Song of the Week: Phantom Planet, “Something Is Wrong”
The average pop song is three to four minutes. It has multiple verses and choruses, possibly a bridge, and sometimes an instrumental section (e.g., guitar solo). There’s typically repetition–melodies, lyrics, and refrains repeated to create something memorable for the listener. So what happens when a pop band decides to stop after 90 seconds? Why didn’t they write more verses? Why not repeat anything? Why leave us wanting more? What gives?
I love short songs (“songlets”?); I write them often, and one even made it to an album. They’re an artform unto themselves: every word has to do more, every musical gesture carries more weight. Because they leave the audience expects (and wants) more, the trick is in the tease: whet the appetite, then leave. It’s a wonderful dance between artist and listener, expectation and fulfillment, trust and anti-climax. When done right, the listener is sad the song’s over, but still satisfied.
Songlets are also noteworthy because they’re so clearly an artistic choice. Any pop songwriter on autopilot will add more verses, repeat choruses, and end on a high note after four minutes. When you hear a songlet, you hear an artist trying to tell you something; he’s made a conscious choice to cut this song short.
Often, that choice is made in the context of an album. These songs usually operate as a vignette, aside, or even segue between the big, emotional acts of the album’s fuller songs. They’re little scenes nestled between the big chapters. They give us something else to think about, or transition us into new territory. “Something Is Wrong” curiously ends Phantom Planet’s The Guest, and it makes us question every song that came before it. The album’s scope, the “bigness” of its songs, its crowded scenes and emotional intensity are almost theatrical. And yet it ends with a single guitar, a single (nearly whispering) voice, and a suggestion that undermines the optimism of every preceding song. After all of that, something is still wrong. It’s a nagging worry, the tiny doubt that the rest of the album has tried to escape. It’s a confession, and something like a prayer. It’s also, of course, beautiful. And then it’s over, as quickly as it came. It’s a simple yet brilliant coda to a superb album–two minutes that give all the others a new dimension.
If (as many suggest) LPs disappear over the next several years, will songlets die with them? Or will they continue without the albums they’re often written to enhance?
And what are some of your favorite songlets? Here are a few more of mine–be sure to hit up the comments to add to the list!
(Final side note: I used to be endlessly frustrated by “Walkaways,” which closes Recovering the Satellites. Because “A Long December” is such an incredible song, and felt like a natural ending for such an epic album, it puzzled me that they chose to follow it with this spare songlet that tells a very different story. It seemed like an anticlimactic finish, and (for me) and unwanted excursion. Now I can’t picture Recovering… ending any other way–it’s a perfect songlet and postscript for the album. The lesson, as always: I love being wrong.)