Unlike a lot of listeners, lyrics have usually been at most a secondary concern for me. That’s not to say that lyrics are completely irrelevant or unimportant, but that they are normally rather low on my priorities list when assessing the merits of a particular song or evaluating the work of an artist. It’s only after the first few listens that I pay attention to the lyrics; melody, rhythm, instrumentation, and interaction between all the parts are all more pressing concerns in my mind. If a band succeeds with those elements, I tend to view good lyrics as a bonus. It also helps to have really low expectations for lyrics in general–there’s way too much information to convey in a restricted manner, so if everything doesn’t work out perfectly on the page, it’s probably best to let it slide.
Despite this predisposition, sometimes lyrics can make an immediate impression even on the first listen. It’s not a big deal if a chorus gets stuck in my head or that I remember an opening line, but the more noteworthy cases are when it’s a throwaway lyric in a middle verse that catches my attention. Probably the best personal example I can think of is the line “My old portrait heads of Gertrude Stein” from the Olivia Tremor Control’s “Define A Transparent Dream”–it’s a phrase that stuck out immediately the first time I heard it, and after numerous subsequent listens to Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle I was still able to pick out and enjoy that particular lyric, even without full knowledge of its context. It was a long time before I even knew the name of the song or where it appeared on the album, but sure enough every single time the song played I could jump in and sing along at that moment.
This phenomenon occurred when I listen to the self-titled debut from Alvvays, and something that was briefly mentioned in our review. In an otherwise rather weak year for newcomers, Alvvays stood out from most with its bouncy melodies and sun-soaked atmosphere, with sugar-sweet hooks that never dipped into saccharine territory. The album created a compelling marriage between the retro-revival of 60’s garage pop with the gorgeous arpeggiated guitar melodies of contemporaries like Beach House, and was successful in conveying a soothing sense of calm throughout.
But within the general good vibes, there was one lyric that poked through, and it successfully stuck in my mind precisely because of the way it was set up by the previous songs. The album begins with the playful “Adult Diversion” before smoothly transitioning to the soaring “Archie, Marry Me”, which sets the mood for the rest of the album. “Ones Who Love You” seems to follow in much the same manner, delivering a slight variation of the breezy summer music that we previously heard. Then the third verse comes, and it shocks you with the final line “You can’t feel your fucking face.” This sudden use of profanity from out of nowhere immediately makes the listener reconsider the meaning of the rest of the song, inspiring wonder as to what had been hidden under the surface this whole time.
The rest of the album more or less follows the template of the first two songs, with their wistful nostalgic tones, which makes the “you can’t feel your fucking face” lyric stick out even more and gives the line even more power. It’s strange to praise a writer merely for using the f-word, but this is proof that when it is strategically deployed that it can have a powerful effect on the listener. It knocks listeners out of their comfort zones and forces them to reassess their take on the material, even if this wasn’t the intention of the band.
That said, even after going back and searching for meaning in the lyrics of “Ones Who Love You,” I have no idea what the song is about, but rest assured every time I hear it I’ll be singing along with that line.