One day, unprompted, my friend texted me, 'Who do you think is the greatest lyricist of all time?'. It made me laugh because her question was so blasé, but the answer it demanded felt so weighty. I couldn't spurt out any name arbitrarily, so I said I'd get back to her...
I started with a Google search.
Google definitively told me that the greatest lyricist of all time was Bob Dylan. If not Bob Dylan, then maybe the classic Lennon-McCartney double act. Whilst these men are all songwriting giants for good reason, it would be no fun if my investigation ended there, so I wanted to find them some healthy competition. After jumping between playlists, opening too many tabs, and falling down lots of musical rabbit holes, I'd whittled it down to two greats: Leonard Cohen and Fiona Apple.
As a poet and novelist, it probably comes as no surprise that Cohen makes the list. The extract pictured opposite is one of my favourite examples of the way that he makes mastery look easy. It comes from his second and final novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), which went on to inspire other artists, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, who set these words to music in her song, ‘God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot’ (1969). Here Cohen takes the beast that is the English language and charms it like a snake; we aren’t sure where magic ends and God begins, or where God ends and magic starts, but this strange chiastic wordscape has us transfixed regardless.
For Cohen, spirituality always sits in the song. In fact, the song is the place where it feels most at home. We all know the words to his 1984 hit, ‘Hallelujah’, and even in an increasingly secular world they have stood the test of time. It’s been covered by musicians from Jeff Buckley to Andrea Bocelli, Jennifer Hudson to Bon Jovi, and the list only grows longer. The happy-clappy church cry, “HALLELUJAH!”, by no means resonates with everyone, but the simplicity of the hymn, the parable, and the preacher certainly appears to. It’s the same reason that people who may have no religious affiliation can still scream every lyric to the hymns we sung in primary school. I recently heard a snippet from a radio interview where someone claimed these primary school anthems are why British festivals are so successful. Blink and you’ll miss it; “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning” suddenly turns into Glastonbury. The theory sounds ridiculous, but when we look at the types of songs that continue to thrive, there is more sense in it than we might expect!
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ (1971) feels almost Cain-and-Abelesque, as Cohen writes, ‘And what can I tell you my brother, my killer? / What can I possibly say? / I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you’. The song feels conversational, and so we trust in it, but just because we are at ease does not mean that the pain is any less tangible. Cohen’s lyrics always come, albeit it tentatively and sceptically, to a huglike resolution – evocative of that hug the father gives to the prodigal son as he welcomes him back home, saying, ‘For this son of mine was dead, and is now alive again; he was lost, and is found’ (Luke 15:24).
In Cohen’s most played song on Spotify, ‘Suzanne’ (1967), with over 123 million monthly streams, the lofty and lowly are tactfully thrown together. Lines embodying ordinariness and domesticity, like ‘she feeds you tea and oranges’, are followed by complex spiritual contemplations, and even the imagined voice of Jesus himself:
‘And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water,
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower,
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him,
He said, “All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them”.’
This beautiful disarray is part of the appeal, as Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ makes space for everyone, from the ‘garbage and the flowers’ to ‘the heroes in the seaweed’. The repetition of course makes ‘Suzanne’ easily memorable, but Cohen’s poetic slight of hand alters the meaning each time, as ‘You want to travel with Him / And you want to travel blind’ becomes ‘You want to travel with her / And you want to travel blind’. Likewise, ‘she’s touched your perfect body with her mind’ was earlier ‘you've touched her perfect body with your mind’ (...the ultimate “softboi” lyric).
Cohen’s lyricism is simple, but not in that cheap pop-hook kind of way. It is traditional without being ignorant of modernity, and comforting without being patronising or rose-tinted. The secret to his songwriting is perhaps summarised best by these lines from the final verse of ‘Hallelujah’: ‘I did my best, it wasn’t much…I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya’.
If Leonard Cohen’s lyrics are the gentle consolation and tentative hug, then Fiona Apple’s are the arms that rip that hug away from you. Apple has been idolised as a singer by pretentious indie music publications like Pitchfork for her unique sound and fearlessness within the industry, but her reputation distinctly as a songwriter and wordsmith deserves more attention.
The analogy of being ripped away from a hug sounds melodramatic and bleak, but Apple’s handling of sombre subject matter is always injected with humour. In ‘Paper Bag’ (1999), currently her top song on Spotify, she continually takes the expected and inverts it. The saying, ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane?’, normally followed by the punchline, ‘No, it’s superman!’ is shrunken into the measly realisation, ‘I thought it was a bird, but it was just a paper bag’. To interpret this as pitiful would totally negate the sharp wit of Fiona Apple.
The lyrics do not mourn the absence of the superhero or of lost wonder, but simply tell you the way things are. The singer’s self-awareness is precisely the reason that these songs reject pity: ‘I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up’, ‘I got to fold ‘cause these hands are too shaky to hold’, and ‘Hunger hurts, but starving works / When it costs too much to love’. The internal rhyme of ‘fold’ and ‘hold’ is just one small example of Apple's technical skill as a writer, as she talks about folding whilst the sounds literally fold in on themselves. Despite images of a mess spilt on the ground, trembling hands, and even starvation, our speaker still maintains power, as it is she who has the gift of enlightenment, not the subject of her song (a ‘man’ who she exposes as ‘just a little boy’). Her position is similar in ‘The First Taste’ (1996), where she, like an evil mastermind, reveals her plan to the unsuspecting target: ‘I do not struggle in your web / Because it was my aim to get caught’. Fiona Apple's world is never as we thought we knew it. This develops further, in her vow to take control of the situation by making the first move, just like Eve in the Garden of Eden (as the song’s title suggests): ‘But daddy longlegs, I feel that I’m finally growing weary / Of waiting to be consumed by you / Give me the first taste’.
Apple’s agency and assuredness are the common threads that run through all her songs, from her debut album, Tidal (1996), to her most recent record, Fetch The Bolt Cutters (2020). Some of my favourite opening lyrics ever come from her song, ‘Under the Table’ (2020), where she writes of refusing to be silenced: ‘I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me’ (and just in case you missed it the first time, she repeats the phrase immediately after)!
According to Apple, we don’t always need time to sit with sorrow and let it marinate, but we see the sorrow, realise it, and keep rolling on. That’s not to say the process is easy or even necessary, but it’s just to say that shit happens. In light of this, the following lines from ‘I Want You to Love Me’ (2020) aptly describe her songwriting:
‘I move with the trees in the breeze,
I know that time is elastic,
And I know, when I go,
All of my particles disband and disperse,
And I’ll be back in the pulse,
And I know none of this will matter in the long run,
But I know a sound is still a sound around no one’.
And so, to my wonderful friend Immy, I hope that answers your question. If we'd been blessed with the genius lovechild of Leonard Cohen and Fiona Apple then I could confidently say they would be the greatest lyricist of all time. But instead, we have been lucky enough to get both of them - two inimitable poets, whose songs are like diamond mines.