A ridiculous little hatchet job of a comic that has nothing at all to do with the subject at hand? You bet. If you want to know what inspired it, take a look at the page of absurdity called HOW SOME PEOPLE END UP HERE (warning: it’s R-rated all the way). I just went back through five months of search terms to bring it up to date. People type some pretty strange things into their search engine of choice in order to get here, let me tell you…
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I wanted to pose a question to whoever might be reading this: when an album comes with lyrics/liner notes, do you read them? Or do you just rip the MP3s onto your computer/iPod/hover-thingy and toss the physical album aside, never to be examined again? While I’m all about the hard copy, I know there are a lot of people who feel differently about the whole thing. Even so, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to pretend MP3s never really caught on and the majority of people still buy a lot of CDs and vinyl records.
On a purely local level, I’ve rarely seen any bands/artists in Windsor go to the trouble of printing the lyrics with their physical releases. The only exception to the rule that comes to mind offhand is my friend Ron. This is only an observation, not a criticism. I know there are a lot of factors at play here. It’s more more expensive to print booklets than it is to print two simple one-piece inserts, for one thing — especially when you’re an independent artist without a label to shoulder production costs. It’s time-consuming to put it all together if you’re doing the layout yourself, for another. Proofreading a lot of text is a pain in the posterior. And some people don’t have much interest in releasing their music in any physical format at all anymore, since MP3s make the world go ’round.
For me, having something tangible to touch and examine has always been a large part of what I enjoy about music.
There are plenty of examples of interesting packaging that don’t involve the lyrics being printed at all. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, sometimes not knowing what all the words are has a way of enriching the musical experience. I’ll never understand more than a handful of the words being sung by Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher on the My Bloody Valentine album Loveless, but that music is more about communicating through sound, and not so much about what the actual words are saying. Understanding it on a more basic level might rob the music of some of its mystery and power. It’s also fun to make your own associations and hear what you want to hear.
A favourite pastime when I was younger was sitting at an old typewriter with my fingers fixed to the pause and play buttons of the cassette player, trying to work out what the words were to my favourite songs without the aid of a lyric sheet. Years later I got a lot of this music on CDs with more extensive packaging, and sometimes I found I liked what I thought I heard when I was a kid better than what was really being sung. My friend Milan once misheard a line in the song “People Are Starting to Move in There” (on GROWING SIDEWAYS) as, “God, this is your decrepit house,” which seems more meaningful than what I was actually singing (instead of “God” it was a repetition of “gone” from a previous line).
On the other hand, sometimes the words are more important than anything else, or at the very least an integral part of the music. Leonard Cohen would be the first person to tell you he was always a poet first, and simply found music an effective vehicle for his words — “poetry with guitars”. Very few of the melodies of his songs have ever really struck me, but the guy sure has a way with words, and his voice keeps getting more interesting the older and more weathered it gets. Scott Walker’s Tilt was arguably the most important album I ever picked up on a whim (I keep threatening to go into more detail about my self-imposed musical re-education during my teenage years…I’ll get around to telling the whole tale someday), and the experience wouldn’t have been half as powerful if I hadn’t been able to read the words while I listened and tried to wrap my brain around the alien soundscapes. The lyrics were like some strange poetry ripped from a dream, as fascinating standing alone on the page as they were in musical form.
As for my own music, I’ve never considered my lyrics to be poetry by any stretch of the imagination. But the words have become more important over the years, as blunt emotional nudity gradually gave way to something more thoughtful. “Evening comes and uncoils like a fist,” is a long way from, “You’re so special, I wanna marry your ass.” With CREATIVE NIGHTMARES I thought I would try printing the lyrics with the album just as an experiment. I’ve been doing it ever since. Some of the credit for that has to go to Maya, for insisting the lyrics were deserving of being printed long before I thought they were.
While I print the lyrics mostly for myself because I’ve come to enjoy doing it, sometimes I wonder how many people actually read the words and how much of a role they play in the listening experience. If an album comes with the lyrics, I tend to listen for the first time without reading along, letting my brain hear whatever it’s going to hear and devoting all my attention to experiencing the music. The second or third time through is when I’ll commit to reading along while listening.
I’ve also always been interested in whatever minutiae and technical information is made available — who did the album artwork, who produced/recorded/mixed/mastered the music, who played what, whatever personal message or thanks the artist might have included, and all the stuff in small print that’s probably skipped over by most people. I found out the skipping-past-stuff pattern extended to my own albums when people used to ask me, “Who’s in your band?” when it clearly says in most of the liner notes that I played all the instruments myself.
Sometimes I find myself a little disappointed when a CD comes with liner notes that don’t bother to explain much of anything, though having some pictures or art to explore is a good trade-off. I’ve always enjoyed knowing which musicians were responsible for specific sounds. I guess I’m a bit of a stickler for detail that way. If I play on someone else’s album and basically engineer my own parts, but don’t get any credit for that, it grates a little. I credit the crap out of everything, and I’ve always felt that’s the way it should be. If through some strange twist I ever ended up with anything resembling a band again, I would probably find myself printing musician credits for each individual song. If two musicians trade off on bass and guitar duties, I like to know where the instrument-swapping happens so I can pay attention to the different ways they might approach playing the same instrument.
Initially the whole point of this post was going to be an excuse for me to ask, “How many people read the lyrics when they get my CDs?” and if most people said no, I was thinking about maybe not printing them anymore, at least for a while. Because it does start to get pretty expensive after a while when you’re putting out albums at the rate of at least a few a year. But again, I enjoy doing this purely as an artistic exercise, and the expense isn’t really enough to dissuade me from doing it. So I think the lyric booklets are here to stay.
THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE definitely won’t be getting a lyric booklet when it finally sees the light of day, because a booklet with that many pages wouldn’t fit inside of any jewel case. The album will still come with a booklet of some sort, though. You gotta have something to look at while you’re listening to a four-disc set.
Any thoughts anyone else has on the subject of printed lyrics/liner notes/packaging are welcome and appreciated.