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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dorian Lynskey

From Dylan to Ishiguro: can song lyrics ever be literature?

Jarvis Cocker performing with Pulp at the Castlefield Bowl in Manchester.
Jarvis Cocker performing with Pulp at the Castlefield Bowl in Manchester. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Long before he wrote Booker-winning novels and Oscar-nominated screenplays, the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro wrote bad songs. In his own words, these unheard lyrics were “mostly ghastly” but they enabled him to find his voice. He worked through the gauche and the pretentious before alighting on the simpler first-person style that would define his fiction: “understated, almost mundane lyrics, with emotions placed between the lines, only occasionally pushing to the surface”.

In 2002, Ishiguro chose a track by the American jazz singer Stacey Kent on Desert Island Discs and a friendship developed. Kent’s husband and collaborator Jim Tomlinson suggested to Ishiguro that he try writing her some lyrics – his first in 30 years. These were much better. Now, Faber has collected 16 of them (five as yet unrecorded) in The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain: Lyrics for Stacey Kent, with elegant illustrations by Bianca Bagnarelli.

Ishiguro’s lane-changing is not unique. There are songwriters who write novels (Nick Cave, John Darnielle), novelists who have written lyrics for musicians (Michael Chabon, Polly Samson), songwriters who publish poetry (PJ Harvey), and poets who release albums (Kae Tempest). But whether lyrics are themselves a form of literature is still an open question. While they can certainly be literary, a lyric is just one channel for conveying meaning in a song. The vocal delivery, melody, rhythm, arrangement and production are all used to enhance, or sometimes subvert, what the words are saying.

Take the two available versions of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. In the 1982 acoustic demo, the Vietnam veteran’s complaint is a bitter howl of rage. In the 1984 studio version, it sounds perversely anthemic, with the result that some patriotic listeners missed the message altogether. Or consider Nick Cave’s 1988 song The Mercy Seat, a more effective bit of storytelling than either of his novels. To Cave, the indignant death row convict was clearly guilty but Johnny Cash later covered it on the assumption that he was in fact innocent. Same words, different impact.

Performance, then, is one obvious distinction between lyrics and literature. The sensory experience of hip-hop narratives such as Ghostface Killah’s gangland nail-biter Maxine or Eminem’s parasocial tragedy Stan is so fundamental that they call to mind not literature but cinema. Yet there is no argument about considering plays as literature to be read, even though they are designed to be brought to life with actors and stagecraft.

Perhaps the real difference is that a song lyric has neither the narrative responsibilities of drama or prose, nor poetry’s duty to precision. Lines that seem crass, pretentious or entirely incomprehensible written down can thrill a stadium. Even songs with more literary flair can comfortably withhold meaning, merely gesturing at a larger story that the writer may or may not have thought through. After Bobbie Gentry’s tantalisingly enigmatic 1967 hit Ode to Billie Joe sparked a frenzy of speculation about what Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Gentry admitted that she did not know herself. Ishiguro argues that this “unresolved, incomplete quality” is what makes a song haunt the mind.

As well as being Ishiguro’s publisher, Faber has a track record of publishing handsome little volumes of lyrics by Kate Bush, Jarvis Cocker, Lou Reed, and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. Traditionally confined to record sleeves, songbooks, websites and old issues of Smash Hits, lyrics acquire a patina of prestige between hard covers. Bush wrote that all the lyrics had “been reviewed as works of verse without their music”.

Still, imagine reading one of Faber’s collections without ever having heard the songs. You would not be able to conjure Cocker’s sly, fruity delivery of the words, “I said, well, I’ll see what I can do” in Pulp’s Common People, nor the leaping desperation with which Bush sings, “Heathcliff, it’s me, it’s Cathy, I’ve come home” on Wuthering Heights. On the page, without that context, such lines would hardly stop the reader in their tracks. Read Tennant’s lyrics to West End Girls and you can see how he was emulating the collage of urban voices in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land but not how he and Chris Lowe refracted it through a homage to New York hip-hop.

The strongest case for lyrics as literature was made by the Nobel committee when it awarded the 2016 prize for literature to Bob Dylan – the first songwriter to receive that honour. But the committee skated over the reasoning for the decision and its implications, saying only that the award was for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. True enough, but does that make it literature or just very good songwriting?

Dylan himself seemed fantastically uncomfortable with the whole affair. When he was asked in 1965 whether he saw himself as a poet, he famously responded, “Oh I think of myself more as a song and dance man.” Very few songwriters explicitly aspire to the status of literature, because they know that songwriting can be fast and instinctive and even gobbledegook can delight as long as it sounds good. It is hard to square the meticulous exegesis of some Dylan lyrics with the knowledge that he did not sweat over every syllable. As Neil Tennant writes in One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, “Every lyric-writer also has a guilty secret: the sound of the words is sometimes more important than the sense of them.”

Leonard Cohen, who began his career as a poet and novelist before deciding that music was a better way to make a living – a kind of Ishiguro in reverse – is one notable exception. His lyrics have a rare solidity, meticulously crafted to stand alone. But even a lyric as perfect as Hallelujah, which took him five years to finish, tells you that it wants to be sung: “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift.” And that immense voice, pitted and weathered like a monument, tells you that these words have been not just written but lived.

Pressed to clarify the logic behind Dylan’s literature prize, the Nobel’s permanent secretary Sara Danius pointed out that Homer and Sappho wrote poetic texts to be performed aloud with music but they can now be read with pleasure, so why not Dylan? But of course, we don’t have countless hours of recordings of Homer and Sappho to tell us how they wanted those words to sound. While songs can be covered, rearranged and even melodically transformed, the original recordings still have an authorial weight that is hard to shake, especially for fans who are in the market for books of lyrics.

The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain is a fascinating test case. Although Stacey Kent is a Grammy-nominated artist with 2m albums sold, her work is not so famous that her phrasing will be stamped into the brain of every curious Ishiguro fan. These lyrics can still be read as extremely short stories. He took the image of the tram ride in Breakfast on the Morning Tram from 1995’s The Unconsoled, the novel of his that most resembles music because it prioritises mood over meaning – or rather, the mood is the meaning. It is no coincidence that the protagonist who wanders through a dream-like central European city, is a pianist. When Ishiguro writes that songs allow for “narrative vacuum and gaps; an oblique approach to the releasing of information”, he could also be describing his fiction.

These lyrics also dwell on travel and the slipperiness of human connection but they contain more hope and romance than Ishiguro’s novels. They occupy the timeless realm of jazz standards: trains and rain, old movies and exotic locales, myriad variations on the theme of love. The journey in Bullet Train becomes a metaphor for the way time slips away: “It feels like we’re not moving / Though I know we must be moving … Way too fast.” The second verse of Craigie Burn, with its deft sketch of a life derailed, performs the classic songwriting trick of leaving the listener/reader to imagine the full story.

Does that make it literature? Tellingly, the introduction to almost every book of lyrics contains a semi-apology. It is a “strange beast”, admits the novelist David Mitchell in his introduction to Kate Bush’s How to Be Invisible. The page is “not the natural habit of a song lyric”, writes Neil Tennant. For Jarvis Cocker, “seeing a lyric in print is like watching the TV with the sound turned down: you’re only getting half the story.”

Ishiguro likewise maintains, “it remains my belief that a song lyric is not, and works quite differently from, a poem,” encouraging readers to listen to Kent’s recordings. That is, after all, what these words are for.

• To buy The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain: Lyrics for Stacey Kent by Kazuo Ishiguro go to Delivery charges may apply.

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