Great music is like good conversation, it begins without beginning—as if you’ve been dropped smack-dab in the middle of an ongoing dialogue, having skipped all the boring niceties of “How are yous” and “Where ya’ froms.” It’s organic and fluid. When done properly, both music and conversation provide refuge from the dangers of normalcy. Fulfillment through sound, if you will.
Let’s briefly explore the uniqueness of songs that seemingly begin at their musical zenith and lack a finite ending; or what we’ll call, “Escher Songs,” in tribute to the artist M.C. Escher whose work explored notions of infinity and illusion. One of the best examples is Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guards,” a song which opens as if it began yesterday. When you first push play on Street Legal the rational assumption is that you’ve had the volume turned off. The second assumption is that there’s been a horrible production error and the first 20 seconds have been accidentally spliced out. Instead of introducing the verse to us, Dylan smacks us right in the face with it. The message is clear: this train isn’t stopping, so you might as well hop on. It’s a wild ride and easily one of the best songs on the album, if not the entire Dylan catalogue. There is no discernable way of knowing when exactly the song began or what we’ve missed since it did. In addition, there is no determinant ending. In this way, “Changing of the Guards” is a beautiful experiment in non-finite art and the prototypic Escher Song.
George Harrison has also experimented with Escher Songs. Several numbers off Living in the Material World are an attempt at non-traditional beginnings. The opening song, “Give Me Love” starts in the middle of a guitar strum but ultimately forms a more traditional intro. “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” and “The Light That Has Lighted the World” follow a similar template in a cut-to-the-chase kind of way, while only the former lacks a definitive ending (i.e. a true Escher Song). Perhaps this exploration speaks to the deeper subconscious of George Harrison, the spiritual man and devout hindu. The seminal tenant of Hinduism states that the soul is immortal. Just like energy, the soul is neither created nor destroyed; and, just like an Escher Song, it has been, it is, and it will be. Living in the Material World is Harrison’s pièce de résistance. It is a rare and open look into the thoughts and feelings of a notoriously private figure (i.e. the quiet Beatle). It would make sense, therefore, that the musical arrangements would reflect the ideologies of its creator. Whether this was a conscious decision is a separate question altogether.
Any analysis of musical style would be grossly incomplete without mentioning Jeff Lynne and The Electric Light Orchestra. “Livin’ Thing” off A New World Record is a worthy experiment in Escher Song writing and a brilliant melting pot of musical influence. In traditional Escher Song style, the piece begins with an enticing violin tremolo already in progress. The opening bars act as a spring board, launching the piece into an up-tempo verse. Interestingly, the verse also sounds as if it’s been ongoing (a double Escher perhaps?). It can never be overstated how important Lynne’s voice is to this album, it’s also one of the reasons why the chorus is disappointing. Not only does it seem out of place musically, but Lynne’s voice gets lost in an elaborate choir of backing vocals. The chorus is taken right out of the Four Seasons playbook, and it should have stayed there. While I don’t believe it’s a deal breaker, (“Livin’ Thing” is still one of the best songs on the album) the chorus should have been reworked to reflect a more innovative style. Suffice to say, the driving verse is a true savior. As with all classical Escher Songs, “Livin’ Thing” has no concrete ending. The chorus continues to play into oblivion as the volume fades out.
While fade-outs are universally common, it’s important to remember that the hallmark of Escher Songs is that they ostensibly lack a true beginning and ending. There is something magical about opening an album (or a song) as if you’ve arrived a second too late. It inspires curiosity in the unknown, or rather, the unheard. The wheels are already spinning. Escher Song technique is most likely not deliberate or conscious, but rather an organic process that unfolds spontaneously. Musical idiosyncrasies such as these are often overlooked yet can provide immense value to a song that would ordinarily be ordinary.
Photo Credit: David Gerstein, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16935133