Are rock (or country or hip-hop or Tin Pan Alley) lyrics poetry? Are we really going to have this debate again? It's an old one, to be sure, and it comes up as frequently as allergy season and feels twice as unpleasant. It's a persistent little conundrum. In 1972 poetry anthologies pandered to hippie lit majors by including Dylan and Mitchell next to Eliot and Frost, as if such a statement would be intelligible to anyone not convinced of the canon-smashing power of hourly bong hits. Leonard Cohen's lyrics do look cool printed on gatefold album covers, but referring to them as poetry is usually just a way for boho bozos to say "Tutti Frutti" isn't. And of course, Little Richard is the Homer of rock & roll poetry.
But remove poetic principles from the pop-music equation and you lose a lot. Gone, for starters, would be Clem Snide, one of the most idiosyncratically lyrical, delicately comic bands ever to flee indie rock strictures.
Eef Barzelay, the Israeli-born, New Jersey-reared band leader, composes songs with an untutored, firsthand freshness; his lyrics are written not to seduce small-press magazines or poetry slams but to preserve the microscopic emotion of day-to-day life, to get under your skin and tickle your nostalgia for long-lost summer days -- even if you think you're too cool to ever do that.
Barzelay's images -- sun-lit Dairy Queens, a pillow that smells of fresh bread, a mix tape chewed up by a stereo -- are like lucky-break Polaroids. He didn't mean to snap the shutter when he did, but he caught some quizzical, fleeting beauty all the same.
And of course Clem Snide's poetry is in the sound, for poetry is nothing if not language made into music. On the band's five albums -- beginning with You Were a Diamond in 1998, through Your Favorite Music, The Ghost of Fashion, Soft Spot and the recently released The End of Love -- Clem Snide inverts the equation, making music into a language most often whispered in wonder and sometimes bursting with antic, electric pleasure. Cellos sigh as they follow a jazz bass through a jump-rope melody, a guitar pipes up and down like a calliope played by a child with ADD, amp buzz whirrs in the background then dissolves into bright, fragile vibes. The band has experimented with noisy orchestras of banjos and strangled horns, sampled old-time records and pasted them into a weird, pastoral musique concrete. It's the sound, in Barzelay's words, of "aching to do whatever you want" but being wise enough to never surrender that ache: Sonic and lyrical poetry has never known a better muse.
Barzelay moved to Tennessee last year, choosing the "less cool" environs of west Nashville (he's not even hip enough for east Nashville). The End of Love, which was recorded in both New York and Nashville, blends urbanity and relaxed charm, surging pop melodies and twangy comforts. "Acoustic instruments just sound better to me," Barzelay says. "On the first couple of records we used the sampler a lot. Jason Glasser [who recently left the band] would sample those instruments from old records. But I don't like processed sounds. I know '80s music is all the rage now. But on a very basic sonic level, I can't stand it. I'd rather hear any acoustic instrument that's recorded well, with air and space around it."
The sonic world of Clem Snide spins around a tense axis: between psychedelic layers and a lo-fi purism where individual images have room to glow and quietly expand. "I'm conflicted about it," Barzelay admits. "I don't want to make singer-songwriter records, but I guess I am. I just want to make records people can listen to. Top 40 or even indie rock isn't really like that. I prefer something quiet, something listenable. You can always throw in two minutes of feedback if you want. Ooo! That would be crazy!"
You could call Barzelay's cranky displeasure with de rigeur indie rock sour grapes -- the Kings of Leon sell more trucker caps than Clem Snide could ever SoundScan -- or you could say he's getting too old (35 and counting) for rock & roll. Or maybe he has a point: Fashion has killed more rock stars than all the booze and junk in Detroit, and shadows of soullessness keep following all those pretty boys through the pages of Magnet.
"I don't know where the fuck I fit in anymore," Barzelay says. "I don't want to make music for the overeducated, Pitchfork indie-rock illuminati, the twentysomethings creaming all over Franz Ferdinand. Unfortunately those are the people who buy my records. The people buying Norah Jones aren't gonna buy my records."
Even in that demographic netherworld, Barzelay has managed to cash a few Generation X checks. Go ahead and snicker -- Barzelay does -- but recently one of his songs appeared on an Abercrombie & Fitch compilation, and his catchiest tune, "Moment in the Sun," became the theme for the television show Ed. That should kill off any lingering cred.
"We had to rerecord it over and over," Barzelay recalls. "Some focus-group bullshit sort of thing. I'm not complaining; I lived off that money for two years. I should have named my son Ed; that song basically paid for his existence."
Clem Snide's oblique lyricism, their skeptical suburbanism -- Barzelay knows he's middle class -- and their domestic reveries present an unlikely space for cultural critique. When Barzelay croons "Calgon take me away" on "American Chinese Secret Blues" or sings along to Joan Jett on the way to All-You-Can-Eat Night at Sizzler, he both means every word and can't believe he means it. If only there were a truer poetry, anything save all this brilliant transient junk, all these trivial but somehow essential moments inside our gawky, nervous, complicated lives.
"I'm never trying to fuck with people or be ironic," Barzelay says. "Irony is such an oversimplification. The songs are about balancing two contradictory things. The friction of it: That's the art. I'm not writing legislation or an article. It's the opposite. I'm presenting this space that hopefully is engaging enough that, when you hear the songs, you get inside them and complete them yourself."