One of my favorite pieces of Mark Richardson’s writing is his 2012 essay “I Wanna Live: Two Songs About Freedom” for the now-dead column Resonant Frequency. In it, he waxes eloquent on the two-chord song, especially Bowie’s “Heroes,” Cat Power’s “Nothin But Time,” and LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”:
[There] is something especially powerful about music with this harmonic structure. In my mind, when I’m listening — and especially if it’s a song that wants to comment on something about “life” — the two chords seem to say, “Sometimes it’s like this, and then other times it’s like this.” Day and night, love and fear, yin and yang, life and death.
In an earlier essay on LCD, “The Memory of Our Betters,” Richardson argues something similar:
When a song has two chords, it’s about asking a question in one line and then seeing if it can be answered in the next.
Two-chord songs aren’t so much about dynamic or narrated progress — alignments between sides may shift slightly over time, but the tug-of-wars they contain never yield clear-cut victors. Instead, their subject is the tension of the tug-of-war itself, a musical expression of the irresolvable conflict between such ideas as “day” and “night” or “life and death.” Their power is that of eternal gridlock, of stagnant, Sisyphean struggle. Where a typical four-chord pop song frames, pivots, and erupts, two-chord pop songs can only drone, swell, and fade; build, maintain, or ease up. They’re acts of pacing, patience, slow intensification, and endurance.
Their beauty, though, lies in the elegance of the umbrella categories they embody, the ways in which the space between two chords chords can contained all possibilities in binary or spectrum. Such simplicity can be limiting as well; the aforementioned differences in listening experiences between a typical two-chord versus four-chord pop song is a product of this very limitation.
By “typical four-chord pop song,” I mean to emphasize that I myself am painting in broad strokes (umbrella’d lumping, even). Sometimes, songs can impersonate another type of track, another kind of progression or sensibility.
Broken Social Scene’s four-chord “Lover’s Spit” neither erupts nor pivots. It works off its harmonic arsenal — the I, vi, IV7, and V — in a way that gently rocks between two opposing sentiments. Listening to “Lover’s Spit” evokes Richardson’s feeling of yin and yang, life and death, while its lyrics contain some of the same themes as “Nothin But Time” and “All My Friends” — the passage of time, the sensation of growing old, the desire to live meaningfully.
A bit of background: Two-chord songs with good voice-leading typically feel as if they’re either rising or falling. I-IV progressions rise: the root of the I sticks around for the IV’s 5 while the I’s 3 and 5 each move up a step. I-V progressions fall: the 5 of the root sticks around while its 1 and 3 move down a step.
“Lovers’ Spit,” to replicate this, anchors its lead note to the 3 for the first three chords (I, vi, IV7) in its progression, only relenting for a single bar of the V chord when its leading tone moves downward from the 3 to a 2. Then it loops around to the 3 again to begin anew; repeat ad nauseam. Where Cat Power or Bowie reveled in their dialectic two-chord elegance, however, “Lover’s Spit” offers a sort of subversion in the changing chords below the lead, expressing nuance underneath a surface appearance of shared identity.
While now in a sorry shape, between 2010 and 2013 Pitchfork was putting out phenomenal music writing, primarily through its now-discontinued set of contributor columns (staffing names like Tom Ewing, Nitsuh Abebe, Lindsay Zoladz, and Richardson himself). If you’re interested in the site’s publication, I wrote a lengthy profile of it at Rare Candy which can be found here.