December 29, 2011

Lyrics and Meaning

I just read this here takedown of Bon Iver on Slate:
Is Vernon the worst poetaster in the history of popular music? Is he simply incapable of writing a lyric that makes sense—that tells a story, conveys a recognizable human emotion, in English or Elvish or any other language?
Dan Bejar often says that striving to deduce concrete meaning from his lyrics is a mistake. He wants his words to do something rather than mean something, to have an effect rather than to have sense.

I wish someone would inform Jody Rosen of this concept. Lyrics can be poetic and can often be read as poetry. Songs and albums can tell stories. But they don't have to, and reading lyrics apart from their musical context is inherently a mistake. Lyrics constitute a distinct form of art that cannot be judged by the standards of poetry or storytelling.


Blogger JHitts said...

The thing about Bon Iver that this piece misses (and I say this as a person who tends to be one of those who is somewhat indifferent to him) is that, yes, his lyrics don't always "make sense". But, it's not like he's Stephen Malkmus, who 75% of the time just strings together random phrases that just sound kind of clever together. That passage they quoted isn't incomprehensible. It's not the best lyric I've seen this year (or this week), but it's perfectly fine.

One thing, though, I do agree with in the Slate piece: The part where they wonder why critics give him a pass for such "blah" lyrics "delivered with such shuddering self-importance." I think that may be part of what turns me off about the record, but that's just me. (I really like Stephen Malkmus, and I know you're not a fan, Mark, so take that for what it's worth.)

In an only tangentially-related comment, I want to point you to Merrill Garbus' guest list on Pitchfork. Now, I have heard like three songs by tUnE-yArDs, and it sounded interesting. I enjoyed them. After reading her list though... I'm totally turned off. Whenever a paragraph (which is specifically supposed to be about the best things of 2011) begins off with the line, "In 2011, we mostly listened to Turkish psych from the 1970s in our tour van, so I am ill-equipped to talk about current albums," you know you're going to dislike that person.

December 30, 2011 at 2:30 AM 
Blogger Porter Perkins said...

Yeah, I do understand the author's frustration, in a sense. I think "Holocene" is pretty fantastic, but if I didn't I would also be irritated with people like myself going on about how emotive and evocative it is.

Also, your last sentence is pretty fantastic. Though I wish I hadn't read it, because I was planning to give tune-yards (too lazy to deal with the caps) a go and now I don't have the heart. (speaking of heart, Carrie Brownstein is great).

December 31, 2011 at 11:50 PM 
Anonymous Econ said...

Said the Gramophone:

"Destroyer sings, 'Apocalypse, oh', or maybe he sings, 'Apocalypso', a neologism formed by apocalypse and calypso. This ambiguity alone is enough to persuade me that we should put Dan Bejar's face on all of our currency."

January 5, 2012 at 10:20 AM 
Blogger Daniel Silliman said...

I don't like Bon Iver (this feels like heresy to say), but I like this post a lot. A lot a lot.

January 5, 2012 at 12:40 PM 
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June 1, 2015 at 12:02 AM 

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