Music Editor Kevin O’Neill explores the art of song-writing and offers the best of the current crop.
Lennon & McCartney. Dylan. Brian Wilson. Stevie Wonder. Jagger. Joni Mitchell. Ray Davies. Elvis Costello. Bowie. Neil Young. Strummer. Robert Plant. Leonard Cohen. David Byrne. Tom Waits. Thom Yorke. Morrissey. Nick Cave. Ian Curtis. Bruce Springsteen. Van Morrison. Paul Simon.
Above is a list of some of the greatest songwriters of all time. I could have continued to add the likes of Elliott Smith, Beck and more to it, though the startling realisation as I typed the names was the lack of a modern inclusion. Thom Yorke is the most recent name on the list and, as is the case for many on the list who are still working, much of the best of his song writing is behind him.
Is the modern era lacking a poetic voice? Song-writing is a tremendously difficult art – ask near anyone who has ever tried to put words to melody. There is a very thin line between poetry and utter self-indulgence, one that even the masters of the art have struggled to distinguish at times.
Morrissey, for example, has been responsible for the staggering body of work that is the Smiths and, to an extent, his solo offerings, though he, too, is responsible for “Your boyfriend he / Went down on one knee / Well could it be/ He’s only got one knee?” in ‘King Leer.’ Morrissey die-hards tell me the song was intentionally simple, though it still remains true to say that Morrissey’s offerings in recent decades pale in comparison to his decade defining work of the 1980s.
Springsteen is another – a poet who chronicled the working class in the United States, The Boss speaks to millions. The music is accessible on the most basic of levels, yet it is also eternally hopeful – it often has the simple theme of overcoming barriers. However, while ‘The River’ remains to be one of the pinnacles of Bruce’s work, prior to 2001/2002, he had clearly lost his touch. America was booming and it seemed that they no longer needed Springsteen until the atrocities of one September day.
But, what of now? Who are the best in modern song-writing? I have narrowed my list down to just a few – John Grant, Laura Marling and Charlie Fink (Noah & the Whale). In the past few years, the trio have become well known for the soul-baring records they have released.
Grant was once the frontman of American alt-rock outsiders the Czars. Despite a steady fanbase throughout their time as a unit, they never achieved the success yearned for by Grant and the band ultimately imploded. At the same time, Grant was coming to the end of a long relationship and his abuse of alcohol and drugs was spiralling out of control. Long story short, Grant managed to make it out the other side (he is clean since August 1st 2004) and was eventually coaxed back to a studio by Texas rockers Midlake.
The result was last year’s instant classic, The Queen of Denmark. The album touches Grant’s drug abuse, but the heart of the album is obsessed with his struggle of his homosexuality and his childhood and family life. Coming from a deeply religious home, his realisation that he was gay was a very difficult thing for him to manage.
However, despite the clearly dark and damaging subject matter, The Queen of Denmark is a surprisingly touching and, quite often, funny album. Lyrically the album is sublime, Grant acting in complete confessional mode: “I wanted to change the world, but I could not even change my underwear/and when this shit got really out of hand, I had it all the way up to my hairline.”
The album’s darkest moments deal with suicide: “I can’t believe that I considered taking my own life, because I believed the lies about me were the truth” comes from the brutal ‘Jesus Hates Faggots’ – a song that chronicles his father’s rejection of him due to his sexual orientation. Ultimately, Grant comes out the far end the stronger, hoping that his father’s “blind eyes will open and [he’ll] see.”
Eager to avoid plunging into the depths of self-indulgence, Grant deals with many of the tragedies of his life in a comic manner, referencing Winona Ryder, Sigourney Weaver and Keanu Reaves – “I feel just like Sigourney Weaver, when she had to kill those aliens…” or “I feel just like Winona Ryder, in that movie about vampires. She just couldn’t get that accent right, neither could that other guy.”
The brash honesty of the lyrics is reminiscent of Clifford T. Ward or Bruce Springsteen, to an extent, though the comic undertones are indistinguishable from Morrissey. The lyrics on the latter’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ are poignant, yet darkly humorous – you simply don’t know whether to laugh or cry, a trend that continuous throughout the spectacular Queen of Denmark. Luckily for us, Grant has opted to laugh at his troubles, not cry.
From there, we travel back to this side of the Atlantic and, in particular, the so called ‘nu-folk’ scene that has gripped London over the last few years. Mumford & Sons have been the primary beneficiaries of this, with Grammy nominations and festival headline slots to boot. However, the groundwork was undertaken by Noah & the Whale in the years prior to Marcus Mumford’s ascension to folk darling, with the majority of the Mumfords having actually performed on Noah & the Whale’s earlier work.
In their three albums (the third due for release at the end of the week), Noah & the Whale have traversed genres, unafraid to drop fans along the way. The throwaway pop sensibilities of their debut (including breakthrough hit ‘Five Years Time’) were often littered with a darkened undertone. While the aforementioned breakthrough single may have referenced “walking around the zoo, with the sun shining down over me and you…” in five years time, it isn’t long before Fink admits that “all of these moments are just in [my] head” – he is certain that the budding relationship is doomed, yet he hopefully leaves us with the plea that “[you] might just prove [me] wrong.”
Ultimately, the relationship was doomed – it was referring to the budding romance of Fink and folk songstress Laura Marling, who provided the backing vocals to the track. By the time Fink put pen to paper for the second album, it had ended and Marling had moved on from the band to pursue her solo work. The result of the break-up was the dark and brooding First Days of Spring, a concept album openly bearing Fink’s broken heart and his trouble moving on.
‘Stranger’ is a frank account of sleeping with someone else for the first time: “Last night I slept with a stranger, For the first time, since you’ve gone/Regretfully lying naked, I reflect on what I’ve done/Her leg still forced in between mine, sticking to my skin/Stroking my chest and my hair, head resting below my chin/I’m a fox trapped in the headlights and I’m waiting, for the tyres to spin over me.”
Fink takes us through his entire journey as he attempts to move on, including the wonderful ‘Blue Skies’ that swings between an effort to move on, and that indecisive tone that wants things to revert to how they once were. “This is the last that I write while still in love with you… I don’t think that it’s the end, but I know we can’t keep going.”
Finally, the album comes to the conclusion of The First Day of Spring. The song deals with Fink’s first steps into his new life, his ex confined to his past. Sadly, however, the song finishes on the desperate “For I’m still here, hoping, that one day you may come back…” For anyone who has experienced loss, the album is a startling truth.
In the period since, Fink’s comic undertone has come to the fore and on new track ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.’ he sings about “Little Lisa Looney Tunes” who “goes down, on almost anyone”, as well as a variety of other broken and desperate characters: Ray Davies or Elvis Costello territory as he strives to get inside people’s heads.
Finally, we come to Laura Marling. The folk darling can do no wrong on her two albums; the latter of which (last year’s I Speak Because I Can) dealt with her advent into womanhood. An unlikely sister album to The First Day of Spring, Marling refers to her broken relationship with Fink on ‘Blackberry Stone’, “I’d be sad that I never held your hand as you were lowered” (a direct reply to Fink’s track ‘Hold My Hand As I’m Lowered’), as well detailed the intricacies of her sexual exploits (‘Devil’s Spoke’): “Eye to eye, nose to nose, ripping off each other’s clothes in the most peculiar way!”
The most incredible aspect of Marling’s lyrics are her age: barely into her twenties she writes with the colourful maturity and poetic prose of someone who has crafted their art over several decades: a Joni Mitchell for the modern era, undoubtedly.
There are certainly other songwriters worthy of a mention here (Alex Turner, Pete Doherty, Guy Garvey), though the trio of Fink, Marling and Grant make for unlikely bed-fellows in the frank openness of the lyrics. Darkly comic in parts, the trio have detailed the darkest times in their lives with a refreshing honesty comparable to any of Morrissey, Costello, Simon, Springsteen and more. This lost art is not entirely gone on the current generation.