Friday, January 17, 2014

Song #474 of 9999 - Back to Life by Soul II Soul

Song #474 of 9999

Title: Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)
Artist: Soul II Soul
Year: 1989
Album: Club Classics, Vol. One

I write a lot about harmony in my blog. I must admit it is the musical element that most captivates my imagination, with melody taking home the silver and rhythm the bronze. For many people, this would be a crazy miscarriage of musical justice and I understand. Rhythm is the only element that can stand on its own as a musical force and I have certainly been moved by purely rhythmic performances. But rhythm can be hard to explain in terms of its efficacy—it's like trying to explain a feeling—so maybe that's why I avoid the discussion.

Anyway, I thought of this when listening to this remix of "Back to Life" from Soul II Soul's 1989 debut. I'm not a big R'n'B guy but man, those Brits can suck me in with their reserved, often spare, approach. Produced by Nellee Hooper (who else?), the version of this tune that ended up on the album is almost entirely a cappella. Despite Caron Wheeler's lovely voice and pristine harmonies, it's one of the more confounding things I've heard. I have to believe the band made the decision to remove the instruments after recording the song because there are these long silences between phrases that seem timed for accompaniment. (Actual research has revealed the opposite to be true but I'm still skeptical.) But there's enough information in the vocal tracks to inform the harmony and it's fair to make the case that the a cappella version is holding up better after 25 years.

So back to rhythm. Setting aside the shuffling groove of "Back to Life," I'd like to focus on the rhythm of the melodies. I really like the snappy quality of the dotted rhythms that pepper this piece and the care that is taken with what to place on or off the beat. In the initial lyric (back to life/back to reality), every syllable is set squarely on a beat, with only the "re" in "reality" preceding the beat by a sixteenth note (the snappiness!). Wheeler maintains this firm placement until 0:29 when she suddenly lets out a flowing stream of notes on the word "you." This is precisely when the hook emerges and the song really blossoms. The rhythmic treatment of "however do you want me" is almost the exact opposite of the opening: the first, second and fourth occurrences land just before the fourth beat while the third sounds "early" when hitting squarely on beat three. I love that third phrase so much, serving as the exception that proves the metric rule. The remainder of the song exploits this contrast of on-the-beat stuff with off-the-beat stuff—listen to the strings from 1:17 through 1:55 for another good example of this dichotomy. 

Maybe this all seems obvious but I find that we often take rhythm for granted when it comes to analysis because it's easier to just say it "feels right" or it "grooves." But closer examination can often reveal helpful details about just why it works so well.

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