Thursday, March 25, 2010

Anatomy Of A Rock Anthem: The Pretender

Dave Grohl awaits the attack
The Pretender is a song by American hard rock group Foo Fighters, written by frontman Dave Grohl. With a record-setting 18 weeks atop the Modern Rock Tracks chart, it was a huge success in the U.S. and Foo Fighters often open their live shows with it.

I'm here to dig a little bit below the surface to figure out exactly why The Pretender is so bloody great. (I'm assuming unilaterally that you already agree that the song frickin' rocks already) So here we go.

Starting with the obvious
When The Pretender starts, you're greeted by a gently arpeggiated guitar intro with echoes of Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven. It's a deceptively simple chord -- a high-position Am add9 with an animated bass line on the two lowest strings -- with nothing but a barely audible chorus of strings hovering in the background. Dave starts singing over this quiet backdrop, putting the bass notes in fugue-like contrast against the vocalized melody. This is the beginning of the song's greatness. You can listen to the intro time and time again and find new nuances to this delicate balance act every time. It's delicate stuff with a hard edge, before the song even starts for real.

We need more power, captain!
When the drums and barbed-wire guitars kick in, they come without warning and with no mercy. One guitar plays simple power chord chugs while another introduces a slightly distorted riff on the two brightest strings. The tune stays mainly in various forms of the Am chord, and each of the contrasting musical motifs is repeated endlessly. Dave Grohl's voice starts to deliver raspy touches of anger or determination, while the drums work up from a static beat to more complex but still rock-hard rhythms. You could swear that the whole song switched to a much faster beat, but it's still  the same 130 beats per minute -- just populated with more notes per bar. It's another light-handed trick to get your heart pumping faster, without really changing the nature of the song.

At this point, you have a richly layered tapestry of sound: two very different guitar parts contrast effectively against the lyrical melody; that melody varies between iterations  along with an evolving drum beat; and the whole package is still quite restrained. If this was a Pixies song, you'd expect the chorus to be much louder after such a tightly subdued verse.

And that's exactly what you get.

Calling the cavalry charge
The last bar of the pre-chorus launches a guitar fanfare that reminds you of Everlong and once again reaches back to Stairway To Heaven. Then the chorus breaks loose with the most aggressive drums yet -- crash cymbals and muscular snare beats --  distorted guitars ringing out on open chords, and a pulsating bass. Dave sounds really upset now, hardly pausing for breath in his accusatory rant. Oh, and remember the bass line from the intro? It's back again, proving that the tempo never really changed and weaving that forlorn melody into a whole new sonic landscape. If this roller-coaster ride bores you, I'm afraid you'll need medical help.

Back to the future
That angry chorus stops on a dime, and we pause for a taste of rockabilly riffing that would have sounded perfectly all right to Buddy Holly in 1959 -- except that Holly's drummer would never have attacked his snare drum as brutally as Taylor Hawkins does here. And we're back to the relatively quiet verse structure again. Hello Pixies -- and there's nothing wrong with that!

Let's have a break
After the second chorus, the rockabilly riff doesn't face up against the drums and we're treated to the quietest passage since the intro. The ghost of Buddy Holly keeps going through the break as the other instruments fall in line and build up the aggression and power bit by bit until Dave is screaming "Who are you?" in your face to a perfectly metal wall of sound.

And then that attack stops dead in its tracks, reverberating out behind a straight-up return to the intro. If it sounded soft the first time around, the contrast against the lethal power we just left behind makes the same musical phrases sound positively dainty now. Breathe on this interlude and it'll break. And yet, the basic structure still hasn't really changed since bar number one.

Take her home, boys!
So we come to the last chorus, which matures with the "Keep you in the dark" lyrics from the intro/break come back to lay its delicate sensibility atop the combative "What if I say ...?" screams. Then it's time to go home, and there's no wimpy fadeout -- just five solid hits and you're done, like hitting a brick wall in the middle of I-95 or getting your brains bashed in with a gold brick wrapped in lemon slices.

What did we get?
It's been a total thrill ride -- climbing, falling, crashing between soft and hard, melodic and irate, simple and complex. The lyrics have stayed on message, poking and prodding at alienation and indecision from myriad angles and blaming you for a lot of it. All of this is done with a tremendous attention to detail, reusing musical themes in places where you wouldn't expect them and keeping the song's structure very basic so that all the displaced parts fit in again wherever they go. It's always stimulating, never boring, and induces you to take another listen and see if you missed anything the first 50 times around.

With this rich arrangement and clever structuring you'd expect that it took weeks to record the song, kind of like the way U2 labored over arrangements and mixes forever in the Joshua Tree era. But according to Grohl, the whole thing actually came together very quickly and much faster than the rest of the album. That doesn't change the song's power or the achievement of the musicians creating it, but it does speak to the inevitability of a good idea. When you have a really good thing going, sometimes it just writes itself.

Even the video works
One final note: If you've seen the video for The Pretender, you'll recognize the themes of building and releasing tension that was explored in the musical elements. Dave and his band face off like a gang of superheroes against a thin blue line of riot police, at whom all the accusations in the lyrics appear to be directed. The personality-less cops attack just when the songs hits that quiet lull of returning to the intro, and the subsequent chorus assault breaks open a wall of blood that washes over our heroes and sweeps away the attackers. It's a visually appealing concept that works with the music and makes Dave look like a rock hero, and the visual experience seems to amplify the music.

Thats how it's done, folks. The Pretender works because it's a deep, vibrant expression of excellence in melody, harmony, rhythms, and musical storytelling. It's all done with a deft touch while wearing steel gauntlets. Of course, explaining it that way is kind of like explaining a joke or defining irony: it's just not funny. But there you have it.
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