Literary Rock: Poetic or Pretentious?

This photo just SCREAMS rock star.

Literary bands, including Destroyer, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, and Okkervil River, have gained a foothold in the modern music scene; it’s the type of tunes where songwriting prose competes with or even outshines instrumentation. It’s a listening experience where fans intently read liner notes while dropping the needle to the groove, analyzing heady lyrics for a multiplicity of meanings. Founded on the legacy of Morrissey, this new crop of singer-songwriters infuse an nerdish, academic vibe into their work that seems at odds with the supposedly scuzzy world of rock.

What makes a band ‘literary’? Is it based on clever wordplay, ‘wordiness’, or writing one’s lyrics in prose? Is it founded on obscure allusions (for example, Okkervil River takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya)? Are goofily thick prescription glasses a necessary component (a la Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, pictured to the right)?

Portland-based indie breakout The Decemberists take the literary slant to the next level, with a music video drawn from an acclaimed novel. “Calamity Song” (from 2011’s The King Is Dead) is directly inspired by David Foster Wallace’s legendary tomb Infinite Jest. Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur directed the video, which depicts Eschaton, a tennis-like game

Interestingly enough, some rockers began their careers as writers, such as Sufjan Stevens. Stevens received his MFA in Creative Writing from the New School in 1999, and has had his work published in the UK Sunday Observer, Topic, and The Best Non-Required American Reading 2007. He wrote his 1999 debut album, A Sun Came, as a student; “Dumb I Sound” is one of my favorites of his early work, a rough, rakish but beautiful cut.

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” from Stevens’ 2004 banjo-laden Seven Swans was inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name. Check out his KCRW performance of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:

Austin-based band Okkervil River is one band that is almost always described as literary, particularly due to their critically-acclaimed stand-out 2005 album Black Sheep Boy. Here is an excerpt of a review from Dusted:

Will Sheff’s lyrics garner acclaim for being “literary,” but simply writing one’s lyrics in prose form, as Sheff does, doesn’t quite make his songs worthy of Cliff Notes. What Sheff can do, and do very well, is nurture his images into believable symbols of greater girth, like when the grey, inert qualities of a rock become fodder for a jilted lover’s diatribe (“A Stone”) or the word real is ironically twisted into multiple, shifting meanings (“For Real”).

Will Sheff emphatically rejected the “bookish and literary” label ascribed to Okkervil River in a 2007 interview with The Believer, describing it classist and vaguely insulting to pop music.

“I don’t want to be some fop pretending to be a half-baked poet… I’m very happy that the New York Times wrote a big piece and called us “literary,” because it’s good to have somebody say something about you, but honestly I think it’s all bullshit. My favorite groups, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Neil Young or the Shangri-Las, they don’t have anything “literary” about them. It’s like saying that comic books are good if they’re like paintings. In the end, it’s classist, you know? And all these bands that are trying to dignify themselves by coming across as literary are classist.”

I see Sheff’s point, but perhaps ‘literary’ can be considered as more of a descriptor rather than a definition. It is confining to smack a band into one particular category when there are multiple influences at play. Is there really anything detrimental in the ‘literary’ descriptor, when it seems only to augment the breadth of possible interpretations?

From a listener’s perspective, I hope that esoteric references to Russian literature and flowery language maintain their place in popular music. After all, I gotta pore over and over-analyze SOMETHING while listening to records.