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When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature there was plenty of guff about challenging the distinction between high and low art, about whether his lyrics were "good enough" to be called poetry, about what it might mean to be "waiting for a voice" instead of a text. This comes down to a division between poetry (important art) and musical lyrics (unimportant art) that, despite lip service towards oral traditions of poetry, generally finds its end in the following convenient definition (here, courtesy Dylan himself): “Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem. Anything I can’t sing or anything that’s too long to be a poem, I call a novel."

I'd consider Joanna Newsom a poet just going by the most cursory read of her written lyrics, but here's the thing. The question is not "Can... the lyrics hold up without the music, just the words on a piece of paper?" (the form of acid test that, say, Leonard Cohen handily passes), but: is it desireable to separate them? How useful is it to exclude performance (because it is the fact of popular sound recordings being the dominant "art delivery vehicle" that is the contentious issue here) from a definition of poetry or literature?

Newsom writes allusive and complex lyrics dense with metaphor, pun and obscure references. The music that backs them is similarly complex, in time signature, melody and structure. The operation of lyric and music are, functionally, indivisible. I can't figure out how a Newsom song works until I figure out how to sing it, and this is often because of the density and surprises of her rhymes and how they dictate rhythmic structures.

Often too, meaning, metaphor, and connection are only fully awoken or active in the context of being sung, the performative twist, or the melodic or album structure. Her narratives and musical forms are circular, repetitious, and echoing (in Divers, for instance, the last song's final word is "transcend", cut off abruptly halfway into "tran"; and guess what, the first song's first word is "sending"). While an album can be likened to a poetry collection in the way its components speak to each other, an album is also a fixed performance, a statement of text's sound, and for Newsom, sound is a critical aspect of poetic language.

Taking this down to a very basic level, consider the rhymes of Goose Eggs, from Divers (2015). Newsom's sweet, mouthful vocal style may be an acquired taste (she is, of course, a weirdo, which is always to be encouraged) or initially seem like a cheap reliance on cutesiness. But once you've clicked in to her vibe, it's apparent that she puts immense effort and thought into both writing and performance. Goose Eggs demonstrates how deeply the stuff of words, of poetic meaning and correspondence, rely upon performance -- on the way she manipulates words and lines in her mouth -- instead of the written text.



Highlighted below are the two most important vowel sounds in the song, the "geese" sound (represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as /i/) and the "goose" sound (/ʉ/ in the wild, rhyming with "moose", but the way she sings it here, it's /u/, further back in the mouth).



The most striking line, to me, is "A goose, alone, I suppose, can know the loneliness of geese" in which she bends every dominant vowel sound, the /ʉ/ of goose (and vamoose) and the /o/ of alone, suppose, know, loneliness, into a /u/, identical to the way she pronounces use, refuse and news, until we smash hard up against change, the /i/ of geese. Moreover, "suppose" is really "'spose", to preserve the scansion in which /u/ appears every other syllable.

This is a choice of performance and writing together and it has meaning. From the preceding verse /u/ has been the terminal rhyme, high and remote at the back of the mouth, associated with the past and failure, and the narrator (the singular goose) who is focussed on her work instead of relationships and the natural world. After this point the /i/ of the plural geese explodes into the song and becomes the dominant terminal and internal rhyme, as the narrator opens herself up to her and her friend's wider stories, and what they mean, and where that leaves them.

(I particularly love the choice of "Vs", the flight patterns of flocks of geese, as an /i/ rhyme).

Again, this is a choice. The sound often occurs with an unvoiced /s/ (as in "geese" and "recently") and she regularly ignores final consonants (there's no t in "east", apparently). Similarly, you /yʉ/ (which typically rhymes with goose, ie "you silly goose") is avoided, turned into ya /yä/ or y' /yə/ where necessary.

This attention to using words for the way they sound is everywhere. Newsom commonly inserts rapid internal rhymes in her lyrics: built/stilled, train/plain, learn/burn, and so on. The final stanza has a great example of this in her California vowel shift (/ɑ/ becomes /ɔ/) that turns talk, cause, and flock into rhymes. These rhymes also rely on the unreleased velar stop of /k/ that is also associated with /o/ in other verses (spoke, broken); an /o/ that also determinedly features in the manipulated lines "had to go/ and you caught that flight out of Covalo/ Now, overhead.."

The song (and her entire oeuvre) is filled with moments like this, that wouldn't "work" in the same way as plain words on plain paper would, read by anyone anywhere. Listen to the way she trebles the /ɛ/ sound in "at last (at least)": /ɛt lɛst ɛt list/. In my normal spoken accent, this doesn't occur, and the relationship between "last" and "least" is diminished, where the /a/ in last is a wide open sound that happens in the middle of the mouth, instead of the more frontal and constricted /ɛ/ and /i/.

The "written text" definition of poetry prioritises multiplicity over fixity, the privacy of language, the internal and reading process and the alchemy by which another's words become one's own. In this sense, it sets the reader above the author, that heralded New Criticism democratisation, and one of the great recuperating claims Literature makes for being not irrelevant -- it is high art because it is of the people, you see: the idea that Dylan is the voice of the commoner, the downtrodden, the people, is no small part of how he got away with the Nobel.

But there is also power in hearing the author, the poet herself. Goose Eggs contains an arrogant authorial request: listen to me, the way I want to say it. I picture Newsom singing as she writes, pen in hand, looping spirographic connections between words and stanzas and songs as she manipulates phonetic and morphemic correspondences, references, and doublings. While it's relatively common for celebrated lyricists to put out collections of their lyrics as little books of poetry, and I could not object to Newsom for doing so, it almost seems beside the point: this is a literature and an exploration of language that's meant to be heard, not read.
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There's the stuff ("the same old fucking three songs" according to some) that I listen to constantly, and then there's the rest of it. The rest of it gets a look-in via the shuffle though, and with insistent regularity a song I haven't paid much attention to will sneak right up and brick me. The only thing to do then is to listen to it on repeat 1000x until it's out of my system and shift it through to regular rotation.

Currently: Fugazi's Ex-Spectator (The Argument, 2002)



Tight and melodic. Two drum sets in unison. Smothering first verse, sneaky bass and guitar making promises. Bass and guitar running the same riff in the bridge - a pause before the whole thing explodes into the chorus riff. That is a great fucking apocalyptic chorus riff. Turn up this live version, which builds in intensity at the end until the whole edifice almost collapses.
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goddamn this is the best version for the way it sticks Coleman Hawkins in your left ear and Monk in your right and just makes that happen to you. Smooth and soft and cool as hell.

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A very strong memory.

My first year of undergrad. Dog-sitting for my aunt at her new place, on the other side of town from where I had lived my whole life. Far away from everyone, in a rougher area. '30s-style bungalow, thick brick walls and a deep porch. Trucks on the road outside.

Second night, Saturday night. Doing the readings for a lecture on the harm argument against pornography. A lot of material from the eighties. A lot of Dworkin and McKinnon. A lot of statistics. A lot of descriptions of violent and illegal pornography. Putting my jacket on. Turning the light on. Calling the dogs inside, feeding them. Locking the windows. Checking the doors. Descriptions of abuse and assault. Women getting beaten, penetrated with knives. Girls being assaulted. Girls being kidnapped. Women turned into objects. Helplessness.

Late in the evening. Surfacing and eating something, an ice cream? Checking the doors. Putting a kitchen knife on the bedside table. Turning off all the lights. Checking the windows. Calling the dogs into the bedroom. Turning the TV on to Rage, just starting. Smoking a cone. Coiling down into the quilt. Cross Bones Style comes on, hypnotic and understanding and comforting. I wished it could have gone on forever.

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Ute Lemper is best known for her cabaret and Kurt Weill interpretations. She has a huge, throaty, theatrical voice, with tremendous range and an obvious delight in characterisation and irony. This song, Scope J, comes from an album called Punishing Kiss, of covers and songs written specially for her by contemporary artists such as Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and Neil Hannon. As might be expected this is a very melodramatic album about breakups, whores, bars, Berlin, drinking, cobblestone streets, and murder.

And then at the end is Scope J. Most of the album is backed by The Divine Comedy and arranged by Jody Talbot. Most of the album is about concrete characters and familiar cabaret situations. But Scott Walker wrote Scope J, and Scott Walker arranged arranged Scope J. It contains a bizarre bridge in which she mutters Herbert Ponting's The Sleeping Bag. It is, very darkly, funny, and it is, unsurprisingly, Fucking Weird. It is the Scott Walker of Tilt and The Drift. Most reviews of Punishing Kiss singled it out either for high praise or for mystified what-the-fuckery.

Lemper, who is a "theatre uber alles" kind of gal, and loves Scott Walker for his theatricality, has confessed that even she doesn't know what this avant-garde piece exactly means. It was very difficult for her to perform, and a very internal song. A very still and chilly song in which sunlight glints off of snowbanks in the high tinkle of windchimes and violins scream about death.

Lemper has a huge range, and could convey a Walkerish, baritonish feel if she wanted -- like on The Drift's Jesse, perhaps. But she has the power and control to hit the clouds, competing with the violins and guitars without sounding in the least shrill. She sounds, frankly, like she's come from another realm.

What realm? With its references to Russia we are put not as much in mind of Ponting's Arctic but Tolstoy's snowblind Russia of Master and Man, in which "snow fell from above and at times rose up from below"; the kind of other-space on which meaning and objects either dissolve or overwhelm in their significance, and you come up hard against the limits of physical and metaphysical experience:



Vassily Andreich rushed after him, but the snow was so deep and the coats on him were so heavy that each leg sank over the knee, and, having gone no more than twenty steps, he got out of breath and stopped. "The woods, the wethers, the rent, the shop, the pot-houses, the house and barn with the iron roofs, the heir," he thought, "what will become of it all? What is this? It can't be!" flashed in his head. And for some reason he recalled the wind-tossed wormwood, which he had passed twice, and such terror came over him that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him. He thought: "Isn't it all a dream?" and wanted to wake up, but there was nowhere to wake up in. This was real snow that lashed him in the face, and poured over him, and felt cold on his right hand, the glove for which he had lost, and this was a real waste, in which he now remained alone, like that wormwood, awaiting an inevitable, speedy, and senseless death.



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A rough guess and anecdotal evidence suggests that A Woman A Man Walked By is in the bottom tier of most people's personal PJ Harvey album rankings. It is a weird one. John Parish wrote the music and sent it to Harvey in a couple of batches. She then either wrote lyrics or matched already written lyrics to the music, figured out how to sing them, and sent them back for approval. He approved just about all of it and they put the album together.

As a result it is very much an album of individual songs -- "individual worlds," Harvey calls them, each demanding a different approach. The range is shocking on first and subsequent listens. Black Hearted Love is a pure perfect rock song and her voice is powerful, melancholy and sexy. Pig Will Not is snarling rage. Cracks in the Canvas is spoken word. The Soldiers presages the eerie delicate falsetto she experiments with in White Chalk.

Each piece of music demanded of her that she seek out a new way to use her voice, to turn it into the right instrument for each song. She would try different voices, create different characters, working at different ways of singing. In the end, each song, between music, lyric and voice, finds the way it "has to be." For her, co-writing this album was a matter of working at it until she reached the limits of what she was able to do with her voice sylistically, emotionally, and, fascinatingly, physically.

April is a standout track. Imagine first listening to that quiet moan of organ and drums and thinking, what I need to do now is sing ugly. A squeaky, croaky tilting warble like I have no technique at all. She has no vanity.

Aside from the brainworks, if you have vocal chords, a pair of lungs, and a mouth you can sing. In the clip below of her (and Parish & Co) performing April live I am amazed by two things:

1. That croak in her voice during the bulk of the song is vocal fry. What you are hearing is the physical fact of her vocal folds vibrating and allowing air to pass through irregularly. Vocal fry is a pretty common sylistic tool in singing - the most famous example is Britney's characteristic "oh baby baby." It's easiest to hit on low notes (metal vocalists use it a lot too) and can lend a sexy feel to vocals when used judiciously. What you never hear is someone using it for a whole song and to pitch it up in the clouds. Not only is it super weird and unsexy it is DIFFICULT and requires a ton of technique and control. Try and sing "oh baby baby" over and over again a couple of octaves up and see how hard it is.

2. She spends most of the song tense, repressed, and internally focussed. When the music rises and she belts out the climax her shoulders drop and her mouth opens wide and her tongue flattens and bends to make those vowels as strong as possible. You can see it changing shape in the middle of words, reaching up to tap the back of her teeth to make a t. Pure phonetics, stretched to extremes in service of emotion and character.



To be clear this is not just how "how PJ Harvey sings." In that same session for the elaborate hide-and-seek song Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen she waves her arms, laughs, yips, ducks out of view, tosses her head about as characters call from different sides of the garden.



It is not enough to sing the right words at the right pitch in the right order. Your voice comes from your body; she creates the emotion in her posture, her throat, the physical facts of her body. A song like April is ONLY successful if she can deliver it right, which would be, for most people, an impossibility. She is a genius.

ARF

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