Where have all the lyricists gone?

Is it just me, or have song words all got a bit repetitive?

OK, I understand there’s plenty of music where the lyrics play a secondary role. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Blues, and that can sometimes be a bit limited in terms of subject matter. But there seems to an awful lot of “I’m in a relationship, and it’s going great” or “I’m in a relationship, and it’s not really going that well to be honest” going on. Even those sentiments could be expressed in interesting ways, but most of the time it seems pretty bland. It would just be nice to have some stuff that made you think a bit, something enlightening, poetic perhaps, occasionally profound even?

Perhaps this might be seen as a little unfair, but let me offer a few examples of what I mean, from the man who many consider to be the greatest lyricist of the last 50 years – Robert Zimmerman (AKA Bob Dylan). Remember these aren’t poems, so they need to be heard in the context of the songs to be properly appreciated, but Dylan can do relationships quite well:

There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river
There’s beauty in the rainbow in the sky
But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty
That I remember in my true love’s eyes

Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again

From – Tomorrow Is A Long Time

And just these couple of lines …

You’re the queen of my flesh, girl, you’re my woman, you’re my delight,
You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night.

From – Precious Angel

I presume this next one is Dylan’s spiteful take on those ‘fair weather friends’ we all know and despise?

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, “How are you? Good luck”, but you don’t mean it

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
Then you’d know what a drag it is to see you

From – Positively 4th Street


How about something poetic, Dylan’s a master of the surreal, dream-like lyric. My favourite:

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder

Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unravelled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations

Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mate-less mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanour outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

From – Chimes of Freedom

This next is often claimed to be about ‘drugs man!’, it certainly contains a sense of euphoria:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

From – Tambourine Man


Dylan is often described as a protest singer; commenting on politics and culture:

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters,
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency,
All non-believers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.

People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting
Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it.
They say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions,
They talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to
live it.
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.

From – Slow Train

This one has about 9000 verses, but here’s just a couple from one of his most revered, and still relevent pieces:

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

Advertising signs that con
You into thinking your the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing Ma, to live up to

From – It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)


Profound even? I think so. By the way, this song isn’t religious, but does show how religious terms can be used as short-cuts for certain, perhaps hard to express, concepts.

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden

The kingdoms of experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden

From – Gates Of Eden

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4 Comments

  1. Never been a fan of Dylan or folk, so I can’t really comment on the greatness of his stuff. I suppose it’s a tradition for each generation to mourn the death of ‘good’ music and hark back to the halcyon days of their youth. Pop music never was known for its deep lyrics and other forms like Blues, as you mentioned, tend to stick withing fairly narrow subjects and styles.

    I suspect there are plenty of great lyricists out there, certainly people like Morrissey and Thom Yorke, (perhaps some of Damon Albarn’s? Peter Gabriel? Kate Bush?) were/are a cut above most and of course Bowie and others have been bold innovators in both music and lyrics.

    Are there any true poets of the music scene today? I don’t know off hand. It would be interesting to delve deeper and see who might qualify.

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  2. Yes, of course you’re right, I’m sure there are many great lyricists out there today. I guess what I’m saying is they don’t hold centre stage like they once might have? They’re not revered and nobody is actively seeking them out. It’s definitely the case that ‘the fast buck’ approach dominates the music industry today.

    A piece on the radio I heard recently, mentioned large music festival events were struggling to find headline acts big enough to draw the attendance numbers they require. They’ve even had to pull old artists out of retirement in order to draw the big crowds they need. This suggests some music, if it’s good, is timeless and easily spans generations.

    By the way, Dylan is much more than just a folk singer, his songs have been ‘covered’ more than anyone else in history, by all sorts of diverse artists. He’s just a great song writer.

    There’s maybe an element of ‘halcyon days’ in this, but if Dylan was trying to make it today, he probably wouldn’t get a look in.

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  3. Surely the ‘blandness’ comes from the tight grip the music promoters/distributers have on our radio stations. If you visit YouTube and Spotify there’s a much greater variety of new music but music companies just want the generic pulp that’s proven to sell to young kids. It’s been like that for generations but there was always alternative music genres during my formative years so love it or hate it you had ‘prog rock’, alternative, punk, acid house and rave breaking through in the clubs and parties. It does seem a little stagnant at the moment but that could all be about to change as kids find their own music outside of the music industry influence.

    I know you were talking more about the lyrics, but I think it goes hand in hand, if new artists are brave enough to experiment more with music, break the rules like Pink Floyd did then surely it makes sense for them to play with and develop the lyrics and subject matter. I’m loving Penguin Go Go at the moment. And Clive Anderson has upped the ante for live music on Loose Ends radio 4. You’ve just got to know where to look!

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  4. But that’s sort of the point I’m making – I don’t agree that it has always been like this. There was a time when ‘great’ artists were actively sought. They made a lot money for the record labels, so everyone was looking for the ‘next big thing’. Consequently, you didn’t have to look too far to find ‘serious’ music artists.

    All the artists mentioned so far were heavily promoted and all have become household names – Bowie, Floyd, Dylan, Smiths, Sex Pistols, Radiohead – not some obscure act you might find on YouTube.

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