Adam's Curse

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
-W.B. Yeats, Adam’s Curse

Great songs, albums, symphonies, whatever, all share a sense of unity. Their compositions and arraignments strike such a balance and perfection that one cannot imagine changing a single note. This unity propels these works, hides their construction, and cleans off their sweat. It is one thing to compose a song in 7/4, it is another tap your foot without being aware of the time signature.

For example, I contend that “Let Down” by Radiohead is a better song then “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zepplin based on this principle. Stairway beats you over the head with its construction. The crescendos in Stairway are obvious, and while “rocking” don’t possess the subtlety of the build into the “You know, you know where you are...” section of “Let Down.” I get shivers whenever I hear that part of the song, the layers and harmonies are gorgeous.

Similarly, the harmonic structure of “Let Down” is elegant and understated. The melody, while obviously based on the chord structure, doesn’t reveal the chord structure in the way that a country song’s melody does. The reason why you can sing a country song after a listen or two is that the melody is often on the root of the chord underneath on the one beat of every measure. The melody makes the chord progression obvious. Stairway’s harmonic structure while beginning interesting, degrades into a predictable iv, V, IV progression common throughout popular music. (“All Along the Watchtower”, or “Genie in a Bottle” for example) While the opening is based on that same progression, it presents the progression in a more interesting and unique way. Also, Jimmy Page solos over the predictable structure rather than the more interesting opening, I have always felt this to be a cop out. This isn’t to say that the chords in “Let Down” are unique and overly complex, they are not.

The point is that the chord structure is masked in “Let Down” in a way that hides the construction of the song, and this masking does not occur in Stairway. “Let Down” is a better song because it seems more complete, it doesn’t divulge the work that went in to creating it.

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