Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Air" Apparent

There's a good reason that k.d. lang included Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood's mini-epic "The Air That I Breathe" on her sleepy concept album Drag. Though nearly every other tune on that record is about smoke, cigarettes, addiction, etc., "Air That I Breathe" only suggests, in the long sweep of its sound, a languourous post-coital puff ("Making love with you/Has left me peaceful, warm, and tired").

The Hollies made the biggest splash with it:
There are a few ways this song achieves a simultaneous sense of languor and excitement, of sighing and exultation. The first is the rather revelatory major third it springs in the verse (the tuning of the video above is wonky, but the closest I can get it is C major to E major; the k.d. lang version goes from Bb to D). This is a fantastic progression, as I noted in passing before, and Radiohead fans will recognize it from "Creep" (apparently the band actually credits Hammond and Hazlewood as co-songwriters--a lot of props for one chord!). That bright chordburst stands the song in such good stead that it lingers in the verse for an exceptionally long time--15 bars, then an 8-bar bridge that veers into Orbison territory, then another 8 bars of verse.

This long foreplay has a surprising and foreshortened climax. The chorus sounds to us like an ecstatically unbalanced repetition of a four-bar phrase, then three bars, then two:
Sometimes
All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to
Love you

All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to
Love you

All I need is the
Air that I breathe

And "breathe" keeps soaring into a stormy minor break. What just happened? Actually, the nine-bar chorus is underpinned by a two-chord progression that repeats three times, so that the structure really looks like this:
Sometimes
All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to

Love you
All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to

Love you
All I need is the
Air that I breathe

I can't pretend to know how this songwriting team happened upon this unconventional and evocative form to convey this very particular emotion in ways that lyrics can only hint at (a curious anecdote about the song's lyrical inspiration here), but they clearly knew what they were doing. In songs as much as in any art, form to a large extent is content--or, as Kurosawa once said of noh theater, "The style and the story are one."

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