The Curmudgeon: Punk Lyrics: Shortening the Line

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A lot of good things are happening on Sleater-Kinney’s first album in 10 years, but I want to talk about one aspect that often gets overlooked. No Cities To Love represents an astonishing refinement of the shortened line, punk-rock’s invaluable contribution to pop songwriting.

Bob Dylan once revolutionized pop songwriting by lengthening each line in a song to accommodate visual imagery, surrealist analogies and internal rhyme and alliteration. Joni Mitchell made the line longer still. But punk’s earliest great songwriters—John Doe, Joe Strummer and David Byrne—took the exact opposite approach: They shortened the line by shattering it into shards and scrubbing it free of all excess verbiage. This condensation process was pushed along by Husker Du’s Bob Mould and Grant Hart and taken ever further by Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein.

The staccato bursts of punk music demanded a corresponding language, an expectoration of a few syllables followed by a pause and then a follow-up spurt. It’s a stiff challenge to get much description, narrative or cohesion into those, brief, chopped-up lines—and a lot of punk songwriters failed the test. But those who succeeded—and the names above are the most obvious though not the only examples—used the fragmentary nature of the punk line to make images collide and create new connections while conveying the impatient urge to get it all out at once.

One way to think about pop lyrics is to divide them between the conversational and the non-conversational. Songwriters such as John Lennon, Cee-Lo and Miranda Lambert can make you think they’re just talking to you in the vernacular and phrasing of everyday speech. Of course, people don’t rhyme or sing on pitch when they’re talking to their friends at the coffee shop, but these writers create the illusion of conversation with the naturalism of their language and cadences.

Dylan and Tucker, by contrast, don’t even try. By extending or abbreviating the phrasing of normal speech, they’re aiming for the sensation of heightened, out-of-the-ordinary language. They’re gambling that what they gain from overloaded or greatly compacted sentences will outweigh what they lose in naturalism. It’s a risky gamble, for the sacrifice of conversational tone is a steep price to pay. Many foolish songwriters have rolled the dice and lost their shirts, but Dylan and Tucker walk away from the table as winners.

Tucker and Brownstein display their literary skills on the new album’s opening track, “Price Tag.” They create the setting of a workday morning with two, four-syllable, no-adjective complete sentences: “The bells go off./ The buzzer coughs.” Two similar sentences suggest the retail job the narrator is preparing for: “The clothes are stiff./ The fabrics itch.” Two more sentences let us know she’s a mother: “I scramble eggs/ For little legs.”

How does Sleater-Kinney get so much information and feeling into so few words? Well, one trick they use is to keep adjectives and adverbs to a bare minimum and to rely instead on vivid verbs. The buzzer doesn’t ring; it “coughs.” The cotton uniforms aren’t uncomfortable; they “itch.” The narrator doesn’t make breakfast; she “scrambles eggs.” She stocks the shelves at work not with shiny, plastic goods, but with products that “light up.” Her kids aren’t skinny or whiney; they “reach for the good stuff.”

Tucker and Brownstein don’t use the conventional pop-music rhyme schemes of AABB or ABAB. The first stanza of “Price Tag” can be charted, if you include near rhymes, as AABCDAEDEFFC. The rhymes are there, but they don’t occur in predictable fashion. This wouldn’t work nearly as well with Dylan’s long lines nor Lennon’s normal lines, but with punk’s shortened phrases, you never have to wait too long for the rhyme to show up, even if it shows up in an unexpected place.

But like the good pop craftsmen they are, Tucker and Brownstein know how to move from the specifics of the verses—the morning at home, the day at work and the evening shopping—to the universals of the chorus: “We never checked the price tag./ When the cost comes in,/ it’s gonna be high.” Because it’s grounded in the details of scrambled eggs and off-label cereal boxes, this critique of post-Bush capitalism rings true.

They extend that theme on the album’s first single, “Bury Our Friends,” which declares, “We live on dread/ In our own Gilded Age.” The three women, now in their 40s, embrace the incongruous adjectives, “wild and weary,” but insist that they “Wanna start over, forget everything.” The song begins with a terrific metaphor, delivered in chopped-up lines that reinforce the simile: “I am stitched; I am sewn./ Patch me up. I’ve got want in my bones./ Like some doll you thought you could throw/ Away, I found my legs.”

On the album’s title track, they cut back on even the verbs. The opening couplet, “Atomic tourist,/ A life in search of power,” is verb-less, but it suggests an analogy between the nuclear production in Hanford, Washington, and the hipster trendiness in nearby Portland, Oregon. “Doom Town, a bright flash,” they sing. “My body is a souvenir.” Hinting that American cities are an irresistible lure for twentysomethings until they’re not, Tucker and Brownstein add, “It’s not the cities; it’s the weather we love.”

There’s a lot more going on in No Cities To Love than the lyrics, of course, and the sound of the two guitars, two voices and drums is indispensable to bringing the words to life. But a lot has been written about that sound and not so much about those shortened lines. Punk invented a whole new kind of pop songwriting with the compacted fragments of its lyrics, and as much as anyone Tucker and Brownstein have uncovered that breakthrough’s possibilities. Perhaps no track illustrates this better than “Gimme Love” from the new album, where Sleater-Kinney boils down nearly every pop song ever written to a two-line, seven-syllable chorus: “Gimme love,/ Never enough.”