Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Elvis review: Do lyrics matter?

Last night we saw Elvis Costello (with his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve) at the Belk Theater. Tremendous show. Elvis is mellower now, even sort of charming, although the angry Elvis came out in the antiwar comments he sprinkled in between songs. Most of the crowd cheered, but he did get a few boos -- possibly the first boos in Belk Theater history.

Pretty cool to see that he can still stir people up.

But for most of the night I was thinking about lyrics. I'm a former music writer, and I will be sent straight to music-critic hell for saying this, but here it is: Most of the time, lyrics don't matter to me.

What moves me about music is the melody, the groove, the arrangement, the way the sounds blend and clash. Lyrics are part of that, but mostly for how they sound, not for what they mean. I was on my fourth R.E.M. album before I could understand a word Michael Stipe said. But that mumbly voice, paired with that music, was perfect.

Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is overrated. (Definitely going to music-critic hell now.)

I bring this up because Elvis Costello is an exception. He's such a gifted writer that you can parse his songs like a poem, but they also fit in with the sound of the song. Plus he has one of my two favorite couplets in rock history, from "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes":

I said "I'm so happy I could die"
She said "Drop dead" and left with another guy...

My other favorite couplet, from the Ramones' "Teenage Lobotomy":

Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em
That I got no cerebellum
...

As you can see, I'm not exactly an intellectual when it comes to this stuff.

Got your own favorite lines? Reviews of the Elvis show? Or any Dylan fans out there who want to defend their guy? Fire away in the comments...

15 comments:

lk said...

Right on target, Tommy! Great music with dumb/cruddy lyrics can work ("Ballroom Blitz," anyone?). But great lyrics with dumb/cruddy music is, well, dumb/cruddy music...

Anonymous said...

My all-time favorite lyric: "Well, I got up in the mornin' / And I got myself a beer." Delivered by Jim Morrison in his gravely voice, it's just such a slice of a life I have always been much too straight-laced to have lived. Wonder what my life would be like if I reached for a beer first thing in the morning instead of a coffee? Of course, I'm alive and Morrison's dead, so there you go...

Anonymous said...

Saw the Elvis show too - and really love his lyrics - I wish I knew what the sticker on his guitar said because he kept holding it up. I told my husband that he should really listen to his lyrics more so than other music because it is like poetry. Can't agree with you re: Dylan though - I think his lyrics are poignant and memorable. We saw Elvis also in the Grady Cole Center a couple of years ago - he still has got it big time. Would not be the first time there have been boos in Belk as anyone who attended the Bill Maher show would tell you.

Emily Benton said...

couldn't have said it better, Tommy :)

Anonymous said...

"She's filing her nails...while they're dragging the lake"
Of course lyrics matter. And Elvis Costello is definitely an interesting lyricist...but I think Bruce Cockburn is even better.
"You've no idea how I long for even one loving caress. For you to step into my heart, without deception or duress."
I think if you are a genuine music lover you can appreciate the rowdy fun of something like "Ballroom Blitz", and more carefully crafted lyrics as well.

Anonymous said...

"I got a freaky old lady, name of Cocaine Katy,
She embroideries on my jeans."

I love it!

Rachel said...

"someday lady you'll acompany me"
love it love it love it

tarhoosier said...

Don Henley:
Out on the road late last night, saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.
Flow, baby, flow

Tarheel Blue said...

Layla, you got me on my knees,Layla
I'm begging darling please, Layla

Anonymous said...

I got a rock and roll heart

Anonymous said...

"Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see." In my opinion, the greatest line ever.

Anonymous said...

"nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does. like i wasbut you ain't afraid if you was washed in the blood like i was."don williams."good ole boys like me"

Nancy McLendon said...

"I tell them there's no problem, only solutions." ( "Watching the Wheels", J0ohn Lennon)
Saw Elvis at Grady Cole, he rocked. Saw him at Belk that Tuesday and in Cary that Thursday. Belk crowd was more appreciative. He did Peace Love and Understanding mid show to a lukewarm response. It's an outside venue, primarily blankets and folding chairs. He had an encore that he was prepared to do, the orchestra was still on stage, but the crowd was leaving so...I guess they thought one encore was enough. Shame. Wonder what we missed.

Anonymous said...

The best lyrics come not from rock singers, but from the old blues musicians of the early 20th. Like the Morrison lyric mentioned above, they give you insight into the kinds of lives that we imagine but will likely never live. And the simplicity of the song structure makes them beautiful in a peculiarly American kind of way.

No coincidence that the couplets mentioned so far derive from that same blues tradition.

Jumper said...

"While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked."

"The motorcycle black madonna
Two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause
The gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey
Who pick up on his bread crumb sins
And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden"
-Dylan