Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Contra and Words In/As Music

Since I semi-panned Vampire Weekend's "Horchata" (and attempted to point out the absurdity of their far-in-advance ticket sales) in this space, I figured I was compelled to follow up on the subject of Contra, mainly to say the following:

1. Still not able to fully surrender myself to the pop pleasures of "Horchata" because the lyrics won't let me (and while I'll grant that this can sometimes be a good thing, it's not in this case).

2. Think Contra is really good.

Some elaboration (in which I argue for less emphasis on VW's lyrics while talking mostly about VW's lyrics):

To describe a general trend, the older I get, the less I listen to lyrics.  Or, I should say, the less I listen to lyrics for their meaning or "content" per se.  I listen to lyrics as another component of a song's overall sound - I'm favoring sound over meaning.  I find myself thinking about lyrics only when a phrase jumps out at me, either because it's jarringly bad or out-of-place or strikingly good or apt.  Or when a song is recorded in such a way as to force me to pay close attention to the vocals.

"Horchata" has the unfortunate combination of vocal-centric production and awkward lyrics.  On VW's debut, there were plenty of memorable phrases, good and bad (Oxford commas, climbing to Dharamsala, "a Mansard roof through the trees": yes, please; "kefir on your keffiyah": not workin' for me).  On the rest of Contra, I find fewer phrases jumping out at me than on VW, even though Ezra Koenig's vocals are way out front for most of the album.  And for the most part, out front is where they belong.  Koenig's vocals are very good.  I'm a sucker for the slipping in and out of falsetto thing (there's probably a proper musical term for this) that he's really good at.  He makes it sound like an expressive technique rather than a gimmick or quirk, and the songs on Contra give him a good platform to show it off.  I propose that there's a lot more pleasure to be had from VW's music by focusing more attention on Koenig's singing and less on his words*, but to each his own.

Some of my fears on hearing "Horchata" were realized on the album as a whole, but what I thought were going to be deficiencies, particularly the sidelining of Koenig's guitar in favor of what I interpreted as Rostam Batmanglij's musical fussiness (I swear I typed this last part before I heard that Rostam came out - I found out while Googling the spelling of his name!), actually work and help make Contra sound like a step forward, though a somewhat unexpected one, from VW's debut.  The AutoTune, the ska - these touches show me that the band was unafraid to walk the line between making a fun, enjoyably scattershot pop album and a goofy, embarassing mess.  They ended up on the right side of that line, but close enough to the edge for the album to demand, and reward, attention.     

* This discussion of VW's lyrics got me thinking more about this subject, but I guess the title of the post ("Contra and How We Read Lyrics") illustrates my fundamental difference of opinion.  I know what the author means by "read" in this context, but I still think I'm primarily "listening" to lyrics rather than reading them in any sense.  At a basic "what I'm listening to this music for" level, I just don't care about the levels of meaning that may or may not exist in Koenig's lyrics.  I agree that they can stand up to a bit of analysis and are "interesting" in that way, but they're not that interesting to me in that way.  

The way Koenig sings "contra" as four syllables (or later, ten!?) and "lie" as three, one word taking the melody down, the other bringing it up, and the effect that produces, is much more interesting to me than whatever he means by "I think yr a contra".  That's not to say that any word with a similar sound would do just as well as "contra", but I think the fact that it's a surprising, non-obvious, non-trite word is more important to the success of the song than any other associations it might have. 

I do take pleasure in lyrics that register as rich and complex as words while also being singably musical and at one with the melody - for me, this is the essence of Bob Dylan's genius, to cite one obvious example (assignment for a songwriting or music appreciation class: try listening to "Visions of Johanna" and just concentrating on the vowel sounds. One of Robyn Hitchcock's versions will work nicely if Dylan isn't handy).  I also value lyrics for the way they can cue an emotional response, either reinforcing the mood of the music or, sometimes, whether intentionally or not, sending a conflicting emotional message.  In these two areas, VW's lyrics certainly get passing marks from me.  Even with "Horchata", it's only the verses that bother me - I think the chorus is actually pretty good.  

[Update 3/11/10: Sounds like some good points were made related to the topics discussed above in this conversation between Koenig and author John Wray.  The idea of Koenig taking the scattershot, reference-heavy, product-naming approach to lyric writing from rap and applying it to guitar-keyboard-pop is particularly interesting and, I think, explains a lot.  Others probably made that connection a long time ago, but I didn't.] 


Peli Grietzer said...

that's a pretty fascinating comment. i sort of agree and sort of don't agree. on the one hand, yeah, most of how people engage lyrics is as sound+connotation. on the other hand, even if lyrics-as-literature is a marginal mode of pop consumption, it's a major mode of literary consumption. what i mean is, a lot less people google for lyrics than listen to music without googling for lyrics, but a lot more people google for lyrics than read poetry. which is why i ended up going with 'read' even though it sounds so awkward -- the kind of discourse about lyrics i'm concerned with is the google/lyrics-sheet-at-hand discourse.

Steve said...

Good points, and I like the terms "sound+connotation" and "lyrics-as-literature" to distinguish the two modes better than anything I came up with. Both are legit as far as I'm concerned, and in writing my post I probably exaggerated the extent to which I engage in one over the other.

Peli Grietzer said...

I'm totally with you on the sensuous inferiority of the one liners this time around, though. Only 'California English' measures up in that sense.