn the song Not Dark Yet into a story but simply presents the lyrics above a cartoon image of Dylan. The words are therefore left to speak for themselves which is as it should be.

It is natural to try to get inside the head of creative artists and understand the emotions that lie behind the words. But the analytical process that we apply to novels and poems can turn us into what, in I Am The Walrus,  John Lennon scathingly called expert texperts’ . In other words, it can easily transform the critical process into something farcical or meaningless while simultaneously sucking all the lifeblood out of the music.

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