Guest column - Political Persuasion: Writing a so-called political song by Maximo Park's Paul Smith
Having been asked a lot recently if he's made a "political album" with The National Health, Maximo Park's frontman Paul Smith examines a political song with punch, Shipbuilding...
I wanted to celebrate Elvis Costello and Clive Langer's composition, Shipbuilding because it succeeds as a perfect political song. As sung by Robert Wyatt, it creates a deep empathy for the anonymous characters in the song, written at the time of the Falklands War, who are affected by the choices for working-class people in times of conflict.
Robert Wyatt's voice is the perfect vehicle for this song, almost oblivious to the coded references to the Falklands War - this makes it more potent, more of a narrative that's given added poignancy by melody and the instruments, of which the voice is the main one.
The song begins with descriptive flourishes that nod to the everyday aspects of a soldier's life, such as the buying of "a new winter's coat for the wife/ And a bicycle on the boy's birthday". However, the narrator asks, "Is it worth it?" This question is left to linger for a while, allowing the listener to formulate their own ideas and to build-up a picture of a time and a place.
When the judgement comes, it is couched within a metaphor; the key chorus lyric "Diving for real life/ When we should be diving for pearls", reveals the narrator's stance in soft, poetic language that's infinitely more persuasive than "war is bad", as worthy as that sentiment may be.
Soapboxing and sloganeering serve their purposes but there also needs to be more to a song in order for it to have an emotional effect on me. Hence songs that have an overt message are often overly simplistic and dogmatic. No one likes to be told what they should and shouldn't do or think.
I certainly wouldn't compare the quality of songs from our latest album, The National Health to this incredible song, but I believe there is a vague connection in their conception. As a lyricist, I've attempted to avoid being dogmatic as I address certain issues, such as the economic downturn and its possible effects. I prefer to make allusions instead of pointing fingers. I prefer to think the listener is intelligent enough to make the links and to forge their own meanings within the song that appeal to their own sensibility or life experience.
I have been consistently asked if this is our political album, but I for one cannot separate my personal feelings from my political beliefs - one informs the other, and vice versa. I've always tried to write personal lyrics that mean a lot to me, using a healthy dollop of personal experience in the process. I think I have widened my range of topics on our new record, but I still need to be passionate about a subject to write about it.
This is the passion and empathy I hear in Shipbuilding and that is why it endures for me and why its universal imagery and sentiment still resonate across the years. These are songs, not placards, and we should see them as having the balance of simplicity and complexity that marks out the best songwriting.
Paul Smith @Paulsmithmusic
For more, including details of the band's UK tour which kicks off in Liverpool on tonight (1 November), head to Maximopark.com.
10:23 AM | 01/11/2012
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