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Lyrics - Simple vs Abstract
Old 17th May 2007
  #1
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Thread Starter
Lyrics - Simple vs Abstract

I've been getting worked up over writing too simple lyrics lately. I somehow felt the need to write more "abstract", incorporate more images (= metaphors, similes) into my songs, but eventually decided to ditch the whole concept since to me, it comes off as forced. There is just a fine line, once you cross it, you just write clever/abstract lyrics for the sake of doing things differently, and I definitely dont want to go there. I am still under the impression that lyrics should be simple. Sure, you can throw in a clever metaphor or simile every now and then, but for the most part, it should almost be as if you're just having a conversation with somebody. If you wouldnt say something in everyday life, why put it in a song? It just comes off weird. It makes no sense IMO.

Can anybody relate? What are your general thoughts on those different styles of lyric writing?
Old 17th May 2007
  #2
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Anything too stupid to say, can be sung.

Hey - you - I could be your girlfriend. Gnome wadda sane?
Old 17th May 2007
  #3
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octatonic's Avatar
David Bowie reached the pinnacle of lyricalism when he wrote:

"a ha ha ha, a ha ha he, I'm the laughing gnome and you can't catch me".
Old 17th May 2007
  #4
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C Heat's Avatar
 

Oh man, don't get me started.

I've been extrememly focused on writing 'clever' and 'abstarct' lyrics. Maybe not for the whole song, but parts of it. I hate nothing worse than derivative-cliche-telegraphed lyrics.

Perhaps I'm getting simple mixed up with derivative-cliche-telegraphed.

You're right though. Simple is best IMHO. But the trick is writing GREAT simple lyrics.

It IS a fine line, and not as easy as it looks.
Old 17th May 2007
  #5
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heh, thats funny because I have the absolute opposite problem. I can only write abstract lyrics and have trouble writing simple straight forward stuff that doesn't sound cheesy.

I don't think either is wrong, but both could be done well or poor. On one hand I'd say just keep it simple if thats what your good at. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. But also imagery helps no matter what, and its good to practice writing in all sorts of perspectives in my opinion.
Old 17th May 2007
  #6
Registered User
 

Either one can be great.

Some simple lyrics can be quite clever and meaningful:

There's nothing you can know that isn't known.
Nothing you can see that isn't shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be.
It's easy.
All you need is love.


Some abstract lyrics can be powerfully moving and poetic:

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
are drifting through my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

Images of broken light which
dance before me like a million eyes
That call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe

Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
exciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Old 17th May 2007
  #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by quietdrive View Post
If you wouldnt say something in everyday life, why put it in a song? It just comes off weird. It makes no sense IMO.
Because its a song, and a song doesn't need to make sense nor does it need to mimic everyday life. Its a form of self expression... and as a form of self expression it encompasses every and any aesthetic, subject or context... whether it be light-hearted, serious, dark, moody, weird, detached, confused, chaotic, etc.

Take a stroll through an art gallery and you will see that art rarely replicates what we actually see in real life. Listen to Sigur Ros, they have "created" their own langauge to sing in, but its a langauge with no literal translation... its just jibberish that uses the voice as another pitched instrument. The amazing thing is, that despite it having no translation or textual meaning, the crowd still sings along with it at their live shows.

Write to please no one but yourself. Music attracts people in different ways. You can't judge what kind of effect your music will have on the listener... what you find weird, others find interesting. What some say isn't music, others say is the only music. Trying to please others won't work simply because nothing is universally liked, so write what you like. Write music that you want to hear, that you want to enjoy... and hope that others out there like the same things you do.
Old 17th May 2007
  #8
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EasT's Avatar
 

i love writing abstract lyrics personally simply because i know what i mean and what the listener will have to go through to decypher what they think i mean. It's very fun for me to do abstract and put partial pieces of literal lyrics in between.
Old 17th May 2007
  #9
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Thread Starter
I guess what it all comes down to is FLOW..

if the lyrics support the flow of the song, it's all fine. But as soon as the listener goes "wait, this is weird" it shouldnt be there. I think you can compare it to a drumbeat, all the beat needs to do is support the melody/song. If you're great drummer you can do all sorts of funky stuff with a drumbeat, and totally "overplay" the song, which usually distracts the listener from what really matters, the melody/voice.
Old 17th May 2007
  #10
Registered User
 

Okay, so we knocked this one on the head.

Back to the best thread ever (which is sucking badly).
Old 17th May 2007
  #11
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redrue's Avatar
 

I'll take abstract and cryptic over
hackneyed and trite any day...

...which is not to say that if it's
simple it will be hackneyed and trite.

Of course I've heard a great performance
and arrangement completely trump a trite
lyric ... so, there's always the exception (?)

Pursuing great work is a life-long pursuit...

I think if you're struggling with it you've
given it the importance that it deserves.

godspeed...
Old 17th May 2007
  #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by quietdrive View Post
I guess what it all comes down to is FLOW..

if the lyrics support the flow of the song, it's all fine. But as soon as the listener goes "wait, this is weird" it shouldnt be there. I think you can compare it to a drumbeat, all the beat needs to do is support the melody/song. If you're great drummer you can do all sorts of funky stuff with a drumbeat, and totally "overplay" the song, which usually distracts the listener from what really matters, the melody/voice.
This is exactly what I was getting at. "What really matters" in a song is absolutely dependent on the listener. What you think really matters in a song you write could be the most overlooked and unappreciated part of the song to the listener... the listener may even consider that part a negative of the entire piece of music... You can't spoon feed them emotion or the main point of a piece of music because chances are they don't listen to or appreciate music in exactly the same fashion as you. Why does a drum beat only need to support the melody or song? Why can't the drum beat be both the melody and the song? Ever heard of a steel drum? Drums are the most tonally complex instruments out there... why should there purpose be deligated to such mundane tasks?

What you consider weird, I could easily consider simple contrast. Music doesn't need to be uniform. It can be detached, it can be random and chaotic, it can be all those things pertaining to "weird" for no other reason than because the person who wrote the song wanted to express a feeling or view that he considers weird. For example, I consider burying dead people in lead lined boxes in the ground a very weird thing, yet most consider it tradition. Things like weird, distant, raw are equally as relevant in music as "happy" or "sad".
Old 17th May 2007
  #13
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octatonic's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by redrue View Post
I'll take abstract and cryptic over
hackneyed and trite any day...

...which is not to say that if it's
simple it will be hackneyed and trite.
Exactly.

I think it is very easy to hide behind abstract.
A simple but meaningful lyric is probably one of the most challenging things a lyricist can accomplish.
A simple, abstract and meaningful is even more difficult.

For me the masters are Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, Trent Reznor, Maynard James Keenan, Bob Mould and Henry Rollins.

I think it is all about honesty- one of the reasons that I hate artists having material written for them is there is an element of method acting about it.
They didn't write it.
They only sing it because it is there on the page.
If they carry it off then it is toally false- a glorified cover.
Old 17th May 2007
  #14
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octatonic's Avatar
One more ...

Steve Kilby from the Church.
He's just awesome.
Old 17th May 2007
  #15
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octatonic's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by quietdrive View Post
I guess what it all comes down to is FLOW..

if the lyrics support the flow of the song, it's all fine. But as soon as the listener goes "wait, this is weird" it shouldnt be there. I think you can compare it to a drumbeat, all the beat needs to do is support the melody/song. If you're great drummer you can do all sorts of funky stuff with a drumbeat, and totally "overplay" the song, which usually distracts the listener from what really matters, the melody/voice.
Sorry to pick holes in your analogy but this isn't personally relevant to me- I love abstract- I like the jarring effect... but.....

Lyrics ARE the song.
It's nothing to do with overplaying- it is either emotionally relevent or it isn't.
The lyrics are the wings of the bird- the performance is the flight.

There I go again though- putting the anal in analogy.
Old 17th May 2007
  #16
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Forkleg's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by quietdrive View Post
I guess what it all comes down to is FLOW..

if the lyrics support the flow of the song, it's all fine. But as soon as the listener goes "wait, this is weird" it shouldnt be there. I think you can compare it to a drumbeat, all the beat needs to do is support the melody/song. If you're great drummer you can do all sorts of funky stuff with a drumbeat, and totally "overplay" the song, which usually distracts the listener from what really matters, the melody/voice.
very nice sir! totally agree...first thing people do is sing along...then tap their feet!
Old 17th May 2007
  #17
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lucey's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by octatonic View Post
I think it is very easy to hide behind abstract.
A simple but meaningful lyric is probably one of the most challenging things a lyricist can accomplish.
A simple, abstract and meaningful is even more difficult.
Nice one.
Old 17th May 2007
  #18
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OK ill chime in. This is a natural and common thought process. Most of the time i'll let something speak to me as to what direction something takes, whether or not its a simpler more direct type of song or an abstract song. I'll be mindful of my weaknesses but not try to think about it.

If you are writing for yourself as an artist, to me it always seemed easier (or more intuitive?) to write less directly and more abstractly if that is what speaks to you. For example, i think the degree of difficulty is moderate for anyone else other than, say, Thom Yorke or Chris Martin to write the songs they sing, as melody, lyrics and the way they sing are somewhat sewn together with the writing. Not that it can't be done, certainly. Elton and Bernie had some good ones, but obviously its more rare and they knew each other. But to me it is easier when the writer is the artist, and perhaps that's reflecting my own personality tendenencies to be more direct.

If you're writing for other artists and a broader appeal it usually has to make a little more sense to more people. That's the realities of the business more than the craft, but the song should speak to you if you are not writing for a specific situation.

The obvious basic stuff a flame war will erupt on GS is that genre obviously dictates, for example urban genres key more off of beat, flow and melody and the last thing is probabaly quality of lyrics. Sometimes good lyrics aren't a good thing, and writing about bustin yo nut all over somebody is. Always exceptions, of course. Rock and alternative more abstract and pop and country more direct.

Whether its direct or abstract, it always seems to me key to avoid cliches. This is usually harder for one style/tendency of writer than another. I can avoid cliches in direct writing better than in abstract, all things being equal. So i try to work on my weaknesses more than not (for me, say that book "the artists way" is more important than for others)

In short, you should know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and let your inspiration take you. Have you read that book by Shelia Davis that discusses personality types and writing tendencies? I forget the name, I always liked having it around. If you want the name i can dig it up.
Old 17th May 2007
  #19
3 + infractions, forum membership suspended.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by J Wubz View Post
very nice sir! totally agree...first thing people do is sing along...then tap their feet!
I don't. I don't think most people who listen to dance music do. I don't think most people who listen to screaming metal do. I don't think most people who listen to ethnic or world music do. I don't think most people who listen to opera do... Broad generalisations regarding people's listening habits never really work.
Old 17th May 2007
  #20
Gear nut
 

I don't like lyrics to be cryptic necessarily, but I like to challenge the listener to delve into their brains a bit. I like cinematic lyrics that tell a story I haven't heard to death.

Very abstract is okay as long as the lyrics are there more for their sound and mood, but can also get irritating fairly quickly if done too much.

Very simple lyrics are sometimes amazing, but too often are dull and uninspired.

I mean, we all know it's a matter of opinion...that's the point of the thread. For my part, I try to write keeping in mind Peter Gabriel, XTC, Suzanne Vega, Sting and Tool, as those are lyrics that inspire me. Oh...and Kevin Gilbert (for his poetic directness) and Bleu (for his amazing honesty).

I could go on...

-Zen
Old 17th May 2007
  #21
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GearBit's Avatar
 

All are good and all have their stupid bits.
For me, heart shaped box is a great example of abstract that still gets it's point across.

Ani Defranco is a great example of the conversational direct approach which is one of my faves.
"I don't use words like love cause words like that don't matter.
oh don't look so offended you know you should be flattered."
Also Dandy Warhols use this to great effect with "Oh yeah I wait tables too.
No I haven't heard your band cause you guys are pretty new"
These types of lyrics feel personal to me.
Old 17th May 2007
  #22
Gear nut
 

I have developed mad respect for Kurt's lyrics over the years. "Heart Shaped Box" is fantastic, all round.

Also, can't believe I left out Kevin Moore. " 'cause i found myself...Back in the bachelor scene...Feel like an astronaut...In a submarine...If i fall asleep...I could fall out of bed...Maybe the helmet helps...But it hurts my head"

Well, maybe it's just me...but I get it.

-Zen
Old 17th May 2007
  #23
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Like the other poster said, writing to your strengths is the most honest approach. But in that vein, there's nothing wrong with trying to improve your craft. Telegraphed lyrics are the worst. The listener gets no reward for paying attention, so they tune out. By the same token, writing too abstract can turn off the listener, because even if they do pay attention, they get no payoff, because there's nothing there but words stuck on top of a melody.
So, you consider what you want out of it. Do you want to be ignored when you perform? Do you want the audience to walk out? Or do you want to reach your listeners, win them over, and then sell them your CD's?
I had a writer in here a while back. Her approach was, she captured the inspiration, wrote it down, and it was done. It was sacred, and re-writing was out of the question. So I suggested to her that inspiration can be like a boat - you can get in the boat and sit at the dock, or you can get in the boat and travel all the way around the world. She went to a different studio to do her project, and was I relieved.
The moral of the story? If you're only writing for yourself, don't be surprised if you're the only one who likes your songs. (Not addressed to the poster, or anyone else - just a general rule.)
Old 17th May 2007
  #24
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peeder's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by uncle duncan View Post
The moral of the story? If you're only writing for yourself, don't be surprised if you're the only one who likes your songs. (Not addressed to the poster, or anyone else - just a general rule.)
I disagree entirely.

I think we have to entertain ourselves first and foremost. I think that our own internal interest is the only compass that can guide us accurately. Trying to create for the sake of others will probably not lead to a masterpiece, because our thought process there will be mostly based on faulty fantasies and fears of what the other person's mind must be thinking. This will produce a limp or lame result. Whereas trusting ourselves...knowing what is true in our heart of hearts is true for all men...that is genius. (Thanks Emerson.)

The challenge is constantly making yourself harder to please, but being able to develop the skill to please yourself anyway. You make yourself harder to please by becoming bored. Boredom is a gift: it motivates development and novelty. Artists fail because they either haven't become bored enough (they are too easy to please) or aren't able to ease their own boredom (they haven't put in the work).

The OP question is moot. The OP, like the rest of us, should seek to entertain themselves with their art, and share it. Most people aren't going to like it even if it's a standard from a big name. At least the creator of it should like it. Regardless of how some academic (or worse, a critic, who likely never managed to entertain themselves with their own art and is out for revenge) might categorize it.
Old 17th May 2007
  #25
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Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity.
Calculate what we will or will not tolerate.
Desperate to control all and everything.
Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.
Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
Justify denials and grip 'em to the lonesome end.
Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
Terrified of being wrong. Ultimatum prison cell.
Saturn ascends, choose one or ten. Hang on or be humbled again.



Are these lyrics abstract or simple?
Old 17th May 2007
  #26
Registered User
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by amberience View Post
Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity.
Calculate what we will or will not tolerate.
Desperate to control all and everything.
Unable to forgive your scarlet lettermen.
Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
Justify denials and grip 'em to the lonesome end.
Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
Terrified of being wrong. Ultimatum prison cell.
Saturn ascends, choose one or ten. Hang on or be humbled again.



Are these lyrics abstract or simple?
Yes.
Old 18th May 2007
  #27
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filthyrich's Avatar
 

simple?

St. Andrew's Fall-Blind Melon (Simple, yet not..in my opinion)

Big stretch and not much sleep
I got a couple of plam trees on each side of my cheek
And it's a bright blue Saturday
And the rummage sells the rubbish to me

But if I could buy the sky that's hangin'
Over this bed of mine
If I could climb these vines
And maybe see what you're seein'

If you were standing on the corner staring straight
Into the eyes of Jesus Christ

One porch, one dog, one cockroach only way to be
I got sewage fruit and it's growing out back from roots
I don't know if they belong to me
But if I could buy the sky that's hangin'

Over this bed of mine
And if I could climb these vines
and maybe see what you're seein'

Sittin' at the edge of this building,
Twenty stories below,
A' twenty stories below
Twenty stories below
Twenty stories below

I can't tell you how many ways that I've sat,
And viewed my life today, but I can tell you
I don't think that I can find easier way
So if I see you walking hand in hand in hand
With a three armed man, you know I'll understand

But you should have been in my shoes yesterday
You should have been in my shoes yesterday

ANOTHER GOOD EXAMPLE:
"Change"-Blind Melon

I don't feel the suns coming out today
It's staying in, its gonna find another way
As I sit here in this misery I don't think I'll ever see the sun from here
And oh as I fade away, they'll all look at me and say,
Hey look at him I'll never live that way
But that's ok their just afraid to change

When you feel your life ain't worth living, you've got to stand up and
take a look around you then a look way up to the sky
And when your deepest thoughts are broken, keep on dreamin boy cause
when you stop dreamin its time to die
And as we all play parts of tomorrow
Some ways we'll work and other ways we'll play
But I know we can't all stay hhere forever
So I want to write my words on the face of today
.....And then they'll paint it

And oh as I fade away they'll all look at me and say,
hey look at him and where he is these days

When life is hard you have to change
Old 18th May 2007
  #28
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I've been to more songwriters workshops thru the years than I can shake a stick at. I've heard all kinds of songs from aspiring songwriters. Lately, I've been developing my songwriting skills mainly as a lyricist, because the music part comes more easily to me...

To me what makes the biggest difference is "how" you say " it, as opposed to "what" you're saying. If you take a topic like love and any emotion related to love it is almost impossible to not say something that has already been said a million times in any song. But what can make a difference is your ability to say something common in an unique way thru the use of imagery and metaphors.

This is not as easy as it sounds. There have been times where I couldn't come up with a creative line to save my life and a few rare times where an entire song with great lines flowed right thru me and into my pen.

Sometimes one word in an otherwise common line can make the difference. Sometimes it can be a simple song but there are some cool imaginative lines in each verse or bridge that stand out and are memorable. Of course a great melody and arrangement have a lot to do with the feel of the song as well. You can have great lyrics to a horrible piece of music and it won't work.

Let me give you a small example of what I'm talking about and see if any of you guys can guess who it is. These are a few lines from a song from one of my favorite writers. He's pretty huge, not some unknown artist...

"I make a church out of words
as the years dull my senses
and I try to hold on to the world that I knew

I struggle to cross generational fences
and the beauty that still remains
I can touch it thru you"

Old 18th May 2007
  #29
Gear addict
 
RBowlin's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by dreamsongs View Post
"I make a church out of words
as the years dull my senses
and I try to hold on to the world that I knew

I struggle to cross generational fences
and the beauty that still remains
I can touch it thru you"

Don Henley. Not bad.

-Rich
Old 18th May 2007
  #30
Gear nut
 
lazzaro's Avatar
 

Good series on lyric writing in Sound on Sound ...

Sam Inglis has a great multi-part article
series in Sound on Sound a few years
back on the art of writing lyrics. Available
from these links:

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec0...cles/lyric.asp
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan0...cles/lyric.asp
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb0...cles/lyric.asp
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar0...cles/lyric.asp
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr0...cles/lyric.asp

Some of it is on the technique of how to be clever and abstract,
if you choose to do so. I think to a large extent, clever and
abstract get a bum rap because so many attempts to do so come
out poorly -- the "it was a dark and stormy night" syndrome.
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