If a singer has nothing about which to sing, is there any point in him singing actual lyrics?
I’ve always been a fervent believer in the importance of lyrics in making a good song great – after all, though OK Computer is musically astonishing, the key link between the listener and the band is Thom Yorke’s lyrics of urban dissatisfaction and emotional trials. A song like Climbing Up the Walls works doubly well because the chilling music is combined with disturbing lyrics; a song like No Surprises manages to convey dis-ease and ennui through its lyrics, even though it is musically saccharine. Many great artists build off this contrast between the tone of the music and the mood of the lyrics, and so, even if the lyrics aren’t as socially relevant as those of Thom Yorke’s, it is still possible to admire, for instance, the music of Muse, because what Matt Bellamy sings about matches perfectly with the stürm und drang of the music.
And yet there are so many examples of bands and artists with a semblance of melodic knowledge who consistently pump out mediocrity by filling their songs with meaningless, cringe-worthy lyrics. In many cases, the vocalists themselves are not that bad singers, it’s just that the words they spew out are literally vomit-inducing. In such cases, you have to ask if they seriously believe the listeners are taking heed of their lyrics. It would be more worthwhile if they sang in tongues.
A band like Battles knows its limitations; they realise that people listen to them because the music speaks for itself, conjuring imagery too powerful for any words to ameliorate. And so, in place of actual, understandable lyrics, we hear Tyondai Braxton‘s vocals mutated and modulated beyond recognition – they become another instrument. Tangentially, I believe it’s possible to get more excited about good instrumental music – Amon Tobin‘s jazz-influenced breakbeat, for instance – because, in the absence of words, the music is allowed to import fuller meaning.
Of course, there are countless bands where both the music and lyrics is bereft of originality or invention – much of the UK’s chart rock fodder springs immediately to mind – but it’s worth considering whether there could a future for instrumental rock beyond the genre of post-rock. It would certainly make listening to Radio 1 a more painless experience.