Sometimes you put an album on for the first time and you sink back into the sumptuous layers and soak up every musical note with pleasure, without analysis, almost without thinking. The body takes over as you transcend the domestic and psychological clutter and you exist for that brief moment without anchor.
A friend put on Lorde’s ‘Royals’ sometime last year before the single had gone global, so I had no expectations at work; I was blown away by the voice and by the song at a gut level. Now, with her debut album, Pure Heroine, out, I want to see if my instincts were right, and that there is poetry in these lyrics.
A number of years ago, Don McGlashan was awarded The University of Auckland Literary Fellowship, to the delight of some and the horror of others. What was a songwriter doing taking up a literary spot? Could a song be accepted as literature? My family and I have been big fans of Don’s music — whenever we drive up a mountain we also put on one of his albums (it is a family ritual and it feels odd if we don’t). From 2005 we played Warm Hand and then from 2009 Marvellous Year. The lyrics are infectious on both the level of meaning and poetic (musical) effects.
This from Don’s song, ‘Marvellous Year’: ‘We had democracy, dentistry, waist-band-elastic, rhythmic gymnastics, the rule of law, the rule of thumb, fire, the wheel, rugby union, the petrol engine, the old-age pension, the fire of Hades, the Briscoes lady, dental floss, motor cross, the Koran, the Torah, Interflora.’ His lyrics are complex, layered, subtle, rich in poetic effect and stick in your head, particularly when you are driving up terrifying mountain roads in the snow or mist!
Some music mesmerises you in terms of sweet melodies and even sweeter production, but with some songs, the lyrics draw you in so close, you just want to stay. So what does the lyric do in a song? I am a poet, and neither a musicologist nor musician, but to me words can assume the role of musical notes (as they can do in poems). Thus the lyric can make delicious aural links through alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. Words, you could say, form musical chords in a lyric (or poem) that might generate harmony or disharmony. I have often experienced the poems of Bernadette Hall and Bill Manhire in this way.
Some poets are reluctant to put poems to music as they fear the music will drown out the poetry. So what about the lyric, which is competing with other instruments? To me, the lyric in partnership with the voice is like a musical instrument; and like poetry, the lyric might have its own internal music along with meaning, ideas, feeling, politics, self-confession and so on.
The first thing that strikes me about Lorde’s songs is the subtle and gorgeous layering of music hiding in the words. It is as though her words are musical notes first and foremost, and after that honeyed ringing in your ear are ready to lead you elsewhere. Take ‘Tennis Court’ for example. Here there is a rippling of ‘i’ notes creating secret chords, as in kill, million, thrill, minute, it, little, tennis, pictures, wicked, window. I love the way, in the first verse, amidst these sounds, ‘bright’ strikes out, shifting the sound and reinforcing the image. Such musical effects are what hook you in and soothe the body, but there is more. This is a layered song with gaps and miniature self-confessions (‘how can I fuck with the fun again when I’m known’) that tug at you. Lorde doesn’t spell everything out but leaves clues (‘It looked all right in the pictures/ getting caught’s half the trip of it, though isn’t it?’).
Then there is the word play in words that rhyme and almost rhyme. In ‘Glory and Gore,’ your ear falls upon: gladiators, saviours, contagious, gladiate. In the heart of ‘Royals’ there is the refrain or magnetic list that pulses hot. Again the rhymes feed the poetry of the lyric: time piece, gold leash, teeth. Or islands, tiger, diamonds, like, driving. Really the lines are musical treasure troves that you can pick apart but that in their glorious shift and fall of sound make poetry spark in your ear (‘hollow like the bottles that we drain’).
When I was judge for the NZ Post Secondary School Poetry Competition, a tremendous number of poems were caught up in teenage angst (no reason not to!), heartache and death. What often let the poems down was the floodgate of feeling that drowned the poetry. What I love about Lorde’s lyrics is that while they skid and skate through teenage angst they do so with edgy detail, political bite, surprising turns, mysteriousness, cutting insight, splinters of self confession. Detail does a lot. Here it summons a season so beautifully: ‘now we’re wearing long sleeves and the heating comes on.’ The edgy detail leads us into the overlapping realities that make the songs so vital: the real world where you pay money and catch the bus, the film world where you drive Cadillacs and get married, the virtual world where you keep in touch with friends, the dream world where you hold onto ideals.
New Zealand poetry has a history of political engagement, but it is often in the ‘personal is political’ vein. Lorde, though, is boldly giving her lyrics political edge. Do poets consider the effect of their poems on society? Do poets challenge the way whatever we represent (in any public form) can be consumed without interrogation? To the extent we become immune to the ideas circulated (the ideology that unwittingly sustains and shapes us)? Lorde, might be weaving magic with her word notes, but these notes are also doing other jobs. The themes that dart and leap out of her lyrics draw attention to a crazy world that is unattainable for many of us (impossible to-be-women), the gap between rich and poor, the mind numbing and gut wrenching global consumption, our different realities, political hierarchies. To stand up amidst the barrage of images of sexualised young women and say ‘I am a feminist’ is like a long, overdue tonic. Perhaps this announcement, ricocheting around the world, will prompt a mini revolution. I applaud Lorde for this.
Lorde’s lyrics are there for all to hear (and see), but we are not going to hear (and see) everything. She tells and she does not tell. The economy of production allows great room for the voice and the word-notes to breath and resonate. There are masks (the clown, who am I?), there is bad behaviour (trashing hotel rooms) and there is contemplation (getting old). Lorde says in her album notes that she ‘poured her brain and her heart into this’ (and I would add ear) and it shows. Put this album on and you can enter the lyric with your brain, heart and ear and discover (again) the power of words to make your body move. It’s poetry.
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