Give verse a chance

Ryan Merkley [CC BY 2.0 (]

After Gord Downie, is there hope for lyrics in mainstream Canadian music?

This article originally appeared in Eighteen Bridges, a Canadian magazine of narrative journalism.

A LOT OF WHAT I SAW ON MUCHMUSIC in the 1990s has stayed with me. Perhaps it’s because I entered the formative years of my adolescence during the channel’s heyday that so much of my memory bank has been signed over to VJ Erica Ehm, Big Shiny Tunes playlists and Dan Gallagher handing out two-slice toasters on his gameshow, Test Pattern.

But some useful things stuck, too, like a report from the network that aired on September 24, 1994. That day marked the release of Day for Night, an album that galvanized (in platinum, six times) the Tragically Hip’s reputation as atypical but accessible CanCon.

Toronto record stores stayed open until midnight to move copies, and MuchMusic cameras captured an scene that still strikes me as anomalous. A frenzied teenage boy tears plastic from the CD to free the liner notes. “There’s lyrics!” he shouts. Weirdly, he’s not alone. His frenzied friends join the chorus, high-fiving as if Bill Barilko or Paul Henderson or whichever hockey hero that Downie deified in verse had just pocketed a winner. I’d never seen anyone lose their mind over the words a modern, popular Canadian singer set to music. But MuchMusic took note, so I did too. Frenzied Teenage Boy and I became kindred spirits, acolytes of the people’s poetry of Gord Downie.

Whether you like his work or not, Downie was a master of making stream-of-consciousness and free association seem coherent. He riffed on emotional concepts, pinning them down with Canadiana and historical references. True, he sometimes didn’t pin them down, but they worked because he used words like a light, shone into dark corners of the human condition. And this spoke to Canadian pop music listeners, even if only to say, “Check this out,” or “So, there’s yer problem,” or “Whoa, what the hell is that?” I was just happy that someone was exploring, and asking us to come along.

With Downie’s death in 2017, who’s going to extend that invitation now?

Robertson Davies isn’t the go-to authority on this matter, but he implicated himself in the discussion during an address at Yale in February, 1991 (days after the release of Road Apples, the first Hip album on which Downie penned all of the words he sang).

After imploring his audience to give verse a chance, the revered novelist recalled a few lines of “Ha ha! ha ha!,” a Thomas Weelkes poem from 1608. Whatever Weelkes might have been on about (“Ty hye, ty hye! O sweet delight! / He tickles this age that can / Call Tullia’s ape a marmosite / And Leda’s goose a swan”) his tone is obviously playful in a wink-nudge way. Davies would have known the meaning, but it wasn’t exactly the point for him. The reference was just the septuagenarian’s way of squaring his shoulders for a jab at modern lyricists.

“Who writes charming invitations to pleasure in a kind of splendid giggling frolic spirit like that nowadays?” he said. “Not the people who write lyrics – if they may so be called – for rock music; their joy seems to have its roots in disarray of the mind.”

At the risk of sounding equally curmudgeonly, I think Davies was right, and about more than just “rock music.” He didn’t elaborate on the “disarray.” But looking at popular Canadian songs of late, that could be partly defined as a state of mind better suited to telling than showing, and to struggling to describe a feeling rather than finding a way to make listeners feel it as well.

Want examples? Only if you also want to risk the litigiousness of music publishers. But let’s say you made a drinking game out of spotting lyrical weaknesses in number one songs by Canadian artists from the last, say, 20 years. The rules are as follows. If the lyrics disregard the power, nay, very existence of metaphor, that’s a drink (a shot of rye, of course). If they violate George Orwell’s first rule of effective writing – paraphrased as “don’t use clichés” – bottoms up. If there are variations of the phrases “I love/need/want you,” go again. If the lyrics give you no credit as an intelligent consumer of popular culture, that’s enough – you’ll be getting your stomach pumped within the hour at this rate.

I should be more forgiving. There’s a reason lyrics tend to be uninspired, ill-conceived and lazy: good lyrics are hard to write. Davies’ point was that lyrics are supposed to be poetry, the workings of which can be mysterious.

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent,” said Dylan Thomas, unhelpfully. “[It] makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”

More helpful, or at least practical, Berklee College of Music professor Pat Pattison offers an anatomy of modern lyrics that has attracted Grammy-winning songwriters such as Gillian Welch and John Mayer. Pattison’s 2009 book, Writing Better Lyrics, doesn’t so much demystify the language of the heart as it does render abstract art into comprehensible craft. Now in its second edition, the manual covers point of view, setting, prosody and more. “There are two new chapters on handling couplets and modern meter,” Pattison writes in the introduction. That’s right: two whole chapters.

Such attention and effort may pay off in this country more than others. A few years ago, before his stint as host of CBC Radio’s Q, hip-hop artist Shad talked to me about writing lyrics, during a stop in Edmonton for a show.

“I think lyrics matter to Canadians,” he said. “We have a good tradition.” He nodded to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and saw the torch being passed to artists such as Emily Haines of Metric and John K. Sampson, ex-Weakerthans. As for himself: “It’s always surprised me that people pay attention to some of the nuances I’ll throw in there.”

But all of those artists (Shad included) tend to appeal to listeners of college radio or CBC, that is, a limited audience. Meanwhile, mainstream radio makes way for Chad Kroeger or Justin Bieber or Drake. The trouble is, if art doesn’t advance neither does culture. We seem OK with that. But it’s odd because other aspects of our society are expected to innovate and improve constantly. It’s as if the music industry is content to limp to its grave saying (or singing) things no one will remember.

The Junos, Canada’s annual music awards, include 43 categories, none of which specifically highlight a musician’s ability to work with words. The Polaris Prize, awarded for the best full-length Canadian album each year, gets closer to addressing the issue, but not necessarily through the English-speaking artists that make its short-list.

Jeremy Dutcher’s Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is the latest of several Polaris winners to feature another language, in this case the First Nations language of Wolastoq. Soaring and powerful, Dutcher’s voice has gravity. What he’s singing is equally attractive, every syllable a gem enrobed in layers of sound that makes us curious about the meaning of it all.

Dutcher’s accomplishment is as unfamiliar as a good turn of phrase in an English-sung song. And it put his record in the national spotlight, setting a new standard in Canadian music. Every lyric writer should strive to elevate that standard. Isn’t that part of the artist’s job?

“Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do,” said British poet Stephen Spender. That implies failure as much as it does success. As for Downie, hero to many a frenzied teenage boy, I say he managed both; he made us pause and wonder.

“Don’t tell me what the poets are doing,” he sang on the album Phantom Power, four years after that night in Toronto when Day for Night hit the shelves. Some of those poets turned into songwriters. Just not nearly enough of them.