I want to explain why it’s inspiring to listen to music. When I say listen, I don’t mean listening while you work or wash up or answer emails. I mean listening with engagement. I mean taking the time to listen without distraction, external and internal.
Why? Because I’m constantly struck by how seldom people listen with all their attention. Even self-important music geeks like yours truly. So this is, first and foremost, a note to self, a shake, a sharp slap around the face. Pull yourself together and listen carefully (1).
As the example for this post I’ve chosen Washed Out’s ‘Hold Out’ from the Life of Leisure EP (Mexican Summer, 2009) because it moves me and I hope it moves you too. But if it’s not to your taste, then I suspect it’s a tune you’ll find hard to dislike actively. Headphones recommended.
So: what is it that makes this uncomplicated tune so hallucinatory? Why have I listened to it time and time again when its structure is, on first listen, so utterly simple? Or, to put it more elegantly: how can such a parsable piece of music be so unpassable?
Is it something to do with the subtleties that reveal themselves on repeated listening? Like the siren-like hooting which appears high in the mix from 2:12 and ascends into a scrawl of glittery noise before cascading like a spent firework. No. That’s not it. There are several elements like this that reveal themselves over time but, while they undoubtedly engage and excite, they aren’t the answer to my question.
My musical instincts tell me that it’s something about the vocals. For what really has the power to move is a technical sleight of hand, the fact that in the last two verses the melody passes from one of the multi-tracked male voices to the other. So, between 1:34 and 2:11, from ‘You hold tight / Your fortune’ to ‘We rise / In time’ the melody migrates from the higher to the lower voice. And then this happens again from ‘It’s all right / It’s on tight’ to ‘You hold out / For more’ (something which isn’t true in the earlier verses of the tune). I’ve transcribed it here for clarity, the pink notes representing the melody:
In the first half of the song, the two voices were parallel. One voice was the higher lead vocal and carried the melody exclusively; the second, lower voice was its subordinate, supplying the harmony. But here, in the second half of the song, the melody starts with the first voice and then passes to the other.
Two voices which were parallel and apart now share something between themselves. And, moreover, this happens in a song whose lyrics are about the tension between two people who view the same situation in a different way. One wants more and tries to soar. The other reassures them that it’s all right because ‘We Rise / In time.’ Which voice wins out? The lyrical content is dramatised in the musical structure. And, moreover, these two people are the singer and the person he is singing to and the singer and his audience (or even two aspects of the singer’s individual personality).
All this is profound and moving. And before I understood how and why it worked, I had already felt the effect of it powerfully. Perceiving the how and the why is enlightening but not essential.
Nevertheless, by doing so we reveal the magic of great arrangement: a simple device, barely noticeable, touches you on a deep, unconscious level (2). And that’s why I still enjoy putting the tune on repeat after many months of listening (3).
This is why it’s endlessly pleasurable and interesting to listen carefully, even to what appears to be the most throwaway music. And this is what makes great pop music great: you never know what you’re missing.
So facebook can wait.
(1) And we can use music as a tool to become better listeners per se. To focus solely on our subject; to minimise internal distraction; to prevent our minds from straying; to free ourselves from assumptions – these are all qualities we can bring to how we listen to the world around us, to our children, our families, our lovers, our friends. We might even attain the level of listening enlightenment exemplified by John Cage:
(2) And we give ourselves a basis on which we can tell if something is truly valuable. In the context of contemporary pop music, where a significant amount of material is cynically and formulaically churned out, this matters.
(3) For its level of sophistication makes it not just catchy but captivating. The first is ephemeral, the latter enduring. Steve Goodman (aka Kode 9) uses the terms ‘virus’ and ‘viral’ in this respect as ‘a way of dramatizing the affect [sic] of music, i.e. to be infected by music instead of just being affected by it, to be possessed by it, taken over by it, obsessed or transported into another world, made to feel energized or uneasy… I’m trying to draw attention to a missing dimension in the politics of music that often gets overlooked by the tendency to treat music purely as a language, narrative or musicological, or as something purely consumed for pleasure… The notion of music as a virus does not have to have a menacing connotation. It is descriptive of a certain mode of propagation and mutation that can be benign or destructive.’ Source: email interview with Resident Advisor, 20 April 2010.