Words Are All I Have

(first published here updated 2023)

Recorded music is awash with vanilla rhymes and hackneyed phrases, along with a glut of same chord, similar melody songs, and so the more you can do to make your song stand out, the better. Pay no attention to people who say that words are just a coat-hanger for the melody, a space to self-glorify, or another kind of percussion. Words are far more important than that.

Although I love all aspects of songwriting, as a lyricist I often find myself flying the flag for vibrant, meaningful, fabulous words, especially in a pop context. As well as strong lyrics being my personal taste, there are very good commercial reasons for this desire to make the words as good as they should be.

Contrary to what some musicians and music business types would have you believe, people really do pay attention to words. One thing I have noticed is that women in particular with their more profound predisposition for language seem to listen more intently to words than men – this is of course a generalisation, but one born of much observation. Test it. Women are at least 50% of your audience, it doesn’t pay to ignore them. But of course plenty of men also love a good lyric, especially in less uptight cultures where verbal prowess is seen as a good thing among, even the norm.

The first time I ever went to Dublin created in me a vivid memory, listening to elderly Irish men swap poetry in a Dublin pub, all listening as much as they spoke. I naively assumed this splendid spectacle must be the norm everywhere in Eire. My fellow English, I observed to myself over a third perfect Guinness, with a few notable exceptions would be stuck around a table discussing football, fast cars, attractive women and other socially preferred male subject matter. Later, I found an Irish pub exactly like that and without good performance poets, at which point I immediately abandoned my previously-held stereotype. Still, it gave me pause for thought. After all, the Irish have produced much of the world’s greatest literature, and some of its finest comedy – W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Spike Milligan, Dermot Morgan, Dylan Moran, and these just the first of many to come to mind. What I love about them is their love of words and their unforgettable usage of the language which underpins and sometimes turns inside out our very concepts of the universe we inhabit.

Words are as much the key to unlock the soul as is the music, and the melody. Singing music exercises both the right and left hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, and you can create structure, strength, contrast, tension, drama and meaning, by working with this knowledge. The endless tight circle of human concern – love, loss, lust – is the mainspring for 99% of songs – but that doesn’t mean making things more complicated is the solution. Complicated can be wonderful, but simple is good.

The Big Challenge, of course, is to find something new to write about, or at least, an original angle or twist on a time-honoured theme. “Baby, I Love You” is a classic track, but there’s only so many variations of that you can hear before your ears close and you want something different. Thankfully there are as many variations on our key experiences as there are human beings. It is a lack of songcraft, the mistaken belief that words don’t really matter, and perhaps laziness that means most writers produce very few truly original songs.

There are many techniques which help writers produce excellent lyrics, but in basic songwriting lyrical technique is very simple. Generally avoid clichés, unless you are artful enough to use them cleverly, is rule number one. One day I will make a fortune by selling an alarm which goes off in the presence of clichés. It will make further lucrative revenue from its use in sales and marketing, sports commentary, news reporting, and of course politics.

Rule number two is to try to create a narrative which relates to your personal experiences, because then it has much more chance of hitting the metaphorical nail smack bang on the head, and coming across as authentic.

Rule number three (and that will be all for now) is: keep going, don’t be satisfied until you have really crafted the words and you are satisfied that they really are the best words in the best order. When you have got somewhere, if not entirely there, have a rest but don’t put the work aside for too long. Go for a walk, do some simple chores, come back to it with a cool head. Read what you did yesterday first thing in the morning.

Rule number four is avoid comparisons by others (they can’t help themselves) until you are as sure as sure can be that it’s finished to the best of your capacity. Before you show it to other people, give yourself time to assess it and make changes, otherwise despite having much of what you wanted, your very best lyrics ever could be dismantled before your very eyes and ears and finish up discarded.

The tension between what sounds good sung, and what creates the meaning you are seeking, is one of the central challenges of songwriting. If in doubt, I usually obey the priceless Sammy Cahn dictum that lyrics must first sound good, and meaning follows along afterwards – except Sammy said it much better than that, of course. But I also want my words to grab the listener, draw them into the poetic space of the song, and take them on an irresistible journey. Not that I’m overly ambitious, I just want to be original and not bore the pants off the listener.

The writing process itself is also a process of discovery. This doesn’t just apply to pure self-expression, equally when given a really good commission or brief. Regardless of the original aim, I follow the internal truth of a lyric, knowing it makes its own sense, and only months or sometimes years later do I fully understand the song.

When writing, early on I learnt to keep everything, even songs you didn’t plan to get. Come back tomorrow and try again for what you thought you were doing today. Good songs you didn’t expect to write, those found-by-accident songs can be your most valuable.

For an illustration of how a few well-chosen words can create a world completely of their own, this was penned by Howard Devoto, ex-Buzzcocks, then Magazine – and the song is titled The Light Pours Out of Me. I applaud its simplicity, its raw drive, its originality and the way it transcends its era. It lifts me out of my seat every time.

Time flies
Time crawls
Like an insect
Up and down the walls
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
The conspiracy
Of silence ought
To revolutionize
My thought
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
The cold light of day
Pours out of me
Leaving me black
And so healthy
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
It jerks out of me
Like blood
In this still life
Heart beats up love
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me

My favourite version by far is this live version. Thanks, Iain, for turning me on to this album. Happiest of memories.