You’re So Attractive!

There’s a lyric in a Johnny Flynn song that struck me the very first time I heard it, swaying awkwardly in a sweaty crowd of people at a gig in some Bristol pub a few years ago:

Time rolls the back wheels of my mind/
You helped me put the brakes on because you’re kind

I don’t know why, but it gets me every time.

Lyrics are the key to the contemporary folk song. Sure, any guy with a decent voice can pick up an acoustic guitar, make a record and call it folk, but unless the words coming out of his mouth are saturated with poetry, he runs the risk of becoming just another douchebag with a guitar.

This is why I have such trouble with Mumford & Sons. They’re certainly talented guys, and they make catchy, complex melodies that are appealing to just about everybody. But seriously, their lyrics? It’s like they stole them from the album leaf of a Finnish death metal band. From their song The Cave,

The harvest left no food for you to eat/
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see/
But I have seen the same/
I know the shame in your defeat/

But I will hold on hope/
And I won’t let you choke/
On the noose around your neck

Okay, I know, it’s unfair to judge a band’s lyric-writing capabilities on one single song. But an overarching sense of melodrama pervades all of their music, so much so that I have trouble not wanting to give Marcus Mumford a huge reassuring hug every time I hear him sing about ‘weeping’ and ‘trembling’.

No, no, I’d much rather listen to the beautiful wordcraft of Mumford’s ex-lover, Laura Marling. (Um, did you know there is a tumblr devoted solely to this short-lived relationship? Unfortunately, the site’s owner seems unwilling to acknowledge the fact that many months ago this relationship came to an end, despite tip-offs from various visitors) From Ghosts:

He says “I’m so lost,/
Not at all well”/
Do as though there is nothing left to be/
Turned out I’d been following him and he’d been following me/
Do as though after it was over/
We were just two lovers crying on each others shoulders

I can never read and listen to music at the same time. Songs are stories, and having something playing in the background is like trying to follow two books at once. In particular, Josh Ritter is especially adept at telling tales with his songs, drawing you into magical worlds where mummies fall in love with (and later cast curses on) the unfortunate palaeontologists who discover them, and scientists conduct illicit affairs in nuclear missile silos, threatening to destroy the world in the name of love. Not only does he tell well-crafted stories in his songs, but he knows how to put emphasis in the right places, so here and there you catch whiffs of certain lyrics that draw you away from whatever book you are unsuccessfully trying to concentrate on.

When it comes down to it, everyone has their own opinion on what makes a good lyric and I’ll not act like we’ll always agree. Many of you out there will have a song that’s close to your heart because a certain line spoke to you, or because it told a story that was immediately relevant to you the moment you heard it.

So what do you think? Is there a song that you think has the best lyrics in the world? Well, you’re not doing anybody any favors keeping it to yourself. Share your favorite lyricists below, and let the world know the bands they should be listening more carefully to.


Now that my first year of studies is over, I’ve been desperately trying to replenish my diminished supplies of folk. This was how I found my newest addition, The Lumineers. With gravelly lead vocals, a moody cello and, a reliable, old-fashioned traditional folky sound, they caught my attention quickly. Then I listened to the lyrics and I realized I had little choice but to share this beautiful band, whose eponymous first album was released just last month.

It was hard to choose a favorite stanza from ‘Flowers in Your Hair’ (which you can download for free from Amazon), but I still can’t help but smile when lead singer Wesley Schultz croons:

So now I think that I could love you back/
And I hope its not too late/
‘Cause you’re so attractive

I only wish they played it a little slower. It seems to end way too quickly.

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May 2012

6 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Sam says:

    Super blog! Agree that Mumford’s rhyming couplets grate after a while, although any band with a banjo player has a place in my collection!

    So many great lyrics out there – Dry The River, Sufjan Stevens and The Avett Brothers spring to mind. One thing I try to avoid is the modern trend of folk singers mumbling lyrics so much you can’t tell what they’re saying. Don’t think many are as memorable as those of The Wave Pictures though – they’re lyrics are mad, often nonsensical, but they somehow paint these weird, vivid images in your mind’s eye:

    Well I met you on the tube/
    And you looked beautiful in lubricant.
    With the boy who drank soup/
    Straight from the urn and burnt his tongue.

    I cut my hair and you grew yours/
    I cut my hair and you grew yours/
    There always has to be the same amount of hair in the world/
    I cut my hair and you grew yours.

    A sculpture is a sculpture/
    Marmalade is marmalade/
    A sculpture of marmalade is a sculpture but it isn’t marmalade.
    With you inside me/
    Comes the knowledge of my death/
    But I still have some oranges left underneath the bed.

    No Shakespeare I concede, but catches your attention every time and makes you think a bit! Enjoy!

  2. Kait says:

    The Lumineers have been on constant repeat around here for a bit. I love them. The last lines in “Slow It Down” get me every time (Don’t you frown when you’re feeling like this/only love can dig you out again). The entire second verse in “Stubborn Love” just hits me in the center of my chest. Between that and The Head And The Heart’s “Down in the Valley” I’m a wreck.

    I will say that for all the ridiculous lyrics Mumford & Sons put out, there is a line in “The Cave” that I love : I know my call despite my faults and despite my growing fears. It kind of feels like an anthem for those of us who are too afraid to take the leap in to the life we know we want.

    • Kait says:

      And if you ever get the chance to see The Lumineers live – DO IT. They put on the most amazing show I’ve ever seen. Just brilliant.

  3. PHB says:

    Good post, Luke. Never realised the Mumford lyrics were so weird. One of the best lyricists for me is Jackson Brown. I know I keep harping on about him but he just seems to get everything right.

  4. Jessica says:

    It’s not exactly folk, but Joanna Newsom has always been an incredible lyricist to me. Her song “Good Intentions Paving Company” is one of the most beautiful songs inside and out. I highly recommend you give it a listen.

  5. 6

    The Lumineers are BRILLIANT. I haven’t been able to listen to anything else since I discovered them a month ago. I think submarines is my favorite. Or Stubborn Love. Or Big Parade. Or theyjustneedtokeepwritingandcreatingmusicbecausetheyaregeniuses.


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