I’ve been obsessing a bit over the Arcade Fire’s song “Cold Wind” since receiving it on a mix CD a friend sent me (his best-of 2005 compilation). There was something indescribably haunting and affecting about the song – so naturally, I had to try to figure out how to describe it. (Those who think analysis kills music dead should stop reading right now, or risk being party to the crime.)
The first thing I noticed is that one note in particular in the melody line struck me (the note on the first syllable of “sleeping” in the first verse). When I thought about why, I realized it was outside of the harmonic framework the preceding chords had established: it’s an B natural over a Am chord, i.e., the ninth degree of the chord’s scale, and the song’s key is F, which does not contain a B natural. So the note is invested with quite a degree of drama, because it jumps outside the tonal schema the song had set up for itself. But, as is often the case when this sort of thing happens and works, it’s not completely outside that scheme, nor is it completely unexpected. That’s because the movement from that note to the following note (a C, the minor third of the A minor chord) finishes the suspension from the 2nd (or 9th: same diff), just as the melody line in general has lots of similar suspensions. In fact, it’s pretty much built on them: from the 4th to the 3rd in the first phrase (over an F major), from a precarious raised 4th to the 3rd in the second phrase’s B flat major (intervals considered in relation to the root chord, not the key), and following the phrase I’m worrying to death, another 2nd to 3rd resolution over a G minor (which, following after the Am with B natural, makes the return to the B flat of the F major key itself rather striking – especially since that B flat is suspended for the entirety of the arpeggiated acoustic guitar phrase between verses).
To be less technical about all this, the melody is always landing precariously in an irresolute place, tentatively resolving only to move back to another slightly awkward note. After that leap to the high note, the melodic motion is primarily downward, although every other note reaches upward. In later verses, when that high C pedal point in the violin shows up, it creates even more tension, since a pedal is, I’d say, a way of avoiding a resolution (by definition, it does not move), and while the C does eventually resolve by virtue of the chords around it coming to rest on an F major, immediately before that point the song rests for a couple of measures on G minor, with the vocal line oscillating between A (the second degree of that chord) and B flat, so there’s a double suspension of sorts: the A wants to move somewhere, as does the high C. And as I said earlier, the guitar arpeggio withholds resolution by insistently repeating that B flat on the downbeat, so even when things appear resolved in F major, the home key, they’re really not.
The other thing about most of those melodic suspensions is that they could, in theory, resolve either way, up or down. Although most of them, in fact, resolve upwards, in doing so they resolve to minor chords, and as part of overall downward melodic cadence as well.
Errr, so much for “less technical” – although this is all pretty amateur stuff compared to what actually trained folks might do – like I’m not even trying to confuse you with V of V chords or anything. (Check out Alan W. Pollack’s Beatles analyses for the flavor.) One thing that impresses me about this song is that it’s pretty distinct from the generally arm-waving stuff the Arcade Fire did on Funeral, so it’s good to see they have a bit more range than that record shows.
(A couple of notes: the song’s originally from the second Six Feet Under soundtrack compilation. Also: much of this analysis was done in my head in my car on my way to work (fact-checked with a keyboard later), so yes, I do have a life and don’t spend all day in obscure and ponderous quibble-farming.)