Great song lyrics have always been something of a rarity: the trouble started as soon as someone figured out that "moon" rhymes with "June". But it isn't just feeble-minded nostalgia calling when one hankers for the scintillating days of Cole Porter and Larry Hart. Just as pop is increasingly confected to the standards set by processed cheese, so its words come to resemble the line- by-line symmetry of scripted jingles. I don't expect Dorothy Parker or William Wordsworth, but when rappers are constantly thumbing their thesaurus for new flourishes of the vernacular, why is it that nine-to-five songwriters settle for ever more mundane language?
What set off this chain of thought wasn't so much a blizzard of mediocrity, but a writer whose current unassuming offering is the only record so far this year that has made me laugh out loud at the sheer pleasure of it. Fittingly, Charlie Wood is from Memphis, Tennessee, the spiritual home of one of the wittiest writers in the style, Chuck Berry; Who I Am (Go Jazz) is Wood's second album. He sings in a lean, unblemished voice which has the high, lonesome timbre of a dedicated bluesman: in fact, he's an English major whose bashful erudition keeps peeking through lyrics that refuse to settle for the easy way to the end of the verse. Take, for example, these lines from track two, the devastating put-down song "Don't You Ever Stop Talking": "Did your daddy not have time to listen to you whine?/Did your best friend get the best part in the school play every year?/Were your lips taped shut by mama, or some other Freudian trauma?/Bet it couldn't beat the suffering that you're doling out here."
I could fill up the rest of the page with Wood's quotable quotations. But, in most cases, his titles tell enough of a story: "You Are Not Among Friends"; "Back When I Was Stupid"; "The Art of Leaving Well Enough Alone".
The man is never at a loss for words, and words fill up these songs. But the results aren't the tiresome, wise-guy fills that sometimes masquerade for urbanity. Wood measures his way through a song. He loves the sound of a good line, but he's shy about beating us over the head with it, preferring to let us notice it for ourselves. The penultimate track is an almost medicinal rejoinder to the rest of the record: in "Look at the Moon", the author muses on a natural wonder and suggests that we might benefit if we "Turn off the television, hang up the telephone/Log off the internet and look at the moon".
Wood draws heavily on Mose Allison, the Mississippi bluesman-poet par excellence; with a delivery that stretches from laconic to aggrieved, he has the Allison tinge down to a fine shade of accuracy. But there's something else that sets the record apart: the sound of it. Most contemporary records, of whatever style, are subject to so much studio doctoring that the musicians involved are in deep trouble if asked to reproduce them in a live context. Wood's band - himself on the sturdy old Hammond B-3 organ, with guitar, drums and occasional horns and saxes for assistance - play the music in a sound mix that is thick, hot and necessarily heavy - no glamorous reverb, nothing that makes you think the players aren't there, giving you their best just the other side of the speakers. Sometimes it's easy to be shocked by how full and immediate a live band can be, having spent many listening hours in front of neutered and cosmeticised records. Who I Am has the wallop of a live album, but with a degree of finesse that betrays the care and thought that's gone into it.
At the close of it, Wood turns in a song called "20th Century", a double-edged farewell to that long-ago time. Or has it really gone? "Heavy on chronology, easy on theology/It's just Justinian, not solar, not lunar/Not really begun till two thousand and one." Book him for next New Year's Eve.