A few months back, it seemed like everyone on Facebook was doing one of those thirty-day song-a-day thingies involving posting a video link to songs fitting different categories each day: one of them was “a song with chord changes that really thrill you.” I can’t remember which song I posted when I was doing it, but there are lots of songs whose chord changes thrill me. Here are three more. All of them share the characteristic of being based, initially, on a rather common set of chords…and then gradually expanding or substituting chords to get something much less common.
First up, chronologically, is New Order’s “Broken Promise,” from their underrated Brotherhood album. Despite the idiot genre-tag on this, if there’s a synth on this track, I’m not hearing it…instead, there are about a zillion guitars (the album was sort of divided into a guitar half and a synth half). The verse begins with a fairly typical sequence, moving from A minor to E minor by way of a brief stop at Dm and F major (i-iv-VI-v for those of you scoring at home). The chorus basically oscillates between C and A major. But here’s one thing about those zillion guitars: pay closer attention to what they’re playing, and you’ll notice they’re often playing slightly different chords. For example, it sounds to me like one guitar is playing a G major instead of C major in the chorus…essentially giving us a Cmaj9 instead. And that D forming the 9th in the C chord? Curiously, it shows up hanging suspended in the vocal harmony on that Am chord…I’m not entirely sure a minor chord with a 4th arbitrarily tacked on even has a proper name. This sort of trick – expanding the harmony by either playing different but compatible chords simultaneously, or adding on single extra notes that recharacterize the chordal coloration – is arguably post-sixties rock’s distinctive way of expanding its harmonic field: it doesn’t stack thirds on top of one another, or substitute based on sevenths or sharping or flatting notes of a chord (the way jazz does); nor does it dispense with conventional harmonies in favor of “unspellable” (within the bounds of guitar-tab language, anyway) complex harmonies in the manner of 20th-century classical music. As “Broken Promise” progresses, those guitar voicings become more and more dense (and since Peter Hook often plays double-stops or chords on his bass, the harmonic texture becomes even thicker).
After two verses and two choruses, we get to what seems like an instrumental bridge, on a different chord sequence (F, G, E…with various suspensions) – except that in fact, halfway through the song, this sequence forms the basis for the rest of the song. And it’s here that Bernard Sumner’s zillion guitars really do their work: I really can’t parse out everything that’s going on, except on top of that F I’m hearing everything from C chords to G chords, ninths stacked on top of the G, and simultaneous Esus4 and Bsus4 resolving to their respective major chords…again, on top of one another. And of course, all those guitars’ overtones are ringing out in the upper register…by the end, what’s really going on is two bars of white-note-ness, sharpening slightly in the second bar, to two bars of vaguely E-major-flavored chordage: you can fake it by just mashing down every note in those chords’ scales (F, G, E). We end somewhat suddenly on one of those chords that’s complex to name and describe but very simple to play: open fifths on the lowest two guitar strings, muted D string, highest three strings left open. Or at least, that’s a close simulation (again: zillion guitars).
The next song is Chris Stamey’s “All the Heart’s Desire/Black Orchids.” This one begins with a similarly common minor-chord sequence – Am, G, F – and modulates for the chorus to variations on a similar sequence – E-flat, B-flat, A-flat. But (in much less detail this time) what Stamey does is offer different variations on those three-chord cells for nearly every four-bar phrase of each verse and chorus: you get the sense he tried to figure out ways to evoke a similar feel using different three-chord sequences. “Black Orchids” is essentially a long instrumental postlude…using similar variations on that sequence, but changing less rapidly and instead moving through some unexpected modulations (and out-of-chord guitar soloing), finally settling into a long solo based on a transposition of that initial three-chord sequence.
The last song is one of my favorites, the Wrens’ “I Guess We’re Done.” Structurally, rhythmically, and harmonically, this song’s based on a hoary old fifties-based song structure. It begins with introductory material not heard later in the song (actually, that tactic fell out of favor pre-fifties…although you’d occasionally see it resurrected later, such as in the Beatles’ “If I Fell”), but the verses are based on I-iv-IV-V…and that fifties ballad feel is reinforced by the lilting 6/8 rhythm. But I said “based on”…and the Wrens go all over the map with that one. The bridge…the bridge comes from another planet, wanders woozily around, and finally reconnects with the main chord sequence…but that wooziness is sound-painting of the lyrics: our narrator stutters around several different attempted-reconciliation scenarios, different times, places, ideas…he can’t make up his mind, and neither can the chords. Actually, I’m not entirely convinced by the bridge…I can follow the logic chord to chord, but overall it seems almost random – but the movement from the intro to the first verse? That is completely incredible to me: it both makes perfect sense and surprises me every time. And there’s something quite compelling to me about the contrast between the lyric’s desolation and the (forced?) jauntiness of the song’s style and rhythmic base…(As an aside: This song might win the Wrens’ “most intertextual” award: I count lyrical references to at least three other Wrens lyrics…and this song itself was referred to in the lyric of “Boys, You Won’t Remember”…)
New Order “Broken Promise” (Brotherhood, 1986)
Chris Stamey “All the Heart’s Desire/Black Orchids” (Fireworks, 1991)
The Wrens “I Guess We’re Done” (Abbott 1135, 1997)