Where have all the lyrics gone? Just a few years ago, you could tune to any FM rock radio station and hear someone singing a personal statement: passionate, egocentric, maybe enigmatic. Recently disco has cut a song's minimum permissible verbal content to a catch-phrase ("Burnin' burnin', burnin'") plus a few grunts and moans, while pop songsmiths revel in buzz words and happy banalities (witness "Grease" or the new Chicago LP). Of course, the music is more important than the words, but sometimes it seems that challenging lyrics are becoming an underground phenomenon. Songwriters with something new to say now often resort to camouflage, hiding tricky ideas in catchy, deadpan, radio-playable music. Listen carefully to 10cc, John Palumbo, and Jules and the Polar Bears - they are rare holdouts for literacy in rock.
Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the main songwriters for 10cc, opt for indirection. Within the most meticulous pop settings, sung with utter ingenuousness, are wry, ambivalent parables laced with cynicism and bitterness. The dozen songs on "Bloody Tourists" (Polydor) touch on ideas suggested by travel (loneliness, stereotyping, escapism), love and sex (one-night stands, imprisoning relationships), or both (fantasies enroute).
Stewart and Gouldman, who also produced the album, carefully tailor arrangements to lyrics: "The Anonymous Alcoholic," whose protagonist gets drunk and disorderly at a party, starts out sluggish and nervous, jumps into disco-parody as things get rowdy, then returns to sluggishness for the hung-over morning after.
"Reds In My Bed," a ditty about paranoia behind the Iron Curtain, tosses a Morse Code SOS into the mex. The effects are funny, but subtle - a casual listener could mistake 10cc for Paul McCartney and Wings. The sound is rich and soothing, with multiple layers of vocal and instrumental harmonies. Nothing grates.
Stewart and Gouldman were only half of the original 10cc; Lol Creme and Kevin Godley, the other half, departed to pioneer a guitar accessory they'd invented called the gizmo.
"Bloody Tourists," the second album of new material since the split, doesn't have the sardonic edge of earlier 10cc - ther's even one straight love song - and the melodies are stretched a little thinner. But the new 10cc is a strong, versatile six-man band, and new songs like "Dreadlock Holiday," "Shock On the Tube" adn "Tokyo" are both catchy and witty.
Like 10cc, John Palumbo lets his tunes seduce you while his lyrics sneak by. Palumbo led and wrote songs for Crack the Sky, a band whose jolting, high-tech arrangements deliberately fragmented Palumbo's melody lines and lyrics. His solo debut, "Innocent Bystander" (Lifesong), proves his songs can stand on their own splendidly. They spotlight Palumbo's peculiar sensibility, which vacillates between morose ballads ("There's nowhere left to go from here" is a representative line) and black-humored tomfoolery. "It's Okay To Die" bounces a music-hall backup under perverse verse: "When Raymond comes home tongiht/He'll crack up on his bike/Fracture his skull and he will die. . . Notice that the ones who are crying/Are the ones who've been left behind." The "Family Man" learns that his daughter is a prostitute, his son makes gay porn films and his wife is two-timing him; his only recourse is to "turn the other cheek." Both songs feature snappy horn charts to liven things up.
In his more depressive material, Palumbo owes obvious debts to Randy Newman, a past master at turning existential crises into aphoristic pop tunes. Yet Palumbo has a unique surreal streak, best deployed in "Kangaroos" (an exploration of man-marsupial mutuality) and "Madness On Comet Way," an attack of elevator claustrophobia. Wittingly or not, Palumbo's producers have boosted his songs on slick, conventional arrangements-somewhat overblown on balads-that make for an entertaining tug-of-war between form and oddball content. And some listeners won't get Palumbo's message until it's too late to resist.
That sort of subterfugs just isn't Jules Shear's style. The songs he writes and sings for his hard-rocking band Jules and the Polar Bears are wordy and eccentric, crammed full of images, but what comes across on first hearing-along with the instrumental hooks that punctuate and energize each song-is Jules' sheer, desperate determination to be heard. It's in his vocal tone, which people will be comparing to everyone from Dylan to Jackson Browne to the Kinks' Ray Davies, and in the way he hurries to sing everything, his words bursting out like a breach held too long underwater. The effect is endearing, and riveting.
Shear was a songwriting member of the L.A-based Funky Kings, but the Kings' one album doesn't even hint at what Jules and the Polar Bears' debut LP, "Got No Breeding" (Columbia), pulls off. Many of the songs are taken at breakneck tempo, with Jules scrambling for breath as the band pushes him with his own riffs. Even when the pace is more reasonable, Jules doesn't let up; he's loose, but urgent, letting his words tumble all over the beat.
And he has a lot to say. Shear's songs are fascinating because they don't tell stories or mouth sentiments-they are about states of mind, and they are precisely delineated.Shear isn't afraid to use as many words as it takes to capture a mood in all its ambiguity: "Oh baby you come with that look in your eyes/like you are something alive/and hold out your arms like a smile." Or, describing a certain woman: "You have to be an animal just to hear her overtones/through the letters and through the phones." Shear writes neat twists of phrase that also make emotional sense-a rare quality that is sustained throughout the album.
Most of the songs are about maintaining sanity in the face of love, longing, disaster and hopelessness; Shear keep from losing his mind, ihe lets it rave, in a manner that is distinctly uncool by 1978 standards. Let's hope he stays that way.