What makes a good song writer? Is it the ability to turn a phrase on its head , capture an emotion perfectly or to simply be a great story teller? Here’s the second part of our top ten greatest songsmiths. View the first part here.
5. Chris Difford
Back in his days with Squeeze Chris Difford he would scribble down his lyrics, rush over to fellow band member Glen Tilbrook’s house, who would bring music to his wonderful words. While, arguably his best song writing days are behind him, he still releases and writes, with his last album coming in 2010, which just about qualifies him for our list as an active and releasing songwriter.
Among the main reasons for his inclusion are his expert story telling and biting observational lyrics. For us his finest song was Squeeze’s Up The Junction, the tale of a doomed romance as the protagonist drinks and gambles his way out of a family and home. It has no chorus and ends with him failing to get the girl, but was still a hit. Here’s one of our best parts where his life begins to crumble.
This morning at 4:50, I took her rather nifty
Down to an incubator, Where thirty minutes later
She gave birth to a daughter, Within a year a walker
She looked just like her mother, If there could be another
And now she’s two years older, Her mother’s with a soldier
She left me when my drinking, Became a proper stinging
The devil came and took me, From bar to street to bookie
No more nights by the telly, No more nights nappies smelling
Humour is another facet of his lyrics and Cool for Cats typifies this well as the male bravado is given the Difford treatment with lines such as
I fancy this, I fancy that, I wanna be so flash
I give a little muscle, and I spend a little cash
But all I get is bitter and a nasty little rash
And by the time I’m sober, I’ve forgotten what I’ve had
And ev’rybody tells me that it’s cool to be a cat
His enthusiasm for encouraging songwriting is another factor in his inclusion as he spends some of his time these days giving talks and using gigs to explain his craft.
If an artists songwriting abilities were based on award nominations then Polly Jean Harvey has enough to justify a dozen careers in music. Four Mercury Prize nominations alone over an 18 year period, the last two as winner in 2001 and 2011, make her the most successful artist in that particular competition.
Even if you have little patience for back slapping industry events it is hard to argue with the quality of her back catalogue with 20 years worth of albums and barely a wrong step amongst them. Like Kristin Hersh she has an amazing ability to move between musical styles without ever losing her own identity. Vocally she is a real chameleon, listen to the timbre of ‘Rid Of Me‘ compared to the fragile folk stylings of ‘Let England Shake‘ for evidence of that.
Lyrically her work has always had a very personal feel, with raw sexuality and emotional openess a repeated theme. More recently her work has taken on a more thematic approach, never more so than on her critically acclaimed 2011 album Let England Shake. War, identity and the concept of England and Englishness being the central themes on the album. This doesn’t always make for easy listening, more poetry than lyrics, but it is bold songwriting and stands Harvey out from most of her peers.
Death was in the ancient fortress,
shelled by a million bullets
from gunners, waiting in the copses
with hearts that threatened to pop their boxes,
as we advanced into the sun
death was all and everyone.
3. Nick Cave
Nick Cave doesn’t just tell stories in song. He likes to get right inside the head of his protagonists, with criminals a particular fascination. With the Bad Seeds and as a solo artist Cave’s gothic horror style makes him more akin to the likes of Edgar Allen Poe or Harry Crews than the Australian punk scene he emerged from.
Take Mercy Seat, his track about a killer facing the electric chair that was so brilliantly covered by Johnny Cash. All the way through the protagonist bravely protests his innocence and says he has no fear for his impending death. But as the electricity sears through his body he finally admits to telling a lie. Whether the lie is about his innocence or his bravery in the face of death is nicely left for the listener to decide.
And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
And a truth for a truth
And anyway I told the truth
But I’m afraid I told a lie.
The Murder Ballads album is another of our favourites, with Where the Wild Roses Grow among the album’s most well known and lyrically best tracks. Loosely based on the traditional tale Down in the Willow Garden it tells of a man killing his lover and laying her to rest among the flowers. Cave tells the story through the killer’s and victims eyes, with Kylie Minogue taking the role of the unfortunate lover. In this track and each of the others on the album he describes the moment of death so perfectly, it’s as if the listener was there. Here’s the final two verses of Where the Wild Roses grow where the terrible deed takes place.
On the third day he took me to the river
He showed me the roses and we kissed
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist
On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow
And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief
As I kissed her goodbye, I said, ‘All beauty must die’
And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth
Cave is still writing, using his skill as a story teller across music, film and literature, including writing the screenplay for Australian western The Proposition (2004) and as one quarter of Grinderman, which disbanded in 2011. At the time of writing he is helping develop a film adaptation of the Threepenny Opera with the actor Andy Serkis.
2. Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg is arguably the UK’s greatest living folk songwriter, with his lyrics managing to mix serious political and social commentary with sparkling observations. He is also one of the few songwriters to write about the issues of the day, with corruption at New International and the rise and ultimate fall of the BNP among his more recent subjects.
Never Buy the Sun, about News International, phone hacking and the shockingly irresponsibly coverage of the Hillsborough stadium disaster in its Sun newspaper was written in 2011 and shows as far as Bragg is concerned the protest song is alive and well.
Among our favourites is Levi Stubbs tears. This heartbreakingly sad tale of a girl and her miserable life seeking salvation in the voice of Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs, whose tears mirror her’s. Here’s one of our favourite versus.
She ran away from home with her mother’s best coat
She was married before she was even entitled to vote
And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes
The sort that war takes away And when there wasn’t a war he left her anyway
It’s no wonder Woody Guthrie, the great American protest singer is such an influence. Like Bragg Guthrie also transcended the simple protest song and often wrote about love and family life. We caught Bragg’s show at Glastonbury in 2011 and urge anyone who hasn’t seen him to do so. Anyone who wants some political discourse wll be disappointed, I’m just going to belt em out” he told the crowd.Its something he’s been doing for decades.
Joint 1.David Lowery
David Lowery first came to our attention when he was the singer with Santa Cruz country-ska-waltz-punk-pop band Camper Van Beethoven just before they split up (first time around) in 1990. The band were known as a bit of a one-hit novelty act thanks to ‘Take The Skinheads Bowling’ but this song (as good as it is) distracts from what a sophisticated songwriter and lyricist Lowery was and is.
The early songs were brilliant in their own right, humorous and anarchic with a real emotive sense of the world that Camper Van Beethoven existed in their formative years, but it is on the last albums they recorded where Lowery’s lyrical genius became apparent. On the peerless ‘Sweethearts’ he sings;
Angels wings are icing over
McDonnell-Douglas olive drab
They bear the names of our sweethearts
And the captain smiles, as we crash
Heard in the context of the music their is something just a little bit heartbreaking about those words.
Over the past two decades Lowery has done many things including recording with Sparklehorse, writing for Sussanah Hoffs and reuniting with Camper Van Beethoven in 2004 to record the brilliant concept album New Roman Times in 2004. Throughout that period his main day job has been fronting Cracker with guitarist Johnny Hickman and writing dozens of brilliant songs over their eight studio albums. His lyrics clover a whole trange of subjects but always manage to painty a beautiful picture, take these verses from ‘Big Dipper’;
Hey Jim, Kerouac
(The brother of the famous Jack),
Or so he likes to say.
He’s sitting on the Cafe Xeno’s steps
With a girl I’m not over yet
Watching all the world go by
He continues to write and record music, and each new album serves up a selection of thoughtful, witty songs that sound like no one else. His last was released in 2009 and finished with these wise words;
So if you want to see what’s in the shadows
the burning meadows
of our apocalypse
I dream of fallow fields
I dream of winter
cause dying is easy,
It’s living that’s hard.
You can read lots more about David Lowery’s songwriting process (and get a bit of a history lesson to boot) at his 300 s0ngs blog.
Joint 1. John Darnielle
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is America’s greatest story teller in song. Sometimes as on Sunset Tree his songs are about his own life and recovery from an abusive, early homelife.
Other times his songs are about fictional characters or the lives of real, sometimes famous people, such as Judy Garland and Charles Bronson, who feature on All Eternals Deck (2011). Autopsy Garland from that album, in which he imagines Judy Garland’s last moments, remembering the abuse from studio executives as she takes her final, global road trip away from the horrors of Emerald City, is a particular highlight in his career.
Fat rich men love their 12-year-olds
Deco cufflinks and cognac by the glass
Look West from London toward the emerald city
It’s kind of impossible for me to think of a song that doesn’t also tell a story. That whole period in the early nineties when indie-ish bands were into “abstract” lyrics that didn’t tell stories or have beginnings middles & ends, God I hated that
Among our highlights in a career, which started through releasing tapes of just vocals and acoustic guitar made on a boombox and currently resides with Merge Records, is No Children from Tallahassee about a hateful, but wonderfully well-suited couple, and All Hail West Texas’s The Best Ever Death Metal about teenage friends Cyrus and Jeff. In one cruel moment Cyrus is sent to a mental institution, known as ‘the school’ because of his love of death metal, which paradoxically appears to be the only thing keeping him sane.
This was how Cyrus got sent to the school
Where they told him he’d never be famous.
And this was why Jeff, in the letters he’d write to his friend,
Helped develop a plan to get even.
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.
The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.
Hail satan! Hail satan tonight!
Darnielle used to work in such a place as a mental health nurse, proving Partridge’s point that the most successful songs are about what you know. It is perhaps the songs about his own life where his song writing is most poignant and powerful.
Here’s some lyrics from Pale Green Things, about a rare good memory about the step father who beat him. This track, set at a racetrack with the young Darnielle gazing at the green moss and grass growing in the dirt underfoot as he stands beside his abuser, was another in our list to make our top ten tearjerkers list . The doubling up of the phrase ‘at last’ is simple but tearfully effective.
My sister called at 3 AM, Just last December
She told you how you’d died at last, at last
That morning at the racetrack, was one thing that I remembered
I turned it over in my mind,like a living Chinese finger trap
Seaweed in Indiana sawgrass, pale green things, pale green things
Despite a formidable track record of song writing behind him arguably Darnielle’s best work may still be ahead of him. As Autopsy Garland and For Charles Bronson on On All Eternal’s Deck (2011) showed the quality of his song writing is showing no sign of letting up. Here in an exert from For Charles Bronson Darnielle charts the Death Wish star’s final years in film, battling alcoholism and his falling star.
Hit the gym each night, stay cool and seldom speak
Keep the heart of a champion, never let them see you’re weak
And whatever they say on your page three mention
Focus on the parts that make you feel good, be grateful for the attention
For more about John Darnielle see: Ten Bands That Changed Our Lives Part 4 – The Mountain Goats
Compiled by Joe Lepper, Dorian Rogers and David Newbury