In 2012, during a lull in musical output, former Pulp frontman and solo artist Jarvis Cocker released lyric book Mother, Brother, Lover, a compendium of his varied works across four decades of songwriting. Leonard Cohen once said: “Art is just the ash left if your life is burning well,” and true to that, great lyricists are the ones that lead fascinating lives. When we listen to Bob Dylan, Patti Smith or even the work of Cocker both past and present, listeners are given an insight into the mind of an artist. But Cocker would disagree. His admittance to not wanting to be a songwriter, saying: “…you don’t particularly want to do the job, but because a song isn’t really a song until it’s got some lyrics, it’s down to you to write them” says it all. He believes “the words to a song are not important” but forgets to understand the impact he and other musicians have made on linguistics.
By definition, Cocker is wrong. A song is defined as “a short poem or other set of words set to music or meant to be sung”. It would be far too easy to be bogged down in the semantic debate of what songs consist of “poetry” and which do not. For the sake of argument, it can be inferred that song with reason or movement of tone, character or place is poetry. As flexible as the term “poetry” is, it is the broad brush that paints music too. The interchangeable nature of what is and is not musical poetry is far too rough a topic to talk of. Are the lyrics of Bob Dylan poetry? The Nobel Prize for Literature he bagged a few years back would agree. It could be poetry, but does it hold the same depth without the crashing of acoustics and electric? Talking Heads’ singer, David Byrne, adapted Dadaist Hugo Ball’s poem, I Zimbra into a track for Remain in Light. In that regard, poetry is literal music.
Cocker’s argument holds water when reading the other works of David Byrne. To listen to Talking Heads or the solo work from Byrne and Brian Eno that followed is to relinquish the idea that lyrics must represent anything. They can still hold meaning, tone and power but do not have to make logical sense. “Hi yo / Sing into my mouth” his hit track This Must Be the Place offered. But it is the confusion of the lyrics around it that, ironically, bring it together as a meaningful rendition. John Lennon would have less success with tracks like I Am the Walrus and even without its lyrics, the experimentation of Revolution 9 falls into place as a strange straggler for the process of lyrics as nothing more than ash.
Not all lyrics are meaningful, but to determine they are “not important” would imply the stanza structure and back and forth between verse and chorus is not necessary for the beat or the tone of the music. It is hard to imagine the lyrics of The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun to the beat of Black Lace’s Agadoo. Not just because that is a horrid mismatch, but because the lyrics are reliant on the pace of the track. Around the World from Daft Punk would not quite match the pacing or style of Willie Nelson’s Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. As much as Cocker would not wish to think words are “important,” it is difficult to interpret lyrics as anything but personal offerings from a musician commenting on the world around them.
Cocker’s point about Louie, Louie from The Kingsmen holds water. Lyrics so useless and banal they prompted FBI investigation into an apparent hidden meaning. Investigators came up with nothing. Taking a listen to Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida adds more to that argument. Not every lyric has to be a touching and personal display. Pop music may be the segway into lyrics meaning nothing more than useless jaunts through culture. Even then, there is meaning behind them. Kanye West and Ed Sheeran are not just dribbling out whatever springs to mind. There is some sensibility behind their work, despite how an audience may react to it. Lyrics are active choices, and the choice to make it mould to the music is an active choice to make it poetic.
Ironically, Cocker would say lyrics are more or less the least important part of a song when he wrote some of the most potent and effective words of his generation. Common People, the working-class struggle encapsulated in six minutes of perfection is one of the many examples tucked away within his lyric book, Mother, Brother, Lover. He litters the likes of This is Hardcore, Do You Remember the First Time and The Loss Adjuster into his book after a brief essay explaining that lyrics are annoying pathways for “writer’s block” and his work is no more than “an attempt to marry ‘inappropriate’ subject matter to fairly conventional ‘pop’ song structures.”
His success, accidental or intentional, pushes Cocker forth as a strong lyricist. Despite that, his admission of “only getting half the story” from listening to lyrics without the music backing them is half true. Ironically Mother, Brother, Lover will work for those with a fondness or connection with the lyrics, as they would for any artist and any listener with that connection. Common People isn’t the same without the ensemble of musicians surrounding the music, but just because instruments are absent does not mean it is any less poetic. It is perhaps the subconscious way of writing. All writers do it. Little intricacies come and go without the writer knowing until given the chance to reflect on their work. That is what Mother, Brother, Lover offers, the reflection of an artist figuring out his lyrics have poetry. Accidental it may be, it is still there and present in the years of lyrics provided, and it can definitely be classed as poetry. The lyrical ash of a life well lived. Would audiences listen if it were any other way?