After my disgruntled previous post I made a vow to myself that I would not write again until I found something I genuinely enjoyed and could write about positively. No caveats, no half-hearted praise, no tempered analysis. I wanted to hear a new song that I legitimately liked.
It took me a while. After several middling big name releases I became very unimpressed with modern alternative and my expectations for several upcoming albums were dampened. I began to mine old radio playlists to find forgotten 90s alternative hits and became enamoured with the decade – something I’ll get into in another post.
This past week I got around to listening to The Districts’ new record Great American Painting. To recap my feelings on The Districts: 2017’s Popular Manipulations was my favourite album of that year, 2020’s You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere was absolutely destroyed by awful production from David Fridmann. I was hesitant about the new one, and hearing all the pre-release singles didn’t light any fires in me. They ranged from uninspired to tolerable, their saving grace being clean, full production.
The rest of the record follows suit. The songwriting magic’s gone, even if they’ve returned to proper production and traditional song structure. I made my way down the tracklist, getting increasingly resigned with each song. But what trickery I found right at the very end – “On Our Parting, My Beloved” is an unexpected five-star gem buried deep in the tail end of the record.
Putting the most radio-friendly song on an album at the end isn’t unheard of, but it’s not very common either. The big hit usually resides at spot #3 or #4, with any follow-up hits (do those even happen any more??) scattered between #2 and #7. But I knew within seconds of hearing the final song on Great American Painting that it was The Song. That’s how great songs work. Every part of them is meant to reel the listener in.
And so I can finally write my unreserved review of a song and can tell you precisely what makes it so great.
You might be surprised to learn that it in fact has a non-traditional song structure – something that I’m usually incredibly averse to. Beginning with a chorus and ending with a verse, it still manages to deliver everything a song should without issue. Part of it is due to the wonderful melodies of both the pre-chorus and chorus, but part of it is due to the all-important concept of buildup and payoff, something strong enough to make nearly any song structure work.
The song begins with just a gentle kick drum beat and an acoustic guitar, blooming as it goes along. The first verse introduces some bass and light pizzicato synths while frontman Rob Grote half-speaks, half-sings – just the smallest dash of urgency to propel it forward. This is followed with some backing vocals and a pad synth to fill out the background in the first pre-chorus.
The first chorus is big – but it’s not too big. With electric guitars, a full wash of synths and a simple drumbeat it does just enough to indicate escalation. It ends and segues into a short instrumental section filled with orchestral flourishes before transitioning into a second verse only slightly more busy than the first. It’s a very calculated step backwards that sees the band go back to just the kick drum, but one that’s a little bolder.
It’s a gradual increase from that point, very carefully building itself up without getting too crowded or overshadowing the first chorus. It’s in this way that the band understands that the chorus is meant to be the release of energy, and if the following verse needs to pull back to give the second chorus that much more impact.
Oh, what an impact it is. 2:47 is one of those incredible BIG moments in songs – it’s where the confetti cannon goes off during a live performance. After a half-second drop it explodes, multiplying the distortion guitars while adding a guitar lead, heightening the synths, and finally allowing the drummer to join in on the fun. The drums are huge, a towering percussion section reminiscent of the best indie anthems from the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Everything stays at 11 until the end of the song, so that even though the final section is one of those half-spoken verses, it still feels as big as the chorus. It’s still paying off the first two-thirds of the song. Even the pizzicato synths from the verses make a return, working together with the rest of the instrumentation to create a complete tapestry of sound. All the different parts are a big happy family, giving the ear the choice of so many potential hooks.
This is the quintessential example of how the ideal song is constructed, but more importantly, it’s the quintessential example of the ideal song conclusion. If the audience pays the entry fee, you’d better give them a spectacle that they’ll remember.