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Is There Such Thing as a ‘Perfect’ Song?
AT this time of year…
we wrap everything up (apart from presents) in a sense of wonder and delight. We are relaxing into Christmas and everything is a lot calmer and happier now (than any other part of the year). Some, in fact, see the Christmas period as ‘perfect’. It is a time for family and retuning; taking it easy and enjoying time away from the strains of everyday life. I have been thinking about – as I launder the Christmas stocking – whether there is, in music, such thing as ‘perfect’. One can argue music is so subjective there is no such thing as a perfect album or song. On the album front; I wonder whether there are creations that are, if not perfect, as near as you will get? Do emotions and time make a record better and more meaningful? You can debate an L.P. like Revolver (The Beatles) or Rumours (Fleetwood Mac) has no filler and, as they have endured and impressed for decades, they are perfect. I am a massive fan of The Beatles but can compartmentalise their albums into categories: the most underrated, the finest; my favourite, the most influential. Revolver would definitely fall into the category of ‘the finest’ – my actual favourite would be Rubber Soul. Albums like Rumours are phenomenal but I would say there are a couple of songs I do not listen to with my whole heart.
Maybe they are skipped – despite the fact they are great – and I rush to the other numbers. Albums, like songs I guess, can be judged subjectively. I thought of this topic because I am listening more and more to new music – inevitable, given what I do – and trying to detach from older tastes. I think we all find natural comfort and sensibility in the music we were raised on; the artists that compelled us to fall in love with music and become fascinated. Newer music can resonate and inspire but there is always that natural attachment to the songs of old. Given the fact modern music is so busy, big and eclectic: do we ever get the chance to sit down and really investigate a moment?! We are inundated with streaming, new singles and hot acts – they are sort of flash past and you never get the opportunity to savour and linger. A few songs might stick in the brain but when was the last time you had to stop everything, turn the radio/laptop up and listen to this phenomenal track blasting in your ears?! Tomorrow, I want to look at acoustic music and whether it has lost its edge: now, as I debate the comparative merits of newer music; I wonder whether there is a secret recipe to create a perfect song? Albums suffer the problem they have a lot of tracks and, invariably, some people will not like others as much as you do – can a record truly have enough strength to be called ‘perfect’?!
IN THIS PHOTO: Dagny/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I will come back to that but, when it comes to songs, maybe it is not all about memories, personal tastes and critical reviews. A lot of the music we hear now is geared towards platforms like Spotify and YouTube. I guess we need to define the parameters of a song and what to consider: some might say there is no science and feeling needed for such a discovery: it is about the feeling and sensation. That might be true but are there certain aspects present (in the very best songs) that new artists can learn from? Popstar Dagny conducted an interview last year and was asked whether there is such thing as a perfect Pop song:
“I’m not sure there is such thing as a “perfect pop song”. To me, being a melody girl, a good hook and a catchy melody are the foundation of a great song! And you got to get a feeling across, whether it’s joy, energy or melancholia”.
I think that is the problem with the modern mainstream: there is that need to get something instant and hooky-out; create a sense of fun and abandon. Big streaming figures and airplay is as much to do with accessibility and digestibility as it is depth and texture. I wonder whether the market has become so saturated and changed we will never hear a new song that rivals the biggest hits of yesteryear. To me, music is not only about memory and nostalgia: one can find perfection in the modern times, for sure...
A 'perfect song' would not be something that is loved and adored by every human that listens to it: something that has no discernable faults; can grow in the mind and stay in the heart – that, in truth, is all it takes. The last time I heard a song that did that to me – in terms of contemporary music – was, I guess, a few years ago now. It has been a long time since I heard a track that I was compelled to repeat and stays with me now. You can argue something semi-modern like Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love is a perfect song – it gets people dancing and has inspired cover versions – but that was released over a decade ago, now. I would argue there are songs that fit into my definition of ‘perfect’ but, for the most part, they are quite old. I will go on, but I wanted to bring in an article from Esquire - where they discussed the subject and what makes a ‘perfect song’.
“Everybody knows a perfect song when they hear one, everybody has a list of perfect songs, and everybody's list of perfect songs is pretty much the same as everybody else's: "Amazing Grace." "You Are My Sunshine." "Hallelujah." "He Stopped Loving Her Today." "Summer Wind." "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." "Let's Stay Together." The rules are so well-known that there's even a perfect country song about the rules of perfect country songcraft, David Allan Coe's version of Steve Goodman and John Prine's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," in which Goodman boasts that he's written a perfect country song, and Coe reminds him that "he hadn't said anything at all about Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk." What Coe's really doing, of course, is confirming what everybody already knows — that there's a formula for perfection, and the perfect song is the song that follows it and rises above it at the same time.
A perfect song, then, is a simple song. A perfect song begins with either a declarative sentence ("Well, he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance," as the Crystals sang in their perfect song of 1963, "Then He Kissed Me") or a direct address to the listener ("Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will," as Hank Williams sang in "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"). Whether it's a country song or a soul song, a perfect song follows classic pop-song structure and doesn't last very long. A perfect song tends to be cinematic as much as it is musical — "Wichita Lineman," which otherwise is a Kansas utility worker's complaint about having to work extra hours, is a perfect song because it functions as a short film about loneliness — and often shows up in movies. Most of all, though, a perfect song is a song you first heard on the radio, because — besides simplicity and yearning — the elements indispensable to all perfect songs are the elements of commonality, time, and fate. Subtract any of these and not only do you have a song that is suddenly less than perfect, you have the lot of the song aspiring to perfection in the age of MySpace and the iPod”.
I agree with a lot of what is said (above) but feel you can add a couple of other bullet-points into the list: a song that provokes some serious emotion and is adaptable to any mood, need and time. I will revisit the ‘against’ side of the argument before wrapping up - but I have been considering the songs, I feel, are beyond scrutiny.
The two songs, oddly, that are in those sacrosanct, God-like holes are Hallelujah (Jeff Buckley’s version) and Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God). Both artists have, I know, crafted songs that are considered fan-favourites but both are not so lucky they can rely on these songs alone to create a legacy – it is the fact these numbers, to me, stand above the rest. So, then…what is it about these numbers that are ‘perfect’ (to me, at least). The article I sourced (above) looks at the simplicity of a lyric or hook: something that gets into the soul without much fuss and drama. I feel Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah is more a sermon/rendition than an actual vocalisation. Leonard Cohen wrote the song for his 1984 album, Various Positions - but his version is a completely different beast (to Buckley’s). Cohen’s low-voiced, gravelled take is perfectly okay but Buckley’s reading is a transcendent and unearthly thing. He talks Cohen’s masterful words – Buckley considered his take to be a celebration of the orgasm – and brought every syllable to life. From that single, aching, breath at the very start; down to the impossibly soothing held note at the end: it is a rapturous, spine-tingling song that surpasses the original but could not have happened without the original. Cohen could never have performed the song as wondrously: Buckley could never have written lyrics as poetic and intriguing.
There is something about Buckley’s vocal that stops you dead and forces you to experience the music – you cannot have it in the background or casually bond with the song. The vocal, to me, is perfect as it ranges a gamut of emotions and always drops the jaw. The lyrics are flawless and there is little compositional encroachment – arpeggio electric guitar is about all you get. Hallelujah is not a song to bring a smile to the face but it seems to reveal new meaning every time I hear it. Buckley’s version was recorded ten years after the Cohen original – for his only, and seminal, album, Grace – but has endured and continues to inspire artists now (the slew of inane cover versions have not dampened its magic). I come away from the song a better person; educated and calmed; baffled by its sheer grace (no pun intended!) and nuance. Similar reactions are provoked when I listened to Hounds of Love’s most-celebrated song. That evocative and epic introduction; the passionate vocals and the feeling I get when listening to the track – it is not my favourite Kate Bush song but is the one that summons something others don’t. There are common threads in both songs – a sense of beauty and the sublime; incredible vocal performances and words that have a sense of strange wisdom – but they are quite different-sounding.
They are, to me, perfect songs and I can find no fault in them. There are others who disagree and can find flaws: is it, then, still a case of the subjective taste of the listener?! I think there are songs that defy any criticism and (a song) need not be complex. There are many tracks that I would rate perfect but I can understand those who feel, in a lot of ways, a single moment of music cannot reach giddy heights. I am a little worried by the modern currency of disposable Pop songs that do what they need and then disappear. I know there are artists who craft incredible music and take a lot of time over their work: a lot of what is proffered and promoted in the mainstream lacks any real craft and skill. I guess it has been that way for a while but does that mean, years from now, we will struggle to name any songs from this decade that truly deserve the word ‘perfect’ put next to them. Is it all about personal definitions or is music so subjective, no matter what song you name, one can find flaws somewhere?! It is rare to discover but there are those tracks that do something profound and, when you look at them, cannot be faulted. Will we, in this decade, see a song that is perfect and flawless? Have we seen one (or more) already? It would be good to know…
WHAT people think about this subject.