Artist: Fleetwood Mac
Album: Fleetwood Mac
"Rhiannon" is a fascinating little pop song by Stevie Nicks, who shared lead vocal chores for the FM radio band Fleetwood Mac during their most lucrative years. What intrigues me about this song is the mileage Nicks and the band get out of three chords.
Let's face it: three-chord songs have been around forever. The I-IV-V progression is a staple of the 1950s. (And 60s and 70s and 80s....well, you get the picture.) What's different about this song is the chords themselves—the i (a minor), the VI (F Major) and the III (C Major)—and the way they relate to one another during the song. I'm going to put special emphasis on the F Major chord, which seems to carry a lot of tension during the verses when it serves as a contrast to the tonic (i), during the progression i-VI, but seems almosts like a resting point during the chorus when contrasted with the III chord, during the progression III-VI. Here's how this all lays out within the song:
Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night
And wouldn't you love to love her?
Takes to the sky like a bird in flight
And who will be her lover?
All your life you've never seen a woman
Taken by the wind
Would you stay if she promised you heaven?
Will you ever win?
I think the difference is pretty obvious to the ear and I would go so far as to say the variations in tension support the idea that the chorus is actually in a different key (the relative C Major), even though the chords all fit nicely into A Minor. Its the way the chords function that leads me to this conclusion. The F in the chorus feels less like a VI than a IV and the C feels more like a I, making the chorus progression I-IV in C Major instead of III-VI in A Minor. Those of you with music theory backgrounds may find this analysis to be obvious, but I like the way it illustrates the variations in weight chords can have in relation to one another and to a given tonal center.
Toward the surface, there's a really cool thing that happens during the chorus with the backing vocals when the band sings "Rhiaaaaaaaa-non." At this point, we're back in A Minor with the i-VI (Am-F) progression. But the three-part harmony sung on top of the F bass is a C Major triad! This creates the very lush Fmaj7(add9). But the coolest moment is on the fourth repetition where the vocalists adjust two of the three notes to sing an F Major triad, which completely changes the complexion of the chord. It almost sounds like an entirely different chord (well, it kind of is) but if you check the bass, it's still an F. But an F with so much more stability than on the first three passes! Such a clever moment as it creates a firm turnaround to the tonic of the verse, decorated nicely by Lindsay's Buckingham's guitar break (at 1:50). It's the best moment in a very cool song.