From Dylan to Ishiguro: can song lyrics ever be literature?

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A new book of lyrics by Kazuo Ishiguro joins collections by Kate Bush and Jarvis Cocker. But can songwriting ever work on the page?

Long before he wrote Booker-winning novels and Oscar-nominated screenplays, the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro wrote bad songs. In his own words, these unheard lyrics were “mostly ghastly” but they enabled him to find his voice. He worked through the gauche and the& pretentious before alighting on the simpler first-person style that would define his fiction: “understated, almost mundane lyrics, with emotions placed between the lines, only occasionally pushing to the& surface”.

In 2002, Ishiguro chose a track by the American jazz singer Stacey Kent on Desert Island Discs and a friendship developed. Kent’s husband and collaborator Jim Tomlinson suggested to Ishiguro that he try writing her some lyrics – his first in 30 years. These& were much better. Now, Faber has collected 16 of them (five as yet unrecorded) in The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain: Lyrics for Stacey Kent, with elegant illustrations by Bianca Bagnarelli.

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