How to write a good song: Part Two – The Lyrics

Performing and recording as Pagan Wanderer Lu, Andy Regan combines his electro-indie-pop music with clever, wry and sometimes political lyrics. Andy also writes at and has done a turn as a guest blogger for the Independent. In his second installment of his series for FFS on how to write a good song, he considers the importance -or not- of lyrics…

“Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings”.

Throughout my teenage years I never heard an adequate explanation as to why every Pulp album I bought from 1995 to the present day (i.e. all of them) featured the above instruction in its liner notes. In ‘researching’ (cough) this column I did a quick google search, not for first the first time, and sitting at the top of the results on something called ‘PulpWiki’ I finally found an explanation for it from Jarvis Cocker himself:

“If you read them whilst listening to the recordings you’re extracting the lyrics from their natural habitat (…) When you’re listening to a song, the lyrics are subservient to the rhyme. Whereas if you read them off a page they have a natural rhythm.”

Which somewhat steals the thunder from what I was going to say… This idea of lyrics in their ‘natural habitat’ is a nice way to sum up today’s column (thanks Jarvis – again!).

Last time I mentioned that I believe we (animals) learned to sing before we could speak. The twitterings of birds looking to score are a form of communication which is totally removed from ‘meaning’. When a bird sings he’s saying ‘lets make eggs together’ – he’s just saying it directly, unfiltered by interpretation. It’s not contained within the sound – but then neither is ‘meaning’ contained in any of the words humans use.

Words came later, when people started wanting to say more complicated things like “You know how that tribe from the other side of the forest keep killing us? Well, I reckon if we put a sharpened piece of rock on the end of a stick it could really tip the balance in our favour”.

The word ‘love’ is not love itself, but I know a few songs that sure feel like love. Why? Having so much honey the bees envy you is quite a claim (and one which is difficult to falsify). It’s also damned hard to understand how such an expression could accurately convey the feelings of elation David Ruffin somehow manages to put into it.

Here’s an experiment you can all do. Next time you’re in a supermarket, go up to a number of strangers and say ‘I want to hold your hand’. Do it in your most monotone voice. Let me know what happens.

Now try this – go up to them and sing ‘I wanna hold your hand’ by the Beatles. The first time you’ll sound like a stalker, the second time, well… probably just like some likeably eccentric nutter.

How does this work?

Well, the bottom line is we don’t know. But I’d suggest it works the same way the smell of bacon cooking (or your favourite vegetarian alternative) makes you salivate. It skips the barrier of language and goes straight to the buttons hidden deep in your brain. The reason people went loopy for the Beatles wasn’t because it had never previously occurred to them that they might want to hold someone’s hand. It was because the melody managed to describe what wanting to hold someone’s hand felt like.

Of course it’s possible for language alone to conjure up the same feelings as physical sensations do. The entire phone sex industry relies on this. Likewise a review of a nice restaurant will make you hungry. A letter from a distant loved one will make you pine for them. And so on. But melody can enhance the words themselves and make them mean what they say more than just saying them.

This is the absolute essence of writing a good song.

Now this column isn’t meant as a manual, and it’s sure as hell not meant to imply that I personally am better at writing songs than anyone else – history will decide that. But I know that a sure fire way of writing a song which people can ‘appreciate’ but which doesn’t connect is to write clever, wordy lyrics which just use the melody as the route from one syllable to the next (think Billy Bragg).

Songwriting is not just an excuse for you to address a crowd whilst holding a guitar. The synthesis of what you’re trying to say and how you say it is crucial to connecting.

Let me tell you a secret: this is how people get away with writing shit lyrics. If the melody is strong enough you can sing the most banal thing you want and no one will care. Exactly 100% of X Factor style pop is made this way, bypassing Wernicke’s area of your left temporal lobe and going straight to the bit of you that likes kisses, cuddles, and intimate touching.

So far I’ve probably been giving the impression that I think merely singing some words is so mystical and wonderful that singing any old shit is a perfectly good approach to writing a song. Nope.

Last time I said that humans have evolved beyond where ‘song’ originated from. The ‘natural habitat’ of a modern pop song is not the jungle, it’s the city – it’s the hectic modern world, after the Greeks invented democracy, after the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of the British Empire, September 11th, the Large Hadron Collider, the Hubble space telescope, Charles Darwin, and the Simpsons. We know stuff now.

Autechre once said that with the advance of technology in the world there was no reason why any two bands need to sound the same. I’d like to suggest that with the amount of information in the world there’s no reason why any two songs need to be about the same thing.

Sufjan Stevens took a novel approach when he undertook to write a whole album about the state of Illinois. Imposing strict constraints on what you’re going to write can often force you to be more creative. The alternative is assuming whatever you come up with without really trying is automatically going to be good, because of your innate talent. Retreating to a library and flicking through history books might not be the most rock n roll approach to music, but it’s really no more contrived than Elvis waggling his groin on TV.

The reason ‘Illinois’ works is because Sufjan (we’re on first name terms) brought an emotional truth to bear on what he wrote, through the music. Just listen to the ‘Oh my god…’ on ‘John Wayne Gacy’. The scene setting verses utterly giving up on any attempt to convey the full horror and resorting instead to what might be called a ‘place holding’ phrase, and that fragile, trembling melody… It still gives me chills.

I think achieving that synthesis from good, interesting lyrics to good song is miles harder than the move from banal cereal box sentiment to good song. That’s why going ‘tra la la’ is so popular, there’s no linguistic barrier.

It’s why so many people outside Iceland love Sigur Ros – their mix of a language few people speak and a language they’ve just made up means there’s nothing between you and The Song. Of course Jonsi’s beautiful voice helps, but just listen to his solo album where the words are partly in English – his lyrics are rubbish! If he’s singing that sort of banal twaddle when he’s singing in Icelandic then I’m glad I don’t speak it.

So Jarvis was right after all, the really great lyrics are the ones which ‘naturally inhabit’ the song.

Next time: What should a song be about?

Pagan Wanderer Lu’s new album European Monsoon is out now on Brainlove Records.