In the past year, I've been listening to a lot of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and his haunting and widely acclaimed self-titled album, which has been a consistent go-to for subway rides and late night work sessions. It can be epic and intimate, angry and quiet, and his unique, I'm-just-a-guy-in-a-cabin-with-a-guitar sound has even crept into the mainstream.
But at the same time as I've grown to love his music, I've also come to the conclusion that I usually have no idea what Mr. Vernon is singing.
In fact, if I was held at gunpoint, forced to tell you the second line of Bon Iver's song, "Holocene," I would only be able to make a semi-educated guess. "You fucked it friend, it something ends, it stuck the street?" Perhaps. The second line of "Michicant," the fifth track of the album, might as well be: "Heard a lot of winging's up, no it wasn't welling's up, whyyyy." When I sing it out loud, at least, that's what I sing.
Apparently, according to multiple lyric websites, that "Michicant" line is actually: "Hurdle all the waitings up, know it wasn't wedded love," and the "why" I'm hearing is more of a warbled sound than a word.
But no matter. Because the truth is: I don't really care what Vernon's saying. Which is odd, because in high school the first thing I did when I bought a CD was tear open the mind-blowingly difficult-to-unravel plastic wrapping, remove the booklet and read the lyrics. Then I looked at the pictures and the liner notes. And if I fell in love with a band, I used the lyric sheets to make sure I knew what my favorite singers were actually saying.
When I first fell in love with Bob Dylan, I remembered lines and phrases and choruses because the words stood out, even more so than the melodies. Nowadays, however, most of my new music is downloaded, and the lyrics are something I have to make an effort to seek out, rather than immediately soak in.
Also, a lot of the music I listen to is awash in delay and reverb, and the singers of most critically acclaimed bands -- bands like Panda Bear, Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear, etc. etc, which get consistently high marks from the music tastemakers over at Pitchfork -- make concerted efforts to sound distant and removed. Like they're daring us to understand what they're talking about. Many of their voices have been so distorted and pushed back into the mix, you'd likely never be able to confirm a line unless you consulted a lyrics site online.
I listen to their music, though, and enjoy it. Yet at the same time I wonder if the combination of all that reverb and a more prevalent disconnect between the lyrics and the downloadable song is having a deeper effect on the importance of the words in contemporary music.
With modern pop still chock-full of singles about being in love, being angry at boys and/or girls, going to clubs, putting your hands in the air, and the weekend, (certainly not has much has changed there since the 1950s), it's never been where wordsmiths go to stand out. But music, in general, might be missing its lyrical heroes. Who are our real poets in 2011? With Occupy Wall Street and the recession and the slipping middle class, it seems like the right time for a new icon to emerge. One that speaks more directly to us, without hiding. Kanye West might actually be the closest I can think of -- he can string a verse like nobody else these days, and his albums have reached the masses, as well as the more discerning hipster crowds. But he's still perhaps more famous for other, Taylor Swift-related reasons.
At the beginning of October, I caught John Prine at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. Just him and a guitar and a story in front of thousands of people in the middle of a park. He's been telling the same stories since he started out in Chicago over 40 years ago, and they haven't lost their power. They might have gotten better, even, with age.
But which artists today will not stand for being background music? Which ones put their lyrics high up in the mix, so the words can't possibly blend in? Certainly the Conor Obersts, Ryan Adamses, and Avett Brothers of our time are aiming for the Modern Troubadour Award, and fans will still sing their words proudly at concerts. Arcade Fire, too: they own their bluntness, and the Springsteen comparisons make sense; Win Butler sings about suburban angst and familial strife as good as anyone. And Andrew Bird and Neko Case, they're certainly doing the folk baton proud, while Matt Berringer of The National can weave a sardonic tale of alcohol and depression along with the best of them. And I suppose Taylor Swift controls the tween crowd, and nobody can deny that her words resonate with them in their own way.
So yes, the lyricists are out there, but the weight placed on their lyrics has shifted. They're harder to access and often harder to understand. Lyrics used to be what pushed an artist over the edge, giving him or her that mix of critical and fan appreciation they once needed to stand out. Now, however, the fan has to make an effort to know what it is they're actually trying to say.
What do you think? Is the shift away from lyrical importance inevitable, as more and more musical genres emerge? Or did life-altering lyrics die along with the CD booklet?
Follow Lucas Kavner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lucaskavner