There’s a scene in The Simpsons episode, Lisa The Simpson (1998), where Lisa is watching a jazz violinist’s performance and a man is criticising it. “You have to listen to the notes she doesn’t play,” Lisa says in the music’s defence. “I can do that at home,” the man drily replies.
The scene is meant to poke fun at the perceived pomposity of jazz, but it got me thinking about lyrics instead. I research lyrics and songwriting, and I believe that, sometimes, the best thing a lyricist can do is say as little as possible.
Which brings me to the recently released Dark Side of The Moon: Redux by former Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters. It was Waters’ intention for the original Pink Floyd album to cover the themes of greed, conflict, religion, mortality and mental illness. And it’s these themes (or, at least, his desire to hammer them home) that are at the root of his decision to create this “redux” version of the album.
Although redux means “revived”, in the hands of Waters the words become expanded, overstated and overwritten.
Boiling down complex themes and arguments into a three-minute pop song is a test of skill that positions good lyricists (as the award-winning songwriter Jimmy Webb puts it) as “the Swiss watchmakers of music and literature”.
Morrissey, the lead singer of The Smiths, achieved this effect in the song Still Ill (1984). As author Will Self noted in his book Feeding Frenzy (2002), Morrissey “is responsible – among other things – for encapsulating 200 years of philosophical speculation in a single line: ‘Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body, I dunno.’”
But the subtlety, nuance and art of suggestion that comes with brevity in lyrics seems to have escaped Waters on Dark Side of The Moon: Redux.
Revisiting Dark Side of the Moon
When asked in a recent interview why he’d decided to remake the record, Waters said: “Because not enough people recognised what it’s about, what it was I was saying then.” But it’s this presumed need to clarify and explain that’s the major shortcoming of the Redux – it’s removed all subtlety.
In Money (theme: greed), he bolsters the “capitalism is evil” message of the original track by adding in lines like: “The devil pats the briefcase that holds the Faustian pact.”
In On the Run (theme: conflict and religion), Waters says that there are: “Hordes and hordes / Too many to count / Poised to attack.”
In Brain Damage (theme: mental illness), he takes away all ambiguity with his introduction: “Why don’t we re-record Dark Side of the Moon? He’s gone mad” – before launching straight into the opening line: “The lunatic is on the grass.”
This positions himself as said “lunatic”, instead of – as the original does – allowing the listener to wonder who the subject is (former Pink Floyd bandmate Syd Barrett? The media? Humanity in general?)
The problem with overwriting
It’s perhaps on The Great Gig In The Sky (theme: mortality) where Waters is most successful in removing the nuance and subtlety of the original. He chooses to replace the largely wordless original track with a monologue about a friend who died of cancer.
On the original track, Abbey Road Studios doorman Gerry O’Driscoll utters the lines: “And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don’t mind / Why should I be frightened of dying? / There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.” This is followed by a three-and-a-half minute, searing, emotion-packed but lyric-less vocal from Clare Torry that manages, in the words of Vulture journalist Craig Jenkins, to “express the full range of human emotion without relying on words”.
And those few words are all the song needs. They succeed in putting the theme of mortality into the listener’s mind, then the music allows them time to mull it over and ruminate over their own place in the world. In his book The World in Six Songs (2008), psychologist Daniel Levitin says that the compression of meaning in song lyrics invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story.
But in force-feeding the listener a pathos-soaked story on Redux’s The Great Gig in The Sky, Waters isn’t allowing us to participate, to figure out our own thoughts, to feel. Waters is explicitly telling us the meaning, and as a result, he risks losing our engagement altogether.
In Redux, Waters goes from the extreme of understatement in his earlier work to the extreme of overstatement and overwriting. Redux has its moments – not least in how Waters’ weathered, character-filled voice inhabits and adds weight to his original lyrics – but sometimes, less really is more.
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