Words For Music Perhaps - review by Nick Bollinger

NZ Books December 2001

(Note for readers: This review was incorporated with the review of Neil Finn's "Love This Life: Lyrics 1978-2001". Only writing relevant to Mahinarangi's book is included below.)

I have always been a passionate pop fan, but never a great lover of the printed lyric. While the worst wordsmiths always seem to insist on plastering their prosody all over album sleeves (Limp Bizkit spring to mind), many of my enduring favourites - Mos Def or Chuck Berry, for instance - have rarely bothered, underlining the fact that their words are written for the ear, not the eye.

Certainly the inventive and startling use of language has always been one of the thrills I've got from listening to pop music. Chuck Berry, in particular, always amazed me for his genius in finding the poetry in billboards, brand-names and other disposable ephemera. Before Andy Warhol, post-modernism or Marlboro Friday, he was tossing off lines such as: "A yellow convertible four-door De Ville / with a continental spare and a wire-chrome wheel" or "the Koolerator was crammed / with TV dinners and ginger-ale", with the same casual brilliance with which he slammed out his blues licks.

More often it has been the combination of a lyrical hook and a particular riff, rhythm or chord change that did it for me. A prosaic lyric can always be improved by the right musical frame. And, it can sometimes be better if the words are difficult to decipher. As Mick Jagger once said, it makes them more alluring, and what the listeners can't hear, they can always invent for themselves.

But a couple of recent books have made me consider afresh the worth of publishing lyrics. The first is Love This Life, a collection of the lyrics of Neil Finn, without question New Zealand's most acclaimed songwriter; the second is lyrics without melody, the first book by Auckland-based singer and songwriter Mahinarangi Tocker. Both have the look and feel of poetry books. No sheet music, chord charts, accompanying CDs, or even illustrations. Just words. So do song lyrics have a place on the printed page after all? Does pop music make good literature?

[review of Neil Finn's book]

Mahinarangi Tocker's lyrics without melody is a trickier proposition. As the title implies, the 36 entries in this book have never been sung. There are no tunes that will automatically cue up in your head on reading a particular line, phrase or title.

If you've heard Tocker sing on disc or stage, you'll know what a playful, skilful vocalist she is. Her rhythmic sense is elastic. She plays her voice like an improvising instrumentalist, teasing it, pushing it, expanding and contracting it. And though she's left these words to fend for themselves on the page, she's imbued them with much of her rhythmic bravery: "a breath is a breath / is a sound is a sigh / is a knot in my belly / that I'll never define...."

Like her singing, there's a freeness to her writing that defies the song form. You won't find many choruses among these paper songs, but you'll find rhythmic grooves and recurring motifs.

"Truth" is a word Tocker writes often. And through these sometimes tangled, often riddle-like lines she seems to be teasing out the truth: in relationships, in love, in intimacy, and imagination.

Like Finn, she often seeks to describe the indescribable; to find a combination of words that will express a kiss or a fear. But where Finn's songs are scattered with signposts of everyday life - a TV, a small boat made of china, a Persian rug - Tocker's often exist in the world of pure feeling: "take me somewhere / i've never been to / show me kisses / that / i cannot swim through..." These flights around the inside of her feelings are dizzying, daring, breathtaking, confusing - like listening to an impressionistic piece of jazz.

Still, perhaps it is the Chuck Berry fan in me that feels relief when I come to one short great poem called "My Girlfriend's Ugly Haircut" where, for once, she throws in a few real objects: "she breaks her fingernail / against the bedside table / where she yells / and / slaps the wicker coloured hardness / that matches her words / and her fast falling tears".

Both lyrics without melody and Love This Life are good, useful books. lyrics without melody has only its words to stand on. And while Tocker's best writing sings itself, I'd be intrigued to hear what new dimensions these poems take on, if Tocker ever finds the tunes that belong to them.