So one of the new Nine Inch Nails songs
got me thinking: what are some of my favorite "slow-burner songs?" By that, I mean songs that start in one place, and gradually build themselves up until they end in a totally different one. Of course, there are countless examples of these, and I think that, when we really take a look at some of our favorite artists' discographies, we'd be surprised by how many songs we love classify as slow-burners.
Slow-burners are, often, very epic and dramatic. They take advantage of dynamics in order to grip the listener in a way that most other song structures can't. So, here's a list of thirteen fantastic slow-burners that you may or may not be familiar with.
1. Wilco - "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"
The opening track from Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
is a wild listen. After each verse, it takes unexpected, kooky turns, musically speaking, all of it mirroring Jeff Tweedy's lyrics about alcohol-induced mistakes and "disposable dixie cup drinking." The song adds layer upon layer to itself until, eventually, it arrives at the titular conclusion ("I am trying to break your heart/ but still I'd be lying if I said it wasn't easy/ I am trying to break your heart"). Then, the song finally comes together, transforming itself into a chillingly beautiful explosion of sound.
2. Father John Misty - "So I'm Growing Old On Magic Mountain"
Here's a challenge for you, in three parts:
1.) Click the link above.
2.) Listen all the way through.
3.) Don't cry.
Father John Misty's newest album, Pure Comedy
, is full of moving moments, but perhaps the most moving out of them all is the penultimate track, "So I'm Growing Old on Magic Mountain." The song is nine minutes long, but it doesn't feel like it at all. It's so gripping that it's over before you know it. What's so remarkable about it, though, is how it takes its time. Josh Tillman's vocal part only lasts for about half of the track's length, and then there's this gorgeous, expansive instrumental part that feels like it could go on forever. With this song, Tillman pulls back on the witty sense of humor that imbues most of his music, and instead delivers a candid story about everlasting youth and the pain of growing older.
3. The Raconteurs - "Carolina Drama"
"Carolina Drama," which is easily one of the best Raconteurs tracks, unfolds in the same way that every great story does. You never know what's gonna be around the next corner, both musically and lyrically. The song tells the story of a young man named Billy interfering with a fight going on between his mother, her crazy boyfriend, and a preacher (who turns out to be Billy's father). There are plot twists, violence, and even a cliffhanger in this song.
4. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - "O Children"
Nick Cave's "O Children" becomes more and more heartbreaking with every verse. He's singing an emotional apology to his children for how his generation left them in the dirt. It builds and builds upon this theme, but then there's an unexpected, hopeful turn in the song's outro that you really have to experience for yourself.
5. Spoon - "My Mathematical Mind"
The fourth song on Spoon's album, Gimme Fiction
, is essentially one really long verse. If that sounds boring to you, trust me when I say that it's anything but. As the song progresses, the drumming gets more energetic, the guitars become more unhinged, a string section comes in out of nowhere, and in its final moments the instrumentation becomes wildly chaotic. It's a fantastic payoff.
6. The Smiths - "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me"
One of the most beloved songs by The Smiths doesn't actually get going until two full minutes have passed. And yet, those haunting two minutes are absolutely essential. The track would not be as powerful without its lengthy opening, which features nothing but a nearly structureless piano part, a shouting crowd, and an occasional bass note. Then, the song begins with a sudden, unexpected shock, as if it were screaming itself awake after a horrible nightmare (which is fitting, given the song's title and lyrics).
7. Fleet Foxes - "I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar"
The opening track on Fleet Foxes' excellent third album, Crack-Up
, is also one of its greatest highlights. It begins with Robin Pecknold's bizarre mumbling and ends with soaring, grandiose instrumentation. By the time it's over, you'll feel like you just went on this powerful, expansive journey.
8. Patti Smith - "Birdland"
This is easily my favorite song from Patti Smith's classic debut, Horses
. It's a song about a boy who just came home from his father's funeral, and his emotional moments alone on the farm that his dad left behind for him. The lyrics are some of Patti Smith's best, but what I love so much about this song is how her performance becomes more and more passionate as the story unfolds (the same goes for the instrumentation). When she frantically shouts the lines "take me up/ take me up, take me/ up to the belly of the ship," the song itself feels like it's actually ascending.
9. Death Cab For Cutie - "I Will Possess Your Heart"
Any songwriter who wants to know how to make an eight-and-a-half minute long song, centered largely around the same repetitive melody being played over and over (and over and over and over) again, should listen to "I Will Possess Your Heart." It's the definition of a slow-burner. By the time Ben Gibbard starts singing, you've already listened to well over half of the song. And yet, it never feels boring. You'll be lulled in by that repeating bass melody and entranced by the surrounding harmonies that the band keeps adding to the mix. It's one long, catchy jam session.
10. Led Zeppelin - "Ten Years Gone"
If you listen to the first twenty seconds of the Led Zeppelin classic, "Ten Years Gone," and then immediately skip forward to the final twenty seconds, you'll have instantly gone from Jimmy Page's reserved guitar playing to an all-out, full band explosion. How the band actually gets there feels like an adventure with multiple unexpected turns, including Page's gorgeous solos. This track serves as one of the best pieces of evidence that Page's guitar parts were so fantastic because he knew how to make good use of dynamics. In other words, he'd invite the listener in with quieter sections, before taking them away with more grandiose ones.
11. Radiohead - "Ful Stop"
"I Will Possess Your Heart" isn't the only song on here with a repetitive bass line. Radiohead's "Ful Stop" was considered to be one of the best tracks off of A Moon Shaped Pool
for a reason. The song never lets up, and every passing second brings some new, chilling addition. When Thom Yorke sings the painfully depressing line "truth will mess you up," the song erupts into its haunting conclusion.
12. Pearl Jam - "Release"
Pearl Jam's classic album Ten
features numerous memorable hits for the band, most notably "Alive," "Even Flow," and "Black." But one of the most powerful moments on the album is, undoubtedly, the song "Release," which is also the album's closing track. It makes sense why the band would choose this song as Ten's
finale. It's one hell of a finisher. Like all the great rock slow-burners, it starts out with a quiet guitar part and ends with an emotionally charged wail.
Well, to be fair, most of the great rock slow-burners didn't have Eddie Vedder on vocals, but maybe that's what makes this one stand out so much. Vedder's voice soars (say that ten times fast, by the way) at the end of the song, and the rest of the band backs him up by beating the everliving crap out of their instruments.
13. Feist - "Pleasure"
Okay, I really think I have to shut up about Feist's new album. But I just love it so much! I've listened to the titular, opening track ceaselessly since it dropped a few months ago, and I've yet to get tired of it. The progression that Leslie Feist makes with this song is goose bump-inducing. It starts out somberly, gradually becomes more and more sombre, and then, out of nowhere, it ends epically. It's essentially four minutes of build-up towards a conclusion that is so wild and unexpected that you really do have to hear it for yourself to fully understand Leslie Feist's achievement with this track. Her vocal performance is absolutely killer on this song, too. The way she wackily sings the line "it's what we're here for" in her head voice is just so charming and unforgettable.