I just did something amazing. I listened to an album all the way through. No pauses, no shuffles, no repeats. When was the last time you did that? Don’t feel bad. It had been quite some time for me, but it got me thinking about what seems to be rare in music these days, storytelling through the album. When we hear a single on the radio, we’re listening to a fixed point, and by that I mean a fixed key, mood, and subject. This is all in spite of a clear presence of a rise and fall in energy as the song progresses.
Most popular songs progress like so: an introduction, the rising action in the first two verses and the repeated chorus, the climax in the bridge, and the falling action as the song fades away. Artists, producers, and bands are well aware of this. Great vocalists save their best high notes, producers delay their best mixing, and bands hold off on their best solos until the right time. Many of them have and will tell you that they’re telling a story in a song, but when we look at lyrics that story is usually focused on a fixed point in time. They’re up to individual interpretation, but let’s take a look at some of Billboard’s top songs and see what they’re about.
1. Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke featuring T.I. & Pharrell
Translation – Those other guys will try to sexually tame you. I won’t.
3. Radioactive, Imagine Dragons
Translation – It’s the end of the world as we know it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
4. Cruise, Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly
Translation… Baby, you a song! Okay, I’m being mean, but this one actually tells a story. The narrator, having already gotten the girl who inspired the song, is telling a simple story of when he first saw her, how he approached her, courted her, and won her over. Songs like this are still outnumbered by those with fixed point lyrics.
Now this isn’t a bad thing. An artist has three minutes to convey all of this, so I don’t blame Robin Thicke, Imagine Dragons or any other artist for doing what they gotta do. In this series I want to focus on the album, a grouping of several of these fixed points we call tracks, and those rare instances in which they are intentionally organized to tell a complex, compelling story. Yes, classical music and Broadway have been telling stories for quite some time, and while I’m a fan of both, I want to focus on the music that has saturated our daily lives. I’ve already put together a list of albums that I could ramble on about. They include (but are not limited to)…
The quintessential rock opera in Queen’s A Night At The Opera.(was that redundant?)
Their musical descendants, My Chemical Romance, and their tale of insanity in The Black Parade.
A disturbingly personal retelling of Jekyl & Hyde in southern rapper T.I.’s T.I. vs T.I.P.
The crisis of life, death, failing relationships, and recovery in John Mayer’s Continuum.
The story of scandal, marriage and divorce in Usher’s trio (yea! trio!) of albums, Confessions, Here I Stand, and Reymond vs. Reymond.
Dave Matthews Band’s ode to late band member, saxophonist LeRoi Moore, and their grieving journey in Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King.
Actor/rapper, Donald Glover/Childish Gambino’s struggles as an African American born between two worlds and eras in Camp.
Each post of 16 Bars, 3 Acts will be my take on one of the above albums. It won’t be in any particular order, and given the research I’ll have to do, I won’t screw myself over and give you a set schedule. I’ll post this in addition to my weekly featured piece. I’m really excited about this series and hope to get started soon, but I want to hear from you! When was the last time you listened to an album all the way through and heard a unique, compelling and complex story? Hit me up on the blog or, better yet, via Twitter. A.T. Augustine