To Sum it Up

When was the last time you intentionally sat down and listened to an entire album, start to finish, without distraction? I was born between the era of records and the era of CD’s - when we had cassette tapes, and you had two choices: either suffer through the songs you didn’t like on an album, or spend way too long trying to fast-forward or rewind to find the song(s) you wanted to hear. Then CD’s took the place of tapes, and the freedom to instantly change songs had returned, so you can imagine my fondness for CD’s, which may never expire. I’m feeling as though I’ll be shopping at the CD store until the only CD’s still around to buy are greatest hits collections, so I have to ask: is the “Album” even a thing any more?

I haven’t listened to a complete album for far too long, but I recently brought home the first album I’ve ever bought by Slim Harpo, a New Orleans blues harmonica player from the late fifties and sixties. I poured myself a cup of coffee one morning and listened to the whole thing, relishing the rhythms and absorbing the acoustics. It was fantastic, and revived a dormant affinity in me for that experience. As the music played some thoughts started bubbling up from the depths about the history and relevance of the Album. I’m thinking mainly about pop music and how the presentation and format of new music has changed as technology changes. Digital forms of music are rendering the Album obsolete, along with compact discs. New music (and more broadly, new media) is increasingly summed up and presented in shorter and more condensed segments. Even though most bands are still compelled to release new material in album form, I would guess that most of the audience buys and/or listens to it in digital form. In the last ten years I’ve watched, to my dismay, the record sections (yes, I buy records too) in music stores dwindle down to almost nothing, and I’ve been heartbroken as many record stores went out of business. Suddenly the scenario has reversed and records are making a big comeback, while compact discs are dwindling. I’m quite certain the reason for that is because there are still enough people around who appreciate the tangible experience that an album provides.

The Brazilian coffee I was drinking that morning was really delicious, but even better was listening to an album with no interruptions. Many of Slim Harpo’s songs play through the standard form of verses and choruses, solos and bridges, all that sort of stuff - with a beginning and an end. On many tracks, however, something else happens at the “end” of the song: Harpo slides into a groove on his harmonica a few seconds before the volume fades out. The songs end at just the moment when my interest is piqued by the allure of spontaneous musical meanderings, when I’m ready to follow the musician wherever he might go… but there’s that blasted cut-off again. That harmonica groove seems to vanish into thin air, never to be heard.

I started to analyze my reaction to having the improvisation of a bluesman cut short. In my opinion, if a musician wants to launch into free-form, it should be allowed to continue… but then how would the album producer decide when to conclude each song? The standard or popular format for an album is that each song is a compartment that comes to an end that is as conclusive as it can be (unless the tracks are meant to meld into each other), which is the likely reason for fading out - before things get out of hand and become more difficult to sum up nice and neat. With pop music the listener’s attention is not distracted by a desire to interpret or formulate new thoughts, but is always prepared to hear what comes next. I’ve read that the sooner the chorus occurs in a song (ideally by the thirty-second mark), the more likely it will be played on the radio. Most of the time, even if the structure of a pop song is experimented with, there is a definite ending that gives closure to it and creates a space before the start of the next track. The song “Alive” by Pearl Jam, for example, diverges from the norm in the middle and culminates with three minutes of soulful guitar playing, yet still definitively ends with a few drum strokes.

I did some searching online to dig up the reasoning behind the popular structure of verse/chorus/verse. What I gathered is that musical form is created using repetition and contrast; or familiarity and surprise. Popular music is so highly pleasing (and sometimes addictive) because it exploits the repetition of catchy melodies or hummable phrases to generate an expectation of more of the same. The contrasting element - be it a segue, a bridge, overlapping parts, or a solo, etc., - then surprises the audience and prevents monotony (although I can think of some bands that have broken this rule and droned on intentionally: The Velvet Underground, Radiohead, Matthew Dear, Low, Sigur Ros, Wilco, Neil Young, Pink Floyd…). Here comes the revelation: repetition is the fastest way for a song to become familiar, kind of like how eating sweets is the fastest way to get sugar into your bloodstream… Aha! Ear candy. What we’re getting is the sugar high, not the nourishment of a balanced meal produced with an effort to cook and a knowledge of what satisfies our appetite. I ran this by a friend of mine and he conjured up the image of a relationship. I believe this is what Radiohead meant when they sang that “Anyone can play guitar” - that putting a verse and a chorus together with a few inventive measures of sound is an instant pleasure that can be produced by anyone while sitting in bed. The pop song, in relationship terms, thus equates to a night of making out. All other studied musical artistry parallels a deeper, more passionate relationship with another person - dependent more on emotions, desires and sacrifices than on gratification.

To be clear, I enjoy the pop form of music quite a bit, yet as I listened to Slim Harpo I wanted to break out of the mold. I wanted to follow those incomplete thoughts. I wanted to hear the improvisation that was only hinted at and let my mind wander the way it does listening to classical or jazz music - both of which have more complex forms and comprise more variation. Popular music is the only form of music that morphs to reflect the way media is distributed and received. We are now able to access the news and listen to music whenever we want, wherever we are, from unlimited sources. We sacrifice the profound impact that music can have on our souls for the convenience of pop music.