Thursday 10 May 2012

World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed)

I've been a professional writer for over seven years now and I consider myself to be pretty crafty with the written word. Nevertheless, there are still a great many domains of writing where I feel woefully out of my depth, and one of those is song lyrics. I do dabble in it a bit here and there but it's not a process I find easy, even with my musical background. Writing song lyrics means abandoning the structural crutches that I normally lean on when writing. The type of writing you're reading here feels linear and totally straightforward. The abstract thinking and the abandonment of the comfortable essay-writing and PR copywriting counterpoint I've grown used that songwriting requires is something I'm still not used to.

A big part of what makes writing song lyrics indimidating (at least to me) is the soul-baring the process requires. When you're writing about a 'topic', you have that topic to fall back on. Even novelists can point to the characters and say "Don't look at me, they made me say that!" But with poetry - and by extension songwriting - the words stand alone as naked expressions of the messy viscera within you. Flub a sentence in a magazine article or a PR piece and it's simply sloppy writing. Do the same in a song and it's you who are wrong.

C'mon, you know you secretly dig these guys!
Furthermore, people love nothing more than to tear song lyrics to shreds. Granted, there are plenty of songs that deserve it. Consider the following words by a bewilderingly successful Canadian hard rock unit that shall remain nameless. Sometimes bad songs really are that bad.

Against the grain should be a way of life
What's worth the price is always worth the fight
Every second counts 'cause there's no second try
So live like you're never living twice
Don't take the free ride in your own life

Yep, that's pretty bad. Not only have they succeeded in putting fellow Canadian Bryan Adams to shame in the cliché-per-syllable category but they also manage to contradict themselves mid-verse with the line "don't take a free ride in your own life," which to my mind is a plea for caution and responsible living amid all the faux-rebellious platitudes about "going against the grain" and whatnot. To the band's credit, they manage to string a melody line along this awkward assemblage of clichés, although even that manages to sound like a stretch, to my ears.

But lyrics like this that sound like they're going out of their way to be awful are, to my mind, the exception rather than the rule. Lyrics don't have to be brilliant wordcraft to work. Even over-the-top pretentious lyrics have their own charm, as the enduring appeal of prog-rock indicates. Some lyrics work simply on the basis of their rawness (i.e. most punk and socially conscious rap) and others by their prickly tongue-in-cheekness (anything Cole Porter or Lily Allen ever wrote). The hardest gig, however, is the socially conscious lyric. To pull this off without sounding preachy, alienating (to somebody in the audience) or simply smug is a very tough act to pull off.

This brings me to the song that has been lodged in my head for at least a week now - the song World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed), with lyrics by David Sylvian and music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, written for Sakamoto's Zero Landmine campaign. Sylvian, for those not familiar with the guy, initially rose to prominence with the late-seventies, early-eighties British 'New Romantics' band Japan before embarking on an uneven but always interesting solo career. As for Sakamoto, the former Yellow Magic Orchestra keyboardist is best known in the west as a film soundtrack composer but has also recorded countless albums ranging from delicate piano miniatures to beyond-the-fringe electroacoustic creations.

The lyrics here work on a multitude of levels. They're chock full of social relevance while devoid of any sense of superiority. The us-versus-them ethos of many a protest song is replaced by a 'we're all in this together' feel, and unlike the Yahwistic pleas of Bono and Leonard Cohen, this song is thoroughly atheistic and firmly rooted in the here and now. Structurally it's almost Churchillian in its hypnotic succession of statements. The imagery is haunting, and perhaps most interestingly, there are almost no adjectives. As a PR guy with an appreciation for stripped-down prose, this is music to my eyes and ears.

What's the secret to writing song lyrics like this? Let me know when you find out.

World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed)

What happened here? The butterfly has lost its wings
The air’s too thick to breathe and there’s something in the drinking water.

The sun comes up; the sun comes up and you’re alone
Your sense of purpose come undone; the traffic tails back to the maze on 101

And the news from the sky is looking better for today
In every single way but not for you

World citizen

It’s not safe; all the yellow birds are sleeping
'Cause the air’s not fit for breathing; it’s not safe

Why can’t we be; without beginning, without end?
Why can’t we be?

World citizen

And if I stop and talk with you awhile
I’m overwhelmed by the scale of everything you feel
The lonely inner state emergency

I want to feel until my heart can take no more
And there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t give
I want to break the indifference of the days
I want a conscience that will keep me wide awake

I won’t be disappointed

I saw a face; it was a face I didn’t know
Her sadness told me everything about my own
Can’t let it be; when least expected there she is
Gone the time and space that separates us

And I’m not safe; I think I need a second skin
No, I’m not safe

World citizen

I want to travel by night, across the steppes and over seas
I want to understand the cost of everything that’s lost
I want to pronounce all their names correctly

World citizen
I won’t be disappointed

She doesn’t laugh; we’ve gone from comedy to commerce
And she doesn’t feel the ground she walks upon
I turn away and I’m not sleeping well at night
And while I know this isn’t right, what can you do?

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