Most song lyrics demand to be listened to in context, not read in isolation on the page. When I talked to Hamilton Leithauser—lead singer of the acclaimed, now-defunct rock band The Walkmen—he used a favorite line from Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” to illustrate how he thinks about the interplay between words and music, and why it’s important to balance instinct and rationality in the creative process.
The two final Walkmen albums featured spare, ascetic songs, with arrangements you could pull off on a four-track. But on his recently released solo debut, Black Hours, Leithauser trades self-imposed leanness for songs fleshed out with marimba, conga, handclaps, even a few backing “shoo-bee-do-wahs.” As the opener, “5 AM,” explicitly channels Sinatra, complete with cinematic Gordon Jenkins strings, you can hear a singer making a compelling case for a place among the great vocalists of American music.
Hamilton Leithauser spoke to me by phone.
Hamilton Leithauser: I’ve listened to Elvis my whole life. My mom always played his records when I was growing up, so I got started on him early. Once you get into The Beatles, The Stones, and Bob Dylan, you realize that they all saw Elvis as their hero, and that brings you back. Later, in high school, I was listening to lots of rockabilly punk—bands like The Cramps, who reference Elvis over and over again. With so many kinds of music you’re going to find your way back to the King pretty quick. He’s got charisma, style, voice, the whole shooting match. There’s an energy, rawness, and purity to his music, whether he’s doing fast songs or slow ones. He’s a guy to return to, again and again, for me.
My favorite Elvis lyric is the opening line from “All Shook Up”:
Well, bless my soul
What’s wrong with me?
I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree.
Now, this might be one of the 10 most famous songs ever recorded—so you don’t really question the words as you listen. But when you look more closely, it’s a funny line. What’s a “fuzzy tree?” Why would somebody be stuck in one? It’s a strange image, especially compared to the other verses, which are much more conventional. Lines like “My hands are shaky and my knees are weak / I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet” are much more straightforward, closer to what we’d expect in a love song.
At the same time, though, it really works. The line’s playful, nonsensical tone works for the “shook up” narrator, who seems like he’s been driven into a frenzy by desire. I mean, I’ve got allergies—I can relate to that itchy, agitated state he’s talking about. The image gets your skin going, and the way Elvis sings gets you going. The sound of the words is perfect, too—they’re great to sing along to, they roll off the tongue. For these reasons, the words work within the context of the song—even though, alone on the typed page, they might fall a little flat, or make you scratch your head. They’re nonsense, and they’re not, at the same time.
Though I love songwriters whose lyrics can stand alone, people like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, I can’t separate my words and music—the same way you can’t really separate the lyrics of a song like “All Shook Up” from its musical context. I’ve tried to write out stanzas first and set music to them later—I think it would be fun to work that way. When the music supports the lyrics, you can start focusing less on the melody—there’s not so much weight on every note to get across what you’re trying to express. But that approach just doesn’t work for me. The stuff I write isn’t poetry. The words serve the song, and not the other way around.
For me, “All Shook Up” demonstrates the challenge of writing lyrics the way I do: You’ve got to balance what works for the song with a desire to have things make sense, hang together, check out intellectually. Because the lyrics I write serve the music first and foremost, and work as language second, I have to be willing to privilege sound, phrasing, and intonation over literal meaning. I have to be willing to say something like “fuzzy tree,” if that’s the right thing for the song, even when I’m not fully sure what it means.
But then, you can’t write just anything. Without some kind of center, even if you have a bunch of lines that sound good, it’s not much more than rambling nonsense. The lyrics have got to be grounded somehow—ideally, they form some kind of cohesive whole. So, it’s better when you have a subject of some kind: This will be a love song, maybe, or this will be addressed to a certain person. Even a phrase can be enough to hang a song on, lyrically—on the new record, the phrase “I retired” helped set the tone for the rest of that song’s lyrics. I need something that’s going to be the centerpiece of the song—a name, or theme, or idea. A small, guiding idea can be enough to have the lyrics come together. Once I have that, the rest will fall into place.