Experimental Music Love

November 4, 2008

It’s Only Words

Filed under: Features — by Free Edinburgh Podcast @ 11:53 pm

It’s Only Words

Take a stroll through Prince’s Street gardens in Edinburgh right now and you’ll find a thought-provoking distraction from the high-street hustle that torments the centre of Scotland’s capital. In the shadow of a castle that’s dominated the skyline for centuries, and along a path full of tourists celebrating that rare urban greenery, stands an art exhibit which asks more questions of the world than any politician seems to be doing right now.

Hard Rain by Mark Edwards details, with alarming clarity, the terrible truths of a world corrupted by man with a series of photos designed to engage the casual passer-by and illuminate an ignorance that perpetuates in the public mind. And stringing all these images together in a cohesive poignancy, struggling to make sense of this mess? Not the words of King or Kennedy, as renowned as they may be. Nor indeed Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or any other icon of God’s answer.

Instead, it’s a man of art and poetry, not politics and religion who pictures this rain of Old Testament proportion. Bob Dylan’s vision in A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall is still as devastatingly true in 2008 as in its early 60s conception, complete with Cold War troubles, Vietnam and presidential assassinations. Few other words could resonate so well with a questioning people.

Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’,
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’,
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley”

To analyse the world’s pollutions in such a way as to spark a change in people’s minds is a remarkable thing, and just one of the powers a singer-songwriter can have. Great verse has great influence, as laughter, tears, anger, bitterness, lust, fear, malice and everything that makes us human are shaped by the masters and understood by those who listen.

Dylan is many people’s songwriting hero, with efforts over 40 years extolling life’s virtues and mishaps. Blowing in the Wind and its ambiguous, near unsettling, protest rhetoric that asks “how many roads must a man walk down?” are so perfectly ingrained in the public conscious, yet no less meaningful for such matters.

His influence is seen in such modern day cynics as Conor Oberst. With Bright Eyes, Oberst has become both the face and voice of a MySpace generation dealing with its own era of disillusionment and corruption. Though When the President Talks to God may have been a touch forceful in its approach, Oberst has excelled in crossing story-telling with political resentment on such outstanding works as At the Bottom of Everything. Simplicity is often key, and who could argue with a challenge like “in the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair, we must stare, we must stare, we must stare.”

The likes of Lua and Hit the Switch show a more pained, private side to Oberst, and have his considerable skill in thematic diversity is key to rising masterfully above such peers as the sex-obsessed styles of Kings of Leon or Chris Martin and his ambiguous ineffectualness.

To return to Dylan though, it’s not hard to find the meaning and emotion in his more personal efforts, such as the lovelorn Tangled Up in Blue.

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning’ coal
Pouring’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you”

And it was all inspired by another lyrical great, with Dylan emoting all after a weekend immersed in Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Mitchell’s love lamentations certainly share traits with Dylan’s efforts, merging the literal and the metaphorical, yet unafraid to deal in bluntness, as seen in A Case of You.

Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, constant in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

Johnny Cash is someone who holds similar legendary revere as Dylan and Mitchell, with words of cynicism to shape generations. Certainly, few lines have ever been so satisfyingly simple as “because you’re mine/I walk the line.” Easy to understand, easy to empathise, and, probably most effectively of all, easy to believe.

Truth is an important part of any songwriter’s skill-set, and it’s a trait that Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner excels in. As with The Streets’ Mike Skinner, Turner is a story-teller of real situations in modern Britain that resonate with a public unable to comprehend 50 Cent’s bling, the bland covers of Westlife or the embarrassing angst of My Chemical Romance.

Mardy Bum is a bittersweet tale of an arguing couple trying to recall those days of “cuddles in the kitchen to get things off the ground” and A Certain Romance tells of a Britain where “there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones”.

Some recalled a sardonic attitude reminiscent of Oasis, but Turner is a world away from the Gallaghers and their nonsensical attempts at meaning (“slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannon ball.”) Instead, Turner has an intelligent approach not far from Suede’s Brett Anderson, even if Anderson’s lyricism does offer up a greater romanticism (“She walks in beauty like the night/Discarding her clothes in the plastic flowers/Pornographic and tragic in black and white/My Marilyn come to my slum for an hour.”) Combing both aspects of poetry and life’s realities though is every teenage cynic’s favourite.

With The Smiths, Morrissey created a lyrical legacy that has lasted 25 years, and will probably re-affirm itself with every disaffected youth until everyone finally has a jetpack and therefore no reason to complain. Meanwhile, it’s songs like Hand in Glove that highlight non-nonsense simplicities that echo in us all, yet with that dry, sarcastic humour that comes from years of reading Oscar Wilde. He’d have been proud to abridge young love in such a resplendently bold manner as “and everything depends upon how near you stand to me”.

Fellow 80s front-men such as Mark E. Smith and Ian Curtis were just as effective in attracting worship from a music lovers, with the former veering into the realm of the surreal in wit and bile, and Curtis showing clear signs of the very personal traumas that affected him his whole life. Nobody will ever describe the end of a relationship so adeptly and heartbreakingly as in Love Will Tear Us Apart.

It wasn’t just white working-class men in Britain making music in the 80s though, with rap giving voice to a still-oppressed black population in America. Before bitches and bling infected the words of minds of Jay Z and his ilk, artists such as Public Enemy were at the head of a movement that sought to find bring back a musical identity, as well as projecting concern for the negative treatment towards urban black people in the U.S. Fight the Power pulled no punches in declaring Elvis a racist, whereas Bring the Noise lambasted radio stations wary of this new phenomena.

Black oppression too was a huge concern for Rastafarian prophet, and promoter of peace, Bob Marley. Perhaps the most remarkable, and dedicated lyricist of them all, Marley sang of hundreds of years of torment and oppression, dreaming of the Zion he always believed in. Redemption Song would merit an essay in itself to explain its sentiment of breaking free from the shackles of slavery to stand defiant and fulfill all possible potential. Marley brought everyone with any reasoning at all together to defiantly say “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our mind/Have no fear for atomic energy/’Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.”

Here is where lyrics transcend beyond aimless philanthropy and contrived tales of love and loss. Marley sought for his words to provoke change and unification, inspired by Marcus Garvey and other black heroes of the past to bring to light and overcome a shocking part of humanity’s history. It certainly beats Des’ree and her efforts in Life:

I don’t want to see a ghost
It’s the sight that I fear most
I’d rather have a piece of toast
And watch the evening news.”


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