For those of you unfamiliar with the acoustic Folk scene of the past decade or two, I would strongly recommend three artists who I feel showcase the three directions a Folk lyricist can go in: The Tallest Man on Earth; The Decemberists; and the Mountain Goats.
The Tallest Man on Earth is thought by some to be the Swedish Bob Dylan because every guy with an acoustic guitar who writes great lyrics is compared to Bob Dylan. And also, he’s Swedish. The fact that Kristian Matsson’s fingerpicking, chord patterns, and vocal ability all far exceed Dylan’s is probably worth mentioning.
Lyrically, he generally writes in a timeless way. He sings in pastoral pictures, and pretty metaphors, and sometimes tells what might be a story, or a comment on human nature, or a mishmash of the two. No one’s really sure. But it certainly leads to fabulous results:
Like I said, very pretty. And also like I said, notably timeless in comparison with the other two styles of Folk writing…
The Decemberists are one of my favourite modern bands, and Colin Meloy is possibly the greatest modern storyteller-songwriter (apologies to Anaïs Mitchell
). A true balladeer.
While they don’t always play acoustically, they stick to their lyrical guns when they go electric: that is to say, they write from a faux historical viewpoint. If Meloy writes a song set centuries ago you can guarantee that he will forsake modern science for a good story. Prime example: The Mariner’s Revenge Song
, in which two men get swallowed by a whale. Because he isn’t just writing from the point of view of an old-timey privateer, he’s writing from the point of view of an old-timey songwriter, who’s writing from the point of view of a privateer. And while I love that, the pretence can grate a tad when words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ crop up with surprising frequency. If you’re in the right mood, it can be lovable, but it doesn’t have, by any comparison, the timeless quality of The Tallest Man on Earth, nor the decidedly modern style of the Mountain Goats…
The Mountain Goats consist primarily of John Darnielle and a constantly evolving, sometime absent, backing band. It is primarily because of the grand tradition The Decemberists uphold of Folk songs being ballads for epic romantic tragedies, period picaresques, or classical fairytales that they are so starkly differently interesting. Their most recent concept album Beat the Champ is one centered around the theme of pro wrestling in all its pageantry, humanity, and emotion. And while yes, it is about wrestlers from the 20th century generally, it is by no means from the standard Folk barrel that was drawn from by the unfathomably many generations-old traditionals, nor the sixties Folk revival crew.
Because of this tradition, there is something complimentary, I feel, in writing a Folk song about something more contemporary, something more everyday. And Darnielle does this with such grace, and with such class that I think anyone would be complimented the way Chavo Guerrero must have been.
That is, because it is a genre in which to tell a tale of blackguards on boats, of werewolves, of roving outcasts, there is something inherently respectful in saying “You deserve a Folk song too; your life, your story is epic ballad enough for me.”
The other form of respect this takes is in Darnielle’s writing about other genres of music. And I think that any song that does that is wonderful, but the only examples I have are comedy songs on YouTube
, Sultans of Swing, and two very lovely Mountain Goats songs. While the song Dance Music
is not strictly about the style, it’s more about using music to cope with a troubled life. In much the same song you could guarantee a Rock band would have sang about Rock ‘n’ Roll getting them through their hard times, and Darnielle simply doesn’t. Not about Rock, not about Folk, just music written primarily to dance to. This isn’t about how much I don’t like Dance as a genre, but I do love how much he doesn’t.
And then there’s the Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton
. I love this song so much, and not just because the chords are great, and the vocal line is simple enough to sing along to without much trouble, but because it’s about “a coupla guys who’d been friends since grade school…” It’s about friendship, and loving music yes, but it’s also about growing up, and about authority figures who believe they know how the real world works. But more than that, it IS about friendship, and it is about loving music, Man. That’s what it’s about because Jeff and Cyrus deserve their Folk song, they deserve their ballad. And there is no greater musical compliment, I feel, than writing your outtro in the style of two teens who know what they want more than anything else, and doing it with absolute sincerity, and without condescension: Hail Satan.
(Featured image pasted from flickr.com, copyright Greg Newman. Article image credit: Taken from @tallestman
, Wikipedia and thelineofbestfit.com.)