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by Taylor Swift

It took me a little while to get to grips with the structure of this song, because there are a number of things that blur the identity of its different sections. For a start, this isn’t a typical pop arrangement on a surface level, because the texture doesn’t change dramatically as a structural device. Yes, there’s some light and shade – a little more or less drums, strings, or backing vocals from section to section – but nothing that screams “Here’s the chorus dummy!” in the overt way chart productions often do.

The identity of the chorus (first heard at 0:35) also seems slighty blurred at times, by bucking some typical pop expectations. Most of the lyrics don’t repeat from one instance to the next, for example – only the “I knew you” header recurs. The chorus doesn’t include the song’s title hook either, which actually appears as a kind of chorus addendum. And later on the chorus suddenly grafts in the most recognisable line of the verse (“when you are young they assume you know nothing” at 2:41), before moving to a new chorus variant based on more frequent use of that “I knew” header. And then we get the chorus texture introducing a whole new “you’d come back to me” coda at 3:17. None of these things is without precedent in mainstream pop productions, but taken all together they give me a sense of the sands shifting a little under my feet as a listener. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually criticising all this. On the contrary, in fact, because I think the structural ambiguity rather effectively supports the mixed emotions evident in the lyrics.

The title-hook section plays an interesting identity game too. When we first hear it at 0:50, it’s underpinned with the same Fm-Bb-Ab6-Bb progression used in the preceding verses (0:04-0:34), such that the F Swift settles on for the important words “cardigan” and “favourite” is consonant on both occasions. However, the next time that section appears, it’s given a whole new progression of Ab-Cm-Eb-Ab which makes the same F notes dissonant in both cases (the first, most jarringly, as a fourth over Cm, and the second as a sixth over Ab). This is a fantastic way of grabbing the listener’s attention for the second instance of the hook line, now that the song-title’s appearance doesn’t have novelty on its side. And, in addition, the Eb chord brings with it a strong flavour of the chorus progression, and again that just seems to amplify the sense of undecided emotions for me.

Despite all this good stuff, though, I did baulk at one thing: the instrumental section at 1:49-2:03. Is it actually necessary at all? It just feels like it’s treading water to me, offering neither vocals nor any real interest in the backing track – that little piano riff sounds far too much like pedestrian accompaniment figuration to really sustain the interest. If you ask me, I think the song works better without it entirely – and it’s dead easy to edit out too. Have a listen: Edited Version: play_arrow | get_app To be honest, nowadays this is exactly the kind of redundant musical section that immediately makes me think there must be something visually diverting happening in the video at that point, so I was surprised to find there was nothing more thrilling than a few different angles of Ms Swift clearly emoting deeply – a visual crutch to which I find myself increasingly immune the further my teenage years recede into the dusty tape-vault of eternity…

Classic Mix

In The Air Tonight

by Phil Collins

Like Cher’s 'Believe', this is one of those few records where the headline production stunt seems to have eclipsed almost all other aspects of the song in people’s minds. Sure, the famous drum sound that arrives with the final choruses undeniably deserves its place in history, standing iconically at the watershed between two musical decades, but there’s not much to say about it from a technical perspective beyond what producer Hugh Padgham has already revealed in interviews such as these from Home & Studio Recording (January 1985), Music Technology (April 1987), Sound On Sound (May 1988), and Mix Magazine (January 2005). However, it is worth considering what isn’t there, namely any hi-hat or cymbal parts. Given the gating going on, they’d presumably have had to have been overlayed as separate overdubs if Collins had wanted them, but it’s great that they weren’t, because their absence highlights the weirdness of the sporadic kick and snare pattern he’s playing. Without a hi-hat chugging along filling in all the rhythmic subdivisions, the pattern feels much less predictable, so it holds the listener’s active attention much longer.

Another thing that’s missing as far as most modern listeners are concerned is the drums overdub that was overlaid on the verses of both the song’s original single release and its original music video. Apparently, the record-company insisted at the eleventh hour that the single should have a clear backbeat from the outset, so Collins recorded an extra drum part alongside the album master tape at the last minute to create the single version. With hindsight, this executive crisis of confidence clearly undermines the impact of the ‘magic break’, which might explain why the Collins camp seem to have gone to such lengths since then to cast the album version as the ‘definitive classic’, rather than the mix that actually rocketed him to solo stardom via radio, Top Of The Pops, and MTV back in 1981. For instance, at time of writing, I couldn’t find the original single version at all on Amazon Music, iTunes, or Spotify, despite the ready availability of the album version, various officially sanctioned live recordings and remixes, and even the song’s initial demo! And now, with all the buzz surrounding the Williams twins' recent viral reaction video, the airbrushing is pretty much complete, Tim & Fred’s selection of the album version constituting an implicit endorsement of its primacy in the public consciousness.

Putting aside those drums, though, what impresses me most about this song is the second verse’s lead line, which has remarkably little in common with the first verse’s. Although both use similar registers in similar bars for the most part, there’s actually very little melodic commonality at all, with the exception of the final three bars (“wipe off that grin / I know where you’ve been / it’s all been a pack of lies” at 2:01-2:09 and “hurt doesn’t show / but the pain still grows / it’s no stranger to you and me” at 3:32-3:39). I also love the way the phrase lengths keep taking you by surprise – for example the abrupt “ever met” at 3:17, the extended “but I know the reason why you keep your silence up”, and the expectation-defying “how could I ever forget it’s the first time” (the first phrase that doesn’t start with a simple anacrusis landing on the downbeat of the following bar).

But in addition, Collins (as you might expect of a drummer with such an established prog-rock pedigree) plays some intriguing rhythmic games with his vocal stress patterns besides. The opening of verse two is probably the most striking, where the natural speech stresses on the first and third syllables of “I remember” are first placed on the beat at 3:01, but then pulled off the beat when they’re repeated a bar later at 3:04. When combined with the genuinely attention-grabbing reverse-envelope vocoder spot effect, this distinctly unsettling rhythmic manoeuvre really drags you back into the vocal lyric after the preceding chorus. And a similar device is used again when “the first time” places its “first” on beat one at 3:12, but then “the last time” puts its “last” on the second beat of the following bar at 3:15.

And, speaking of rhythm, in one of those aforementioned interviews, Hugh Padgham expressed some regret about the fact that the echoes on the verse words “worry”, “met”, and “up” (at 3:06, 3:18, and 3:27 respectively), and indeed on all the chorus line-endings, are a bit slower than tempo-sync’ed. But I have to say it doesn’t bother me at all – if anything, in fact, I think it’s an advantage in this case. You see, when echoes are strictly tempo-synced they tend to blend less obtrusively into the backing track by nature, whereas in this track they stick out more by virtue of their lack of sync, and that simply makes them a stronger artistic statement, in my opinion. Yes, you could say thay make the groove drag, but honestly does that matter here before the main drums entry? And when the drums do eventually arrive, they’re so incredibly loud in the balance that a lagging delay makes no appreciable difference to their sense of rhythmic drive.

OK, I give in! Here are a couple more tidbits about those final drums… Firstly, notice how the opening fill isn’t just a series of one-two tom hits, but there’s also a kick hit between each pair, and I think that’s crucial to the fill’s sense of muscular impetus. And, secondly, I really like the way the vestige of off-beat drum-machine hi-hat you can hear playing behind the main drums at places like 3:48 almost makes those gaps in the drum part more empty, rather than less. It’s almost like a trace of a hi-hat that’s been removed, rather than just a space where a hi-hat never existed – and absence of something, rather than just a nothing, if that makes any sense!