Poets of pop: a reply

Today's lyricists are as inventive as their forebears -- despite DJ Taylor's concerns.

Is the well-crafted song lyric a lost art? Or can words still emerge from amid the glossy images and sounds that dominate contemporary pop culture? One of the things we discovered during the past decade is that they can and they do, despite D J Taylor's concerns about lyricists losing their status. For all the power of his defence of some wonderful songwriting, Taylor ignores songwriters who have bent and are bending the English language into new forms of expression.

In many ways, the survival of the lyric makes sense. After all, we listen to pop music today on MP3 players and headphones, creating a private space for ourselves in which we can ingest its meanings. Artists today operate in a similar way, burrowing inside themselves to find ideas with which they can snare our attention. And many artists in love with language have found their way into the mainstream.

Consider the American folk-inspired singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, who sells out huge venues in minutes and has made the top ten album chart with her recent triple-LP, Have One on Me, despite her lyrics being more of the Emily Dickinson school than the "awopbopaloobopalop" academy. She writes sturdy, structured poetry influenced by nature and nurture. Take this lyric about a rabbit from the song "Baby Birch": "But I caught her and skinned her quick/Held her there/Kicking and mewling/Upending, unspooling/Unsung and blue". The song's half-rhymes and soft rhythms demand as much attention and unpicking as good poetry.

Bands such as Arcade Fire create alternative worlds with their words. For their 2004 debut album, Funeral, they constructed a snowy dystopia full of dead adults and young children, and a dark psychedelic poetry far removed from the Edward Lear-influenced surrealism of the Beatles. In 2004, in a frightened and fractured America, the lyrics of their biggest hit, "Wake Up", resonated widely : "If the children don't grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up/We're just a million little gods causing rainstorms/Turning every good thing to rust".

In Britain, too, lyrical songwriting has found commercial success. Elbow have become platinum sellers thanks to Guy Garvey's pared-down style, which shimmers in "Mirrorball", from 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid: "We make the moon our mirror ball/The streets an empty stage/The city sirens - violins/Everything has changed." There's humour in the album's opening track, "Starlings", which is full of subtle but perky alliteration: "Yes, I guess I'm asking you/ To back a horse that's good for glue".

In fact, much of the best British pop writing of the past ten years has been comic, from the indie rock of Arctic Monkeys and the Libertines to the rap of Dizzee Rascal and the calypso-influenced songs of Lily Allen. The Arctic Monkeys frontman, Alex Turner, remains the best of the bunch. The opening verse from 2007's "Fluorescent Adolescent", for instance, reads like Alan Bennett by way of the Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke: "You used to get it in your fishnets/Now you only get it in your nightdress/Discarded all the naughty nights for niceness/Landed in a very common crisis".

Even in the most mainstream pop, artists are playing with language - take Lady Gaga, shoehorning references to Hitchcock films into her biggest hit, "Bad Romance". But the best lyricists tend to work in more intimate settings: from the British Mercury nominees The xx, who conjure up the torture of adolescence in delicate poetry ("I still want to drown/When­ever you leave/Please teach me, gently/How to breathe"), to artists such as the US singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, a modern master of dark humour and melancholic euphoria.

In songs such as Callahan's "Rock Bottom Riser", we see how much the pop lyric can still give us ("So bury me in wood/And I will splinter/Bury me in stone/And I will quake/ Bury me in water/And I will geyser/Bury me in fire/And I'm gonna phoenix"). Words like these encourage us to forget the pomp and circumstance of rock and pop, and to concentrate instead on the meanings that still breathe within.

Jude Rogers is a judge for the Mercury Music Prize (winner to be announced on 7 September)

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis