Anatomy of a Great Song
If we all knew what made a great song, we’d be giggling and rolling around in piles of royalty money instead of speculating on it in blogs on a roots music website. But I like to think I occasionally come across a song that’s obviously attractive to a lot of people, including me, and that I could figure out why it is.
My subject for this entry is Kathleen Edwards’s “Change the Sheets”. I better stop writing about her lest I be regarded as some kind of cyber stalker-writer. Maybe I’ll make this first in a series (and maybe some of you can join in?). And I promise not to write about her anymore after this.
It occurred to me today that the song is doing something significant to me. Actually, that whole album is…there are far too many times where she expresses clear sentiments that have been wafting in the back of my mind as foggy, not-quite-wanted thoughts. She makes them concrete, and I think ‘yikes’, put the album away for a few days, then drag it back out when I think I am reasonable and clear-headed. I suspect a few other girls our age are feeling the same way, since videos of the song have been circulating among my early-30s, female, childless friends on Facebook.
The song begins with a pulsating riff on the keyboards that builds in layers with the addition of bass, percussion, and guitar throughout the intro. It is an antsy, anxious introduction with an unsettled rhythm, and the extra wash of distorted guitar and long vocal notes add rich timbres to the thickness.
The bass, keyboard riff, and percussion continue thumping underneath the first verse, augmenting Edwards’s fragile delivery, and adding to the apprehensive mood that has been created. When she gets to “Change this feeling under my feet”, her leap to the upper register is accompanied by sustained guitar chords, providing a small release in the tension built thus far.
The layers continue building through the second verse. What really amplifies the tension is the ascending melody during “I want to lie in the cracks of this lonely road/I can fill in the blanks for every time you don’t phone,” which finally breaks as the instruments crescendo, while she repeats “Run, run, run…” and then it all collapses into the chorus after the drum break. While Edwards sings the lines of the chorus, she’s backed by a voice holding a sustained note. It’s effective for adding contrast and texture; she’s done it before on songs like “Maria”. Then everything drops away for nice little electronic sprinkles while the introductory material returns, just before the build begins again.
Probably the most effective component of the song is the sense of mystery and anticipation that builds and is then gratifyingly resolved in climactic moments throughout. The opening riff might be enough to do it, but add in the gradual washes of sound and her move from a whispery voice to one that is strong and angry in the chorus, and the tension-resolution dynamic so craved in music returns nicely again and again.
I put the album on during my ride home today, hoping that it would get to “Change the Sheets” before I got to my place. As luck would have it, the subway stalled half a stop from mine, and sat, and sat. It stopped at a point where it is briefly outside and above ground, a place that is surrounded by fence and barbed wire. So that was all I could see through the window. The guy beside me was coughing violently into a handkerchief and on my other side, an older lady was playing a form of rock-paper-scissors called “lion-giraffe-plum” (?!) with a young girl while she ate a sandwich (in itself, a significantly better moment than most subway rides afford, but still weird), and while all of this was going on, I was having a very mild existential crisis, brought on in part by the song. Where am I? What is my life? Where am I going? Nowhere! (both literally and figuratively)
Meanwhile, KE is chanting “Run, run, run, run,” and I’m all, ‘yes I would like to but I CAN’T.’ Spinning wheels, wanting to burst away from the routine, isn’t this what most of us feel, at least occasionally (“I swear I was fun”)? My husband admired my bowl of oatmeal this morning, and I told him, “it just tastes like before work. And my sandwich tastes like at work.” When I put on a song like this and step outside and get whacked in the face with cold, fresh air, I make up a little story that I have to run for the bus or I’ll be late, and I run even though the buses come pretty often. Because the song makes me! Also because I always want to run, to escape. (Also because I used to run every day, and then I tripped on uneven sidewalk and smashed my wrist and never really got back into it, and I miss it.)
The question I’m really getting at here is twofold: how many of us react to the same things in the song? Does it inspire the same sense of excitement and escape and worry in everyone? And how much do songs suddenly clarify the world around us, magically matching our moment to moment experience of reality?
Or, do we subconsciously choose songs that will match our mood and structure our environment, and feel gratefully reassured when the sounds we’re hearing and the things we’re seeing seem to line up perfectly? What if this song came out a year and a half ago? Would I respond to it the same way? Probably not. As such, like all music, it’s the mixture of the affirmation of our feelings and the actual musical elements that combine to attract us to a song. So maybe in a year, I won’t find the same things in this song that I do now, or I might, or I may come to appreciate it more for its musical qualities than for the emotional response it generates. In any case, it’s a great song.