Songs with room to breathe
Over at southerngospelblog there’s a discussion afoot based on a J.D. Sumner quote about songwriting to the effect that “songwriters only have so many songs in them, and then they run out and could / should quit writing.” Daniel rebuts the parts of this claim he disagrees with and you can judge for yourself the merits of his case.
For my part, I think Sumner was probably right that most writers - of songs or whatever else - have only so many original things to say and then they run out, at least of original ideas. I recall a few years ago reading of something that Stanley Fish, who’s a big blanking deal in the world of literary criticism, had reportedly once said to a graduate student: that if we’re lucky, we all have one really good insight into literature and life in our careers, and we keep writing various versions of that over and over.
That last bit is key. What I think he meant was not necessarily that everything’s a waste after The Idea hits you. Or in Sumner’s terms, that you could/should quit. Rather, the measure of a career’s success has less to do with how reliably original you are and more with how you can keep saying what matters to you with a certain freshness that doesn’t rely on the big splash of a debut.
This is where I think southern gospel struggles so much. It’s like everyone, no matter how many decades they’ve been around, wants every song to sound and be received like it was the first big then they ever did. That’s great in the abstract, I guess, but in practice it creates a thousand crappy little imitations that debase that good first thing you did. As we’ve been discussing recently, a lot of energy goes into orchestrations and elaborate arrangements to convince audiences that This Is A Great Song based on its capacity to sonically overwhelm people. One commenter put it this way:
Producers like Barry Weeks (Booth Brothers, Brian Free) use a “wall of sound.” Producers like Wayne Haun and Lari Goss use other techniques to bolster songs.
Weeks comes from a pop angle and is more aggressive in grabbing the listening spectrum. Goss and Haun come from an orchestral or choral sensibility, and they seem to choose certain motifs for their arrangements, hoping to add layers of interest.
The real question is why artists persist in cutting third-rate songs. If the producer can’t convince the artist to drop a weak song, the producer and the musicians are forced to make it sound as strong as possible, because they are being paid for their expertise. As a result, the artist and the record label think they’ve been proven right and release it to radio (especially if the artist has written the song). Vicious cycle.
Indeed. The result of this cycle are songs that, to rip off a phrase from a recent DBM review, don’t ever seem to come up for air. It’s a problem that’s endemic and structural and self-reinforcing, by which I mean mediocre songs that receive the Full Lari and Barry treatment end up sounding so larger-than-life that audiences start to assume that’s what good music has to sound like, and so the process loops back around on itself, infecting the creative side of things. Here’s another comment from that same recent discussion about third-rate songs that speaks to this problem from the industry’s internal dysfunction:
If A&R (Artist & Repertoire) Directors, record label execs, and producers would do their jobs there would be less 3rd rate material on the radio. You cannot expect an artist to be objective about a song they have written. That’s where a respected A&R Director should step in and tell “the king” that he’s wearing no clothes. But artists have egos (that’s what motivates most of them to seek a platform) and A&R Directors usually do little more than serve coffee and tell them how wonderful they are. Few producers are long-sited enough to invest the energy required to steer misguided artist toward wiser song choices….they’re hustling to finish charts and line up their next project before next month’s rent comes due. As long as everyone who’s ever owned a radio believes they can write a song, we’ll continue to have 3rd rate material. The best way to expose the bad stuff, and ultimately make it unacceptable to pass that junk off as legitimate, is to have a few incredibly written songs released throughout the year. Side-by-side comparisons are starkly revealing. Sometimes people don’t realize they’re being served slop until they begin to smell steak.
All true, except perhaps the contention that good songs rise to the top by their own power. Often good songs do come out winners - “Born to Climb,” as this reader noted, is a good example, and I would also say “Over and Over,” if we’re sticking with Jeff and Sheri songs, was a songwriters’ song, a textbook example of a tune that spreads the musical work of the song in equal proportions across lyrics, vocals, harmony, and orchestration to achieve its marvelous, soaring , beautiful effect (having Charlotte Ritchie didn’t hurt either!). But so much cut-rate swill also ends up winning out too in sg that it’s hard to believe good music has much of a uniquely shaping influence in the process.
Daniel provides a list of writers he says refutes J.D.’s call for played out songwriters to put down their pen, but just to take one of his examples - Kyla Rowland - it’s also possible to see the drift in her catalog of hits in the last several years as confirmation of the first part of what Sumner was saying about the limited resources of the imagination: big monster anthem/ballads aren’t the only thing Rowland writes, but ask ten ordinary fans in the fried hog fritter line at NQC what they know of Kyla Rowland and chances are they’re going to respond with some reference to one of the gigantic, increasingly derivative warhorses that take up all the oxygen in the room by the time they’re done. Some are better than others, but in general I liked this song the first time, way back when it was called “One Scarred Hand.”
I don’t blame her for this, necessarily. Why not ride the warhorse as far as it will go, right? But I remember listening three or four years ago to a Mercy’s Well album that showed up in my mailbox. It’s a pretty forgettable album on the whole, but toward the end there’s this quiet little downtempo number — all shuffling backbeats and subtle stringed fills called “He Said Yes,” written by Donny Henderson and Bill Turpin. It’s got all the formal ingredients of a big roof-raising power ballad, including a title/hook with monosyllabic words that can easily scan across big open harmonies of the even bigger finish, and some classic chord progressions in the chorus that, the first time I listened to it, made me think, oh yeah this thing is headed for the stratosphere by the time it’s all over.
So here comes the bridge, and things build a little, a chorded walk up to the III, the IV, the V… and I’m thinking, feeling really, almost as if by instinct, here it comes … the half-step modulation up and cue the strings and horns and harps and spoons and washboards and take us on home and off to the moon.
Except not. The voices swell a bit and the instruments come together to create an intensification of sound and feeling, but then things calm back down … the vocals fall back away to the lead alone for a few bars, so that the finale is more thoughtful denouement than the more typically explosive climax. Like “Over and Over,” it’s an insightfully balanced composition that distributes the musical labor evenly, beautifully, with powerful restraint.
It’s not the kind of song that makes a career, but it’s also not the kind of thing an inexperienced or young writer (or producer) pulls off. It requires time and experience and not quitting when the first starburst of originality wears off. It’s sad when that happens, but surviving it often means coming out the other side with the confidence to pull back a little creatively, and leave some white space around the edges, leave some notes unplayed and pitches unsung … to leave, in short, some room to breathe.Email this Post