Today, the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, is also UN English Language Day. To celebrate, I wanted to link to songs by some songwriters where I appreciate the use of the English language. But there are a lot of such songs. So I will start with non-hiphop, and then move on.
Leonard Cohen – he can be sentimental and romantic, and I think that’s what his songs are most known for. But he can also be absolutely brutal. Or he can be both at once. Or he can sound like a prophet, like on “Story of Isaac”. I was once asked who I, as a Canadian, am most proud to have as a countryman, and I said Leonard Cohen*. I don’t know if I would still make that choice if someone asked, but probably. Chelsea Hotel №2 · Sisters of Mercy · I Left a Woman Waiting · Johnny Cash – Bird on a Wire
Bill Callahan – whether under his own name or as Smog, Bill Callahan is always recognizable. I admire his earnestness and the beauty of his metaphors. When you are young and feeling full of emotion and possibility and huge sadness, teenage spaceship captures that feeling more than anything else. Teenage Spaceship · Devotion · Sycamore
Joanna Newsom – rather than having a whole song’s worth of coherent lyrics, Joanna Newsom goes for a more hiphop-like approach of trying for beautiful turns of phrase many times in each song. Sometimes it feels like she just throws everything she can at the wall just to see what sticks. It only works a portion of the time. But when it works, man, it really works. Does Not Suffice · In California · Good Intentions Paving Company
John Darnielle – what makes John Darnielle more than just your run of the mill indie songwriter is that what interests John Darnielle isn’t what would strike people as “cool”. Mountain Goats songs are countercultural in the best sense – it’s the nature in West Texas, it’s biblical verses, it’s pro wrestling, it’s a ward for troubled teens, it’s divorce, it’s street performers in Tallahassee. That makes them endlessly interesting. Oceanographer’s Choice · The Legend of Chavo Guerrero · The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton · Genesis 3:23
Tom Waits – he’s the chronicler of all America’s weirdnesses and weirdoes. A lot of his songs seem funny at first, and then turn out to be heartfelt and tender and incredibly sad (even if they still remain funny, like for example The Piano Has Been Drinking). And some of them are clearly incredibly sad right away. There is nobody else like him at all. Swordfishtrombone · Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis · You Can Never Hold Back Spring · Solomon Burke – Diamond in Your Mind
Jarvis Cocker – there is no one better at chronicling people’s relationships and pushing the boundaries of sleaziness, creepiness, desperation, even cruelty sometimes. It is easy to always try to be likeable. It isn’t easy to both sing in the character of death trying to seduce with “you have such a beautiful body/you’d make such a beautiful body” and to explain to a girl why you slept with her sister. I’m glad Pulp chose the latter route. Common People · Dishes · Disco 2000 · Lipgloss
Randy Newman – I like him primarily as a songwriter, because his voice is kind of annoying, and also because presumably having the songs be picked by other people helps restrain some of his excessive tendencies. Still, there are songs that he sings himself that are so sarcastic and biting that I can’t imagine that anyone else can sing them. I don’t think another song as devastating as “God’s Song” has been written. God’s Song · Nina Simone – Baltimore · Flamin Groovies – Have You Seen My Baby · Harry Nilsson – Sail Away
Stuart Murdoch – Belle and Sebastian songs are full of clever, funny lines that seem to be taken out of a really interesting story: “Lisa learned a lot from putting on a blindfold / when she knew she had been bad / she met another blind kid at a fancy dress / it was the best sex she ever had.” So you think, wouldn’t it be great if Murdoch expanded from that into a book or a movie. But then he did and it wasn’t that great. His songs work best as very specific still frames, letting you think there’s more to the story. I Fought in a War · Lazy Line Painter Jane · The State I Am In · The Boy with the Arab Strap
Alex Turner – the person carrying on Jarvis Cocker’s tradition of making brilliant pop songs which you sing along to, and then suddenly wonder at yourself singing something so cruel or desperate or just plain creepy. His lyrics are a little bit uneven sometimes, but on the other hand, I like the music and the delivery a lot, too, which isn’t the case for some of these choices. Cornerstone · Love is a Laserquest · When the Sun Goes Down · The Last Shadow Puppets – My Mistakes Were Made For You
Suggestions? What are your favourite uses of the English language in songs?
*Incidentally, her choice as a Dutchwoman – Herman van Veen – sings a beautiful Dutch version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne.