Previously, High School Musical demonstrated more than adequately how not to arrange lyrical lines for maximum effect, but it would be unfair not to give an example of how to do this well. First, I feel that I must preemptively apologize for my love of all things Billy Joel. While for a large part this obsession is sentimental, I maintain that Mr. Joel is one of the best pop lyricists of all time. If you are not a fan, by all means don’t stay silent. Just be aware that this is an issue on which I will not be swayed.
The example I wish to draw from Joel’s oeuvre is the song “Christie Lee” from the album An Innocent Man:
On the first interlude, Joel starts with the setup line “The man knew the Burn like the Bible/you know the man could blow an educated axe.” The heavy and obscure music slang is bizarre at first glance, especially for those unfamiliar with the relevant lingo. He also ends the line with a lyrically troublesome word, “axe,” and one is left to wonder whether he couldn’t have chosen a more easily rhymable word.
But when the second line comes, the reasoning behind the contortion not only becomes clear but pays off in spectacular fashion: “He didn’t see that Christie Lee was a woman/who didn’t need another lover/all she wanted was the sax.” Not only does he hit us with the rhythmic rat-tat-tat-tat and slightly slanted internal rhyming of “another lover,” but he then goes straight for the kill with that rarest of inventions: a pun that doesn’t come off as lame. Had he thrown the clever line out first, the lyric would have ended on a sour note as it would have been all too clear that Joel was desperately trying to make room for his wit. As it is, Joel wisely lets the lamer line build lyrical tension in the first line, and then throws his one-two punch in the second.
You can argue the merits of Joel’s comic concept all day, but I include the lyric as an example of a verse that, given its concept, is as ideally arranged as it can be.