What do I think about lyrics?

I’ve written five1 2 3 4 5 posts now about my relationships with different albums. They’re not really album reviews, but in each one, I tried to describe what I love about the music at least a little. Something I noticed yesterday, though, is that I have not once mentioned the lyrics of any of these albums.

Strangely, despite having lots of thoughts about the music itself, I don’t think I usually have much to say about a given album or song’s lyrical content. With all the albums I’ve written about so far, I like and appreciate the lyrics*, but most of the time I don’t pay too much attention to them. I look up the lyrics to a song from time to time if I really want to know what it says. But often I won’t know the lyrics to a song I’ve heard dozens of times already, or I’ll mishear them and not bother to correct myself even if I know that can’t be right.

I consider Adrianne Lenker to be an example of a great contemporary lyricist.
Photo credit: Paul Hudson

Just because I don’t pay much attention to lyrics (at least initially) doesn’t mean they don’t factor into my enjoyment of music. If I get an “off” feeling from lyrics, I am less inclined to listen to come back to that music over the long term. I would describe the “off” feeling as an inability or unwillingness to identify with certain lyrics, or to align myself with their perspective, so to speak. What you listen to over & over again does wind up affecting & molding you, so it’s probably for the best that I weed out songs whose effects I don’t welcome.

I think of lyrics less like a text or message that states something specific, and more like just another part of the music. With other elements of the music, it’s not like I’m thinking explicitly about what each part of the music “means” and exactly how it works with everything else. I just experience the whole thing as it comes to me, and if different elements stand out to me, I use whatever I gather from them to build my understanding of the piece as a whole.

In the same way, I don’t need to explicitly understand a song’s lyrics to sense the role they play in creating the music’s feeling-world. I can just catch a line here or there and see how it supports & relates to whatever else I’m aware of in the song. This is why multiple listenings are so beneficial (and necessary) for me to appreciate a song.

With all that said, sometimes the lyrics really are my favorite thing about a song. Some of the songs I love have truly great lyrics that arguably stand on their own separate from the music. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post about some of my favorite lyrics.

How do you approach listening to lyrics? Do you pick and choose what you listen to based on the influence the lyrics have on you? What are some of your favorite lyrics? Let me know your thoughts at my Ctrl-C email: gome ​@ ​ctrl-c.club.

* The exception is 무너지기 (Crumbling), because I don’t speak Korean and I haven’t looked up a translation of them (well, I did once, but I don’t really remember much of what it said).