Unlike poetry, great song lyrics don't necessarily impress on paper. As a matter of fact, the more "poetic" (poetical?) they sound when read, the less chance that I'll like them when they're sung. My favorites just look like matter of fact statements:
I made a lot of mistakes
Sufjan Stevens, from "Chicago"
I loved you, well… nevermind
Alex Chilton, from "September Gurls"
It ain't dark yet, but it's getting there.
Bob Dylan, from "Ain't Dark Yet"
Just single lines, really, whose original context gives them their power. And, by themselves, not very poetic. So let me play fair and try more than one line at a time. This is the first verse of "The Whistling Song" by the Meat Puppets (from "Meat Puppets II"):
It's the shadow in the dark,
The silhouette in the park,
It's the broken, faded bird
You've learned to call your heart.
Is that better? I don't know. They're just words. You might have to hear them sung by Chris Kirkwood to feel the pain and desperation. But because I heard the song before I heard the words, I'll never be able to just read them without hearing the music, too.
This is from the Shin's "Young Pilgrim" (from "Chutes Too Narrow").
Well I learned fast how to keep my head up
'Cause I know there is this side of me
That wants to grab the yoke from the pilot
And fly the whole mess into the sea.
James Mercer's delivery is almost matter of fact. (I'm big on this under-singing thing. When a song is good enough, it doesn't need the hard sell.) He's working with a pretty striking melody, so he just lets the rhythm of the words carry him along. And it's brilliant - so much so that the post 9/11 plane hijacking metaphor is forgivable.
Now, as much as I like the words above, I have no reason to think that you do. I've heard the songs and you may not have. So I suspect the words by themselves are not enough. (In case you don't agree, just listen to William Shatner's version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and other such celebrity atrocities.) Ideally, the music and words share a symbiotic relationship. You'd think it would be easy to spot when this isn't the case. But when I try to think of songs with great lyrics and lousy melodies (or vice versa) I can't. They're out there but they probably don't register in the first place, and we as listeners don't care to know why. Let someone who's paid to do it explain it all to us.
I am open to the possibility that when the words are striking enough, they provide the real music instead of the actual melody. These may just be poems disguised as songs, though. And if the song is good enough, I'm not sure that it's critical that we understand the words anyway.
As a matter of fact, I'd like to propose a moratorium on "getting" lyrics. I'm not talking about the songs whose words you hear the wrong way ("Excuse me while I kiss this guy", the entire early R.E.M. catalogue, etc.). If it's good rock n roll, you probably can't make out some lyrics anyway. I'm talking about the words you can hear. Anyone care to explain "any jobber got the sack, Monday morning, turn it back" to me? I'm still trying to figure out what the hell Billie Joe threw off the Tallahachie Bridge. (Where the hell is Tallahachie, anyway? Anywhere near Tallahassee?) And "lineman for the county"? Who's that? A football player? A truck driver? A phone operator? And she's singing over the wire? Jesus. Beautiful song, though.
So, if we can agree that it's okay to totally misunderstand the lyrics, I will promise to actually read the lyrics when they're provided, as long as my glasses are handy - CD jewel cases having somehow justified the printing of lyrics in a 3 point font. This should improve the odds, but not guarantee that I'll get the words right. And so what if I don't understand the words I'm saying? It'll be like when I speak.
And I further promise to only sing them while alone in the car. That way, if I miss some notes, no one will notice. But that's a whole other posting...