As musicians and songwriters, we think it’s important to listen to the lyrics in other songs to find out what other artists are writing about. It allows us to learn from them and also listen out for things which might inspire our own lyrics. Some of us pay close attention to lyrics, some focus more on the music, and some don’t concentrate on either. But in certain songs, the lyrics are too poignant, relatable or downright bizarre to ignore.
Here, we talk about songs with lyrics that have stood out for us for a number of reasons.
Dust in the Wind - Kansas (1977) [Ella]
I love this song, it’s so beautiful. The lyrics are really deep. Although they sound as if they are seemingly about nothing, to me, they are talking about the frailty of life. No matter how much money we spend, or how hard we work, it’s all futile as everything will soon come to an end, and nothing is permanent. Cheerful right?!
Now, don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won't another minute buy
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Shake It Out - Florence + the Machine (2011) [Naz]
Florence Welch is one of my favourite songwriters and Shake It Out is probably my favourite Florence song lyrically. It’s a song about holding onto regrets and trying to let go. For me, the lyrics are relatable as someone who frequently dwells on the past and on regrets. The first line (below) grabs me every time - I think it’s a clever and thought-provoking opener. The lyrics are very dark in the verses, but when the chorus comes in with each repetition of “shake it off” you feel yourself wanting to let go because “it's hard to dance with a devil on your back”.
Regrets collect like old friends
Here to relive your darkest moments
I can see no way, I can see no way
And all of the ghouls come out to play
Wake up alone - Amy Winehouse (2007)
I could never write a song like this but I’ve always admired Amy Winehouse’s bluntness and brutal honesty in her songwriting, using music as an outlet for the powerful emotions she was feeling. This song in particular has very relatable lyrics; most of us know what it feels like to long for something or someone and to have to distract yourself from feeling shit, and the sudden increase in anxiety and racing thoughts when night time hits.
I stay up, clean the house
At least I'm not drinking
Run around just so I don't have to think about thinking
That silent sense of content
That everyone gets
Just disappears 'soon as the sun sets
Lost On You - LP (2016)
LP is a wonderful songwriter and for this particular song, LP mentioned in an interview that the opening lines (below) are the best she’s ever written. They’re so poetic. I think these opening lines are about LP growing apart from her now ex-girlfriend and trying to figure that out. As we grow older we risk simultaneously growing safer in our relationships and in our decisions, and perhaps don’t realise it’s happening.
When you get older, plainer, saner
Will you remember all the danger we came from?
Burning like embers, falling, tender
Long before the days of no surrender years ago
Army Dreamers - Kate Bush (1980)
A powerful topic and an excellent song. Kate Bush sings about a man going off to war and the impact that has on her once he almost inevitably passes away. The chorus is the most impactful bit for me, where she discusses all the things he could have done had he not been a soldier but will never get the chance to do.
"What could he do?
Should have been a rock star."
But he didn't have the money for a guitar.
"What could he do?
Should have been a politician."
But he never had a proper education.
Linkin Park - Numb (2003)
Linkin Park aren’t afraid to talk about hard-hitting topics in their songs, which is why I love their music so much. Numb was the first song I heard by them. This song is about feeling controlled and under pressure to conform to expectations. I think these feelings are universally relatable. It’s no surprise then that this is one of their most critically acclaimed songs and will always be one of my favourites.
I'm tired of being what you want me to be
Feeling so faithless, lost under the surface
I don't know what you're expecting of me
Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes
Can't you see that you're smothering me?
Holding too tightly, afraid to lose control
'Cause everything that you thought I would be
Has fallen apart right in front of you
Mother’s Little Helper - The Rolling Stones (1966)
An interesting song about the sudden increase in doctors prescribing tranquilising drugs to middle class housewives in the 1950s and 60s. The drug they are referring to is likely to be Valium or Miltown, which would make the users feel relaxed but could be lethal if overdosed on, which the song points to at the end of the song with “if you take more of those, you will get an overdose”.
My favourite part of the song is the chorus, with the metaphor of “shelter” and “mother's little helper” used to refer to the drug.
"Men just aren't the same today"
I hear ev'ry mother say
They just don't appreciate that you get tired
They're so hard to satisfy, You can tranquilize your mind
So go running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And four help you through the night, help to minimize your plight
Glory Box - Portishead (1994)
Beth Gibbons of Portishead is a thought-provoking songwriter who exudes mystery. Glory Box by Portishead is one of my favourite songs of all time. It is a beautiful song about sexual equality. It seems obvious to me, yet, has been misinterpreted many a time. If you’re one of the people who has misinterpreted this song, give the lyrics another read with this in mind.
I'm so tired, of playing
Playing with this bow and arrow
Gonna give my heart away
Leave it to the other girls to play
For I've been a temptress too long
Just, give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be, a woman
I just want to be a woman
So don't you stop, being a man
Just take a little look from our side when you can
Sow a little tenderness
No matter if you cry
Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be, a woman
There is a light that never goes out - The Smiths (1986)
I couldn’t write about my favourite lyrics and exclude The Smiths and this song is a classic. Rated 12th best song of all time by NME, featuring in the London 2012 olympic opening ceremony and a classic Gavin and Stacey scene, this song offers a comedic yet deep description of a young man wanting to let go and enjoy the world, captivate by his company. It’s anthemic, poetic and beautiful.
Take me out tonight
Take me anywhere, I don't care
I don't care, I don't care
And in the darkened underpass
I thought oh God, my chance has come at last
(but then a strange fear gripped me and I
Just couldn't ask)
Enjoy the Silence - Depeche Mode (1990)
There’s a lot of debate between fans when it comes to interpreting Depeche Mode’s lyrics. I think a lot of their songs can be left up to the listener’s interpretation. Some writers are purposefully ambiguous - they don’t want their fans to know what the song means to them, but rather let us interpret it for ourselves. Enjoy the silence is a great example of a song that seems to be about relationships but what exactly Martin Gore is trying to express is unknown and that’s OK! It’s up to you to decide based on how the music and lyrics make you feel.
Words like violence Break the silence Come crashing in Into my little world Painful to me Pierce right through me Can't you understand?