She can have she, like her birthday, sooth
To sing swan song - Damo Suzuki, “Sing Swan Song” (songmeanings.com)
Shaking her shimmer like you buzz,
They soothe to the sing swan song - Damo Suzuki, “Sing Swan Song” (lyricsmania. com)
It swaps best friends every decade—squealing guitars, lounge-warm keyboards, a jazzy drum and bass loop—but the voice is pop music’s undeniable favorite child. Music critics certainly haven’t ignored this fact: the front(wo)man is almost always the one with the mic to their lips. Say, Mick Jagger’s sassy croon, even when the rest of the band is hanging on Keith Richards’s every strum. It makes sense beyond the obvious fact that the singer is the one up front. He or she’s the one who gets to tie music’s abstraction to some sort of concept, to give it a what. Isn’t that connection—the swelling emotion of music tied to life as it’s lived—what we want?
So why do so many critics ignore lyrics, or at best sequester them to analysis removed from the music and the singer’s performance? For every Greil Marcus, the original Rolling Stone review editor who explicates in reference to how they’re sung, there are 1,000 reviewers happy to stamp “and the lyrics are ___” at the end of a review. There are plenty who would claim the decline of lyrics, such as John Tierney’s 2011 New York Times article about psychologist Nathan DeWall’s “discovery” that pop lyrics have become more narcissistic. But even bad lyrics can be revealing: a top 40 club banger resting on “make the night last forever” still takes an aesthetic position. As it refuses to elaborate what its imperative means, it seems to suggest, listen to the music, not to what I’m saying, and let the blandness of the phrase open the music up.
As almost anyone who’s visited a lyric website can attest, lyrics read pretty badly without music. Take the legendary opening lines of America’s most legendary lyricist’s defining song, Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”:
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
If you turned this in for a creative writing workshop, I can only imagine the pandering you’d secure yourself. But when Dylan snarls the scathing lines, his pinched voice like salt in a wound, accenting the rhymes with a violent percussiveness, they don’t seem so trite at all: a blistering take down of “slumming it” as an upper middle class brand of tourism. The secret’s not in the lyrics, or Dylan’s voice alone: it’s in the way his voice brings an angle to the lyrics, brings language into a living body.
An industry around lyrics is booming; Google has begun to offer lyric search results in its contest with Genius, a lyric listing and explication site that has become the new standard for online lyric sites. Its listings feature analysis from anonymous users all the way to Nas. Even on Genius, lyrics live in a fantasy world: they’re treated with high school English analysis, and the vocal performance disappears to make way for this interpretation. And, as with the lyrics of Can’s Damo Suzuki that begin this article, what happens when a singer mines the gray zone between sonic and semantic content, when it’s not even clear how to write them down?
Sun Ra was from Saturn, plain and simple. After he teleported to the planet in college, he was convinced to drop out, change his birth name, and change the world. When the influential jazz musician and Afrofuturism pioneer was asked about his connection with his birth name in the documentary Cosmic Swing, he said, “That’s an imaginary person, never existed... Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym.” Ra’s music with his band The Arkestra, especially in their New York period in the 60s, seems to confirm his impossible origins: their free jazz finds the pressure points where music bleeds into noise, and on the flip side where atonal noise greets us like some ethereal music. A murky jazz jam will shoot off into a whining unaccompanied horn for four minutes, then back to earth and its rotation.
Ra’s embrace of Black nationalism and his cultivation of Afrofuturism, where he posited his own view of the African diaspora’s history, refused to abide by the state’s approach to blackness. His musical experiments are inseparable from this role, as he didn’t merely want to change how we perceive sound, but to aim this perception toward American’s destructive tendencies. While most of Ra’s musical innovations and derangements take place at the instrumental level, there are moments in his oeuvre where he shatters standardized language into gorgeous technicolor shards. His moniker is its own linguistic doubling, a unique name that can’t be reduced in its duality without colonizing: the English word “Sun” and the Egyptian sun god. And as with the spelling of The Arkestra, Ra’s otherworldly status allows him to curb standard language toward his own invention. Nowhere is this more lyrically clear than in 1982’s “Nuclear War” off the album of the same name.
The track, recorded during the Arkestra’s tamer, swing-influenced Philadelphia period, is sonic white bread compared to the interstellar jazzfucks of his earlier work. But its lyrical call-and-response is a perfect instance of his extraterrestiral revisions of language. When Ra took the album to Columbia records, positive he was sitting on a potential mainstream breakthrough, they turned him away for lyrics like, “It’s a motherfucker, don’t you know / if they push that button, your ass gotta go.” The nearly eight-minute single, a laid-back piano groove, was eventually released on Britain’s post-punk Y Records, and then in Italy two years later.
If you look at a lyric website for this song (here a Tumblr lyric page called Lyrica Aesthetica), here’s what you’ll find for the first verse:
They’re talkin’ about Nuclear War
They’re talkin’ about Nuclear War
This transcription is horribly off, by necessity. Ra coins his own pronunciation of “nuclear,” huffing the word out as something phonetically closer to “nooka-lur.” This isn’t the “nook-you-lur” that George Bush would drop decades later. Ra’s bouncy pronunciation is odd, yet pointed: the way “nuke” emerges as the first burst of sound over bubbling piano seems to unearth the knee-jerk horror
in “Nuclear War,” as well as the verb “nuke.” This may seem like an over-reading, giving conceptual gloss to a mistake, plain and simple. But you’d be wrong to think Ra is ignorant of the “correct” pronunciation: as the song progresses, his background singers obediently echo his phrases, a Greek Chorus with the needle stuck. In cleaner voices, they sing “nuclear war,” standard American pronunciation. This call-and-response takes on a sinister dissonance, as Ra later drawls about “mutation” and “radiation.” Sometimes the two versions of “nuclear” are sounded at once, the mutation layered over the standard. From this dissonance emerges Ra’s self-realized power as an otherworldly alien: to refract the limits of human communication into fresh utterances. All the while, the chords swell, slowly cruising toward a resolution the lyrics suggest will never be reached in the face of imperialist destruction. When Ra finally whispers “you can kiss your ass goodbye” at the song’s end, it almost sounds like a graceful send-off to earth, an effect beyond eerie.
For Ra, standard pronunciation is not merely a pedantic linguistic concern. How could it be for someone so foundational to the development of Afrofuturism? Standard American English has been used for racist means to degrade Black American culture for deviating from this standard, itself a theoretical fiction. Ra dramatizes this white linguistic imperialism and its resistance, with a simple echo of the term “nuclear war” that better accommodates the complex code-switching that being Black in America necessitates. Ra is bold enough to face this hegemony and riff of it with musical spark above a trotting beat, to improvise his own form. Sun Ra’s mutation embraces the varieties of speech as creative elements, not ones to be corrected. Flattened to a lyric website, this subversive motion loses force, collapsing into the standard it pushes against. Sometimes, that’s what’s at stake in severing performance and music from semantic content: a white-washing, reverting to bland abstracts. “It’s a motherfucker, don’t you know,” Ra yawps.
Can is one of those perennially-cited bands whose influence is touted much more than their actual music. Even if you haven’t heard them, you’ve heard them. When Radiohead digs into a trance-like drum and bass groove, that’s Can talking. When Stephen Malkmus of Pavement’s vocal freak-outs split open his candy melodies, that’s Can talking. But a first listen of Can’s albums with Japanese frontman Kenjo “Damo” Suzuki—a string of four from 1971’s Tago Mago to 1974’s Soon Over Babulama—is startling to say the least. With such charismatic frontmen like Malkmus and Thom Yorke championing their sound, it’s surprising to hear Damo Suzuki’s half-singing, half-squealing, and sometimes whispering in broken English or no language at all. Unlike the voices of rock music’s pantheon, Suzuki’s seems forever out of focus, perched on the border between sound and speech. And that’s exactly why he’s such a seductive frontman: he draws attention in spastic bursts to the voice’s primacy in music and how singing can communicate ideas and feelings where language breaks down.
Can was a peculiar assemblage of musicians from Cologne, Germany. Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist and producer Holgar Czukay studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the twentieth century. Disenchanted free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, who became famous in Can for his “Motorik” beat—essentially, a chugging kick-kick-snare-kick—provided the rhythmic bedrock to Can’s experimentation, along with Czukay’s hypnotically simple bass lines. Guitarist Michael Karoli emerged
in a younger generation with psychedelic rock inclinations. This amalgam of free jazz, oddball ambient electronics, tribal percussion, and noodling guitar work was already an uncanny brew with American singer Malcolm Mooney at the helm. But the band’s canonical work comes with Suzuki, whom Can noticed busking on the street in Munich in May 1970 after Mooney’s departure. They asked him to perform with them that night.
Can was interested in what “world music” might look like. It’s not the world music popularized by Paul Simon’s Graceland, which married African musical traditions and musicians with Simon’s pop stylings. Less than the appropriation that’s become a primary color in rock ‘n’ roll (think Mick Jagger’s southern accent on Exile, or the existence of the Stones at all), it’s a dramatization of appropriation, crashing cultures into each other rather than merely borrowing choice elements. This schizophrenic approach calls attention to the variety of sonic communities and creates something that doesn’t merely take one foreign element into the building of rock ‘n’ roll, but dissolves the whole edifice.
1971’s Tago Mago, the album that put the band on the map, is chock full of long improvised jams. It’s a different kind of jamming than the circle-jerk soloing found in many jam bands and prog rock groups of the time. Czukay cribbed Miles Davis’s technique of recording long jams and then manipulating them in the studio. The result is free-flowing “instantaneous compositions”—often just the pounding madhouse of Can’s rhythm section—to be curated later on. The most famous of the album’s tracks is the 18-minutes-and-change “Halleluhwah,” a gut-punch funk beat meandering with trance-like simplicity and high-frequency guitar squeals. Suzuki’s first verse is a surreal mash of images, made even more so by Suzuki’s almost-unrecognizable pronunciations. The title itself takes a phrase of religious jubilation and blends it with Karoli’s “wah wah” pedal, a word of ecstasy blurring into a sonic reverie. Suzuki’s first verse, in languid mumbling and ecstatic shrieks:
Did anybody see the snowman standing on winter road
With broken guitar in his hand, onion peeling sleepy eye?
It’s my recording station man I record in his head
Knowing that too big mouth, oh ice can flow away, one knows
The grammar is as distorted as Suzuki’s pronunciation. But for a band of such cultural amalgamation, this isn’t Suzuki’s weakness: in fact, its his borderdwelling strength, drawing attention not to foreign language as an ornament of anthropological interest, but to any language as an echo chamber that is not synonymous with sensory experience, yet inseparable from it.
The cathartic break comes when Suzuki, his voice almost married to Koroli’s guitar cries at this point, rattles out, over and over, “Halalalalalalalalalalalaluwah.” He loses himself in a sort of la-la glossalalia of song, chanting his invented word where the semantic meaning is far less important than the possessed intensity Suzuki brings. His lyrics and antics are hardly a utopian dream, but an unravelling of how language conveys meaning in music. Liebeszeit’s fixed drumming becomes more a means of “sense making” than Suzuki’s lyrics, as the frontman is caught in a linguistic and stylistic Bermuda triangle. Suzuki is more than just an anti-frontman: he twists and shouts his words until we can’t tell front from back, only aware of the various angles and tongues one can sing from.
I wonder if there’s a possible future in which music journalism doesn’t cut the head off the beast before deciding what creature it is. In a marketplace that depends on quick consumption, it’s hard to imagine linguistic erosions like those of Sun Ra or Can garnering the same attention as songs with “messages,” or tracks with a decided lack thereof. Which only makes an appreciation of these gray zones between language and music all the more important: to attest that lyrics are not merely a means toward a neatly categorized product, but a rattling exploration of what it means to mean. While these groups aren’t necessarily connected
in a historical lineage, Ra’s linguistic “mutations” help me understand Can, and vice versa. As Suzuki spits out on Ege Bamyasi’s “One More Night”: “One more Saturday night...one more suck at your life.” The mutation, Suzuki’s mishearing breaking “Saturday night” into shards of other words, begets a new and far more thought-provoking meaning. When I listen to the experiments of artists like Sun Ra and Can, I get the sense that lyrics aren’t just a recapitulation of themes in a tradition, but a subversive forward shove toward a new meaning, a new angle, toward one more suck at your life.
GREG NISSAN B’15 is sonic whitebread.