I guess there are lyrics people and there are sound people. Meaning there are folks who focus primarily on the meaning and poetry of song lyrics when assessing and responding to music, and then there are those who sort of ignore the lyrics altogether and find some other kind of resonance in the sounds, the volume, the break of the voice, the timbre of the things, the melody. I know this is shaping up to be some sort of cheap and bogus false dichotomy, but that’s how we like to rock it sometimes. Anyway, I guess I’m a sonics/music person. Or at least I’ve had this experience of getting all emotionally wrapped up in songs, listening to them hundreds of times, only to realize that I have no idea what the lyrics are about or what they’re even saying. Take R.E.M.’s "Sitting Still" off of Murmur, for instance. I can get plain teary-eyed choked up listening to that one, and, as far as I can tell from the few lines I can actually make sense of, Michael Stipe is singing about sitting in traffic, being up to par and some other stuff.
The new one from Paula Frazer and Tarnation reminds me of this same paradox. Only Frazer’s enunciation is super crisp and clear, there’s hardly ever a doubt about what she’s singing, but somehow it’s the sound of her voice, the little bleating yips and trills (she sang in a Bulgarian women’s choir and it sort of comes through in places), and the bare spare music behind her that make these songs so heart-breaking. It’s not the words she’s singing. In fact, if you listen closely, the lyrics actually sort of detract from the songs.
There was an interesting story in the NYT back at the end of last year. It focused on the research of this music/neuroscience guy, Daniel Levitin, who had concluded that pop music is pleasing to our brains for reasons that have to do more with texture than with traditional musical components.
''Pop musicians compose with timbre," Levitin said in the story. "Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.''