Friday, February 11, 2011

Song of the Week: Beatles, "And I Love Her"

Look--I own a book!  (Reading pending.)
Before I started this Song of the Week series (for those just joining, one song per week off each Beatles album), I dreaded this very moment: how do you pick one song from Hard Day's Night

Do you write about the famous opening chord of the album?  How there's more suspense, exuberance, and gorgeous dissonance in one strum than some bands evoke in a whole record?

Do you pick Lennon's infamous heart-swap in "If I Fell," one of pop's all-time great vocal harmonies?

How about the loyalty and underlying desperation expressed in "Anytime At All"?  How this song, along with a few others, helped inspire the legendary opening snare shot of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"?

How do you skip the pure joy of "Tell Me Why" or "Can't By Me Love"?

What about the bittersweet time capsule of "Things We Said Today," or John's tongue-in-cheek wallowing in "I'll Cry Instead"?  Heck, I could even devote an entire post to the musical foreshadowing of "I'll Be Back"; its jangly guitars, mellow tempo, and major-minor harmonies point the way to the folk-rock of Help! and Rubber Soul.

How do you choose?

At its height, six of the first seven tracks off Hard Day's Night were all #1 hits.  It's the perfect record of what made the early-Beatles captivating: masterful musicianship and potent, concise rhythm n' blues songwriting.  It's a snapshot of the band entering the peak of their creative powers, and focusing those powers on hits and infectious performances, just before experimentation and new, disparate influences truly entered the picture.

So, how do you pick?

Song of the Week: Beatles, "And I Love Her"

I'm picking "And I Love Her" because it illustrates something the early Beatles did better than anyone: make something simple more complicated, and make something hard sound easy.

Just listen to this song: it's a simple tune.  There are very few lyrics.  The melody is easily hummed, short and sweet enough to be memorable.  The band's playing is soft and understated.  There are no instrumental pyrotechnics, no seizure-inducing guitar solos.  The performance matches the song's sentiment: simple, concise, and uncluttered.  Paul loves a girl.


Beneath the surface, the Beatles create something more layered and complex within a simple framework.  If you listen closely, every verse is different.  For example, the second verse (0:29) introduces a finger-picked guitar melody to accompany John's rhythm guitar.  At the bridge (0:50), that melody drops out to give each chord more power, more weight.  When the third verse follows (1:07), Paul's voice suddenly stands out: it's been double-tracked until now (i.e. you actually hear two Paul's singing).  Now singing as one voice, Paul sounds a little lonely--until his twin rejoins him (1:16).  The main guitar riff that starts the song also brings us back from the bridge, but this time it's also is altered: we only hear it once rather than twice.  Perhaps most impressively, the guitar solo (1:30) takes the song to a key change; the last verse is performed a half step up.  Typically, a key change is a major event; here, it's easy to miss.

So, what does this all mean?  What's the point?  And, if you don't geek out on little tricks and changes in a song's composition, why should you care?

Because the Beatles, like all great artists, do these things for a reason.  They use these little tricks to convey an emotion, or tell a story.  These variations reflect the scene, person, or feeling they're describing.  In the case of "And I Love Her," we can speculate two reasons:

1) All the changes reinforce Paul's statement of love.  He's almost never alone (literally and figuratively) as he sings with a doubled vocal.  When his lyrics become more resolute and emphatic, so does the band's performance (the sustained chords of the bridge, the happy-sounding final chord, etc.).

2) More to the point, these things just sound good.  They're pretty; they keep the ear engaged.  George's finger-picking melody distinguishes the second verse from the first, but it also keeps us from being bored.  With the Beatles, there's always something new around the corner.  They rarely play the same thing exactly the same way twice.

This attention to detail is something I hear less in modern pop.  Little alterations in the music (harmonies, counter-melodies, changes in what instrument's playing what part, modulations, key changes, etc.) can really maximize the song's potential.  The next time you're enjoying a new favorite tune, listen for these kinds of variations.  Is every verse the same?  Is every chorus identical?  Or are there little things beneath the surface that help tell a story, help keep your ear engaged, and (maybe most important) keep you from becoming bored?

To be fair, this might sound easy, but it's incredibly difficult.  Even some of my favorite artists don't record with this much attention to detail.  For example, I love Nirvana.  But most Nirvana's songs (admittedly from a more punk tradition) don't vary much within that song. 

But at this early stage, the Beatles had mastered already this concept.  They were experts at taking something simple to the ear and, with little alterations here and there, making it more complicated.  Of course, doing this well is difficult, but the Beatles make it sound effortless.

Make something easy hard, then make something hard look easy.  That's the Beatles, especially on Hard Day's Night.


Next Friday: a song off Help!  See you then.

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