The Word on the Street is not Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon’s first work of writing for music. He wrote librettos for four Daren Hagen operas; Shining Bow, Vera of Las Vegas, Bandanna, and The Ancient Concert and worked in rock ‘n’ roll, writing for The Handsome Family, collaborating with Warren Zevon, and playing in and writing for two other bands; Rackett and The Wayside Shrines. In 2006, Muldoon released General Admission, a collection of his lyrics for Rackett. Now, we have The Word on the Street, Muldoon’s lyrics for The Wayside Shrines, including the five songs that make up their Black Box EP. Shaped like liner notes, the publisher’s description urges you to keep rock ‘n’ roll in mind as you read, as if you could listen along to the album.
Music and poetry have always been intertwined if for no other reason than poetry, in large part, depends on audio for meaning. The question of the distinction between the song lyric and the poem solidified into a debate, at least in America, with Bob Dylan and his heirs, when listeners started paying attention to the substance of lyrics independent of their sound in the song. It was when the distinction was blurred, when lyrics began to support the scrutiny of words on the page, that we really began to question how to tell a song from a poem. At best, this consideration has produced a kind of “know it when I see it,” spectrum, where we can agree that even the best Rolling Stones lyrics are not poetry, while most of Patti Smith’s work probably is, maybe adding the almost tautological, “if it needs the music it’s a song, if not, it’s a poem.” By deciding the works in The Word on the Street are songs, Muldoon directly engages this debate, offering his own definition by example.
This poses a major challenge to the reviewer; there is no “The Word on the Street” album. As much as the publisher designed this like a CD insert, it’s a hardcover with a hardcover price. I have to approach the lyrics as poems, because, with the exception of the five songs on the EP, I can only experience them as poems. And as poems, only three of them succeed; “Good Luck with That,” “Jezebell was a Jersey Belle,” and “Put Me Down.” In all three, we see the direct energy of rock ‘n’ roll merged with Muldoon’s wit and sophistication. Muldoon writes intricate poetry, and in these three poems, especially “Jezebell was a Jersey Belle,” we see an excellent translation of that intricacy into the simplicity of couplets, lost loves, cheating hearts, and political outrage. However, this translation is at the core of what makes The Word on the Street a disappointing collection of poetry.
Rock lyrics have a strange kind of successful superficiality, the visceral thrill of shouted certainties, telling the world what you think, see, and feel as loud as you can for three minutes. But, too often, Muldoon seems to believe rock lyrics are just simplified poems. Which is not to say that long lines and complicated rhyme schemes guarantee quality, but that the removal of them does not guarantee intensity. Furthermore, I found it difficult to intuit the sound of the lyrics from their format on the page. Even in poems, there should be a sense of the audible rhythm from the printed page, or, as in the case of Muldoon’s best work, a flexibility that allows the poem to “sound” good no matter how the reader interprets that “sound.” In this collection, I couldn’t hear the songs from the words.
Even listening to the available songs on The Wayside Shrines website didn’t add to the substance of the lyrics. Of the five songs, only my appreciation of “Feet of Clay” and “Black Box” was improved by listening to them. With “Feet of Clay”, the song revealed a rhyme scheme I really should have noticed in my reading. It came closest to matching my personal image of a “Paul Muldoon rock song.” With “Black Box,” I was able to hear how the wit of the lyrics lead into a traditional declaration of rock ‘n’ roll affection. But the other three gained nothing from having the missing substance added.
One of the benefits of reaching a point in your career when you are an “important writer,” is that not every single one of your works needs to be important, you’ve earned the privilege to play pick-up every now and then. If Paul Muldoon has fun writing song lyrics, he has earned the privilege to publish a collection of his song lyrics. Furthermore, I know from personal experience that writing and playing songs is fun, whether you’re good at writing and playing songs or, like me, pretty terrible at it.
The Paul Muldoon completist, will want a copy of The Word on the Street, and, if you happen to catch The Wayside Shrines and like what you hear, you can get the lyrics. But otherwise, this is a skippable collection; at best, it’s the lyric book for an album you can’t listen to, and, at worst, a weak collection from an otherwise great poet.
Editor’s Note: As the Wayside Shrines have said in the comments, there is a “Word on the Street” album, available at no cost from WaysideShrines.org. We regret the error.