Lyric Wars: A comparative analysis of declension in selected “chick” songs of Tori Amos and Joanna Newsom

First of all, listen to this. (Thanks MissionFreak.)

Second, I’ve been thinking about why I can’t fully get into Joanna Newsom’s lyrics. So it came to my mind, rather subconsciously, to compare Newsom’s lyrics to another artist I feel maintains a similar level of visionary stream of consciousness, but whose lyrics I find more successful: Tori Amos.

Newsom’s lyrics are full of declensions, or series of words that relate to each other, much like Tori Amos. It’s a way to spin a yarn, to fill in a phrase, and to evoke often abstract associations that hopefully enhance the listener’s experience with the song.

Newsom’s “Emily,” the opening song of “Ys”, begins with this line: “The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow…”

These words or ideas are either birds or bird-related. Even if “chim-choo-ree” is lifted subconsciously from the chimney sweep song of Mary Poppins, it still evokes the idea of height, of flight, and even, through association, the song “Feed The Birds,” also from Mary Poppins.

Let’s now look at the opening lyrics to Tori Amos’ “Marianne,” off her landmark album, “Boys for Pele”: “Tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo…”

First of all, WTF? Second, and more seriously, the lyrics present juxtaposing ideas (tuna as a fish, rubber as a natural material, blubber as the fat from a whale, and an igloo as ice) yet all that represent natural materials harvested or even synthetically altered to suit man’s needs. It’s a startlingly complex series of relationships, once you look at it, and one that can find concrete associations that relate to the song’s subject, which concerns the rumors that a girl in a small town killed herself in a ravine, but Tori, as the narrator, sings, “Not a chance,” suggesting rather that the girl was the victim of a rape/murder by a group of guys. For all its abstractness, this song still carves out a clear portrait.

Newsom’s “Emily,” in contrast, is more ambiguous in the long run. I still can’t entirely decipher what’s going on, and yet its textual content is decidedly more literal. And yet, somehow a subject never really emerges, other than the mysterious “Emily” who, for all I can tell, could have died or simply may have skipped town. It’s never quite clear.

Another declension found in “Emily” is this: “The yoke, and the axe, and the old smokestacks, and the bale, and the barrow.” What are…things you find on a farm? Much like most of the ideas Newsom evokes; hometown, farmy back porch star-gazing. But not just on “Ys”, but also in most of her other songs.

In “Marianne”, Tori may evoke the idea of some rural coastal town in Alaska, but that is simply specific to that one song.

I know this isn’t really a thorough analysis, but it’s at least the beginning of a conversation. I find Tori’s lyrics to be a more edgy balance of abstract and concrete; her lyrics maintain a kind of cool independence, and yet they all aim, even abstractly, at a concrete emotional idea; whereas Newsom maintains a literalness that somehow doesn’t pay off any narrative dividends, and even lacks–or avoids–meaning more than any Tori zinger. And boy does she have them.

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1 Comment

  1. That was a great read. Thanks for writing it. I never gave Newsom a proper chance, so this was, for me, entertaining and useful. Thanks.


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