Song 355: Loretta Lynn, “Portland, Oregon” (2004)

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I’m not proud to admit that I don’t know much about Loretta Lynn. But I know that I love Van Lear Rose, the incredible record that Lynn made with Jack White. The combination of Lynn’s country songs and White’s garage-rock make for an adventurous and unique album, one that seamlessly marries the two styles to create something new.

What, exactly, is that something? You could argue that despite the differences between the two sounds, Van Lear Rose simply sounds like American music. You can hear many bands and singers in “Portland, Oregon,” which sounds like the Allman Brothers Band playing at the Grand Ole Opry. And Lynn, of course, sounds fantastic, as if she’s been liberated by the crack band behind her.

And speaking of that crack band, how great do they sound? The overall feel of “Portland, Oregon” is that of tightly wound freedom. The song sounds like it would fly away at a moment’s notice if not for those massive chords that White pounds out. Those chords—fat, loud, and substantial—provide ballast as the song sways in the wind. Lynn’s beautiful, featherweight voice gives “Portland” its high end, propelling it higher and higher like helium.

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Song 307: Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone” (2004)

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Is there anybody who doesn’t like “Since U Been Gone?” If so, is that person (because surely there can’t be more than one) trustworthy? These are important questions, but they’re also rhetorical: everybody likes “Since U Been Gone,” except for people who cannot be trusted.

Am I kidding? I guess. But I genuinely can’t understand how anybody couldn’t like this song, even after nine years of it being everywhere. It’s just so liberating, so exciting, so fun. You’d expect a song called “Since U Been Gone” to be a ballad about how life is sad, sad, sad since you left me. All the skies are gray, all I do is sleep all the time, I go through the things we bought together and cry. (The “U” in the title is especially tricky, because it makes the song seem Prince-like, bringing to mind some sad songs with similar nomenclature.)

But no: “Since U Been Gone” is all about how great life is without you around, which is awesome. And Kelly Clarkson (still the only great American Idol winner) is made for this song, which needs a voice that can kick your ass. I remember thinking at the time the rock-and-dance arrangement of this song was really new. I don’t know if that’s true, but after all these years, it still sounds novel to hear Clarkson belt out a barnburner in front of a rock band (or whatever the producers actually assembled behind the scenes).

If you are the one person in the world who doesn’t like “Since U Been Gone,” I guess we can be friends. But it would involve lots of money, favors, and daily compliments about my good looks. Because, honestly, what kind of monster must you be?


Song 306: Arcade Fire, “Wake Up” (2004)

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I know, could I pick a more obvious choice for an Arcade Fire song? The thing is, I’ve thought long and hard about what song to pick, and it’s still, after nine years, the one that means the most to me. The fact that it means so much to everybody else is a testament to its greatness.

Funeral found me when my friend Adam gave it to me for my birthday. He doesn’t remember this, but I know it’s true. I like to say that the record found me because I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I didn’t seek it out. It arrived right on time.

My dad died about a month before Funeral came out, and about four months before I heard the record for the first time. Not only did I love it instantly because it’s a great record, but because it seemed to be about everything I was going through at the time: leaving childhood behind for (seemingly sudden) adulthood, accepting sadness as something useful, and retaining as much childhood as you possibly can. “Wake Up” seemed to contain everything I was feeling, from desperation to periodic serenity.

Those first few chords are so iconic now that it’s hard to remember what it was like hearing them for the first time. I hope I heard them as the warm, fierce, strong, dramatic statements they are. They’re very matter-of-fact, very straightforward—there isn’t a bit of syncopation or playfulness to them; the rhythm is like Morse code tapping out a reassuring signal. Then, of course, comes Win Butler’s vulnerable-but-determined voice, that beautiful wail that fuels “Wake Up” as it rolls along. I love the way he sings the first word, “somethin’,” dropping the “g” like a child might. He’s not sure where he fits in, or how he’s supposed to feel about what’s happening. I related.

The song’s epilogue was the most helpful to me. The idea is simple—I know where I’m going, so nothing can hurt me—but it’s an enormously important one to grasp. Not that I actually felt that confident at the time, but it’s a very comforting thought. Let’s do this, Win Butler seems to be saying. Here I come. Look out below.


Song 277: Joanna Newsom, “Bridges and Balloons” (2004)

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I came to know Joanna Newsom’s “Bridges and Balloons” from Colin Meloy’s spot-on cover. They both have perfect voices for the song which, like the love in its lyrics, are strong and unpredictable. The song is full of imagery so evocative that you tend to ignore the strangeness of phrases like “a loop of metal, warp woof wimble.” The whole thing is strange but perfect.

My favorite lyric is the song’s centerpiece, and the one that gives the song its title: “The sight of bridges and balloons/Make calm canaries irritable.” Even the most steadfast and down-to-earth of us can be distracted by thoughts of flight and travel, and we’re all vulnerable to fantasy, whether it’s in the form of daydreaming or full-on delusion. Love can make people do crazy things.

Also, is this the only song in existence to reference Cair Paravel, the castle in the Narnia books? Probably.


Song 175: Iron & Wine, “Each Coming Night” (2004)

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This is another song that immediately puts me at ease. Which is funny, because the central idea of “Each Coming Night” is ostensibly unsettling: what will people think of me when I’m gone? What does that mean about the kind of person I am now? And what does this all mean to the people who will be left behind?

After my father died, this song was on repeat, and I’m sure it sounds like bullshit when I say that the death theme wasn’t the reason. How could I have listened to this song, which features the phrase “your father’s body was Judgment Day,” for reasons other than the lyrics? Though there’s plenty darkness going on—in the lyrics, of course, but also those chords, major but descending down, down, down—the melody is so pretty, Sam Beam’s voice is so serene, and the production is so intimate that the resulting song is immediately comforting.

The last line, “Light strikes a deal with each coming night,” provides a reason for the madness of death: this is just how it goes. That idea doesn’t make death any easier to take, especially when it’s premature, but hearing someone like Sam Beam sing about it sure makes it sound beautiful.

 


Song 131: John Legend, “Number One” (2004)

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Oh man, I’ve written about some dumb songs, but this one may be the dumbest. It doesn’t sound like it, from its Staple Singers sample to its Kanye West production. Hell, the name “John Legend” alone connotes classiness and formality. And yet “Number One” is so, so dumb.

Just look at that album cover up there: does it look like a record that features a song about how, just because you cheat on someone, it doesn’t mean you don’t love them? Or the line “I keep it strapped up when I sleep around”? Or Kanye West rapping in character as his own penis? No, it does not. C’mon, the dude is wearing a turtleneck. A turtleneck.

But boy oh boy do I love “Number One.” The whole thing goes down so easy, thanks to West’s production and, of course, Legend’s butter-smooth voice, which could (and probably does) melt ice cubes. And you’ve got to admire that takes such a direct, brazen approach to its viewpoint, even though that viewpoint is pretty shitty. Countless hip-hop songs imply such an outlook, but “Number One” comes out and says it: Why are you so mad at me for sleeping with other women? I love you, baby! Brazen.

Generally, I’m not a big fan of John Legend; his songs tend to be too bland for my tastes. But he’s obviously really talented, both as a pianist and a singer, and I wish he’d do more songs like this, silly and misogynistic as it is. At least it’s interesting.


Song 32: Paul Westerberg, “As Far As I Know” (2004)

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For the longest time, if I had a song stuck in my head, it was “As Fas As I Know” by Paul Westerberg. This was especially likely to happen if I was walking briskly, because this song perfectly fits that speed. It seems to exist at some neutral rhythm, some natural state of being. It just is.

I have a feeling that Westerberg doesn’t think much of this song. I’m not sure why I think that; possibly because I know that he hastily recorded it in his basement. But I think it’s an amazing little pop song, with “little” being a strength—this song accomplishes a lot in its three minutes and (mostly) three chords.

I keep saying this on this blog, but the melody here is so simple. I don’t understand how a melody like this—mostly consisting of the eight notes in a major scale—hasn’t been used before. So many combinations left, after all these years! Incredible.

Despite those constraints, the song builds, in its way. When Westerberg’s voice cracks slightly on “kid” in the last verse, it’s like he’s lost his composure just a little bit, for a split second. For this wistful, breezy song, it’s the equivalent of all hell breaking loose on a rock epic by the Who or Led Zeppelin. It’s all relative.