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Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town”

If you don’t have any background in music theory, you might prefer to read the layman’s version of this analysis. You can get the song on iTunes, or hear it on a video. Here are the lyrics.

The verse of “Going to a Town” uses the same chord progression as the durable old standard Autumn Leaves, a French song written in the 40s (you could think of the style as Tin Pan Alley with an accordion and a beret). It’s a pretty generic progression, so the connection could be fortuitous, but I’m inclined to think that it’s not, since the similarities go beyond the chords (just to be clear—there’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s chord progression). In both songs the melody is sequential. In “Going to a Town,” the sequence is the first 3 lines of the verse, so the repetitive phraseology of the lyric (in most verses to some extent, but especially the first one) goes hand in hand with the melodic repetition. It makes the lyrics of each verse seem to march with a kind of clockwork inevitability down to the refrain and the minor chord that supports it—both musically and lyrically, a downhearted conclusion. The way the progression shifts away from major towards minor on the third line gives it some extra poignance. The sense of resignation is especially strong in the first verse, with its passive, gloomy listing of “already beens.”

VERSE
+---------------------------------------+---------------------------------------+
                                        Bbm7
                                                                           I'm
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Bbm7                                    Eb7
gta town that has already been  burned down.                                 I'm
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Abmaj7                                  Dbmaj7
gta to a place that is already been disgraced.                               I'm
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Gm7b5                                   C7  
gss folks who have already been   let down.                I'm so tired of  Amer-
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Fm
ica.
+---------------------------------------+---------------------------------------+
gta="going to a"      gss="gonna see some"

The progression is typical of jazz standards (i.e., the harmonic language of Tin Pan Alley, more or less), as is the consistent use of 7th chords, which in this context gives the music a world-weary sheen (especially notable from the major 7th chords in the second line of each verse). At some level, conscious or unconscious, Wainwright was clearly drawing on this older repertoire—no big surprise coming from a man who’s done a whole show of Judy Garland songs. My sense is that he’s specifically invoking “Autumn Leaves,” which has two layers of wistfulness—one that’s integral to the song and another it gets as a stylistic representative of days gone by.

CHORUS
+---------------------------------------+---------------------------------------+
                                        Fm
                                                                    Making my
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Bbm                 Fm                  Bbm                 Fm
own           way home,   Ain't gonna be               alone,         I got a
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Bbm                 G7                                      C7b9
life            to lead                                   America                                      
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
                    Bbm7
          I got a life                                 to lead
+---------------------------------------+---------------------------------------+

On the scale of pop-song choruses, this one is pretty subtle, but in comparison to the verse it’s focussed and to the point in the way choruses usually are. It’s faster-moving than the verse and at the same time more static—for the first 2 1/2 lines, the harmony rocks back and forth between two chords, but the chords and lyrics go by twice as fast. The big event, where Wainwright cashes in on the simplicity and predictability of what’s come before, happens on “to lead” in the third line of the chorus. The G7 chord is fresh—the first chromatic chord in the song—and the harmonic pace slows so he can dwell on a few key words. At the end of the chorus, the progression is clearly headed for the tonic but is diverted and ends on iv instead—a deft touch. On the single at that point there is swell of glacial strings in the background that permeates and transforms the sound. The emotional core of the song is this line, repeated at the end of the chorus—“I’ve got a life to lead”—which comes across as a realization and a moment of clarity.

Aspects of that clarity and resolve carry over into the verses that follow—the Bbm harmony that bridges the chorus to the next verse reinforces the continuity. Where the first pair of verses is vague and passive, the second pair is more engaged and impassioned. Wainwright reaches out with questions, highlighted by repeated rhetorical “tell mes” that introduce an element of call-and-response dialog. It is utterly conventional for the later repetitions of a verse to be more developed or elaborate than the early ones, but in this case it’s not just s matter of musical logic, it conveys something integral to the song. It’s a technique that opera composers use to great effect—nice to see, since Wainwright has apparently been commissioned to write an opera.

CODA
+---------------------------------------+---------------------------------------+
                                                            Bbm7
                                            *->   I got a life                to
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Ab                  Ab                  Ebm                 Ebm
lead,   I got a soul               to feed,       I got a dream              to
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
F                   Gb        C         Fm                  Bbm
heed.    And that's all      I        need. *-> Making my own               way
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
Ab                  Ab                  Ebm                 Ebm
home,  Ain't gonna be                alone,     I'm going to                  a
+-                  .                  -+-                  .                  -+
F                                       Gb        G7        C        Fm
town                that       has      al-      read-     y         BEEN BURNED DOWN.
+---------------------------------------+---------------------------- - - - - - - - - -

The second verse seems to unfold like the first, but in the third line Wainwright tries to pull another rabbit from his hat. He seems in this case not to be a double-rabbit-capable composer. On the word “lead” there is an unexpectedly bright Ab chord that initiates a coda. It starts out well enough. The drawn-out, emphatic feeling of it seems a little excessive to me, but it’s not a bad way to consolidate at the end of a song. The first few chords are fresh and effective, too—Ebm is especially nice in the way it deflates the optimistic swell of the pivotal Ab before it, but with the F chord the progression hits a cul-de-sac. The effective tonic at this point is Bb minor, but Wainwright doesn’t want to confirm it and so forces his way back to Fm using a Neapolitan chord. It’s almost a textbook N6, even down to the odd chromatic hook of the melody on “all I.” The only discrepancy is that it’s not in first inversion. I’m inclined to call this a mistake, not because it breaks a rule but because the tritone skip in the bass is jarring. There is an even stranger Neapolitan-like Gb near the end—it has the melodic signature (though at the “wrong” pitch) and predominant function of an N6 but it goes to the “wrong” dominant. If he wanted the trappings of a Neapolitan (and I’m not sure why he would in the first place) why not use the real thing, which in this case would be Db/F instead of Gb for the first syllable of “already”? And why come down so crudely on the tonic chord at the end? Going to Bbm worked well at the end of the first chorus—it seems like the same thing might work well at the end.

In addition to sidestepping the tonic, I think it would help if the last three words weren’t sung in such a grandiose way. The problems with the treatment of the lyrics starts before that. From the beginning of the coda, the words that are most emphasized and drawn-out are “life,” “soul,” “dream” (excellent so far), then “own” (not so great but ok), then “be” (weak, but at least is scans) and finally “to” (really weak). The last line…

I’m going TOOOOOOOO a town   thaaat haaaas AAAAL-REAAA-DYYYY,
BEEN   BURNED   DOWN

is especially strange—oddly parsed in addition to being too grandiose. It’s strange at the level of meaning, too. Suggestive an image as it is, the town that has already been burned down never comes into focus for me—it’s an effective start but a mystifying end. This may just show how dense I am, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other points I’ve made do the same thing. I do realize that Wainwright has far better pop song instincts that I could ever hope for, and probable better musical instincts across the board.

Still, that’s what I make of it. I’d love to hear about some alternatives. You can go back to the blog entry about this song to comment, or whatever.