Streets ahead of the competition

By Thomas Sutcliffe
Saturday 13 July 2013 03:06

I have a soft spot for songs about songwriting - whether it's Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", with its sung subtitles for the tone deaf ("The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift") or Cole Porter, taking time out in "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" to muse over the eerie power of the "the change from major to minor". I think it's because I'm as musical as a house brick myself, and for a brief moment these passages give at least the illusion of a larger technical competence. What real songwriters make of these devices, I'm not sure, but the fact that Natasha Bedingfield's "These Words" has just been nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for "best song musically and lyrically" would seem to suggest that they're not immune to the charm of self-reference either.

"These Words" is about the difficulty of writing a love song. "Trying to find the magic/ Trying to write a classic" sings Bedingfield, as she chronicles the fruitless search for a "killer hook" and the expressive deficiencies of a D-E-F chord combination. The bridges in the song moan about how difficult it is to be musically clever, and then the choruses abandon the effort and opt for the simplest possible statement - squeezing four breathless repetitions of the words "I love you" into a space that is actually only big enough for one. A four-beat line is suddenly followed by a 12-beat one, and there is something giddy and uncontainable about that unexpected flurry. Perhaps that's why it caught the eye of the nominating jury, though future Novello Award aspirants may also note that you scarcely harm your chances if you kvetch about craft with your peer-group judges.

The odd thing about "These Words" - given that the Novello Awards are expressly designed to reward "excellence in songwriting and composition" - is that it is also a compendium of songwriting solecisms. Take the lines, "There's no other way/ To better say/ I love you, I love you", which manage to combine metrical clumsiness (Bedingfield has to put the stress on the second syllable of "other" to make it fit the rhythm) with the vice of abandoning idiom for the sake of a rhyme. Or what about the horrible half-rhyme of: "Waste-bin full of paper/ Clever rhymes, see you later"? Perhaps that's the point here - the wail of incompetence isn't the familiar poetic trope but the real thing. Perhaps this is a clever song about a useless songwriter. But I doubt it somehow.

Perfect technical craft isn't everything, though, a point brought home by the nominee that offers the strongest competition to "These Words". Keane's "Everybody's Changing" needn't detain us for long, I think - any song that can rhyme "aching" with "breaking" deserves to serve a long sentence in a shopping-centre lift - but "Dry Your Eyes", the sing by Mike Skinner's band The Streets, is quite another matter.

Written for his album A Grand Don't Come for Free, "Dry Your Eyes" is about the moment when it finally dawns on you that your love isn't reciprocated any more - and if you were to get picky about metre and rhyme, you could probably find as many awkwardnesses in it as there are in the Bedingfield song. It displays the indifference to metrical regularity that is familiar from a lot of rap songs - in which extra syllables are usually just kicked into line by the speed of the delivery. There's also nothing in the rhymes to get Sondheim (or even Eminem) worried. "The wicked thing about us is we always have trust," the singer pleads as he tries to persuade his girlfriend to change her mind. "We can even have an open relationship, if you must." As a transcription of the speech of a young inner-city male, that fails on most levels. "If you must"? It sounds like the Prince of Wales.

And yet "Dry Your Eyes" is a fantastic song - deeply moving and rather knowing in the way that it alternates between a minute recollection of every physical gesture and look of the last parting and the lyrical beauty of its blokish chorus - with its clichéd reassurances and the way its last line helplessly runs out of things to say - "It's over". This isn't Skinner's only nomination either - he's also there in the Best Contemporary Song category with "Blinded by the Lights" - a song about getting out of your head while waiting for your faithless girlfriend to turn up for a date. And though Ivor Novello would have winced at the language, I think he would have recognised the emotional truth of the song and the genuinely effective way in which its interrupted chorus conveys the nagging persistence of a suspicion that can't quite be pinned down. "These Words" ostentatiously namechecks the craft of songwriting. "Dry Your Eyes" and "Blinded by the Lights" simply demonstrate it.

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