May 2007

I hinted at it during my last post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics lately, both in regards to the musical project I’m working on as well as the music that I listen to.

I’ve always been sort of a casual absorber of lyrics in songs, and while I appreciate well-penned lines, bad lyrics aren’t something that will kill a song in my mind if the music surrounding them is good enough. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, but it’s rare to find a song with lyrics so absolutely awful that they obliterate well-crafted music.

On the other side of things, there are artists whom I appreciate for their solid word crafting skills but whose music leaves me feeling absolutely bored. From this angle, it’s near-impossible for great lyrics to rescue a song that’s poorly written, so perhaps I am a bit biased towards the musical side of the quotient.

Great lyrics are fairly subjective, but it’s a part of the current musical project that we haven’t been willing to ignore or even take shortcuts on. In some ways, it’s held us back at times, looking not only for a good phrase, but the perfect phrase for every moment (not only in descriptive ways, but at phonetic and other levels as well). In doing so, there have been levels of analysis and research that I haven’t found myself working at since I was in college.

In saying the above, I know that many of the references and lines and phrases used within our songs won’t be understood by a good portion of those who listen to our music. That’s not to say that we’re working at a higher level than other lyricisits, although on an immodest level I am very proud of them. Instead, I think it simply goes back to that notion that a good portion of people (including myself at many times) appreciate great lyrics, but at the same time aren’t going to spend a great deal of time poring over lines and then making connections between phrases to find threads of ideas that run through songs and even albums themselves.

I think that the aforementioned sentiment has a lot to do with what kinds of lyrics I myself find to be the most engaging. I like lyrics that tease me a bit and give me clues and provide themes without spelling things out in always-obvious ways. Albums like OK Computer by Radiohead have always drawn me in due to their sometimes obscure references mixed with pop culture commentary and reflections of human life in general. I don’t want things to be spelled out perfectly, rather I want something that I can interpret a bit and come to my own conclusions about while having some lines that stick in my head at the same time.

Some people will call that pretentious, and that’s fine to me. I’m sure that the lyrics I’ve had a hand in will come across as obtuse to some and obvious to others, but as mentioned above, I will say that the process in writing them has (so far) made for some some of the most frustrating, interesting, and creative writing moments that I’ve had in the past ten years. It’s all a learning process, and that’s a good thing.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James YoungI’m not sure where I stumbled across reading about this book, but somewhere along the way during the past two months it found its way onto my Amazon wishlist and finally into my personal library. Originally written back in the 1940s, A Technique for Producing Ideas is basically exactly what the title states. James Young put it together at the time as a way to lay out the creative process for advertisers, but it really pretty much applies to any discipline.

I bought the book because I was feeling like I was stuck in somewhat of a creative rut and thought it might provide a slightly different perspective on things, but after spinning through the short book (in about thirty minutes), I realized that the process layed out on the pages within was actually remarkably similar to the one that I already use.

The basic gist of it is to work on your idea by throwing out any and all related thoughts during the first part, then trying to visualize ways to bring these (sometimes somewhat disparate) pieces together. If you run into a figurative wall, clear your head with something unrelated, then try things from a different angle.

That’s the basic framework of the book, and it’s better stated within, but I guess I was hoping for a slightly different angle. Fortunately, I feel like I broke free a bit from my slump since before I even read it. My solution was about the same cost as the book itself; a bottle of wine.

Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanAfter seeing the book recommended by many a people, I decided to check out Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the past couple years, I’ve read several titles on both food and food production (including Fast Food Nation, Diet For A New America, and others), but I’d heard from many people that although Pollan touched on a couple of the same sorts of themes, that his book was also very eye-opening in other areas as well.

As I mentioned in a previous post on this site, I have to say that I feel like I learned more from this book than I have in most books I’ve read in the past couple years. Obviously the historical books I’ve read have filled in my knowledge gaps significantly, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the sort of book that not only gives some great new information but shatters some of the things you might think you know about food production in the United States.

Obviously this sort of a book isn’t always an easy read, but unlike Fast Food Nation, which focuses in on food that most people already at least mostly know is bad for them, Pollan sets his sites on food that people like myself thought was being held to a higher standard.

I’m speaking of course, of organic food, and the problems with industrial food of this nature seem like they’d be pretty obvious, yet they were ones that I hadn’t thought of before. Despite USDA regulations (and perhaps because their regulations are so lax, and largely because they have to be), organic food is really not that much different than its non-organic counterparts at the store. Sure, they don’t use pesticides, but all large-scale organic operations still use the same types of labor practices, crop techniques, and of course consume the same (and sometimes more) amount of fuel in their production and transport.

An even more eye-opening section of the book focused in on organic milk, eggs, and chicken, and despite not having eaten meat (other than occasional fish) since 1998, this is the section that made me feel the most guilty. Like organic crops, there is actually very little difference in the actual production techniques of these items, with animal overcrowding and other similar problems haunting the production facilities.

The implied solution behind the book seems to be that when possible, buy local (and organic). Living in the midwest, it’s hard to do this due to long, hard winters that pretty much chop growing seasons in half of what they’d be in more moderate places, but his central idea also makes me appreciate our garden and the local farmer’s market that much more.

With melamine contamination and other food scares cropping up in the United States all the time, it sometimes seems like it’s not even worth the struggle to eat healthy, but this is the sort of book that gives you just a bit more knowledge to help keep up the good fight. Although the final section is a bit tangential, I can still say I recommend this book highly to anyone who’s interested where their food comes from and what it means for our environment.