The dying art of the last song on the also-dying art of the “album.”
Plus: A 59-song playlist of happy(-ish) endings.
A pop song — a real, “put me on the radio/I wanna sing the Super Bowl halftime show” pop song — has ambition baked into its structure. It’s got hooks, repeatable choruses, and irresistible refrains. They call them “singles,” because they stand on their own.
Although I love singles, the larger truth is that I love the last songs on albums just as much, maybe even more. I love watching an artist’s career agendas and label obligations lift like the dampers of the piano, allowing all creative strings to vibrate at once. It’s in the late stages of an album that artists reveal themselves, tell their inside jokes, and foreshadow their visions for the future.
I know that the whole idea of an “album” always was a construct — once upon a time, album length was determined by the amount of music a graphite disc could hold — and if that construct disappears completely, no one will even know what I’m talking about. There won’t be “last songs,” there will only be “unpopular” ones. UnPop music. Maybe that’s what I like.
My own favorite song —and I do have favorites, the way your parents have favorite kids — is called “Coney Island,” a short instrumental piece featuring downstroked pawnshop guitars, a meandering upright piano, and the sounds of a beach with, yes, seagulls. It stands as the least downloaded, streamed, cared-about song in my repertoire, according to online crowd-sourced metrics, so, it is, by that measure, my worst song. But that’s not why I like it most. It’s because it is transporting, personal as a secret, and that’s what I hope for in music.
There have been moments listening to music when, had I been invited to simply walk into the speakers and never look back, I would have accepted without a second thought. Last songs can do that.
To be clear: I’m not lamenting change. I make playlists and create my own adventures, and I’m going to be just fine. I’m just witnessing a style of songwriting—experimental, malformed, indulgent, financially irresponsible — that might fade in the rear view.
Or will it? Artists are going to stay weird — that’s a definite — and they’re going to keep writing songs that diehard fans will embrace, and maybe they’re just going to put them somewhere else.
I hope I can still find them.
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Thanks so much.
[NOTE: This is an excerpt from “Hi. I’m Your Songwriting Professor,” by Mike Errico, on Cuepoint.]
Mike Errico is a recording artist, writer, music supervisor and lecturing professor. He has taught songwriting at Yale, Wesleyan and NYU, where he currently resides. In addition to his music career, Errico was senior online editor of Blender magazine, and is a contributor to Cuepoint, as well as Guitar World and Playback magazines. www.errico.com