Simplicity in design … or is it?

The La’s song “There she goes” is a good example of simplicity in songwriting across the four dimensions of lyric, melody, harmony, and rhythm.  However, what seems simple at first hearing can be surprisingly subtle and, on closer inspection, harbour a few surprises for the astute listener.

This version comes in at 2:47, performed on this recording at about 120bpm.

Released first in 1988 then again in 1990, the story is a boy wants girl theme set in a repeating pattern that uses a single rhyme scheme that flows from the first line, “there she goes again”.  Subsequent lines end with rhyming words “brain”, “contain,” “remains”, etc.

The harmony is the widely used G/D/C progression, followed by an Am/G/C with the minor chord giving it a bit of moodiness.

The first line of the melody is two half notes and whole note: “there/she/goes” singing on the 5th, 3rd, and 5th of the harmony chords.  So, he’s singing D/F#/G. Giving it a nice open feel.  Actually, the melodic line in this phrase is similar to “When the Saints Go Marching In” which might resonate subconsciously with some listeners.  I don’t know … maybe.

The second line changes the rhythm with a quarter notes “there/she/goes” with again picking up the last downbeat beat in the bar and carrying over into the next measure. The third lyric phrase is similar

Then it moves to the Am/G/C progression with the line “And I just can’t contain/this feeling that remains”, repeating it, then turning around on the D to start the cycle all over.

Altough it’s a simple design overall, the song structure is unusual because it isn’t based on the usual 4/8/16 bar sections, opting instead for odd numbered sections:

12+1 bar intro
11 bar verse
11 bar verse
11 bar instrumental (same as verse)
12 bar bridge
11 bar verse
7 bar outro

The unusual structure stems from a five line verse followed by a one measure turnaround.  The line phrasing is a typical 2 measures but the verse itself is five lines:

G       D    C
There she goes- (2 measures)

G              D        C
There she goes again
(2 measures)

G         D               C
Racing through my brain
(2 measures)

       Am    G     C
And I just can’t contain
(2 measures)

        Am     G    C
This feeling that remains
(2 measures)

turnaround on D (1 measure)

In terms of production, the song may sound relatively simple but it uses a number of devices to develop an arc and keep it fresh:

  • the guitar intro is a motif that is repeated throughout and reappears in the instrumental section and again in the the bridge section;
  • the vocal part is solo in the first verse but additional backup parts are added in subsequent verses;
  • the shift in the vocal styling from falsetto to full voice in the second half of the verse adds character and “body language” to the delivery;
  • the bridge is a simple but effective variation on the verse, with a slight dip in the dynamic at the beginning to add some mood.

The Wikipedia entry for the song provides some additional background and context for the song, including an interesting note that seems to suggest that it took the magic touch of producer Steve Lillywhite to transform the original recording into a hit record.  The song was covered by Sixpence None the Richer in a 1999 release.  How do they compare?  Listen for yourself.

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