In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it
When it comes to defining what makes a truly great lyric, there are many elements at play, from emotional context and how a line trips off the tongue, to the way it might make you whisper “So true” under your breath as you try not to cry into your 8am Americano on a train platform.
Good lyrics can be loosely placed into a handful of categories. There is the emotionally devastating: “You just kind of wasted my precious time” (Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right). The witty one liner: “Could you be dead? You always were two steps ahead” (Everything But the Girl’s Missing). The cultural and political hand grenade: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me / You see, straight out racist” (Public Enemy, Fight the Power). The ones that are absolute nonsense but sound like the answer to all the world’s problems when you sing them loudly: “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier” (All These Things That I’ve Done by the Killers). And the simple but joyous; “Sail away, sail away, sail away-hey-hey!” (Enya, Orinoco Flow).
Leonard Cohen was fabulously adept at the emotionally devastating ones, but we won’t dwell on his sublime work here, as – due to beginning his career as a poet – he has something of an unfair advantage. Instead, we’ll look at his lifelong fan Nick Cave, whose doomy but wry approach has given us such glum joys as: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God / But I know, darling, that you do” (Into Your Arms). Much like Patti Smith’s “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” (Gloria), this kind of skewering of religion – of which Cohen was also fond – adds a timelessness to a song, elevating it from your Spotify shuffle into something altogether grander.
Nick Cave recently used his Red Right Hand newsletter to opine that one of the greatest ever opening lines was Fairytale of New York’s “It was Christmas Eve babe / In the drunk tank”. “The lyrics … emanate from deep inside the lived experience itself, existing within the very bones of the song,” wrote Cave of Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer’s festive creation. “It does not patronise, but speaks its truth, clear and unadorned.”
Truth is vital to a good lyric. When Joni Mitchell sings “I could drink a case of you … And I would still be on my feet” (A Case of You) and you know about her breakup with Graham Nash, it hits even harder. Even the Streets’ “I’m 45th generation Roman” (Turn the Page) works so well because of Mike Skinner’s leftfield – but honest – way of identifying himself, while Jay-Z’s deft “If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son / I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” is a brutal but brilliant humblebrag. Even Kris Kristofferson’s “And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad / So I had one more for dessert” (Sunday Morning Coming Down) works so well because of its candid alcoholic fug.
But a twisted take on fantasy also has its place in great songwriting, too. When Courtney Love sings “I’m Miss World, somebody kill me” (Hole’s Miss World) she gets to the knotty root of the impossible expectations felt by modern women in six simple words. It’s proof that whatever the subject matter, the best lyrics are usually also the most economical.