Friday, August 6, 2010

Why "Slow Descent into Alcoholism" isn't close to being the New Pornographers' best song

Over at Quomodocumque, Jordan Ellenberg has reviewed a recent show by the New Pornographers, my favorite new band of the last 20 years. But much as I admire Jordan, I totally disagree with his claim that “Slow Descent into Alcoholism” is the band’s best song. In fact, by Carl Newman’s (admittedly high) standards, it’s pretty boring.

The song starts (“My ... my slow de-”) on 1, or do, “a very good place to start,” as they say in The Sound of Music. After a bar of do, it moves up a step to re, or 2, which it also sits on for a bar (“scent into”). Two bars, two notes. Then in bar three, on “alcoholism” it walks on up to 4 and back down, ending, at the beginning of bar four, back on 1 for “went.” So basically, in the first four bars of music, the melody runs up and down the scale across the small span of a fourth.

That’s a pretty unadventurous opening, particularly when accompanied, as it is, by the three most basic triads in the key. But melodically, starting small can be a good strategy, as it leaves you enough room to build toward an expressive climax. I particularly associate that technique with the Bowie of Diamond Dogs, in songs like “Rock and Roll with Me” or “Sweet Thing”.

But unfortunately, that’s not Carl's gambit here. The second phrase of the song -- “to my head, where I really need it”, etc. -- just repeats the first one, running up and down the same four notes. The third phrase starts promisingly, leaping up from 1 to 5 -- on “my, my” -- and expanding the melodic range from a fourth to a fifth; but then it leaps back down to 1 again and continues pretty much as the first two phrases did. Indeed, the leap of a fifth simply sounds the two most basic tones of the tonic triad, which is the most basic of the aforementioned three most basic chords. It doesn’t introduce any tensions between the melody and the harmony; it’s about as static as a leap can be.

So after 12 bars of running up and down the same four or five notes, we finally get to “something like this”, in which the melody leaps up -- from 5 to 1. It’s the same inert outline of the tonic triad that we had at the beginning of phrase three, except that the 1 is an octave higher. True, Carl has expanded the melodic range from a fifth to an octave, but again, he’s done it in about as static a way as possible. And then he simply repeats the same banal leap two more times. Fifteen bars of music in which almost nothing has happened.

The melody -- and the harmony -- finally starts to go somewhere with the words “salvation holdout central”. But it’s too little too late, and even that one interesting bar of music is simply repeated three times, which drains it of some its novelty, before we’re back to running up and down a four-note scale.

As I said in the comments section of Jordan’s post, “Descent” wouldn’t crack my list of the top 10 New Porn songs, arranged there in chronological order. (It probably wouldn’t crack my top 20, or even my top 30.) But just for fun, let’s compare it to the first song on that list, the magnificent title track from New Porn’s first album, Mass Romantic.

The song opens, as the third phrase of “Descent” did, with an upward leap of a fifth. But rather than drop back down a fifth, it wobbles downward a half-step on the “man” of “romantic”. That wobble has a destabilizing effect. In the first place, it does introduce a tension between the melody and the harmony. But more important, it raises doubts about just what key we’re in. The listener’s default assumption is that we’ve started, as “Descent” did, on 1 and have leaped up to 5. But in that case, “man” would fall on the 4th scale degree, a whole step -- not a half-step -- lower than “ro”. So there are two possibilities: either “mass” did fall on 1, and we’re in an unusual mode -- the lydian, to be precise -- or the opening leap is not from 1 to 5 but rather from 4 to 1, and the opening chord is (confounding expectations) the subdominant rather than the tonic.

In either case, the ensuing harmonies would probably look fairly similar. If the first chord, C# major, is the subdominant, we’d expect D# major and G# major to show up pretty soon. If we’re in the lydian mode, we might expect to slip back into the parallel major, in which case F# major would turn up instead of, or in addition to, D# major. But in fact, the next chords are A and E, which don’t fit with either of our original hypotheses! After the third upward leap of a fifth -- “Grants, his books on tape” -- the melody does indeed descend a whole step rather than a half-step; but then it descends another whole step, outlining a major third -- from “his” to “on” -- rather than the minor third that either of the original hypotheses would imply. The melody then continues on down to “true”, which expands our melodic range to an octave: remember, it took 13 bars for that to happen in “Descent”, without any departures from a rudimentary three-chord harmonic scheme. Finally, with the words “love you” we get our F# major, which brings us home to the key of C# major, and on the words “radio, radio”, the melody falls first a whole step then a half-step -- outlining the minor third from 5 to 3 -- which we expected but didn’t get on any of our previous forays to 5. It’s a magical effect*.

I could -- and if I get enough requests, I will! -- perform similar analyses on any of the songs in the list I posted in Jordan’s comments sections. “Descent” just isn't in their league.

*If you’re interested, I do something similar -- but less dramatic -- in my song “Old Haunt”. In the excerpt found here, the harmonic shift occurs on the words “disks gives a sheepish smile”.

No comments: