When I describe the kinds of lyrics that turn me on, I like to use the word “impressionistic.” Here, let me explain what I mean by that, because I don’t see that word used to describe a lyrical style often.
In an impressionistic paintings, colors and abstract shapes are used to express a feeling. Often you don’t recognize what the artist is painting (Is it an apple? Or is it a knife?) — what you get is a more gut-level experience, emotion that’s perhaps describable yet not concretely defined.
Similarly, impressionistic music (emerged around the turn of 20th Century — Claude Debussy is perhaps the most famous example) is long on mood but shorter on hummable melodies, choosing to string together a piece by splashing colorful chords and harmonies and leaving out more clearly discernible structures and hook.
Impressionistic lyrics to me is similar in that there’s no articulated story and on a quick read you can’t quite figure out what it’s about. But there is definitely an “arc” — a sense of a story with beginning and end — and there are themes. Words are used more for their sound and imagery they evoke, instead of explaining something.
The fun about writing in such style is that the writer is freed of the responsibility to make sense or explain him/herself, which can be liberating. It can also be indulgent, too, though, because the song can quickly lose focus and definition. I like it when this is avoided by inserting lines that clearly define the central emotion. It acts like an anchor, a foundation on which the rest of the song can stand.
For an avid lyric reader, the fun lies in discerning the faint trace of logic that holds the words together and identifying that central theme/feeling/message. It’s like solving a puzzle, and when you arrive at a well-defined interpretation (which may or may not be what the writer intended to convey, but that really doesn’t matter) it’s a very satisfying experience. You feel grateful to the song for challenging, stimulating and stretching you.
The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” is one of the role model songs for me and my go-to piece to demonstrate what I mean. Here are a few lines from it:
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly.
Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.
Mister City Policeman sitting
Pretty little policemen in a row.
See how they fly like Lucy in the Sky, see how they run.
In the middle of this goofy nonsense, John Lennon casually throws a blatantly common punchline — “I’m crying.” Sitting amidst such silliness one glazes over that line — yet, when I listen to the song, and how he sings that line over and over in shaky falsetto — I can’t help but wonder if it conveys the hidden sadness beneath the layers of psychedelic, drug-induced high. This song lies in the same terrain that U2 mined when they released their magnum opus Achtung Baby — in that, by putting on a stupid disguise, you then are finally free to come clean with your deepest, most profoundly intimate secrets, the ones that you just can’t bear to reveal under all other circumstances. “I Am the Walrus” isn’t a sad song by any means, but to me, that shade of darkness gives it its depth, making it more than just a fluffy joke.
Supremely good stuff, in my book.