Bridge to nowhere
How do you listen to a song? Do you turn it on and let the song arrive as it is? Do you concentrate on it and find yourself nitpicking at its parts? Do you find yourself playing armchair producer?
As a fan of pop music, and as someone who hears close to a hundred new songs a week, I can get pretty tired of the formula: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus. We’ve been using it now in solid form since the ’50s, and most bands agree (or don’t know differently) that is, in fact, how you write a song — a pop song, anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m on board. The chorus is important; we all like to sing along to something familiar by the time we round into that two-minute mark. The verse tells the story. It’s the beef and is there to help us relate. Then there’s the bridge.
The bridge has become the hero and the villain for me. This should be a chance for the artist to do something special, extraordinary even, really show off his chops. This is the chance, however briefly, to take us somewhere else, somewhere unexpected. It’s a part of the song but is a break from those repeating chorus lines. You know, a bridge between.
The problem is that most bands treat this section with the least amount of thought. These days, you can hear the bridge long before it gets there, and, unsurprisingly, it becomes the least memorable part of a song. More often, the bridge was unnecessary and a complete waste of time — a bridge to nowhere.
None of this really occurred to me until I was in the middle of an interview with the band Yeasayer. They had met an older musician in Nashville who was offering songwriting tips. His rule: Don’t build a bridge if you don’t have water to cross. Did I say he was a musician? I think he may have been a magician, because that bit blew my mind. It was one of those things that once I heard it, I couldn’t unhear it.
And it’s true! Why waste the time when you have nothing to add to the composition? If it’s not worth it, don’t do it, right? Maybe splash on that third chorus and call it a day. If the song is good enough, let’s not muck it up with the bastard bits.
This goes for solos, too. While you can skirt the bridge with a solo, just make sure it’s a damn good one. There are lots of great ones to live up to, and no one’s saying you have to be Hendrix, but at least try to get possessed by some lesser god.
Here’s an example that caught my ear: Dawes’ “From a Window Seat,” with a bridge I could not only appreciate, but also found myself surprised by how they took a decently good song and made it really shine. It’s a simple song, lyrically nothing new from a band that’s constantly on tour, with its observations on traveling the country by plane. They give it a really good ’70s groove through the verse, and even go the extra mile not to repeat the same line four times for the chorus. Then the bridge hits.
Now, they didn’t have to take it where they did. As a band on the cusp, they could have played it safe, but suddenly, it goes into what nearly becomes prog-rock territory. This bridge has pieces! This bridge even has turns. It’s a bridge even Madison County could appreciate. It’s not a solo, but the instrumental section actually takes you across the country without even needing words. It rolls and travels, and, if you let yourself, you’ll find yourself right there with them. And then it transitions so easily back to the chorus, you open your eyes as the plane lands.
Robert Plant hilariously asked, “Has anybody seen the bridge?” Sure, “The Crunge” is famous for not having one, but maybe Jimmy Page never saw any water.
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.