2 Nov 2010

Lyrical Anchorage

So I've been going back and forth to Cambridge over the last month on trains and coaches, and for most of those journeys I've been listening to Surfer Blood's Astro Coast on loop. Now it's November and rather than talk about another summer album, I'm instead going to focus on one song from Astro Coast, with particular reference to a small structural feature.

Pop songs, miniature and regular as they are, work on a scale by which such small features can completely define or transform them, yet such moments are rarely defined or discussed. Most pop commentary tackles music at album-level, making reference to individual songs as units, perhaps occasionally highlighting different sections within songs. But the intoxicating effect of pop operates on a much smaller scale: in intervals, two-chord relationships, one-word gestures, little motivic licks, or the emergence of some new timbre, which is then contextualised within the larger structure of the song as a unique happening, as a marker in a cycle or arc which will then anticipate its return, or as the progenitor of a new, looping texture.

Such intoxicating moments can be very simple and unique only to one song and its set of musical and lyrical circumstances. The moment that thrills me in Surfer Blood's 'Anchorage', however, is an instance of a structural device that is not unique only to this song, and would possibly endear me to any song it showed up in. It's a kind of displaced lyrical return, and it relies on the fact that 'Anchorage' is a two-part song, with a change in riff and vocal melody occurring about three minutes in. In both voice and guitar, the second part contains longer phrases with more movement, a kind of explanation of the stunted contours of the first part, which is emphasised by the first part being in a kind of dragged-out six time, while the second part trundles off in a regularised four time. It is with the recurrence of a line from the first half, adapted to the new momentum of the second half, that this device operates.

Surfer Blood - Anchorage by GROG

The voice enters with the line: 'I don't wanna spin my wheels' set to a descending melody, which is answered after a gap of one long six-time bar by the ascending line: 'I don't got no wheels to spin'. Whatever it means, the line's position at the beginning of the song and its distinction as a self-contained utterance announces its importance to the sentiment of the song as a whole. Three similar pairings of lines follow, comprising the first verse of the song and fulfilling the inescapable rule of four. Minutes later, after the song blossoms into its second half, the line returns. Of the first of the two groups of four (longer) lines which make up this second half, 'I don't wanna spin my wheels' occurs second instead of first. What was once the first of two separate paired lines becomes the first half of one longer line: 'I don't wanna spin my wheels, I don't wanna let my stomach squirm'. The line occurs one further time, this time as the third of a four-line group: 'I don't wanna spin my wheels, I don't wanna let it all hang out'.

Relocated to the centre of their four-line stanzas, these reiterated lines now seem to be more of a response than a self-contained announcement. The repetition of the idiom in a new melodic and metrical context both clarifies it and mystifies it, adding a sense of pronounced overemphasis (perhaps, ironically, even a sense of impotent inaction). At least one wheel is spinning, however, and it's the new sense of pulse in the two-bar cyclic riff which underpins the new section. Strapped, or anchored, to this rotating riff, the line resurfaces at uneven intervals and adopts a different kind of rhetorical stress coming at different points within the four-line stanzas, kind of like a pantoum.

For another example of this technique, which is for me equally beguiling, I'd like to look at Regina Spektor's 'Dance Anthem of the 80s'. Another two-part song, the second couplet of the first verse runs 'There's a meat market down the street/The boys and the girls watch each other eat' which, on its subsequent repetition, is condensed to include the clause 'when they really just want to watch each other sleep'. The word 'sleep' is extended to form the first chorus and is thereby marked as the keyword of the whole song.

Regina Spektor - Dance Anthem Of The 80s by zoogoesrawr

The second half of the song separates itself from the first through a sudden harmony change, a change in accompaniment pattern, a stripping-down of texture, the narrative shift to first person and new narrative scenario in the words: 'I went walking through the city like a drunk but not'. Here commences a gradual build-up, in rhythm, texture and dynamic, which grows through six harmonic cycles before it arrives at the line 'An addiction to hands and feet' which turns out to be the first line of a four-line stanza continuing 'There's a meat market down the street/The boys and girls watch each other eat/When they really just want to watch each other sleep'. Despite the obvious fact that these are brilliant lyrics anyway and that Regina is a genius and Far is a really good album, the repetition of these familiar words builds up momentum in the sense of accumulation and build-up, which will culminate in a return to the chorus, after one more cycle of this stanza, on the keyword: 'sleep'. What comprised a couplet in the song's first half, and was then squeezed and extended, is rehabilitated in this more 'serious' and personal half of the song, in which lyrically the whimsical opening lyrics become something desperate, to form the three weaker lines following on from a new darker opening idea.

And so returning to familiar lyrics in a new setting serves both a structural purpose, in providing momentum at a moment of growing climax and burgeoning return, as well as a key interpretative purpose, in linking the opening ideas to this new personal frame of reference.

There are probably many other instances of this device in action, although the Regina Spektor one is a particularly good example because of the lucidity of the lyrics involved. However, lyrics in pop music are in no way consigned to functioning via their semantics, or any other lexical level in fact. The lyrics assigned to melodic phrases in sung music become ingrained into the musical identity of those phrases. Just as words are fit to rhythms and pitch contours, so those rhythms and pitch contours are encrypted with the oral shapes of vowels and consonants. So when a guitar solo chokes up fragments of a vocal melody, those fragments have their syllables and those syllables have their semantics. And this is why it's both subversive and exciting when a key line or word is divorced from its accompanying melodic shape and attached to a new shape in another part of the song.

I used to listen compulsively to two particular Death Cab songs and I can now include them as a final example of the way the encryption of lyrics within music can be played with to create intoxicating moments within song structures. In both 'Soul Meets Body' and 'Lightness', the cathartic choruses are pre-empted by wordless proto-choruses between earlier verses. This serves several functions. It allows more 'verse' lyric (specific, unique, personal) to proceed before the revelation of a 'chorus' lyric (universal, general), without precluding the structural alternation of the chorus's complimentary music. It delays the gratification of a sung chorus but it also, listening retrospectively, teasingly pre-empts the lyrical sentiment of the chorus through its conspicuous absence. With a knowledge of the song's entirety, it is impossible to hear these proto-choruses without their implied lyrics. However, this only magnifies the gratification of the lyrics' final arrival.

Soul Meets Body by Death Cab for Cutie by Jason Waters
Death Cab for Cutie - Lightness by adamtaj

On a final, unrelated note... (although Clean Bandit do actually kinda make use of the displaced lyrical return by transforming their talismanic 'I don't know, skip a beat' from an alternating, interpolated line at the beginning to a functioning antecedent rhyme by the end)