Monday, February 8, 2010

Over Analysis: Horton Hears a Horchata

Last week my wife and I were grocery shopping in our local health food store and I decided I needed to buy some horchata. I’d never tried horchata before and, until I’d heard the Vampire Weekend song of the same name, I hadn’t even heard of the stuff. Score one for pop songs.

Maybe the above paragraph sounds kind of strange to you. I mean, I did learn about a sweet rice drink from a pop song and purchased said drink based on the song’s recommendation alone. What makes this stranger is that I don’t feel the need to experience any of the songs other rhymed objects: baraclavas, aranciata, or Masada.
And that's what a great song does—it places us into a moment, asks us to experience something—even if that something is just a catchy hook—and then pushes out from a simple text that we listen to, transcending it's song-ness and integrating itself seamlessly into our daily lives. So what is it, exactly about "Horchata" that give the song this power?

On the surface, the song is simple—the melody is almost childish, the arrangement whimsical, mixing bells and strings with an occasional throbbing drum cadence. What propels "Horchata" to euphoric heights is its emotional core, driven by Ezra Koenig's nostalgia-heavy lyrics, and the song's tension/release/tension structure.

Koenig's lyrics manage to convey dual senses of loss and nostalgia through a use of specific detail, while allowing enough ambiguity that any sort of real clarity is out of reach. Koenig's lyrics recall "pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals," "lips and teeth to ask how [his] day went," and "Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on." Koenig's use of the everyday allows the song's nostalgia an uncommon sincerity—he's not directly reminiscing about an abstract idea or even a person, but we feel the nostalgia through the details.

The song's structure emphasizes these lyrics perfectly. Rather than relying on a traditional chorus/verse/chorus structure, the song builds on a sort of melodic circularity. The first two lyrical movements of the song open with the playful head, "You remember drinking horchata/I'd look psychotic in a baraclava." The whimsical melody and childish innocence of the arrangement, here, sets up the following build. As Koenig delivers fragmented memories, the song's melody shifts between two identical melodic lines that build tension through repetition, followed by a heightened, soaring melodicism for the line "Here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten," which is immediately followed by an approximation of the previous two lines. The structure, then, is two lines of building, a line of release, then a retreat back to the building melody. At the conclusion of this pattern in each of its first two appearances, the arrangement explodes into a barrage of drums and vocal "woah's," an easy final release that dissipates the remaining tension, leaving just enough behind to lead into the pattern's reprise.

The song's crucial moment, however, never offers this explicit release. I am, of course, referring to the song's third and fourth melodic cycles. The third time through plays with the same dynamic of tension building, but never offers the final release. Rather, the third cycle empties into a bridge of bells and percussion before jumping straight into the fourth cycle. Here, we're entering into the fourth cycle without the tension of the third ever being fully resolved. The fourth cycle, then, extends the build, repeating the single melodic line through the song's most specific lyrics:

"In December, drinking horchata
I'd look psychotic in a balaclava
Winter's cold is too much to handle
Pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals
Years go by and hearts start to harden
Those palms and firs that grew in your garden
Falling down and nearing the rose beds
The roots are shooting up through the tool shed
Those lips and teeth that asked how my day went
Are shouting up through cracks in the pavement"

As Koenig delicately delivers each line, building that tension through repetition, the arrangement adds a lovely flute part, dizzying strings, and a gentle but urgent pulse. The section tricks us into thinking we're heading toward another triumphant moment of release, perhaps the song's biggest moment. Instead, the section's conclusion ends and returns to the main melodic cycle, leaving the tension unresolved.

This tension remains unresolved, even through the song's final tour of the lines: "Here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten/Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on." The melody is unchanged, but the song's arrangement achieves a fresh, celebratory tone, a final coda of ecstatic percussion, flute, and strings. This final moment is a mere echo of the release we expect, meaning that the song never resolves its tension—the fact that the song allows its tension to persist after the final note serves to cement the song's cyclical structure. That is the song's power, though it ends, it is unending.

At the conclusion of "Horchata" we are exactly where we started, but have lived the song. We've felt the give and take of tension building and releasing and know that the cycle is unending, a perfect representation of pop music's ability to evoke nostalgia and resonate well into the space between tracks.

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