I heard a Gordon Lightfoot song the other day.
Now, I have nothing at all against the guy. I grew up hearing a lot of his songs on the radio, and I even like some of them. In fact, I was a little surprised by how many of them I can remember when I stop to think about it. And when it comes to music in general, I listen to a lot of songwriters whose lyrics are eccentric at best and impenetrable at worst. It’s all good, it all has its place. But Gordon’s lyrics…well, they just seem to fall between the benches for me. Rather than writing straightforward lyrics to go with his straightforward folk-pop, he tries to be poetic, but it almost seems he tries too hard, and it ends up just being goofy. Or maybe it would be fine if he just went for total free-associative, abstract imagery and let the listener make it about whatever s/he wants.
So I’ve selected some samples of his “best” work for analysis here. First, to whet your appetite, there’s this couplet/koan from “Sundown”:
Sometimes I think it’s a shame
When I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain
How do you “get feelin’ better” when you weren’t feeling bad to begin with? And even if you go from, say, the simple absence of pain to a more positive state, like euphoria, why is that a shame? He doesn’t explain. Counterintuitive to say the least.
Then there’s a bunch of good lines from “Race Among the Ruins”:
When you wake up to the promise
Of your dream world comin’ true
With one less friend to call on
Was it someone that I knew?
It’s not clear why the person being addressed here has apparently lost a friend. Doesn’t seem to fit with the previous image of their “dream world coming true”, either. In my dream world, I’d like to have all my friends there too. And asking if he knew the person just seems awkward. If he knows this person lost a friend, wouldn’t he probably know who it was already? Plus, the previous three lines seemed to be leading to some sort of conclusion — you expect that “when” to lead to a “then”, but you’re left with this out-of-place question concluding the verse. Jarring.
Away you will go sailin’
In a race among the ruins
If you plan to face tomorrow
Do it soon
So…there’s some sort of sailing race among ruins? What kind of ruins are partially submerged in a body of water? I’m hard-pressed to think of any off the top of my head. And wouldn’t that be a pretty stupid and dangerous place to be racing boats?
And yeah, I imagine you would have to face tomorrow soon. ‘Cause it’ll be here soon, you know. Like, tomorrow. Less than twenty-four hours away. Better get on that, I guess.
The road to love is littered
By the bones of other ones
Who by the magic of the moment
Were mysteriously undone
You try to understand it
But you never seem to find
Any kind of freedom
Comin’ clean is just another state of mind
Sigh. He seemed to be doing so well there for a minute. The first four lines seem mostly cohesive, but what does finding freedom have to do with trying to understand the mysteries of the bone-littered road to love? And what does he mean by “coming clean”? Getting off drugs, or just simply being honest? I would imagine the latter, but it still doesn’t seem to fit with the rough theme that had been developing. I’m beginning to suspect he’s getting to the last line of a verse and just throwing something out there to complete the rhyme whether it makes sense or not. I swear, more pop music has been ruined by the perceived need to force rhymes…but I digress.
So take the best of all that’s left
You know this cannot last
Even though your mother was your maker
From her apron strings you pass
What can’t last? And whatever it is, why is it contingent upon your mother being your maker? Why is that “even though” in there? Okay, wait, maybe the first two lines go together, and the next two are off on their own. Is this an “all things must pass” reference? That would be cool, I guess…but still, what an odd construction just to express the thought, “Everything changes.”
Just think about the fool
Who by his virtue can be found
In a most unusual situation
Playin’ jester to the clown
Okay, I’m lost. I have no idea why I’m supposed to be thinking about the fool, who he is, or what the jester and clown are doing here. Let’s just move on to the last song for consideration. From “The Watchman’s Gone”:
If I give you a rose, buddy
Would you please bury it in the fields?
I seen a rose
Watchin’ it all fold out
This is what I’m talking about! This one just cracks me up. I picture a guy in a bar handing another guy a rose (let’s hope he’s not a homophobic angry drunk) and asking him to go bury it in a field. Wouldn’t the likely response be something like, “What the fuck, man? Just throw it in the trash if you don’t want it, or shove it up your ass! I don’t want your fuckin’ flowers!” Maybe this is supposed to symbolize the loss of something precious, but bringing the other guy into the scene just makes it hilarious. You should have buried that rose yourself, Gordon.