I like long, unusual words in songs; there are only so many times you can rhyme “love” and “above”.
I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to Warren Zevon in the car. Warren Zevon is very good car music: sufficiently muscular to overcome engine noise and sufficiently smart to keep your brain engaged.
I was listening to All Night Long, one of his earlier tunes, and was struck by what an unapologetically nasty song it is. If you thought Neil Young laid into the American South in some of his 1970s material – Southern Man and Alabama most obviously – or that Randy Newman’s Rednecks skewered Southern sensibilities, then that is merely an entrée for Warren Zevon’s spectacular All Night Long.
“Daddy’s doing Sister Sally/Grandma’s dying of cancer now/The cattle all have brucellosis/We’ll get through somehow.” It is, as you can see, strong stuff...
And, of course, where I’m heading is the fantastic use of the word “Brucellosis”. Damn, that's impressive. Possibly the only time, I would hazard, that the word has been used in a song. And extra points to Warren for featuring a complicated disease in the lyric (more of that later).
It just happens that my current Song du Jour uses an unusually long word - again one I’ve not previously heard in a song.
Bill Callahan’s latest album is Gold Record. He is an American singer whose musical journey stretches from early lo-fi experiments under the name Smog, to today’s ironic meditations sung in a richly laconic voice.
The opening song of Gold Record is Pigeons - a deadpan paean to the concept of marriage, sung from the perspective of an enthusiastic wedding limo driver. He explains it in this fashion: “When I see people about to marry/I become something of a plenipotentiary.”
Okay, that was a simulated mic-drop because Bill really stuck the landing there. “Plenipotentiary”. Hie thee to a dictionary this very minute... Again, I would guess this is possibly the only time the word has been used in song, making it a unique (and cool) thing.
But using unusual words in songs also creates a stronger bond between writer and listener - perhaps not all listeners but certainly with those who share this long-word appreciation.
Because it’s a little flourish that takes you outside the song itself, a wink at the camera which says: “Ta da! That was fun! Didn’t we both enjoy that brief diversion into cleverness just for the sake of it?” And that bonds you to the writer even more.
The first songwriter I noticed getting pleasure from this - before I discovered the classic Tin Pan Alley writers who inhaled cleverness for breakfast - was Paul Simon. He just loves an unusual word. How about the one-two punch of: “She said it’s really not my habit to intrude/Furthermore, I hope my meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued.”
First of all you get “furthermore” - not exactly common song grammar – but then comes the kicker: “misconstrued”. What a glorious word choice, so snug, exactly the right number of syllables and never previously heard in a song.
But perhaps my favourite ever use of such unique words is actually an Aussie rhyming couplet from back in the 80s and a musician named Dave Warner, apparently once described by Bob Dylan as his favourite Australian songwriter and now a leading crime fiction writer.
His single Wimbledon not only gets a long word award but also bonus points for using a complicated disease (as mentioned earlier): “Bjorn Borg and VitasGerulaitis/Don’t come down with serum hepatitis.”
And I think we can stop right there. It just doesn’t get any better. But let me finish with a little plea to local songwriters: it doesn’t all have to be “stay/away/play”. And especially not “change/rearrange”. There are a lot more words out there, and some of them are long and clever: they may be hard to squeeze into a song, but it’s worth it.
Just make sure it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Disney) not pusillanimous (The Rutles).