I’ve critiqued a lot of music in the past few years while providing only minimal insight into what it is I look for in a song. As such, while providing a very brief overview of three artists that, for lack of a better genre descriptor, I will call Prog-RnB, I will take some time to talk specifically about my philosophy on listening to music, and how they fit into it.
Autre Ne Veut. I use the term “dynamic” often when talking about music I enjoy. This expression clearly has varied meanings. To me, dynamic refers to two aspects of a song: how it changes from start to finish; how things change in a given window of the song.
More specifically, the first concept refers to things like a change in melody, key, instrumentation, mood, or a deviation from the basic verse-chorus-verse-chorus song structure. The second concept is directed at changing beats, increases and decreases in the number of unique sounds on a track at a given point, changes in volume, or even changes in how a particular part of the song is played. I’m sure more could be said for either concept, and I also imagine that some people have different opinions on if a subset of one should belong in the other, but ultimately, the point is that you have long-term and short-term options available to make a song “dynamic.”
Having dynamic music is important, because for a lot of people and a lot of songs, the music can end up being background noise. This is understandable, because the majority of songs are very simple, and repetitive. At the same time, many people just are not legitimately interested in music. However, I believe music deserves to be listened to, and a dynamic track is good because it demands one’s attention — it’s much harder to tune out a song with lots of intricacies and complexities. Even better, a dynamic song warrants listening to many times to fully appreciate it.
Play by Play by Autre Ne Veut is an excellent demonstration of a dynamic track. The entire song builds over time, adding more and more layers of (harmonious) noise. At no point after progressing past a phrase in the song does he return to that phrase — in this sense the song is non-repetitive. While singing the “I just called you up to get the play by play” chorus, he varies how he sings it, and what kind of things happen in the background. I notice also that he appears to be using every single pad on his drum machine, if not multiple drum machines outright. There truly are a lot of interesting touches to this song, and as I said, I have had to go back and listen to it many times to fully appreciate everything that happens in it.
I highly recommend Autre Ne Veut’s 2013 album, Anxiety. Some of my favorite tracks off of it are Warning and World War. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this very cool live performance of World War, as well)
The Weeknd. I doubt Abel will appreciate being used to make this point, but there’s a follow-up to make him feel better. The fact is, lyrics are not the most important part of what makes a song good. In fact, in most cases, lyrics are actually the least important aspect of music. Even in the case of Keaton Henson, who is praised for his depressing lyrics, it’s really about the delivery. We don’t need to get into whether or not music lyrics are well-written, because the mood and tone of the song simply doesn’t depend on it. You could take a song with sad lyrics and put it into a jingle, and people like me probably wouldn’t even realize it right away. You can take happy lyrics and put them into a slow song with descending chords from a string section, and people will think it’s a sad song.
Speaking to my philosophy on music listening, I don’t focus on the lyrics. That’s not what I’m listening to, and if you can appreciate what I talk about when I use the term “dynamic,” above, then this practice should be understandable. There’s a foundational component of music known as sound aesthetics, described in overbearing detail by this wikipedia article. For me, however, sound aesthetics revolve around what the article lists as “lyricism, harmony, hypnotism, emotiveness, temporal dynamics, resonance, playfulness, and color,” with the lyricism part playing a very small role. This is not to suggest that I mathematically quantify how “playful” a song is as I listen to it, but these are all qualities that nonetheless can be used to describe what makes a song appealing or unappealing, and I’d argue that emotiveness will beat out lyrics in determining the mood of a song every time.
What The Weeknd does is take what would ordinarily be very generic RnB, from a lyrical standpoint, and makes it interesting, both by being a dynamic song-writer, and by breaking norms — a matter that will be discussed later. Take Loft Music as an example. It’s got a strong sense of groove to it, and it really doesn’t matter what The Weeknd is saying, because his voice (as an instrument) carries the song well. He breaks conventional song structure by not having a chorus at all, and he goes outside the bounds of “normal” with his 3 minute long ambient outro. It was quite an unexpected track for me, and I’ve found the same kind of creativity in the rest of his work. He’s got most of his stuff up on his Youtube channel, so check him out if you’re interested.
How To Dress Well. I’ve tried to make it clear in the past that I do not believe popular music is bad by necessity. I find that a lot of pop music is simply thoughtless, and is made to sell to thoughtless people. There are a lot of artists who evidently spend more time on performance and music videos, or really their “image,” than they spend on the music itself (saying nothing of the various pop stars who all share one song writer). The result is that, like it or not, a lot of the music on the Billboard chart perpetually sounds alike, or like songs that were popular in the past. Thus, I call the music thoughtless.
I like artists, such as The Weeknd or How To Dress Well, who take a mainstream genre with a lot of this “sameness toxicity” and do things out-of-the-ordinary with it. They will invariably be less popular for it, thus the illusion that I only prefer underground artists. What you’ll find instead is that most people only prefer mainstream artists.
I believe I’ve covered How To Dress Well once before, which should indicate that his influences span multiple genres. He shares the same atmospheric, ambient tone as the other two gentlemen in this article, obviously with his own quirks applied to it. One of my favorites by him is Ready For The World, and it can be used to demonstrate several of the concepts I’ve discussed so far. For one thing, the lyrics are nigh unintelligible, but this actually serves to enhance the dreamlike daze this song produces. It’s a tremendously simple song if you think about his chord usage, but dynamic song-writing keeps it interesting: there are inconsistent beat patterns, various effects added and removed throughout the song, and several transitions between phrasings. The guy has got quite a falsetto, too, exemplified in Ocean Floor for Everything (I’m providing the live performance to show how much of this is digital effects vs. natural singing). Last.fm describes his melodies as “subtly devastating,” and I think that’s a great way to put it. I continue to be a fan of his.
Believe it or not, the purpose of this blog has always been to expose people to genres and artists they might not know about, in an effort to enhance their music experience. This stems from yet another pillar of my philosophy: that sticking with the same music for too long is unproductive and ultimately unsatisfying. I believe also that no genre is truly inaccessible, but most require some maneuvering to appreciate.
I liken it to a gravity assist — where a satellite travels into the gravitational field of a planet temporarily in order to change its course and slingshot in a new direction. Anyone can take off from a mainstream genre like pop or hard rock and eventually find their way to something they never would’ve envisioned themselves listening to, as long as they get a gravity assist from the right genres in between. You won’t regret taking my advice.