Not so easy being a rhymin’ Simon

I recently reviewed an album by the guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel – not his usual jazz instrumental stuff but a set of songs with lyrics, most of which he was singing. The review is here.

I confess to a particularly – probably unreasonably so – fussy ear when it comes to song lyrics. A clunky rhyme is one of my particular bugbears. I claimed there were some on the Muthspiel album. Listening again I realise they are not that bad; they’re just rather obvious.

So we have “same” and “game” in And Then; “through” with “you” in Angel Envy; “old” and “cold” in The Sun Won’t Come Around. I don’t mean to pick on Wolfgang, not at all. His album has just acted as a springboard for these musings.

A way with words: Robbie Robertson

A way with words: Robbie Robertson

Sometimes it’s not the rhyming words themselves, but where they come. Robbie Robertson, of The Band, did not shy away from rhymes at the end of lines, but he was also a master of the internal rhyme, of placing them within the lines of the song. So in King Harvest (Has Surely Come) we get “The smell of the leaves/ from the magnolia trees in the meadow…” where “trees” serves to re-iterate “leaves”. Or how about this prime example of both end-of-liners and internals: “Without your love, I’m nothing at all/ Like an empty hall, it’s a lonely fall/Since you’ve gone it’s a losing battle/
Stampeding cattle, they rattle the walls” from It Makes No Difference.

And then there is how they are sung. A more experienced singer can finesse a clunky rhyme so that the listener doesn’t notice. There are probably some roughly-hewn lyrics in jazz standards that Ella or Sarah or whoever have polished with their interpretations.

There is also the art that comes with experienced songwriting, where a more obvious rhyme is used intentionally – with a knowing wink, if you like. Here is a recent example of what I mean from one of my favourite contemporary songwriters, Devon Sproule (in this case the song is a collaboration with Mike O’Neill). We get “summer” and “bummer”, and “city” rhymed with “pity” and “shitty”, before the thoroughly apt circling chorus. It’s also an example of a beautifully constructed and complete song – my daughter was complaining recently of finding some modern songs insufficiently thought through; fragments rather than the whole caboodle. I offered this to her as one without those shortcomings.

It also has an appropriate theme in what has been a warm week. And it is beautifully sung.



Categories: Opinion

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1 reply

  1. And let us not forget ‘now the beach was deserted except for some kelp/you were always there when I needed your help’ or ‘can you cook and sew make flowers grow/do you understand my pain/are you willing to risk it all/or is your love in vain’

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