Over the last few years, there has been an emergence of post-punk accompanied by spoken word poetry as vocals. Of course, this isn’t new – from Patti Smith to John Cooper Clarke, poetry has been spoken over driving guitar riffs for decades. Yet the 2000s became a wasteland for landfill indie, lacking inspiration in lyrical content as well as sound. Many of these bands have dominated over the indie music scene, using cliches, derivative lines as something to accompany their generic basslines and drumbeats.
However, the post-punk scene of the past few years has seen the popularisation of bands that put poetry at the forefront of their music. There is a difference between bands such as these and bands that have naturally poetical lyrics. Musicians such as Dry Cleaning, Sinead O’Brien, and Black Country, New Road actually speak over their music. Their affectations are often sarcastic, humorous, and urgent; these bands draw listeners’ attention to the lyrical content without a choice.
Dry Cleaning’s debut EP, Goodnight Sweet Princess, features lyrics that almost always startle first-time listeners, such as the deadpan delivery of “she said have you ever spat c*m onto the carpet of a travel lodge?” and “you stole my childhood CDs, you f***!” (Goodnight) Their song Magic of Meghan is a story of the speaker’s love for Meghan Markle, spoken of as if she is part of their personal life, “this beautiful woman tripped, and fell into my life.” Lead singer Florence Shaw is often seen with a notebook on stage, a symbol that reminds us of the importance of her poetry.
The band prove that poetry is not always dense and complicated, Shaw’s lyrics are in fact reminiscent of John Cooper Clarke’s, one of the greatest punk poets. His lyrics such as “I don’t want to be nice/ I think its clever to swear” (I Don’t Want to Be Nice) and “The bloody pies are bloody old/ The bloody chips are bloody cold” (Evidently Chicken Town) wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dry Cleaning record. The appeal of Dry Cleaning lies mainly in the effortless witticism of Florence Shaw; however, it can’t be ignored that the distinctive guitar tones and basslines of the rest of the band drive her poetry even further.
The guitar riffs of Viking Hair from the second EP Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks create a nostalgic, almost longing feeling, as Shaw sings “Stick up for me, Do what you’re told, but sometimes, tell me what to do as well.” There seems to be a secret desperation in her delivery of these lines, the guitar lowering itself along with Shaw as she emphasises the latter part of the line. Dry Cleaning presents an honest and relatable portrayal of adult life, “she said I was a horrible c***/ she said I was a d***head (Phone Scam). They promote a sense of solidarity between the listener and themselves, as we navigate adulthood with them in songs such as New Job and Leafy.
Hailing from Limerick is Sinead O’Brien, another artist turning her poetry into music. Her track Taking On Time was featured on the 2019 Speedy Wunderground compilation, alongside the likes of Squid and Black Midi. The fast-paced drums and striking riffs accompany her distinct yet charming and lively Irish voice. She utilises repetition to create a playful lyrical structure, “Moving off into the distance To get closer again/ Moving down the line/ To start only once again.” In Most Modern Painting, O’Brien’s poetical voice flows effortlessly as she sings “Quiet whipping winds/ Whisper things/ As she passes/ Long summer grasses.”
Unlike Dry Cleaning, O’Brien’s poetry is less comedic, but idiosyncratic in its own right. She creates incredibly beautiful pictures within her work: “From the square/ Where the morning light flows/ To the window where no nights now close/ I have been living a life in the crumbling down city/ Of my own Roman Ruins,” (Roman Ruins). Often, O’Brien’s songs catapult the listener straight into her poetry before the first note of an instrument can be acknowledged.
It regularly catches us off guard, particularly in A Thing You Call Joy, which begins with O’Brien’s keen delivery of “Grip the water flowing as it falls/ Faster from the palms.” The immediacy of this lyric is ironic due to the inability of gripping onto water. As the song progresses, she sings “Always a fall feeling after a calling/ There is always a fall I feel coming” before repeating the song’s opening lines. O’Brien presents the idea of joy being temporary, as its absence creates desperation, “why am I forever in recovery from a thing you call joy?” The affectation in O’Brien’s voice fluctuates between rapidity, sarcasm, and playfulness. Often layered vocals are accompanied by reverberating guitar riffs that match the intensity of O’Brien’s poem.
Over the past two years, Cambridge seven piece Black Country, New Road has proved itself to be one of the most exciting bands emerging from the post-punk landscape. Frequently playing in Brixton’s legendary venue The Windmill – sometimes with fellow fan favourites Black Midi – the band has made a name for itself by combining spoken word with klezmer inspired instrumentals.
The band features a violinist and saxophonist centre stage while the lead singer Isaac Wood stands to the side with his guitar. He seems shy, almost never appearing in interviews unless written, and donning oversized jumpers and baggy trousers. Yet the lyrical content of the band’s music suggests otherwise. Their 2019 single Sunglasses featured the infamous chorus “I’m more than adequate/ Leave Kanye out of this/ Leave your sertraline in the cabinet/ And f*** me like you mean it, Isaac.” The lyrics are performed with a fervent intensity, Wood often appearing to be in pain as he delivers the momentous chorus.
Yet this is cleverly built up to by the description of a rich girl’s conservative parents, “And with frail hands she grips the NutriBullet/ And the bite of its blades reminds me/ Of a future that I am in no way part of.” He expresses how unrelatable the girl and her family are, before adopting the role of someone who has found wearing sunglasses can be a form of coping mechanism. The drums paired with the repetitive guitar chords, followed by a matching bassline, help to drive the image of the speaker dramatically walking down the street with newfound confidence. He sings “I’m a surprisingly smooth talker/ and I’m invincible in these sunglasses.” The jolting saxophone is slightly unnerving yet brings the whole song together to create an almost nine-minute mesmerising cacophony.
Similarly, the six-minute Science Fair takes the same kind of structure by slowly building through spoken word into enigmatic synths and dizzying violin, eventually exploding into crashing cymbals and intense strings. It’s disorientating in the best way possible, gaining its momentum through Wood’s bizarre lines such as “I saw you undressing/ It was at the Cirque du Soleil/ And it was such an intimate performance/ I swear to God, you looked right at me.” There is almost an uncanniness to the song, mixing the mundane and ordinary with dramatics, situating the listener in uncertainty. It is a masterpiece of a song, utilising instrumentation to cleverly emphasise and dramatise the spoken word piece.
The use of spoken word poetry in music allows artists to experiment with instruments as an accompaniment to poetry, rather than simply using lyrics to accompany music. The lyrical content is taken care of by the instruments. The current spoken-word post-punk artists seem to dwell in the existential, the absurd and strange. But this is what makes it all so captivating. The ability to aid poetry though instrumentals demonstrates a musicianship that often stands out tenfold in comparison to others. It will be fascinating to see how other new bands attempting a similar style are able to capture the genius of the bands listed here whilst avoiding becoming derivative.
Words by: Aimee Ferrier
Edited by: Laura Murphy