Words! What're they good for?

May 03, 2014

Edgar Rice Burroughs once famously called all humans “creatures of habit”. And while I cannot, in all honesty, extricate myself from that generalisation, I’m definitely not one who unqualifiedly subscribes to the power of ritual.

Friday evening hijinks being the exception, of course.

Because if there were ever a ritual that stood for all that was good and noble; one which separated us from the savages - it would have to be the exercise of seeking merriment after a long, arduous work-week. In my personal experience, numerous factors have contributed to the long-standing charm of Friday evenings - alcohol, company, but most importantly… conversation.

Yep! That ancient, endangered artform that we’ve happily traded in for uninterrupted access to Whatsapp messages, work e-mails, and Facebook updates. I mean, I like “social” networking as much as the next guy, but nothing will ever compare to the satisfaction I derive from some good ol’ solid, non-electronic conversation.

An excellent illustration of this being last evening, when a friend and I were discussing the kind of lyrical content we tend to appreciate in our music. It started with him expressing his admiration for Nas’ N.Y. State of Mind and some of the lines in them. In particular, these:

It drops deep as it does in my breath

I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death

Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined

I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind

Rap Genius has annotated explanations (some by Nas himself) for the entire song, so I’m not gonna go into that. But what was particularly interesting about this was that while I found the song and those lyrics undeniably powerful, I didn’t quite share the same level of appreciation as my friend for that brand of song-writing. Let the record show that I think Nas is as good a rapper as any, and this is in no way a criticism of him. The guy is a bona fide genius. My point is about the larger theme of abstruse lyricism. Turns out what I appreciate slightly less about Nas (and other lyricists such as him) is exactly what everyone loves him for - his intentionally open-ended rhymes.

(Interesting aside: this is exactly what Jay-Z used as ammunition against Nas in his diss track, Blueprint 2)

My appreciation is a lot stronger for lyrics that paint a very vivid picture and leave it to you to extrapolate the interpretation of it to your own life experiences. The counter-example I offered was from a song I was listening to earlier that day.

Well all the Apostles, they’re sitting in swings

Saying, “I’d sell off my Savior for a set of new rings

And some sandals with the style of straps that cling best to the era”

That’s the first verse from Modest Mouse’s Bankrupt on Selling. While the song’s about the pitfalls of capitalism, the lyrics above although very explicit in what they’re talking about are equally applicable to the theme of the song as they could be to greed and/or betrayal. The fluidity with which the song plays to your current mood in the moment is what I appreciate more than the brilliance that you might uncover during a post-mortem dissection of the lyrics.

I hadn’t hitherto realised this about my preferences towards lyrical content, but once I had, it came as no surprise that my admiration has always been particularly strong for artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Morrissey, Ben Gibbard, etc. who find beautifully vivid ways of presenting the simplest of concepts, thereby lending it just enough ambiguity to make it feel different to every ear on every play.

Akaash Patnaik

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