Monday, 24 January 2011

Bang Goes The Scansion

This is a post about song-writing, and the Divine Comedy (Hannon, not Dante). It's been simmering since the latest album was released in May, and has come to the boil as I work my way through the book Finishing The Hat - specifically the sections commenting on the work of other (dead) lyricists, which I'm shamelessly going to imitate, and so highlight a series of distinct songwriters' sins. I should emphasise that I'm not setting myself up as being a 'better' lyricist (whatever that means) than he; from the point of view of a writing blog it makes sense to learn from those one admires, both from their strengths and from their shortcomings.

Hannon's work has got me through many a dull work day and will continue to do so. I love the lush orchestral sound lent by Jobi Talbot, sitting beautifully with Hannon's consitently inventive and often touching lyrics. However much I enjoy his work, I contend that he is sloppy and technically-limited (or -disinterested) as a lyricist.

By technique I mean the craft of choosing words to fit into the rhyming and rhythmical structure of the song, done in such a way as to match natural speech patterns (without putting the emPHAsis on THE wrong sylLAble), and not intruding on what the song is saying. To take extreme examples, contrast Cole Porter's You're The Top - an ostentatious display of technical brilliance - with Alicia Keys's Empire State of Mind - a study in broken scansion (and an 'of' that has no right to exist).

Bang Goes The Knighthood is, to my ears, a very irritating album. The scansion is consistently very poor; by the time we reach the title song it is already grating on my nerves, and I'm afraid I cannot truly enjoy the album because of it. However, I don't intend to pick it apart - though one easily can - save to mention that the carelessness of its author can be summarised in two words "Frank LamPARD".

No, it's much more interesting to take several of my favourite songs, and pick them apart instead. All of his work has scansion problems, but Bang was the point where it went from a tolerable imperfection to a real annoyance. You may think me pedantic for this, but my whole point is that otherwise excellent songs don't hold up to close scrutiny.

We'll kick off with my favourite: Our Mutual Friend. It tells a rich and interesting story, at times touching, and has a tension running through it, paying off at the last line. This is a very strong and effective structure. Look a little closer, though, and cracks appear. Read the first couple of lines as though you were speaking them:

No matter how I try
I just can't get her out of my mind.

You probably put the emphasis on ma-, how, try, can't, out, mind. Hannon's setting emphasises ma-, try, just, get, out, my.
The effect is to make the lyric sound forced and unnatural. Furthermore, if I were reading it aloud, the 'peak' of the phrase would be "can't", but the setting lands it on "my". Contrast with:

Then privately we danced
But couldn't seem to keep our balance.

Here the lyric sounds natural, because the ebb and flow of the lyric and melody match that of how it would be spoken. The song, sadly, is littered with other examples of the same problem. The song tells a story, but there are holes in that, too. "We all went back to his place" is followed by the (lovely) sequence of the couple being alone, but it's never explained where everyone else went. Credibility is stretched by the girlfriend having presumably been so drunk as to fall unconscious, but not so hung-over to resist shagging someone else first thing in the morning; it's told through his eyes, so I suppose he could have misinterpreted her. He also doesn't seem to blame her for the incident.

On to Lady Of A Certain Age. This is a poignant vignette of a whole life, again with a last-line pay-off, this time from a refrain. I'll leave the scansion problems as 'an exercise for the reader' as I don't want to repeat myself, but there are a couple of other comments to make:

You chased the sun around the Cote D'Azure
Until the light of youth became obscure.
And left you all alone and in the shade
An English lady of a certain age.

The second of these lines is a weak lyric; it sounds like it's quoting a cliche, but it isn't. Anyway, light doesn't become obscure, it is obscured - the line exists only because it rhymes with D'Azure. Did the light of youth leave her all alone? Sloppy use of language. Shade/age is a pretty weak rhyme, at that, especially for the main idea of the song.

The biggest sin, at least in the recording on Spotify, comes in the payoff. The whole song is in the second person, as though sung to the subject. The "nice young man" who buys drinks is referred to as "he" in verses one and two, but in the otherwise fine climactic payoff, the subject abruptly switches to:

And you'd say "No, you couldn't be"

This is probably a slip of the tongue, but whatever the reason it's unforgivable.

Now Jiggery Pokery, from the cricket-themed album Duckworth-Lewis Method. Very much in the tradition of English light comic songs, it tells the story of the so-called ball of the century bowled by Shane Warne to Mike Gatting. I once attempted an inebriated rendition of this after a dinner-party, in full cricket gear (plus pillow up the shirt), to a non-cricket-literate audience, with predictable consequences. It's a fun, and funny, song about a subject dear to me. Dubious scansion and rhyme (Trafford/Athers - really?) aside, there are still problems. First, the language doesn't ring true:

But such was its rotation that it swerved out to the right.

Nobody ever describes cricket deliveries in terms of right and left, it is invariably in terms of the batsman's off or leg/on side. At any rate, from Gatting's point of view (as is the entire song), it swerved left...

Second is a structural problem. As with the previous examples, we have a last-line payoff. Anyone familiar with the incident knows it was Shane Warne's big moment, and mention of him is (rightly) saved for the climax:

I might as well have been holding a cob of corn.
Jiggery Pokery, who was this nobody making me look so forlorn?
I hate Shane Warne!

Yet the equivalent parts of the preceding verses are all -oon rhymes:

I might as well have been holding a contrabassoon.
Jiggery Pokery, who was this nobody making me look a buffoon?
Like a blithering old buffoon.

I might as well have been holding a child's balloon.
Jiggery Pokery, who was this nobody making me look a bufoon?
Like an accident-prone baboon.

It would have been far more effective to have them all be -orn rhymes, building tension to the Warne payoff. I had a stab at this, within the existing structure, and couldn't get anything which was better than OK and not flawed in some other way. Within this structure there aren't many useful rhymes, and I suspect Hannon tried this before settling as he did. Personally, I'd have restructured once I realised I couldn't do -orn effectively - maybe to make room for something like "wish I had never been born"; songwriting is like a sudoku puzzle with a blank page, where you have to figure out the grid shape yourself, and you have between 0 and 100,000 possible entries for each box. Blind alleys are inevitable, and I argue that this is one.

Worth mentioning is also Don't Look Down, which has the interesting lyric:

The wind that’s blown us dies a quick and painless death
The air gets clammy and we hold each other’s breath

"We hold each other's breath" is a gloriously evocative and economical lyric, and a real favourite of mine. Pity then that "the air gets clammy" is little more than padding, and 'quick and painless death' is a cliche padding out the previous line. A good example of a great payoff with a poor setup. Also "disgraceful or distasteful or distilled" is an admirably inventive bit of alliteration.

I think that's more than enough! To sum up, I'll continue to listen to, admire, and enjoy the Divine Comedy, and I look forward to his/their next offering, warts and all.

Always to thine own self be true
Not to fools like me
Who change their minds
For the sake of rhyming schemes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have hit upon the very thing that I (also a fan and student of Sondheim) find irritating in Divine Comedy songs.

I love them musically, and I am very forgiving of loose rhymes and slacker technique than Sondheim whenever technique might have quashed inspiration, but some of the forced scansion in Divine Comedy really does stick out, and I have to make an effort to ignore it.

Some of the stuff is near-perfect, but the scansion thing is present so often, it's a pity...