Not long ago, a friend of mine presented this question: "What's wrong with simple lyrics?". This was brought on by a comment I made regarding the Staind
(which some unfeeling bastard was forcing us to listen to. But Aaron Lewis
' bleating goat voice is a topic for another node). He posited that it was a form of intellectual elitism
- that more complex lyrics were considered superior because they elicited feelings of superiority in those that could understand them. This node is an expansion of my response to him.
I am of the opinion that music has a unique ability to present emotionally complex ideas in a way that is intensely visceral; music can take that which is ethereal and transform it into a resonant, shared experience, perhaps more adeptly than any other medium (though some noders seem bent on proving me wrong). This ability, though, can only be effectively weilded by those who have mastered both instrumental and lyrical composition.
Take, for example, Sleater-Kinney's song The Swimmer. The song is essentially a character study. Taken individually, the instrumentation and lyrics, while lovely, don't make too much of an impact. In tandem, however, they paint a portrait that could be matched by only the most skilled authors. The metaphor of a swimmer out at sea is explored both lyrically and sonically, and on repeated listenings an emotional understanding of the character is gained. Without this added layer of intellectual abstraction - i.e., if the lyrics flat-out stated "she feels removed, she is independant" - virtually all of the clarity and impact would be lost.
Another example: Tool's Forty Six & 2. As is the case with many Tool songs, one would probably need several textbooks or a college-level understanding of Jungian psychology and obscure cultish religions to fully grasp this piece's meaning; fortunately, there are cheat sheets available for us lazy types (like artemis entreri's terrific writeup here, or Kabir's Tool FAQ at toolshed.down.net). In essence, the song is about a desire to improve yourself, or to transcend human weakness; a simple explanation like that cannot do the song justice, though. The references Maynard uses add a great deal of subtlety and nuance to the song, so much so that it would be virtually impossible to precisely explain its meaning using other words. The music adds a level of urgency and intensity, altering and enhancing the song's emotional tone. Again, simplifying the lyrics would immensely damage the piece overall.
I won't even start in on Antichrist Superstar; let me just say that you could do a hell of a lot worse, lyrically, than ripping off Nietzsche.
There is another reason I myself enjoy lyrically complex songs, though I'm not sure how applicable this is to other people. This is the bit that could be misread as intellectual snobbery. I personally am a big math geek, and derive more than a little pleasure from solving difficult problems, and understanding difficult concepts. The feeling I get when, on the five thousandth listen, a song's meaning suddenly becomes crystal clear, or a new layer of meaning reveals itself to me - well, it's priceless. It's not at all the feeling that I've accomplished something others have not, but rather the satisfaction of having grown even a tiny bit emotionally or intellectually, and of having overcome a barrier of understanding that had blocked me in the past.
This isn't to say that all songs should be deep or profound or headache-inducing; there is certainly value to be found in the easy emotional resonance of top-40 radio, and the simple comfort of the knowledge that others have experienced your melodramas in the past. And, of course, sometimes you just want to shake your bon-bon (or something). I myself, though, place a high premium on songs that can expand my mind, and that can evoke sincere emotion - and simplicity just doesn't cut it.
Other songs with great lyrics (feel free to /msg me additions): Stinkfist, jimmy, Undertow, Fitter Happier, Trailer Trash
xdjio says "Third Uncle" by Brian Eno
atesh says "Let the Water Turn Black" - Frank Zappa. I'd also say "We Didn't Start the Fire" Billy Joel
AwkwardSaw suggests Rocks Tonic Juice Magic, and I see what he means.