Good songs are good for a reason.
Now, it's true, different people have different tastes, and different things appeal to different people for different reasons. And, especially in pop music, there's a lot that goes into whether or not a given piece of music will appeal to you, like personality, raw emotion, context, previous experience, stuff that goes way beyond the meat and bones of the composition itself.
There is most definitely an art to songwriting, and some songs simply do certain things better than others. A neat example of this: "&" and "You and Me", both by Tally Hall. Where does one succeed more than the other? Construction. What do I mean by that? Read on to find out.
Tally Hall's second album "Good & Evil" is one of the most tragically overlooked albums of all time. It is an incredibly consistent collection of fun, catchy pop songs with a brain, that deserved far more attention and acclaim than it ever received. "&" and "You and Me" are both excellent songs, and they're also quite different from each other.
So why compare them? Well, it's an easy comparison to make given their consecutive placement on the album, and as I mentioned, I think the particular successes of one and (minor) shortcomings of the other tell us a little bit about how songs work and why. Today I'll be discussing "&".
"&" is easily my favorite song on the album. It has such a sophistication and importance to it, without taking itself too seriously (something Tally Hall is very good at). And (&?) it's also beautifully crafted, musically-speaking. The more you listen to it, the more pops out at you, and the more you start to realize just how wickedly clever it really is.
The song relies heavily on its primary melody, and it is one hell of a melody. It has this unique circular quality to it where every phrase leads right into the next, it just keeps spinning around the harmony, and it doesn't feel like we hit "home base" until the very end. Listen to how that very first note feels when the singer enters and sings "came back again to make it clear...". That opening statement feels good, doesn't it? It's because of how it's constructed.
It starts on the third of the chord (D of Bmin), then descends to the third of the next chord (G# of E). This already is unusual, when most melodies start it's on the root or fifth of the chord. If it's on the third, it usually then proceeds to the root or fifth, it almost never goes straight to the third of the next chord. So right away it gives the melody that wandering quality where we never feel grounded. If I were to just play that opening statement, "Came back again to make it clear that", and then asked you to sing "do", the root of the song, and you knew what I was talking about, it would take you a second to figure it out, even though the correct answer is B, it started on B minor, and in the melody you've heard a B twice already. It's because they're heavily disguised, they're not on strong beats, we're simply using them to hop right along to the next note.
The other thing that makes that opening statement so great is it starts at the peak, the highest pitch. That's also unusual. From there we work our way downwards, the lowest note being towards the center, and then upwards, back to the beginning where it repeats. In other words it looks like this: \ / when most melodies look like this: / \ . Our expectations are defied. Those three opening chords ("Love of the sun") prepare us for a resolution to B minor, and a melody that we expect to start on either B or F#. But not only is that first note D, it's way up there near the top of the singer's range. It doesn't start off with a cymbal crash like other songs, since it's on the third which is weaker than the root or fifth, but man, that note HANGS there, it feels so gosh darn SMART and IMPORTANT, and it's just so much freaking fun to sing.
I could go on, but hopefully you've now got an idea of why that main melody is so awesome. But the cleverness doesn't stop there. That circular quality persists throughout the whole song, like a wagon wheel that keeps right on spinning. Even when it finally rests for a moment as the singer sings "either perspective of &"(but not before magically modulating into B major), the bass line dumps us right into the next section of the song, the melody of which adheres to the same basic contour that we saw before, starting near the top, working your way down, and then back up again. The highest note is also, guess what, the third of the chord (D# this time, instead of D natural). And then that incredible turn-around happens, he sings "all the ands that we forgot so..." on an ascending scale that floats from B major back to B minor although the harmony has yet to resolve. When it does, it rockets us back into the main section again, and the melody has walked us right back up to that wonderful high D again, except this time it feels even MORE awesome, because the second section has tricked our ears into thinking it should be a D#. BUT IT ISN'T. We're back in B minor, it's a D natural, and this song is amazing.
So sing while you hear it, don't deny it...
The way the lyrics interact with the music here is also very clever. The second section is really just listing contrasts, "high and low and new and old". Having the back-up singers emphasize every "and" nails that into being our one-word hook, and it really comes from the groove of the song which already heavily emphasizes beats 2 and 4. If you feel it in cut time, you can even sing along, "one AND two AND one AND two AND..." and all of the "ands" come in at the same place. It's a very rare moment where melody, lyrics, and groove are all working in synchrony to form one complete picture that relies equally on all three.
Pop songs should be between 2.5 and 4 minutes long. Any longer, even by ten or fifteen seconds, and the songwriter is being overindulgent. I break this rule as often as anybody, but it doesn't change the fact that any song can be boiled down to a version that's around 3 minutes long, and would most likely be better off for it. All the best songs know exactly when to end, and this song is no exception. The overall structure would be classic verse/chorus, except it's really more A/B since both sections are equally catchy and the lyrics never repeat. So it goes: A, B, A, B, guitar solo, A, B, "outro". I'm not sure what to call the last section, since it's an entirely new melody and key. THAT'S how you structure a song, you give us something three times, then you give us something totally new, then you GTFO before we get tired of you.
And that last section, by the way, perfectly demonstrates how much Tally Hall matured on this album. They haven't lost their personality, they're still throwing out lyrics like "you did the hokey pokey and it went like this", but they do it in a way that doesn't disrupt the flow or atmosphere of the music. They can make you smile without having to "rap like an English chap". This parallels the kind of change Beck made going from Mellow Gold to Odelay. Yeah, Whiskeyclone is an excellent song, but do I really think it wouldn't be even better if he didn't say "she could talk to squirrels" in the middle of it?
So anyway, there's a few of the many brilliant things about this song. Overwhelming, isn't it? Writing good songs is hard. This song uses a harmonic and melodic structure that would be complex if it weren't so logical and effortless. It's the kind of perfect musical construction you see all the time in classical music, but pop music isn't usually about clever construction, it's about feeling and vibe and sex. Luckily, this song has plenty of that too. All of the best songwriters throughout the twentieth century (and no, this didn't start with the Beatles) have dipped their toes in the waters of sophisticated construction while keeping the music entertaining and easily approachable, it shows ambition and true appreciation for their craft. Tally Hall and Joe Hawley in particular are of a rare breed.
This song is brilliant, but all music is subjective, right? One man's trash is another man's treasure. Is every song ever written, then, brilliant? Just like every song ever written is utter garbage? These are questions too big for me to answer, but I know what I think, I know that at least in my own mind, there exists good songs and mediocre ones, and I'm allowed to argue my case for why one is this and the other is that. So stay tuned for part two, where I tell you why the next track, "You and Me", is significantly less special than this one.
Thanks for reading.