Sometimes I don’t know why I love the things I love. I was sitting in my room and doing homework this weekend while blasting through Interpol’s 2004 album Antics, singing along to the track “Length of Love”. It’s a great track, starting around a sinister guitar part before it shifts into the kind of ersatz-punk-disco that Interpol is known for. Naturally I’m singing along, but when I get to the chorus I stop and ask myself, “What in the world did I just sing?” See, I had to ask this question because the chorus is just a three word motif sung in Paul Banks’ ALL CAPS monotone. The words? (And I’m not making this up) “COMBAT SALACIOUS REMOVAL”.
If there’s a way to dissect any sort of meaning behind that, I don’t know it. But it got me wondering: why do I love that lyric? Because I do love it. And I love when Paul Banks sings “we can cap the old times / make playing only logical harm”, and when Matt Berninger sings “There’s too much crying in the sound / I should know you better than that”, and when Justin Vernon sings “And the ??????? and the ?prathening? ??aaa??” [Editor’s Note: I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE SAYS IN MOST OF HIS SONGS.] And the fact is that as complete thoughts, those lyrics actually don’t make complete sense. As an English major, I’m drawn to the idea of the inherent power of words; this week, I wanted to examine what abstract lyrics mean and why we love them.
Of course, not every band approaches abstract lyricism in the same way, but they all operate through the same means. Music is a way of expressing what lies beyond the realm of human language. Aldous Huxley said it best: “After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” (As an aside, Huxley has the greatest final act of all time; on his deathbed and unable to speak, he wrote a note to his wife asking for “LSD, 10 micrograms, intramuscular”.) Some lyrics just have a nice sound to them, designed more for the aural effect to compliment the music than to stand by themselves (“Combat salacious removal” being a good example.) Sometimes it just feels good to sing nonsense, like 1990s classic “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies. Who knows what “chickity China the Chinese chicken” means. No one, not even the band. But lyrics that don’t make sense can be more than just novelty; through their structures, phrasings, and tone they can provoke deeper feelings.
In one of my favorite all-time songs “He Would Have Laughed”, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox coaxes tremendous meaning out phrases that often don’t make sense. His sentences seem to cut off in the middle of the thought; his sharp enunciation contrasts with the opacity of the lyrics.
He addresses fears of aging, identity, and love with a directness that is somehow tangential, if that makes sense; you can see what I mean he sings, “I get bored as I get older / Can you help me figure this out?” The question is ostensibly about time, but when it’s fed through Cox’s raspy, cool voice it becomes a question that’s actually more like someone screaming out from a wall of detachment to Please God Help Them Right Now. He needs to figure out everything, not just boredom. The second half of the song turns this fear of time into the fear of misremembrance. He chops up sentences into short phrases which make little sense, but the fear and simultaneous nostalgia is palpable: ” I know where my friends are now / I used to live on a farm, yeah / I never lived on a farm / Where did my friends go?” There’s meaning there beneath the simplest semantics of the sentence; the regret, nostalgia, and fear is all convened through the lyrics very abstraction — the paradox, the chiasmus, the inscrutable awkwardness of the lyrics themselves.
Then there are the bands that take these concepts of abstraction to the next level, creating a feeling that is indescribable. As abstract as “He Would Have Laughed”‘s lyrics are, I can still explain them in terms that make sense. But bands like the National and Bon Iver use abstract lyrics to defy the very concept of explanation; they use words and phrases without any semantic meaning to convey a feeling that is beyond the realm of human language; a great example is The National’s “Terrible Love”. At the height of the song, Matt Berninger desperately sings out “It takes an ocean not to break.” The semantic and syntactic questions raised would render the sentence meaningless: An ocean of what? Break what? What is “it”? But those questions are beside the point. What matters is that when you hear “It takes an ocean not to break,” with drums, guitars, cymbals, strings, and distortion swirling around it, you feel exactly what that lyric means, even if you can’t understand it. It’s like a feeling of intense desperation, sadness, longing, and hope rolled all into one — yet I can’t help but feel as though all of those adjectives are just a little off in their meanings. They don’t convey the emotion you feel at that point in the song. The only phrase that does? “It takes an ocean not to break.”
Bon Iver takes this concept — abstract lyrics that express the inexpressible — to the next level; songs are built around phrases like “Only love is all maroon; gluey feathers on the flume” and “armor let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing”. His phrases eschew logic so much that it’s hard to distinguish them as anything more than scattered words and phonemes — but I’ve yet to meet someone who can hear “Flume” or “re: stacks” and not understand what the song is about, even if and perhaps because that understanding occurs in a more fundamental, primitive way than one dictated by logic. Of course, Bon Iver also pulls off a similar technique to “Terrible Love” in “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, the centerpiece of For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s a song that is so heartbreakingly bare in adornment that you can damn near make a ham sandwich in the pauses between Justin Vernon’s heavy strums and nonsensical singing like “Solace my game”. But the thrilling middle section of the song — in which a choir of Justin Vernons starts haphazardly singing and repeating the simple phrase “What might have been lost” — builds with a force that’s rare in music. It’s impact hits you deep inside your gut, wrenching out feelings you didn’t even know you had. I’ve seen it live, and those 5 words — inflected as a statement, not a question — have an uncanny ability to reduce everyone in the audience to tears. They feel it, even though they don’t know what it is.