Is bad lyrical content enough to discredit an album?

Hobo Johnson dropped an album last month titled The Fall of Hobo Johnson to much disdain by the music community at large. His most prominent detractor being Pitchfork who gave the album a 3.6/10, lamenting the record for its “histrionic vocals, tired emotions, and petty grievances”.

The entirety of the review is the writer (Alphonse Pierre) ripping apart the themes and ‘philosophies’ that Johnson presents. Dismissing his lyrics as “overly deep black-screen background Instagram stories”, Pierre sounds out the general consensus that people have developed about Hobo Johnson.

That he makes incel music.

Every single guy she’s ever loved to me sounds really fucking dumb, and stupid
If I become a man
I’ll grab your cheek with my unwavering hand and
I’ll tell you that I’ll never second guess all the lovely love we made

– Hobo Johnson on “Move Awayer”

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Johnson. I love the quirky inflexions in his enunciations, his incapability to stick to a standard flow when rapping and the genuineness found in his delivery.

His early work saw Johnson flexing his charisma to carry him through the sparse production of his debut — The Rise of Hobo Johnson.

On The Fall, his backing band, The Lovemakers, take on a much more central role that sees them veering away from the hip-hop/lo-fi inspired instrumentals in favour of more substantial musical passages. The album dances through elements of rock, pop, punk and more, forming an amalgamation of influences that sum up the modern-day music nerd.

Yet, I’m only really able to enjoy his work by willfully ignoring much of his lyrical content.

Anthony Fantano, the biggest music critic in the world, also dropped his review for The Fall recently. In it, he praises Johnson and The Lovemakers’ musical growth and their penchant to experiment with different genres. But more importantly, he commends the lyrical content of the album as well.

Encouraging listeners to “push past that initial barrier of cringe”, Fantano asserts that Hobo Johnson is a character that can be relatable if they choose to empathise with him.

Yet similar to the Pitchfork piece, he spends the bulk of the review on his lyrical content, attempting to justify his positive opinions on them.

Fantano on Twitter in reference to the negative reception of his Hobo Johnson review

The backlash that he (and many other supporters of the albums) received all centred around them showing appreciation for the supposed “king of incels”, completely ignoring the musical qualities of…well, Hobo Johnson’s music.

Of course, Johnson generally appeals to (or at least is more known amongst) music listeners that care for strong lyrical content. People who’d go onto music forums to discuss an artist’s concepts on their records, rather than engage in shitposting about the ‘vibes’ a song projects.

Music without lyrics is still music, but lyrics without music are poetry.

– Stephen Thompson for NPR Music

I believe that lyrics should take a backseat to musical passages. It’s not that lyrics aren’t important; some of the greatest songs of all time wouldn’t have achieved their current status if not for their writing. Instead, it’s more about seeing lyrics as a beguiling accessory to a song rather than a core element of it.

At times when I do pay attention to what Hobo Johnson is saying, I treat him like a friend that rarely has anything important to say — a joke.

Not all lyrics need to be taken at face value and not all listening experiences happen in the same environments. Johnson can lament about all the things he hates in life, but with bombastic production on “Typical Story” and the bouncy beat of “Subaru Crosstrek XV“, I can lose myself partying to them without as much of a care for their themes.

So why is it people have a compulsive need to dismiss an artist solely off one element of their music?

If we can overlook people’s flaws by looking at the sum of their parts, we should do the same for an artist’s musical output as well.

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