Word Music

Calm, collected, collage

MF DOOM died on October 31, but in true mysterious MF DOOM fashion, the news didn’t break until December 31. He always cloaked himself in a shroud: the metal mask, the consistently inconsistent release dates, the obtuse art-rap. But that shroud drew a lot of people–myself included–closer. Just the cover of Madvillainy is enough of a black hole. “DOOM barricaded behind the iron mask, eyes like arrowheads, weight of the world in his retinas,” as Jeff Weiss describes it. “The color scheme is sepulchral grey; the mask is scarred and battered, but stolidly intact.”

DOOM’s dreamworld wasn’t just looks. It was built around the very sound of words themselves. We’re trained to look only for meaning in language, but the musicality of certain words together can trascend meaning, opening up new spaces, new possibilities through rhythm and friction. It bypasses your rational brain; you can feel it before you notice it. DOOM was a master at this, cramming every nook and cranny with references to the Bible, cartoons, pop culture odds-and-ends, and literary villains, the words carefully chosen not just for what they convey, but for the sounds they’re masked in. On Madvillainy, his verses mirror Madlib’s chopped-up beats and samples. It’s a total soundworld, a comic book made for the ears, so fast and so deep you just have to let it wash over you. If you stand still, it’s already gone.

On “Rhinestone Cowboy,” he cycles through vowel sounds, savoring them and spitting them out like a sommelier:

“Hold the cold one like he hold a old gun
Like he hold the microphone and stole the show for fun
Or a foe for ransom, flows is handsome
O’s in tandem, anthem, random tantrum
Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry, ask the dumb hottie
Masked, pump-shotty—somebody stop me
Hardly come sloppy on a retarded hard copy
After rockin’ parties he departed in a jalopy
Watch the droptop papi”

DOOM turns language into another instrument, and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying. It’s how he says it and how it hits with the rhythm, the keening Brazilian pop sample egging him on in the background.

It makes me think of other songs and artists that are attuned to the music of language. There’s Bob Dylan, of course, unleashing the proto-rap of “Subterranean Homesick Blues:” “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinkin’ ’bout the government.” It clatters downhill like a locomotive, or maybe the rhythm comes from living around noisy New York subways for so many years. The specific words are just as barbed as the twangy guitar: when you string together basement/mixing/medicine and pavement/thinking/government, you can’t help but sound spiky.

More spike, but in an unlikely place: Tame Impala’s “Elephant.” “He pulled the mirrors off his Cadillac / Cause he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back.” “Elephant” lurches like a Cadillac, and all those “k” sounds in the second line could be the sound of shattering glass, those mirrors hitting the ground.

For Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, his lyrics often start with “mumble tracks,” just singing nonsense over a rhythm and chord progression. Those mumbles work their way into language, blurring the line between dream and reality, nonsense and direct language. “Poor Places”–off an album that explores miscommunication and crossed wires, both lyrically and sonically–feels like a hallucination, and the words sound suitably ghostly: “It’s my father’s voice trailing off / Sailors sailing off in the morning / For the air-conditioned rooms at the top of the stairs.” Tweedy often points out that our brains are hardwired to find and create sense out of information. His lyrics stretch the limits of this, and part of the fun is the construction of meaning in your own mind. You finish the song, depending on how you make sense of it.

Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins is another master of senseless sense. There comes a time in every Cocteau Twins fan’s life when they look up the actual lyrics and see how relentlessly wrong they’ve been singing their songs all these years. But again, it doesn’t matter. The rounded, reverberous words on “Lorelai” are so emotionally charged by Fraser’s voice, your body knows what the song’s “about” even if your brain doesn’t.

There’s such a finality to Nick Cave’s “Push The Sky Away,” a kind of bleak, beautiful stubborness that’s his artistic wheelhouse. “I’ve got a feeling that I just can’t shake / I got a feeling that just won’t go away / You got to just keep on pushing it / Keep on pushing it / Push the sky away.” The short, simple words seem to stumble over themselves, dragging their feet but moving forward one step at a time. “Got,” “shake,” “keep,” “it,” all clipped, sudden sounds. They are birds unwilling to leave the nest without a push, but that gravity makes the song soar.