Let's be real: Most songwriting amounts to a bunch of vague amateur poetry with pretensions of profundity. In the midst of all the babble, though, periodically a lyricist will emerge who has the courage to write about things that are real, raw and personal. That kind of truly honest songwriting relies on emotional fortitude and the ability to look within, and as painful as the process can be, it produces undeniably affecting music. Here's a look at the ten most brutally honest songwriters.
10. Cody ChesnuTT The Roots covered Cody ChesnuTT's song "The Seed" on Phrenology, telling the story of a man on a mission to gain some kind of immortality by impregnating multiple women. The lyrics on ChesnuTT's recent album, Landing on a Hundred, are every bit as raw: "I used to smoke crack back in the day/I used to gamble rent money and lose/I used to dog the nice ladies, used to swindle friends/But now I'm teaching kids in Sunday school, and I'm not turning back."
9. Lyle Lovett Lyle Lovett has a kind of whimsical charm that takes him effortlessly from sad country ballads to goofy gospel numbers. However, when he gets serious, his lyrics are surprisingly ruthless: "Thank you, my friend. I sincerely appreciate the words you say about how she'll cry, and how she'll grieve and miss me when she goes away... But she's leaving me because she really wants to, and she'll be happy when she's gone. She'll be happy. She'll be so very happy."
8. Marvin Gaye Marvin Gaye broke new ground when Motown Records issued "What's Going On," with its political lyrics decrying war and police brutality. His most painfully personal and poignant lyrics, however, appeared on 1978's Here, My Dear, chronicling his messy breakup with Berry Gordy's older sister Anna. Among other things, he accuses her of using their son to manipulate him: "You don't have the right to use the son of mine to keep me in line."
7. Frank Turner Frank Turner is the kind of poet who doesn't shy away from the ugliest portrait of himself. His songs detail disillusionment, despair and doubt in a ferociously unflinching manner. He describes growing older, feeling as though relationships are interchangeable and turning into his father (with whom he has an unsteady history). "Once We Were Anarchists" contains some distressingly honest lyrics about his failed idealism: "If politics is helping all the people, then my political career is pretty fucked, because the truth is I don't like people all that much."
6. Frank Ocean Frank Ocean made waves when he published an open letter revealing that his first love had been with another man. His subsequent release channel ORANGE delved further into the relationship, painting a picture of a lost romance: "It usually doesn't rain in Southern California. Much like Arizona, my eyes don't shed tears. But, buddy boy, when I'm thinkin' 'bout you... I been thinkin' 'bout you. I been thinkin' 'bout you. Do you think about me still?"
5. Rivers Cuomo It's hard to blame Rivers Cuomo for being a little confused, considering that Weezer's Pinkerton has been alternately called an abject failure and one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Fan and critical opinions aside, it certainly contains some startlingly confessional songwriting -- including songs in which Cuomo laments the loneliness of touring, describes his struggles with sex and romance and admits to falling in love with a teenage girl from Japan who wrote him a fan letter: "I wonder how you touch yourself and curse myself for being across the sea."
4. Cage Chris Palko (aka Cage) had one of the most fucked-up childhoods imaginable, filled with drugs, violence and abuse. In "Too Heavy for Cherubs," he describes how his father used to make him hold the tourniquet as he injected heroin: "Erratic then gone, I go from manic to calm, watching the yellow liquid dripping back out of his arm. No automatic alarm sounded. Trying to wrap my six-year-old brain around it. Went in his pockets, took his money and couldn't count it."
3. Mark Everett Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett had it really rough in the late '90s. His mother died of lung cancer, his sister Elizabeth committed suicide after a stay in a mental hospital and Everett was left the only surviving member of his immediate family. Much like the words of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the lyrics on Electro-Shock Blues tell these stories of death and survival from the viewpoints of all involved. One of the most harrowing songs is the title track, written from Elizabeth's perspective: "Feeling scared today. Write down 'I am okay' a hundred times. The doctors say I am okay. I am okay. I'm not okay."
2. John Darnielle The Mountain Goats have never shied away from complicated and esoteric songwriting jam-packed with metaphors and literary references. Maybe that's why The Sunset Tree hit so hard with its relatively simple and straightforward recounting of John Darnielle's relationship with his abusive stepfather and the beatings he received: "And then I'm awake, and I'm guarding my face, hoping you don't break my stereo, because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without. And so I think about that, and then I sorta black out."
1. Angel Haze It's hard to get more brutally honest than Raykeea Wilson (aka Angel Haze): This Michigan-born rapper recorded a version of Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" that discloses in excruciating detail the horrific sexual abuse she suffered as a child. She also describes her revenge fantasies and her understandable hatred for the world in general: "And in my mind I'd envision that I was speaking with God, and then I'd chop His fucking fist off and beat him with mine. But this is just a fucking portion of the war with my mind."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.