"Darling Nikki" (off of Purple Rain) is just such a great song. There is always a lot of emphasis on Prince's lyrics on this song, and rightly so. I mean, there are countless people of my generation that had whatever they were doing arrested at age 11, 12, 13, 14 by hearing "I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating to a magazine." And his groans and screams, the desperation in his voice and the unintelligible sections ("Nikki's love willakickayourbehind / Oh just show ya no mercy!") all make the song work and conveys everything the lyrics only suggest, but listening to the song lately I am struck by what the Revolution are doing in the background. They are riding this almost mechanistic self-arresting orgiastic groove. The drums are so fragmented throughout the song, just occasionally falling into an almost tic-toc two-feel, before stuttering on the cymbals. Really, it is Wendy and Lisa's guitar and keyboard work that carries the song, especially Wendy's little flair that serve to ornament Prince's singing. Then again, I am attributing this stuff to the band, but according to Purple Rain's liner notes, Prince played all the instruments on the recording.
It is really the stops that make this song work, the sexual tension they emulate, until the keyboards hit that hard coda over and over, like a relieving rush. The backwards singing at the end of the song over the sound rain is the calm of post-orgasm. The backwards recording is a play on the fears of satanic messages recorded backwards on rock records, except true to Prince's occasionally creepy Christianity, played forwards it says: "Hello, how are you? I'm fine, 'cause I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon."
"Love Dog" is off of TV on the Radio's Dear Science which I have been listening to with an obsession I have not had for a record since Radiohead's In Rainbows came out. More than any other song on the record (so far) "Love Dog" seems to hit it right both lyrically and musically, from the perfect "Ooooh ooh ooohs" to open the song, to the tight drum part, perfectly and crisply recorded. And the mellow electric piano sound that buoys the prayer-like delivery of the lyrics. The straining backing harmony that sometimes comes in also helps to convey the plaintive sadness of the song's subject. The whole song has a very subtle build as more and more elements join it, soft horns - filling out the sound, eventually joined by strings and whirring electronic sounds.
At one point they sing:
Nameless you above me
Come lay me low and love me
This lonely little love dog
That no one knows the name of
Curse me out in free verse
Wrap me up and reverse this
Patience is a virtue
Until it's silence burns you
. . . and it speaks to me in a way I cannot quite articulate.
Speaking of In Rainbows, "Nude" is a haunting song that never quite escapes me. "Haunting" is the perfect word, because the "ooohs" here do sound like ghost whispers, and there is a sense of disorientation from what sound like some kind backwards effect on the keyboard, maybe even the snare hits might be brushed with the effect. The bass is so stripped down and bouncing along perfect and dub-like when it comes in to carry Thome York's strained voice. "Don't get any / big ideas / they're not / gonna happen," he sings, holding back the syllables to create tension and build up the anticipation. All there is for that first verse is the bass and voice with some ghostly keyboard way back in the mix until a guitar comes in to echo the bass notes with some soft chords. "Nude" seems to capture the ineffiability of the ephemeral perfectly, "Now that you've found it it's gone / Now that you feel it you don't." All the musical elements come together perfectly with a subtle build similar to that I described in "Love Dog" - and that final accusatory "You'll go to hell / for what your / dirty mind / is thinking" the last syllable drawn out back to the "ooohs" that die down and then rise back up to something almost heavenly - a soul fleeing its mortal vestments and ascending in contrast to the sad pronouncement of the final lyrics.
I think the reason this song started hitting the nail on the head for me was because at the time that I started listening to the record I was going on a lot of first dates that were serving more to disappoint me than to give me hope of meeting someone that could burst my ambivalence.
"For You" is off of Greetings from Asbury Park, a record I have been listening to with some obsession (along with other early Springsteen) since the Super Bowl. I am so easily influenced when it comes to music getting into my heavy rotation - all it takes is one listen to a particular song or artist in a particular setting and something clicks in my mind and I won't be satisfied until I have gone back to plumbing their discography. "For You" is much more of a straight-up rock song, and as such I feel like I have little to say about its instrumentation. It just starts with the snap of drums and the little piano rhythm and the acoustinc strumming that accompanies Bruce's voice. Really, this song is all about Springsteen's crammed lyrics and his delivery. . . I remember the first time I heard this song it was the mid-90s, when I was standing out front of a bodega on Flatbush avenue waiting for the bassist of my band to come out with beer, and Zooey leaned over and began to sing it into my ear.
To me the song speaks of the impossibility of "saving" someone no matter how you might desire it - and how it martyrs the savior as they absorb the abuse of it "like some soldier undaunted." The strongest part of the song is the refrain which is savored by the fact that it is only sung twice, as after the second verse instead of returning to it the song builds out the anticipation as if it were to come and instead has a brief acoustic guitar break and then a bridge with descending chords. Bruce sings then screams, "And your strength is devastating in the face of all these odds / Remember how I kept you waiting when it was my turn to be the god?" But what I was talking about was the refrain that is arrived at by means of the music moving to feel as if the band were trying to put on the brakes but somehow the momentum will not be restrained, until the drums tap and the Boss sings, "I came for you, for you, I came for you, / but you did not need my urgency / I came for you, for you, I came for you, / but your life was one long emergency / and your cloud line urges me, and my electric surges free." I am not even sure what "my electric surges free" is supposed to mean. The "cloud line urges me" makes sense because of that urge to rescue, to cast aside the storm clouds of someone else's life.
There may also be a suggestion here that the "you" in the song doesn't want to be saved, "you did not need my urgency," which makes sense when your life is one long emergency, since the very idea of what an emergency is loses its meaning when stretched out indefinitely as timeliness is part and parcel of its definition. A little bit of organ ends the song. . . Ultimately, it is the very unneeded urgency of how the song is delivered that makes it work and that gives the sense that perhaps the speaker is the one who feeling an urgent desire to be saved. I mean, it is the "you" in the song that is compared to Superman: "Didn't you think I knew that you were born with the power of a locomotive / able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?" I don't know. I just feel it.
"Sometimes I Forget," by Loudon Wainwright III (of off History) is another song that is more about the feeling and lyrics than any particular musical achievement. Written for his father that passed, whenever this song comes on I cannot help but think of both my nephew and mi abuela who died in 2007 and 2008 respectively. The song is just Loudon singing accompanied by nothing but his guitar, and explaining how a person's absence is most strongly felt in those moments when we forget that the person is "gone and not coming back."
It's as if all you've done is go out of townThe song is just sparse and sad and raw - and when I hear, "And there was something I wanted to tell you so bad / Something I knew that you'd want to know" I am overwhelmed by the thought of all things I would have liked to tell my nephew and never got a chance to. And when I hear "Momentos, memories, tell me what good are they?" I think of all the things mi abuela left behind and the process of going through to clear out what wasn't needed, what could be donated, what could be thrown away and what we would each keep to remember her by. And while the song ends with a hopeful note, "Sometimes I forget that you've gone / Sometimes it feels like you're right here / Right now it feels like you're right here," ultimately, the feeling the song leaves me with is irrecoverable loss.
You'll be back soon, that's just how it looks
But your suitcase is empty, it's right here in the hall
That's not even the strangest thing
Why would you leave your wallet behind?
Your glasses, your wristwatch and ring?