What is a song? How important are the lyrics? I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to find an answer to these questions. It seems that there are no songs I like where the words are good but the music is dull. There are also plenty of songs I like where the words are ordinary but the music is great. Obviously, the best songs combine a great sound with great words and there are lots of examples on this terrific album. Before I go there, I’m going to write about the different types of song lyrics with reference to “The Beatles” (The White Album).
“Rocky Racoon” tells a story. Our main character checks into a hotel room (“only to find Gideon’s Bible”), has a contretemps and gets shot. They’re not terribly profound lyrics but in the context of Paul McCartney’s comic book songs, the overall effect is charming.
“Dear Prudence” is a direct address to someone in need of support. Mia Farrow’s sister hid away in her room, meditating and John Lennon showed her some love. One of my favourite Beatles’ songs.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a song which expresses George Harrison’s inner feelings and state of mind. A bit like a blog! In my opinion, the solo acoustic version he performed on his 25th birthday is superior. Is it blasphemy to suggest that The Bootleg Beatles’ live version is fantastic?
“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” is a nonsense experimental song where the words are just a noise which combine with the music to create something memorable.
“Blackbird” is an allegorical song which describes something simple but has a deeper meaning. For many years I had no idea that this was about the Civil Rights movement in the USA.
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun” paints a picture of several disconnected feelings that John Lennon pieced together. A bit like a Cubist painting by Picasso.
“Mother Nature’s Son” is more like an impressionistic painting, insofar as we get a snapshot of someone through a description of their environment.
“Revolution 1” is a direct political statement. This is me, sings John Lennon, and this is what I stand for. I’m not sure about destruction but I’m clear that things must change.
That’s eight types of lyrics: a story, a love song, a blog, nonsense, an allegory, a Cubist painting, an impressionist painting and a political statement. I’m sure there are other types of song. This amazing album by Chris Wood contains at least five of these.
“Two Widows” is a haunting, beautiful impressionistic song. It’s about, er, two widows walking together in a Summer shower, talking about their loss. One is “a year behind” the other – it’s not clear whether she’s a year younger or her bereavement was a year later. It’s also not clear how their husbands have died although in the last verse they are telling their stories to a sailor so it’s tempting to believe that they have been killed in military action. It’s also not clear when this story is set although the use of the word “bower” could imply it was in times past. There’s also a reference to possibly walking from the Severn to Skye, which either means they are walking a long way or that their grief is common through the land. As an impressionist piece, it is sublime with the exact meaning rather elusive but the emotions are crystal clear. The instrumentation is mainly Chris Wood’s electric guitar and a very understated fiddle and percussion combine to make a perfect song.
By contrast, “Hollow Point” tells a story. It’s a gripping eight minute account of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes by members of the Metropolitan Police at Stockwell Tube station in 2005. They believed he was involved in four attempted bombings in London on the previous day. One of the unexploded bags contained an address in Tulse Hill and surveillance officers saw Menezes leave his house so they followed him onto a tube and shot him. That’s a very simplistic account of a hugely complex incident but the end result was the death of an innocent Brazilian electrician. Peter and I saw Chris Wood in Burgess Hill a few years ago and his solo performance of this song was electrifying. Just Chris Wood, his guitar and his restrained sorrowful anger for eight minutes. One of the interesting lines in the song is “through the hourglass the sand is falling and there is nothing they can do”. I like to believe that this line indicates that Chris Wood believes that each police officer was as much a victim of circumstance as Jean Charles de Menezes.
“The Grand Correction” is a political statement. It slams people that own three or four houses when some young people can’t afford anything. He explains that capitalism appears to be over reliant on confidence in the markets and wonders how it can be right to hand out mortgages for nine times the combined wage. The last verse calls Thatcher a “vicious old spiv who taught us all how greed was good”. He has decided that it is time for a change; it’s time to let the grand correction commence. I don’t understand the line “and I’ll give you both barrels and call it self defence”, but other than that, it’s a brilliant song. As always, his guitar playing is precise, intricate but not overpowering.
“No Honey Tongued Sonnet” is the opening song on the album and is quite complex. There are a lot of references to his school days and how his reports weren’t very good. He claims never to have been taught any Shakespeare or any French, he should have paid more attention but he did realise from his English lessons that he needs to be honest and that’s why his relationship with the person he is addressing is so good. I guess he’s saying that they don’t teach you how to have a successful relationship in school. It’s almost as if he looks at everyone and sees the love there that’s sleeping. It falls into the blog category.
My favourite song on the album is “My Darling’s Downsized” which is a love song to his wife, who is called Henrietta here. It’s very simple insofar as his wife has just decided to work part time and the two of them will be able to spend more time together. When I first saw Chris Wood perform this song live, he explained that he wanted to write the sweetest love song he possibly could. The outcome is spectacular which happens to be an adjective he uses in describing Henrietta the day that she comes home, kicks her shoes off and tells Chris Wood her good news. He is very happy that she is choosing to downsize her work commitment and he feels that the coffee is richer, the eggs are over easier and the breeze is, well, breezier. My favourite couple of lines are “The allotment society application she’s made/She’s put our names forward and she’s bought me a spade“. This just about beats the lines “I’ll dig her a trench then I’ll join her in sitting/Up close on the bench and we’ll watch the spuds chitting”. Most times that I listen to this song, I get emotional and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe there’s a resonance because I first heard this song at about the same time that Roo retired from nursing.
This is another album with a continuity of sound but having become familiar with the songs over the past few years, the variety is in the style of the song. It’s very very good.