Surrealistic Lyrics

As a musician, I find myself listening to the music first with the lyrics following after. Often, I really don’t care what a band says, it’s more about how they sing it. Pearl Jam singer, Eddie Vedder, can sing unintelligibly, yet I get the feeling of the song even though I can’t understand his lyrics. Academics have tried in vain to force lyrics into analysis as a lit 1 college course (McLean’s “American Pie” 101). Lyrics at best are poetic but often disappointing as literary gruel. Lyrics are forever married to the music and mysterious. When you read them off the cover you become astonished – how do they sing these words?! Then it all makes sense when you hear it sung.  But what is this anyway? – it is the musical properties inherent in the sound of words – the potential of words becoming musical sounds. Serious composers have experimented with this in various ways: Arnold Schoenberg with Sprechstimme (a notated spoken-melody), Luciano Berio – his extended vocal techniques (a concrete poetry in reverse), to Jazz scat singing (syllabic improvisation). Commercial rock bands, in fear of losing their audience, have never been afforded the luxury to be this experimental. In a perverse way, with the Nam war and the popularity of psychedelia, a lot of bands became free to test the Surrealistic waters. As an idea, Surrealism is about incongruity and perversity – a self-contained metaphysical world that is compared to dreams. It is a well-known genre that was cultivated after DADA. It was pushed by Andre Breton in the early 1920s and its expression is found in painting, poetry and literature. Stream of consciousness, free-floating, and poetic, surrealistic lyrics become more musical when they are unhinged from a story but retain narrative properties. They create a self-contained world with a point of view and experience. Psychedelia is really a hippie version of surrealism with an LSD flash. Three bands that come to mind use surrealistic lyrics in different ways, and achieve surprising results.

(1) Captain Beefheart and his magic band (Don Vliet), play a mixed bag of musical styles in an organically original way. The music is whimsical and cathartic, and use puzzling, disjointed, syncopation with right/wrong tonality (T. Monk?). It has the aura of improvisation, but is in fact very tightly rehearsed music. Vliet was child-like, particular, and his ear dominates the music which is staggeringly complex. His lyrics are a concoction of psychedelia with Jabberwocky nonsense words and a simple Abba/Zabba sense of rhyming. A lot of his songs have no story leash, but come from a strong personal view of an absurd surrealism.

 (2) T. Rex (Marc Bolan). Marc Bolan is hippie par excellence, his androgynous beauty is photographed on all of his albums. Marc Bolan influenced the beginning of what later became Glam Rock. He would’ve taken the center of that genre had an auto accident not taken his life. Bolan’s music emerged from folksy rock, yet with its aura of androgyny, it’s rather straight forward – basic chords, 4/4, slow/fast pop music with short, hooky, tunes. Flo and Eddy (from the Turtles) came into T.Rex singing nasally back-up vocals on the last two albums. Marc Bolan’s lyrics are monolithic diamond star encrusted cosmic love songs. His surrealistic style is an acid Dali sort of description: his lovers morphing into birds, cars, planets, etc. You get the sense from his sultry breathy singing that he’s coolly passionate about his cosmos.

(3) Jaguar Love. A post-grunge band that deeply divided its Seattle audience with its split from the Blood Brothers. Jaguar Love are hysterical, stubbornly independent, and rhythmically plastic. Johnny Whitney’s beautifully impatient and impetuous screaming recalls the riot grrrl bands of the late 1980s. But their accomplished drummer, J Clark, is really the nimble kinetic center of the band. Jaguar Love is sleek, their songs have these contrasting sections with melodic and chord changes that seem impulsive, but they are an anxiously tight band. Their lyrics are not psychedelic but are more informed by a vicious and hungry surrealism.  They describe vivid, metaphysical journeys into morphing plastic landscapes that feature a cast of dysfunctional characters. Their fierce and multi-hued lyrics are interesting and amusing when they are read, but take on different musical implications with their melodies. This is a far-reaching band that should have had a wider audience.


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