Where Poetry and Punk Rock Collide: The Listener Project

Where Poetry and Punk Rock Collide: The Listener Project

Talk music duo challenge the boundary between music and poetry

Dan Smith calls what he does "talk music". As the creative force behind Listener, a simultaneous rock outfit and poetry project, he treads new ground with regard to genre and media. His songs consist of lyrics in irregular lines barked over rough, grungy guitars and drums. Listener's latest release, Wooden Heart, presents a unique duality to their art that seems to place them squarely in the worlds of both spoken word poetry and punk rock music. 

I first came across Listener when I saw the beautifully filmed concert video of Wooden Heart's opening track, "You Have Never Lived Because You Have Never Died." It stunned me for a few reasons. The cinema-quality production values on the black-and-white video made me think it must have been from a movie, some biopic of a musician I'd never heard of. The raw beauty of the lyrics and the passion put into their delivery set them apart from anything I'd ever seen at a basement punk show. It had a Howl vibe, reminiscent somehow of James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. I thought I was watching something professionally acted and produced.

I figured out soon enough that I was watching footage shot live from a couple of cameras set up in someone's basement. There was no acting in what I saw. Dan Smith was playing himself, mustached and crazed, pouring his poetry into the microphone. Many of his lines are explosively gorgeous, the sort of words that inspire impulsive young people to get them tattooed across their backs. You might catch me with "I sleep like a tornado" written under my skin someday. More than anything it was the ferocity of Smith's sincerity that spoke to me. He sang like he wanted to get those last words out as the world ended around him. He mostly ignored the bass guitar slung over his shoulders, grappling with the microphone instead. The performance was as much physical as vocal. 

What's strange about Smith's words as performed as Listener songs is their tendency to drift away from musical timing. He writes in a fervent free verse, and it's somewhat obvious that he layers his lyrics over chords long after they've been written. The lyrics of "You Have Never Lived" begin a few measures before we'd expect them. In fact, most of Listener's songs refuse to align their lyrics with the beginnings or ends of measures. Smith allows his poems to retain their form and delivery even after he merges them with music. 

Wooden Heart allows us to see Smith's poems and songs side by side. Listener released it as an independent double album, with both halves available from their Bandcamp site. Or rather, they released Wooden Heart as eleven songs, and then also released as a companion piece something called Wooden Heart Poems: eleven recordings of the lyrics to Wooden Heart as spoken word poems. What's interesting is that while Wooden Heart the music album is only available for purchase as a $10 CD or $7 digital download, Wooden Heart the poetry collection can be downloaded for any price, no minimum, a la the initial release of In Rainbows.

It's as though Listener ascribe more value to music than poetry. Of course, their songs are fully produced, fleshed out with lush instrumentation, presumably recorded in a studio and mastered for money. Are they just covering their bases financially, or is there a further commentary here on how we value different types of creative expression?

Both releases include what makes Listener good. The music would be nothing special without Smith's lyrics and off-kilter accented delivery. The essence of the project resides in each album, but Smith's poems are given considerable punch when embedded in rock songs. There's something more instantly relatable about hearing them alongside music, even though Smith's vocal delivery itself carries little melody. The project raises worthwhile questions about where we draw the line between poetry and music, and how spoken word fits into each.