Sometimes a few words in a song detach themselves from the music and attach themselves to your life.
"So happy the senator is a fighter, don't tell me nothing's changed," croons Matt Berninger on El Vy's "Return to the Moon." And maybe it means nothing, or maybe it reminds you of watching the former Illinois senator Barack Obama become president, and it fills you with hope.
Maybe, though, you were in despair, your heart handed to you — by a friend, a lover, a broken dream — and Grimes sings, "Hey, hey, hey I don't see the light I saw in you before./ And now I don't, and now I don't, and now I don't care anymore." Then you might start to feel that there is something beyond.
Or you were at that party. You know, the one you don't know why you said yes to, and Alessia Cara's "Here" comes on and she sings that she would "rather be at home all by myself/ not in this room with people who don't even care about my well-being."
Or you are fighting for a just system, and you couldn't feel more in step with Kendrick Lamar when he raps, "Hard times like, 'God!' Bad trips like, 'Yea!' Nazareth, I'm f--ked up, homie you f--ked up, but if God got us then we gon' be all right."
Good lyrics find us when we need them, and stay with us long after we don't.
To help celebrate the great year of music we had in 2015, we asked a few Canadian novelists to weigh in on their favourite lyrics of the year.
Herewith, the best lyrics of 2015.
Song: "Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)"
Album: I Love You, Honeybear
My favourite line of 2015 is in "Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)" by Father John Misty, the second track off his I Love You, Honeybear LP, an extended lusty paean (the fifth track is "When You're Smiling and Astride Me") to his girlfriend/wife Emma. The album is full of great moments but the best comes in "Chateau" when he illustrates "People are boring/ but you’re something else completely" with the gross and carnal "I wanna take you in the kitchen/ lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in."
— Adam Lewis Schroeder, author of All-Day Breakfast
"The cause is Oxymandian," Joanna Newsom sings in "Sapokanikan," invoking Shelley’s famous sonnet in the first line of her melodic tribute and lament to the inexorable forces of history and forgetting.
"Sapokanikan" refers to the Lenape name of a former village and trading post on the site of what is now Greenwich Village. Only Newsom could write a meandering rag that intertwines the buried and forgotten history of New York City, a turn-of-the-century mayor, a peasant woman painted over by Van Gogh and the 11-week general strike of over 20,000 workers against the shirtwaist industry — most of them young Jewish women. The women and their cause, Newsom notes, "are lost in the idling bird calls."
The latter part of the song details the circumstances surrounding the death of former NYC mayor John Purroy Mitchel, whose lavish memorial sits near the reservoir stairway of Central Park at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue. The song imagines a hunter who will arrive in a hundred years to the snow- and time-buried city. What will he make of "the tributes we have left behind to rust in the park"?
Monuments are built to great men while women are painted over on the canvases of master painters. Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten? "Look and despair," sings Newsom.
— Saleema Nawaz, author of Bone and Bread
Song: "Pablow the Blowfish"
Album: Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz
"How can I love someone I never touched
You lived under the water
But I love you so much
You’ve never been on land
And you’ve never seen the sky
You don’t know what a cloud is.
Why does everything I love have to die?"
— "Pablow the Blowfish," by Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus’s "Pablow the Blowfish" is a beautiful, heartbreaking song, and a sensitive, straightforward treatment of empathy, love and helplessness, first recorded by a weeping young woman in a unicorn costume. I’m usually not much of a song lyric-lover, and the main reason for that is all the metaphors. Song lyrics tend to get poetic pretty quickly, and while that has often worked out well, it also often belies the direct emotional content and connection that makes music such an interesting form of expression.
"Pablow the Blowfish" avoids this tendency in the best way. Laments are, usually, mostly about the person doing the lamenting. The song begins with Pablow as an object of affection, at once distant and omnipresent, but very quickly we get into a genuine examination of the world Miley provided for Pablow. The song mourns Pablow in a deep and sincere way, at once plaintively and straightforwardly lamenting his death ("Pablow the blowfish/ I miss you so bad"), while also interrogating and re-considering the position of ownership Miley occupied in his life ("If I could do it again/ I’d release you to the sea/ ‘cause I can’t bear to see/ something so wild just die in a tank"). The song is both sad and, in its empathetic flights of fancy ("I heard of a seahorse named Sadie/ I heard she was quite the lady/ maybe you’ll find her and you can make babies/ that’d be kind of crazy"), optimistic and sweet. "Pablow the Blowfish" doesn’t stand for anything; he was a blowfish who never saw the sky and who someone misses very much.
— Andrew Battershill, author of Pillow
Song: "Holy Shit"
Album: I Love You, Honeybear
"Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
But I fail to see what that's gotta do with you and me."
This song is basically "We Didn't Start the Fire" for hipsters, with Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) listing a bunch of social changes mashed up with bizarre, romantic, depressed imagery and questions. The whole album manages to be incredibly romantic and totally awful at the same time in its lyrics (this is my kinda guy). It was actually hard to pick one track off the album, but the delicious brutality of the "resource scarcity" line pushed this one onto the podium for me.
— Grace O'Connell, author of Magnified World