Rewind Reviews #4 - Lyricists - By Volume

What is this life, why do we strive? Fast on a wheel, too fast to feel. One day, my love, this life will slow. Sam Brookes - One Day
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Rewind Reviews #4 – Lyricists

Keelan Harkin looks at his favourite lyricist's alternate worlds in the latest edition of Rewind Reviews. Author: on April 30, 2013
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This edition of Rewind Reviews focusses on three of my favourite lyricists. Dan Bejar (Destroyer), Will Sheff (Okkervil River), and Leonard Cohen (Leonard Cohen) are not so vastly different — which is exactly why they’re the three. I do not have much in the way of an introduction other than to mention how strange I initially felt when I decided to look at lyricists for this edition of the series. It was strange timing more than strange in any overarching sense; I have just completed the latest round of essays for Graduate studies and when I finally, thankfully, took off home for a relaxing ten days in between terms, the last thing I thought I would want to do would be to think and write about complex wordsmiths. I think that gives great credit to what these craftsmen accomplish with their work – there is a certain escape into another world held within their songs.

I don’t mean escapism in a frivolous way, so much as that all three of these lyricists create worlds to play in. And that does not mean all play is fun and fleeting; these songs often play in tragic, anxious worlds created by the connotative power of words and metaphors. So it makes sense that, after weeks of being deeply involved in my own head, I found it compelling to dive head first into someone else’s for a little while, and these three lyricists offer that. There are obviously plenty more craftsmen out there that I could look at – Tom Waits comes to mind, not to mention a whole host of rappers – but these three lyricists, and these three songs in particular, possess a certain quality that I have really come to identify with – for various reasons.

Destroyer – Rubies

Despite my general wariness in making bold sweeping gestures, I find it difficult to name a lyricist I admire more than Dan Bejar. Is he the best? Such a subjective question, of course, has no real answer, but it’s certainly difficult to find anyone who tops Bejar at the kind of thing he excels: referentiality, one-liners, and abstract themes. The song choice was a toss-up between the nine minute “Rubies” or the barroom crawl “Looter’s Follies,” deciding which best captured Bejar’s lyrical magic, but I always knew I had to pick something from Destroyer’s Rubies. The album showcases to the nth degree what makes Bejar such a fascinating lyricist; he creates a world with his lyrics, one that is deeply self-referential not in a way that creates a pretentious wall between “getting it” and “not getting it,” but rather in a way that sets up a series of walls, a labyrinth, that leads always to the heart of something bold and worthwhile. Within these confines, the world of rock and roll contributes Ariadne’s red string, while Bejar’s own nasally drawl might very well be the Minotaur.

Hyperbolic metaphors aside, there is a certain anxiety to “Rubies,” of getting older and finding the next step as an artist. The very form of the song is a clever, self-referential nod to Destroyer’s past; the final three minutes strips away all of the production value to bring Bejar back to his bedroom, acoustic roots. It is this level of referentiality and allusiveness that creates new worlds in Destroyer’s songs and albums. Beyond lyrical heterocosms, though, “Rubies” also contains three of my favourite lines ever: first there is the deeply defeatist concession that also makes a sly nod to just how pungent the lyric could be in the wrong hands, “all good things must come to an end / The bad ones just go on forever / isn’t that what I just said?” Then there is a line that, while initially seeming a bit silly and off the cuff, examines the tedium of life after the “party,” whatever constitutes that party: “don’t worry about her / she’s been known to appreciate the elegance of an empty room / look, I made you this broom / a predicate warning to the sun, this night advances…on.” Finally, the song falls into acceptance of the little things and the people that make it all worthwhile to go on, the rubies in life: “The sketchy crowd shows me drawings, they’re alright / an alternately dim and frightful waste / now come on, honey, let’s go outside / you disrupt the world’s disorder just by virtue of your grace, you know.” Maybe this brief interpretation doesn’t quite satisfy the complexity of the song’s scope, but with Destroyer the interpretations are too endless for such a brief write-up here.

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