The best lyrics are the ones that sound conversational when you read them. By sounding conversational, the ideas you’re conveying are going to have the best chance for touching the heart of the listener.
Conversational lyrics touch the heart because they’re more likely to use simple, everyday words, the kind that are usually the most emotionally meaningful to us. You might worry that simple words written as if extracted from a conversation won’t allow you to convey the type of sophisticated lyric you’re hoping to write, but that’s just not true. Simplicity doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean dumbing down.
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If you’re looking for a way to take a simple lyric idea — let’s say, you’re in love with someone, but you can’t be with them — one of the best ways to make such a lyric sound more powerful, more engaging, is to use a simple metaphor as a kind of lyrical “glue.”
Paul Simon’s song “Kathy’s Song” is a perfect example of how a simple love song gets taken several notches higher by the power of a simple metaphor — rain — as a way of pulling all the ideas together.
You can read the lyrics here, and you’ll notice that rain is mentioned in the first verse, doing that very important task of setting the mood (dreariness, darkness, quietness, etc.), and doesn’t really get mentioned again until the very end, where Paul compares his life without Kathy as being like lines of rain that wander down a window pane and disappear.
The thing is, rain might have become a rather burdensome metaphor if he had searched for every possible way of using the idea, verse after verse. Just the mentioning of the rain at the beginning was all he really needed. And then again, at the end, as a perfect metaphor for describing his present state of mind.
What makes a song lyric sophisticated is not the scholarly words you use. In fact, it’s almost the opposite: the use of simple words that can transmit a maximum of meaning (perhaps double meaning) and feeling.
Simple metaphors do this because they cause you to keep looking through the lyric to find other more subtle ways that the metaphor applies. (I love, for example, how, when I scan down through the lyric, I see the word “tear” — as in, to rip — but I saw it as “tear” as in a “tear drop”, because the idea of rain had been so implanted in my mind.)
The best way to improve your lyric writing is to read excellent lyrics, and then try to get a handle on why those lyrics work so well. You cannot go wrong by spending lots of time reading through practically any Paul Simon lyric.
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