x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Jarvis Cocker's lyrics to be published in a book

Cocker modestly admits his song lyrics are 'alright'.

British singer Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the band Pulp, performs at the second day of Open'er Festival 2011 in Sopot, Poland.
British singer Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the band Pulp, performs at the second day of Open'er Festival 2011 in Sopot, Poland.
As knowing insights into the first flush of love go, it's not exactly Shakespeare. But "I took her to a supermarket/ I don't know why but I had to start it somewhere/ So it started there," has its own, peculiarly left field charm. It's also the second verse of the Britpop band Pulp's 1995 hit Common People - and last week the publishing house Faber announced that it is to publish a book of the frontman Jarvis Cocker's witty, playful and always intelligent lyrics in October.

In typically self-effacing fashion, Cocker announced on Faber's Vimeo page that "I went back and looked at the words [to Pulp's songs] and with the passage of time I realised that some of them were alright."

He was being seriously modest: his acerbic dissection of the British class system in Common People is spot on. The evocative flashbacks to growing up in a northern English town in Disco 2000 ("Your house was very small/ with woodchip on the wall") are straight out of a Simon Armitage poem.

It remains to be seen whether these excerpts will feature in Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics - or indeed whether Faber might experiment with the e-book and ask Cocker to read the lyrics rather than sing them. It would be an interesting exercise, because Cocker's book reignites the old debate about the literary merit of songwriting once the tune is taken away.

Recent developments certainly suggest songwriters are beginning to enjoy the kind of plaudits usually reserved for authors. Last month, the Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen won the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters, a Spanish prize that has in the past gone to esteemed novelists such as Margaret Atwood and Paul Auster. The jury gushed that he had created "emotional imagery in which poetry and music are fused in an oeuvre of immutable merit". Anyone with a passing knowledge of Cohen's heartbreaking anthem Hallelujah will find that hard to argue with.

Meanwhile, Bob Dylan has been nominated for the highly regarded Neustadt International Prize for Literature, for which he will compete with the likes of the Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, the Bosnian writer Alexsandar Hemon and other renowned novelists from around the world. Dylan, of course, is often referred to as the beatnik bard, and has not only published books of his lyrics but had them dissected and analysed by academics and critics. The Oxford Book of American Poetry contains TS Eliot's The Waste Land and Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, but also the surrealist lyrics to Dylan's epic song from 1965, Desolation Row.

Desolation Row genuinely stands up as a story, and Dylan would later admit that the song was heavily influenced by the work of the great American poet Allen Ginsberg. Read it now and it's obvious why it made it into The Oxford Book Of American Poetry: it boasts the kind of wordplay - "Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood/ With his memories in a trunk/ Passed this way an hour ago/ With his friend, a jealous monk" - one might expect of the form. Crucially, too, it's not constricted by the typical verse/chorus structure of a pop song.

And often, it's the repetitive nature of pop songs - the idea that every hit needs a memorable, singalong chorus - that scuppers their potential to be regarded as poetry. Candle In The Wind by Elton John is the best-selling single ever, and until its ubiquity dulled its power, there was something majestic about this soaring ballad bemoaning the fate of Marilyn Monroe. But try reading the lyrics without the music and, really, only the "candle in the wind" image stands out. The rest is real schoolboy stuff.

But then, it's actually very rare that songwriters will pen fully rounded verses and a chorus before they have a melody or a riff in mind. Usually, the words come later, and do so to serve the structure of the song. This week, the BBC broadcast a fascinating documentary on the genesis of a pop song, pairing the songwriter-to-the-stars Guy Chambers with Rufus Wainwright, and filming the results. The level to which they played with the sounds of words rather than their specific meanings was surprising. It wasn't poetry, but simply part of a process towards a finished song.

As for Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics, ironically, Pulp albums used to come with the instruction "NB: please do not read the words while listening to the recordings". Come October, it'll very much be a case of "please do not listen to the recordings while reading the words". With songs that good, it will be difficult.

* Ben East