Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Coming Home To See You

This is an extract from a larger work on Supertramp. "Coming Home To See You" is from Supertramp's second album, Indelibly Stamped (illustrated).

Interestingly enough, the nostalgic tones of other songs are absent on “Potter”, which naturally fits the direct and sexual and active qualities of the song, though this absence adds one final faint undercurrent of tension to the song, as we are left wondering whether the song is leading us somewhere new. The song serves to drive us back into the album after the break of the change in sides; but with the move to “Coming Home To See You”, this absence of nostalgia does not last long, though “Coming Home To See You” continues the somewhat sexy drive of the former song. “Coming Home To See You” possibly gains an initial edge of sexiness from its placement following “Potter” – the opening lyrics, which are not overtly sexual, take on a tinge of forbidden love (“But don’t breathe a word to your mean old dad/cause I’ll be coming back”). This is all the more so because of the focus on physical appearance in the lyrics (“You know you look very much like your mother”), and the suggestion that the lover is relatively attractive (“But you don’t look much like your sister/cause she’s all big and fat”).

However, there are signals right from the beginning that “Coming Home To See You” will be a different sort of song from “Potter”. It opens with something of a trademark for Rick Davies – a run up the keyboard to a point that almost reaches silliness as he reaches for the final high note, which is slightly and humorously delayed. He does a similar thing on “It Doesn’t Matter” and “Little By Little”. This is probably the first appearance of Davies’ self-deprecating humour, though there was a hint of it in the tremulousness of “Aubade”, and there is some hint of self-deprecation on “Forever”. It recurs frequently in his songs – from “You Started Laughing” to “Broken Hearted”, and becomes transmuted into an expression of becoming unhinged (of silly to the point of insanity) on “Asylum”.

“Coming Home To See You” also returns the album to the note of nostalgia found on earlier songs, both in terms of the warm slightly fuzzy production sound of the solo piano and vocals (the latter having a consequently slightly “lost” edge to its sound, as if the vocals are somehow displaced from a fixed physical place), and in terms of the musical sound of the piano, which is made to simulate a pianola. In the opening stanzas of the song, there is a quality to the production that makes it sound like the song is disconnected from a fixed reference point, and that it is being sung into space, without any hope of response, despite the nature of the lyrics. The song is set up from the start as a kind of elegy to lost times, as if Davies is sitting alone in a bar (perhaps in the lost dockside world conjured generally by the album, and given an epicentre by “Times Have Changed”; the sense of decay or effeteness is compounded by the pianola quality of the piano, conveying a sense of being unable to keep up with the times or with the pace of modern experience), looking to a more certain time where he can regain the past. This is compounded by the slightly unhinged edge to Davies’ opening vocals, which begin slightly rushed and slurred (as if he is tipsy at the piano), and with some odd phrasing (e.g. “na-a-achroil fact”).

Interestingly enough, this also sets up a faint trace of threat to the song, as if the narrator’s decision to return home is somewhat rashly alcohol-induced, compounded by the fact that the narrator seems to be rashly and aggressively trying to recapture past times. The sense of threat also underlies the imperative tone of the fourth stanza (“don’t wanna see you with your goddamn relations”). This is compounded by the fact that the opening two stanzas of the song delay the inevitable point of the address to the “you” of the title: the fact that the narrator is “coming home to see you”. In these opening stanzas, by singing about the addressee’s physical appearance (which in itself feels both inane and slightly creepy), the narrator is holding back on his real intentions, and so attempts to shore up the control of the situation. For us as listeners, this is accentuated by the fact that the lyrics are sung as one side of an implied telephone conversation (the lyrics end on the line “I’ll see you ciao”), so that the only access we have to the conversation is through the narrator’s words. The carelessness of the singing also works to subtly underscore the menace, as, like the avoidance of the issue at hand in the first two stanzas, the carelessness seems to be an attempt to veil the narrator’s general control of the situation. This also helps to continue the thread of menace found on a couple of Davies’ other songs on this album (“Your Poppa Don’t Mind”, “Remember” and “Potter”).

However, it can’t be said that this sense of threat generally characterises “Coming Home To See You”, as the slightly unhinged tone of the introductory singing, the plonking careless quality of the introductory piano playing, the slightly floating quality of the production of the opening stanzas, the silly edge to the lyrics, and the gleefulness of the instrumental close comprising the song’s second half, all contribute to a sense that the narrator is also somewhat throwaway in his forcefulness, and somewhat regardless of it. Furthermore, the threatening quality does not dominate through the rest of the song, and there is a series of countervailing forces created across the production and the differing musical styles of the song which keep it somehow unplanted in a particular emotional territory. As a result, in a kind of aesthetic game, the song seems to disengage within its internal emotional and lyrical logic, while at the same time paradoxically engaging the listener musically and rhythmically. The disengagement also helps to reinforce, and is partly realised by, the “on the move” feeling of the song, the “ing” in “Coming Home To See You”, as the song unfolds as a kind of, and is structured around the, extended metaphor for a train journey. What seems to happen is that, as the song haltingly becomes more abstract and more emotionally disengaged, so it becomes more physically engaging.

It is an interesting move, illustrative of a rock’n’roll manoeuvre whereby the mechanics of the song, and a careful manipulation of the way in which the listener engages with the song, is constructed to maximise the physical pleasure of the song. The song’s abstractness is not so much about a headspace, as is the focus of a song like “Travelled”, but more about a bodyspace, so that it more or less winds up our physical response to the song. The train metaphor is a convenient way of pacing this pleasure – it sets up an expectation, not just imaginatively, but physically, as it gears us up for increased rhythmic pleasure. The song more or less eschews a more conventional structure in favour of a construction based around the train metaphor, the image being of a steam locomotive starting up and leaving on a journey, so that each section seems to spill over a threshhold into the next, gaining momentum in each move, and also by each section at one level seeming to dissipate its connection with an imagined referenced world, moving into a physical space. It would be wrong to assert that this is necessarily a literal physical space, or that we are necessarily made to respond physically to the song; the space is a kind of hyper physical one, where we are filled with the potential or desire to move in response to the song, or where we are moved to respond physically in an imaginative sense as much as we might actually get up and gyrate to the song.

The very articulation of the song into three sections further heightens its pleasure, almost as if the song is three songs in one. This is not to say that it ranges operatically or symphonically across its stages, as with a song like The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, or even Supertramp’s own other songs like “Asylum” or “Fool’s Overture”. However, the song builds up its own rhythm through the interplay of these sections, which consequently adds to the enjoyment of each section in its own right through the contrast between each song; with the contrasts themselves also having an almost physically engaging rhythm.

As suggested above, the seeds of this process of gradual emotional disengagement and physical engagement are sown right from the start of the song. The opening verses are vocally and rhythmically methodical, and slightly overstated emotionally for their content. As noted earlier, the opening piano notes are somewhat silly, and the first verse:

“You know you look very much like your mother
And that’s a natural fact
But you couldn’t look much like your brother’s wife
Or anyone like that”

is as throwaway as the song gets: it doesn’t seem to amount to much content-wise, and is sung in a tipsy throwaway fashion. The piano playing is heavy and somewhat overstated, but this is for humorous, ironic effect, kind of underscoring the silliness and the overstated demands of the lyrics. Thus the start of the song, featuring Davies’ piano playing (or plonking), also draws attention to itself through its humorousness, and begins to draw us towards the almost physical pleasure of the song through the suspenseful rise up the scale and the physicality of the heavy-handed plonking.

Quickly laid over this is Davies’ somewhat rough blues-oriented voice, as it performs small feats of vocal manipulation around the first couple of stanzas. The quality of the voice, and its manipulation, also have an overt physicality to them, which tends to tip the focus of the song away from the content of the lyrics. In these stanzas, and in those to follow, Davies’ voice gains its first full workout on a Supertramp song, so that a large measure of the grain of it, its idiosyncrasies and the way it is wrapped around notes and sounds, are given prominence in these opening stanzas. It is not a pretty voice, but it is flexible, rich, and full of character; it is a voice that sounds somewhat old even at the age of 26 (the age at which Davies recorded this song). (By contrast, it seems that Davies’ voice actually gets lighter and therefore younger-sounding with age, as is evidenced by comparing this song with “Tenth Avenue Breakdown” off Slow Motion.) Such a voice is also, therefore, well suited to the blues, and its fractures and slips also perfectly suit a vision of dissolution and decay, and that is part of the pleasure of the voice, and incidentally, in terms of the song’s narrative content, of hearing it draw out the inevitable approach towards the narrator’s true intentions.

These opening stanzas also constitute a calling-in to the song by being more than just the opening of an (as noted before) implied phone conversation: the melody has a calling-in cadence to it, somewhat reminiscent of a station announcement about departing trains (a form of vocal utterance which is in itself disembodied), so that the melody is also drawing our attention to it and to Davies’ vocals. Even when Hodgson appears in the second stanza, both his guitar and his vocal are subordinated to Davies; they serve to support Davies and the song’s overall gradual disembodiment (by dissipating the menace of the narrator), rather than to clash with or counter Davies (as occurred for instance between Palmer and Hodgson in “Maybe I’m A Beggar” on Supertramp).

There are a couple of slight disjunctions involved here too, which compound the throwaway feel; the first being between the plodding rhythmic build up, and the lightweight throwaway quality of the lyrics and the nostalgic edge of the production. The second lies within the plodding rhythm and piano playing themselves: despite, or perhaps because of, their plodding nature, they are also somewhat throwaway, as they have a careless quality underscoring the emotional content of the lyrics. This disjunction serves to slightly unanchor the song, lessening the weight on the lyrics and giving it an abstract airy quality, and laying the ground for, and slightly shifting emphasis towards, the idea of the journey, rather than the intended (somewhat menacing) outcome of the lyrics. Furthermore, there is a clue in the opening stanzas that the bluster and menace of the narrator are not going to be sustained in, or supported by, the song overall – as noted before, the second stanza introduces the higher and somewhat wistful harmony of Hodgson, accompanied by guitar. This lightens the tone of the song, so that the humorous repetition of the rising piano scale closing this stanza seems to become more closely attuned to this lighter tone, than to the narrator’s intentions.

(It’s worth noting here that this disjunction is found through much of Supertramp’s work, so that what might otherwise seem blustering or overblown on most albums has an ironic or undercut quality. For instance, the hard rocking “Bloody Well Right” has the light touch of Davies’ piano solo in its first third, which also returns in the fade-out; what might seem otherwise a somewhat threatening revenge song, “Another Man’s Woman”, drifts in and out of lighter piano moments; and possibly Supertramp’s most portentous song, “Crime of the Century”, is set to waltz time, almost as if the song is about a carnival. It’s only on Famous Last Words (with such appallingly overstated and ineffectual songs as “Don’t Leave Me Now” and “Waiting So Long”), and Brother Where You Bound, with the somewhat directionless title track, that the bluster gains its full head and is not substantially undercut by a smaller more quotidian tint).

The forward movement of the song, however, is not entirely a simple chiastic process of gradual emotional disengagement intertwining with gradual physical engagement. There is actually a kind of twin protracted pleasure of the song, so that there is not just a protraction of the physical pleasure, but of the narrative pleasure, one reinforcing the other for the extent of the song’s narrative content (its first and second sections). This double protraction somewhat resists a chiastic movement, as the middle section of the song is, in narrative terms, more urgent and direct. The clarion-quality of the singing in the first two stanzas (aided by the “beefing up” of the vocal elements through the addition of Hodgson) is replaced in the third and fourth stanzas by a tighter singing style focused more on the rhythm of the song. The production of the second stanza is also drier and closer to the speaker, especially with respect to the vocals, which are made to sound somewhat like they are sung over a telephone (as is suggested by the lyrics themselves). These qualities make the narrator seem like he is coming closer to the listener, almost as if he is leaning into the phone.

What happens structurally therefore is that the middle section builds a hump over which the song rises, and then rolls down, in the third section, to a more abstract less ideationally focused and emotionally engaged state. Nonetheless, the middle section, by being more rhythmic, seems to somehow slightly cut loose the content of the lyrics, so that despite their implied threat, they seem to be slightly ineffectual in impact. It’s almost as if, despite their direct address to the lover, the lover is being given an option of not necessarily having to care about the narrator’s intent. This paradoxical shift is underscored by the apparent increase in closeness of the narrator (figured by the production and the lyrical direct address): by being metaphorically closer, it feels that the song is moving closer into our physical space.

Furthermore, this paradoxical movement is in fact one way of manifesting and progressing the train metaphor: the second section, in its double intensification of physical engagement and narrative content, is emulating the preparation of the locomotive to move out of the station. In this section, the train is cast as preparing to move off, to disengage itself from a fixed location; but in doing so, it must exert extra force to initiate the movement, a kind of problematic and heightened engagement with its location in order to be free of it. This also heightens the tension of the song, giving our enjoyment of it a tinge of painful pleasure, or at least restrained or contained pleasure.

So, in this song, with the movement to the third and fourth stanzas, and the change in melody, rhythm and production style, there is a residual effect of feeling the impact of the preceding verses, accentuated by the way the last notes of the piano in the second stanza seem to hang in the air, and in the dreamy production space of that stanza. This also contributes to the unique pleasure of the change to the third stanza: the change is almost humorous by cutting off the languor of the previous stanzas, and moving to a more direct expression of the narrator’s intentions. There is also a kind of pleasure in the second section of having the different acoustic-oriented styles laid out for us, as if to show off how many different “roots” styles the band can master.

The pleasure of the second section is all the more marked both because it is so brief and ends so suddenly – two short skiffle-ish stanzas that up the rhythmic ante but stop abruptly at the final lyrical utterance of the song, this being appropriately enough “ciao” – and because it acts as an entrĂ©e into the even more frenetic third instrumental section. The gap between second and third sections is much shorter than that between the first and second, so that there is a touch of playfulness to the reduced length of the gap; and there is also a heightened excitement, in the sense that, for this time, the band can’t wait as long to move into the funkier rhythm. (The pleasure of this is not simply due to its one-off occurrence in the song; it is a pleasure arising from repeated listenings to the song, as through repeated listenings the listener knows and looks forward to the “pay-off” in the move to the heightened boogie of the third section.) The skiffle style also is inherently playful, compounded by its being somewhat anachronistic, both for the time in which the song is recorded, and within the song and album themselves, as at the time skiffle had a markedly British association as opposed to the U.S. blues-oriented styles of the rest of the song and album. It adds to the slightly loopy feel of the song, and further undercuts the menace of the lyrics.

The third section marks the final cutting loose of the song, losing lyrics and becoming entirely physically engaging through the foregrounding of rhythm, reflecting also the train’s increase to full speed. The way it does this in itself is somewhat complex, as it does not suddenly leap into a fully-fledged block of boogie, but unfolds into it, in a kind of sonic equivalent of a filmic panning out from a single image. If this were a movie, it is as if the camera were focused on the train wheels, then slowly panned back to reveal the whole train, and then the countryside in which it is travelling. So the third section begins with just acoustic guitar, heavily rhythmic, played tight and hard, mimicking more or less the locomotive rhythm, but nonetheless somewhat diminished in the mix, so that there is an element of distance between the listener and the instrument. The effect has the immediate purpose of allowing the gradual “panning back” to reveal other instruments, allowing space in which each of the gradually revealed instruments can appear; but it also has the result of drawing the listener in by holding back just enough on the force of the guitar to make the listener yearn for more. The gradual addition of the various instruments, particularly the percussion instruments (congas, tambourine then maracas), further manifests this, through the teasing out of the complexity of the rhythm: the listener is gradually hooked more and more into the rhythm of the song, driving him or her into the pay-off of the organ and harmonica solos, as each instrument builds on the previous. It is important to note here that the guitar itself is played rhythmically, with the end notes of each line played like they are short bursts on the train whistle; but the differing texture of the guitar, the otherwise non-rhythmic quality of its sound, obviously gives the rhythm a more sinewy feel, upon which the percussion instruments lend a kind of punctuation.

These percussion instruments also somewhat stand out in a Supertramp song, and the variety which they add to the song gives it a kind of liquidity and texture which redoubles its rhythmic pleasure. It is not just that they add rhythmic complexity: it is that the sound of them, in themselves, add a kind of sonic complexity and sense of musical playfulness that compounds the pleasure which the song is designed to bring. The effect here is not simply some abstract musical enjoyment, some pleasure at the cleverness of the music: it is a “real” physical pleasure, a pleasure in both the physicality of the sonic changes and their effect on the listener, and in the song’s bodily-affecting rhythms. The song works by slowly disengaging the head, and slowly engaging the body; but there is a paradox in this too, because it is only by having engaged the head, that the bodily effect works so thoroughly. And in saying this, too, the head is never totally “disengaged” from the song (as if it ever could be!), because there is always the residual effect of the first two parts of the song, the memory of them, and sense of pay-off or debt to those earlier parts that makes the last part of the song work so effectively. Moreover, the nature of the music – the cyclical nature of our listening of it, in that we can always re-play the record and the song itself – allows this pay-off to continually recur in our relationship to the song. It is a fundamental characteristic of rock music of this sort that the intellectual pleasure rests barely beneath the physical pleasure, and conversely, that the physical pleasure is a kind of eye-flicker of the thought that rests behind it.

The solos which then come in over the top of this rhythm gain in effect because of this build-up. Again, these solos do not work, in and of themselves, as displays of virtuoso talent, though certainly the flexibility and skill of the playing impress the casual listener and add to the pleasure of the work. They work more viscerally, in a physically kind-of-excruciating way: a physicality that wrings pleasure from itself. This is coded more-or-less specifically in the introduction of the first solo, that of the organ: Davies stutters the organ into life, echoing the way in which the preceding instruments have built on each other, but which also continues the sense of ever-so-slightly delayed pleasure. Even in this stuttering into life there is a kind of deferring and hence heightening of the pleasure: the first organ solo has a chunky and cheeky physical feel to it, and remains in the lower registers, so that it does not soar into life as we might otherwise expect from some of the more grandiose solos of the day. Naturally, the lower registers have a more physically-felt quality as well. The organ here plays to a physical response, not necessarily to a cerebral one. Furthermore, Davies’ keyboard style is perhaps the most rhythmic of any rock keyboard player of the time (he often notes that he started out as a drummer, and this rhythmic sensibility seems to flow over into his keyboard playing), picking at the edges of the beat as if he is drawing out the rhythm.

What might be construed as a more cerebral response is left to the first harmonica solo, which follows that of the organ: it plays a melody in higher registers than the organ, and so it seems to soar higher. But this contrast in itself brings a physical pleasure to the solo; and in any case, the height of the harmonica has its own kind of sharpness-on-the-ear physicality, a slight edge of pain to the pleasure that consequently heightens the pleasure. Again the harmonica is played relatively rhythmically as well, though there are pauses, gaps and “slides” in the playing that paradoxically emphasise the rhythm by working across it or omitting a beat: in a way we work to hear the beat that has been missed, or fill in the beat from the rhythm that is working underneath it. These lacunae again also add to the pleasure through that pleasure-in-pain quality, by missing out the rhythm that the harmonica is otherwise striving so hard to achieve.

There is also a sense of game-playing here, which shows that the cerebral is never too far from the physical. The game-playing is also obviously manifest in the back-and-forth between the organ and the harmonica, accentuated by the fact that Davies is soloing with himself, and not with another person. It adds a sense of the streetside busker impressing his audience by re-creating a full band by playing numerous instruments at the one time. This impressiveness is compounded by the fact that the rhythm behind Davies is played firmly but not overpoweringly: drumbeats are played with brushes and flicked rather than pounded, the maracas with their sustained (rather than punctuated) sound remain through the piece, and bass is somewhat bounced into the piece, rather than sustained on each note. The rhythm is also mixed into a thick firm block which cushions rather than dominates the song. There is a sense that the rhythm tracks are forward and present to us as listeners, with the solos reaching out from this closer to us.

However, the solos also seem to sheer off somewhere too, the harmonica having an edge of a deferred space, almost a note of regret, and the organ having a thick “over there” kind of feel. As a result, and also because the third section is, in effect, the moving off section of the song, it has a constant quality of drifting off, despite the physicality of this section. This paradoxical movement is compounded by the song’s disembodiment as a result of the solos taking over from Davies’ vocals. There is a very slightly unsettling note of Davies having been silenced in the third section, though there is a lyricality and personality to the solos which suggests that he has been absorbed in some way into them. But in a way, this personality is unsettled: the two instrumental “voices” (organ and harmonica) are competing with each other, in any case they literally lack a true voice, and metaphorically they do not make a point, because they end up drifting off in the fade-out.

It is a movement that takes the gradual emotional disengagement of the song in a slightly skew direction. Though the song gets rhythmically more excited and engaged in the third section, a current of personality persists and revives through this section; and though the general tide of the song is towards rhythmic engagement, this nonetheless fades out, somewhat precipitately, as just as it reaches the fade out the song is climbing to a renewed high point of excitement with the harmonica and the organ. Furthermore, with the song having been all along, in a sense, about drifting off, the actual drifting off of the song is somewhat dissatisfying, particularly owing to its precipitateness. Due to our cyclical listening of the album, it therefore remains an ongoing frustration that this instrumental section (and one of Supertramp’s most engaging) should forever be foreshortened.

In a way, though it is frustrating and probably too early, this drifting off is providing a kind of prelude to “Times Have Changed”, a kind of giving way to, or in the face of, the earnestness of this latter song. The move to “Times Have Changed” seems to mark a changing of the guard on the album, from increasing physical pleasure (through both “Potter” and “Coming Home To See You”) and increasing abstraction, to songs which are more clearly “about” something. “Coming Home To See You”, more than any of the other songs on the album, is constructed around a musical metaphor, that of the train journey; it is from the start, therefore, structurally more abstract than any of the other songs. In that structure, it doesn’t follow any of the normal song patterns which all of the other songs follow to a large degree (even “Aries”, with its extended instrumental sections, follows a roughly conventional, if extended, verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, with each verse and chorus having the same melody and rhythmic structure), with its structure being more or less tied to the image of the train journey.

In their voice, too, both “Potter” and “Coming Home To See You” are more abstract than “Times Have Changed”, or at least project imaginary characters more than they project emotions expressed by the singers: they both take on a distinct voice that sit apart from the singers, whereas the voice of “Times Have Changed” is self-reflective and easily co-existant with the singer. Even in a song like “Rosie Had Everything Planned”, which projects an imaginary scenario, the voice could be that of Hodgson looking on at the woman of the title. Moreover, “Coming Home To See You” has a kind of narrative to its lyrics, an internal conversational logic, that separates it from the succeeding song, and from songs like “Travelled” and “Forever”, which comprise a series of more-or-less real-world observations, rather than having a distinct narrative direction internal to the song. This results in “Coming Home To See You” having a twin intertwined logic: that of the phone conversation, and that of the train journey. In so doing, this intertwining twists the song even further away from the real world to which other songs at least attempt to refer.

In noting this, it is apparent that this is a rather odd characteristic of “Coming Home To See You”, as paradoxically the song, in its real world existence, actually becomes more “physical” in its presence, through its increasingly rhythmic and physically pleasure-centred nature. This compounds the unhinged or unanchored quality with which we are left at the end of the song (in its drifting fade-out): while having become more physically “concrete”, it has also otherwise accreted a greater imaginary and metaphorical presence than other songs, and not only this, but a presence founded on two more-or-less parallel imaginary threads. This unanchored quality becomes structural in terms of the medium (somewhat like a faltering but persistent heartbeat): the imaginary and metaphorical presence dissipates through the third section, overtaken by the song’s sheer physical pleasure, though this presence pulsates in a kind of subterranean way through the personality of the solos; and then revives again when we re-play the album. As a result, the song’s very presence in our listening does not seem to ultimately fix on an Aboutness (about a character or a story) or be founded on a message (as with a song like “Travelled”); it seems to keep twisting off from any reference points either within or outside the song. Ultimately, even the metaphor around which it is partially constructed, the train journey, does not seem to be what the song wants to get to. It is important to note that this is a dynamic process: there is never a point where we can say that the song ever does totally remove itself from the train metaphor or from the internal narrative; or a point where the song totally gives over to pure physical pleasure. The song gains its energy from this constant movement to or from its reference points. In a sense, the song is both driving towards a point of pure physical pleasure, and yet at the same time a point of pure abstraction.

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