16 Nov 2010

Extended Pleasure, or How To End A Song

Sometimes we kid ourselves that our particular taste in individual songs and songwriters is based on some intangible personal connection - with projected nostalgias, secret meanings which only we pick up, or a melody or lyric that is all the more perfect for its unaccountable perfection. However, in my case, just a little consideration can quickly shatter this pleasant illusion. There are some quite basic material features that reappear in many of those songs that mean the most to me. I'm going to discuss one of the most prevalent, with reference to its occurrence not only throughout the work of my favourite artist, but also in my decided 'song of the year' (so far) and in one of the songs which I'm quite sure I'd have played at my hypothetical funeral. These are all monumental musical beacons in my life, and yet they are united (though not completely defined) by a simple structural trend, specifically the introduction of a new vocal countermelody over a looping chorus or coda in the final moments of the song.

I think my addiction to this quite simple feature comes from the aversion that I have to the endings of songs. A song's beginning can quite often be its best moment - the ending almost never is. Musical material in pop is often allowed to exhaust itself and song endings often come out of necessity, rather than constituting 'moments' in themselves. They also, more often than not, makes use of a repeat of the chorus, or material based on the chorus, and choruses are normally far less interesting than verses and bridges, I find. It's in these earlier sections that we hear the best lyrics, the most complicated and varied melodies, the newness and the sense of narrative. I love a late third verse, an unanticipated treat after a lot of chorus material. I also love a good middle eight (or middle twelve, or sixteen, or however long), which are normally even more melodically delightful and often harbour a lyrical secret or surprise. Choruses however, while they may bring joy and release with their initial entrance, almost universally wear thin by the third or fourth repeat. Closing a song by cycling through instrumental riffs or summative chorus fragments can be just as disappointing. I'm not saying this trend ruins pop songs for me, it's just that I tend to run out of anticipation once the middle eight has been reached. More often than not, this is the last point of newness - the moment of climax - and the rest of the song is a kind of post-coital cooling.

What then could be better than a song format in which the best moment is saved right till the end: a whole song's worth of intensifying anticipation and a delightful arrival after which the listener is completely entitled to skip back to the beginning of the track whilst risking only minor accusations of ipod-borne, itchy thumb syndrome?! Owen Pallett is a veritable guru of this particular tantric lore. Many of my favourite Pallett/Final Fantasy tracks kick in with a brilliant new melody right at the end: most recently on 'The Great Elsewhere' ('Followed him out to the end of the pier...') and 'Honour The Dead, Or Else' ('Selfish selfish sleepy boy...'), but most spectacularly on 'The Butcher' and 'This Lamb Sells Condos' which both save not one but two new melodies for the end. I think that, to a large extent, this sort of structural feature suggests itself through Owen's live performance practice - looping violin phrases and developing material over the top in a process of accumulation, as opposed to the cyclic model that most conventional bands practice.

Final Fantasy - The Butcher by snipelondon

Yeasayer's 'ONE' - probably my favourite new song of the year - uses the same technique to very different ends. They could very easily have just let the song play out by repeating the fantastic chorus unaltered a few more times. It would have made the song easier to mix with, and anyway, once the music starts, it takes massive physical effort to actually stop dancing before the final beat has decayed away. However, the band decides to give a little bit more and, just as it seems like the funkiness has reached terminal intensity, the whole thing is boosted up to some astral plane exactly one minute before the end. The falsetto countermelody ('It feels like being tranquilised...') tessellates perfectly with the chorus when it rolls back underneath; for me, it's a sensation of taking flight.

Yeasayer - ONE by tut

The final instance that I want to mention is in an obscure but utterly gorgeous song by Love Tractor called ''Til Morning Comes'. This vast and immersive lullaby is full of overlapping melodies, washing over each other like waves, from the chorus that doubles back on itself, to the serene 'bom bom boms' that float around the verse section on its second occurrence. After one further chorus, the mist of steel guitars and string pads lingers to enfold the final occurrence of verse material, lifting it skyward. In a combination of closing countermelody and the kind of pre-lyrical melodic anticipation that I wrote about last week with reference to Death Cab For Cutie, the final melody first takes shape as a synth glow, like the bright white blur that promises to solidify into an angelic vision within the iconography of movie effects. When it arrives, the new melody - again floating high above the texture in a soft falsetto - forms the final stratum in an apotheosis of the kind that Wagner could never hope to show me. (Although I do sometimes wish the track would stop before that sitar comes in...)
It probably all sounds like massive hyperbole, but I'm an absolute sucker for this kind of thing. Anyone writing songs and looking for my complete and unconditional appreciation should take note...