The Art of Restraint and Subtlety

While staring blankly into the grey expanse outside my window, the sounds pouring from the speakers began to envelope the room. Surrounded, seemingly from all sides, I began to feel the swarming noise as if it was a physical entity – something palpable, something real. It might be an odd reaction to have given the particular song playing at the time. Constructed by a plaintive, repeating piano melody and soft, floating vocals, Grouper’s “Clearing” doesn’t seem like the kind of track to swell throughout any space, regardless of size. Sound, however, just like appearances, can be deceiving.

Comprised of only two instruments, “Clearing” serves as a perfect example of the power of restraint in music. Moreso than many songs conjuring tidal washes of reverb-drenched guitars, Grouper’s brand of ambience enveloped and engulfed me in sound. That’s because, unlike so many rock and metal songs from last year, Grouper’s Liz Harris knows how to evoke reaction beyond a racing heart. Rather, Harris applies her expertise towards the more rewarding goal of unraveling heartstrings.

It’s not just Grouper’s Harris who utilizes this approach, of course, but I wish more artists would take the “less is more” philosophy to heart. Every year, it seems as if pop music is becoming more extravagant, as if the music world needs a stronger dose of stimulation. From blaring horns to electric pulses, bombast is the name of the game. Current trends seem to suggest a musical arms race of epic proportions is well underway, and, frankly, that’s the last thing we need more of. Give me a “Pure Heroine” any day of the week over an “Artpop.”

The issue with this continual game of out-stimulating the audience is that these high-octane releases run the risk of desensitizing listeners to more nuanced excitement in music. Subtle transitions, clever chord progressions, and lyrical turns of phrase are all relegated to non-existent backgrounds where music goes to die. That’s what makes releases such as Lorde’s debut album so exciting; instead of emulating peers’ inclination towards higher decibel counts and more instrumentation, Lorde’s “Pure Heroine” opts for a bare-bones aesthetic to deliver her hook-laden songs, working to stunning effect. I’m looking forward to seeing popular artists record against the grain by taking this approach even further. Imagine an album comprised purely of melodic, memorable choruses supported by minimal, acoustic instruments. That may be something of a dream in today’s hyper-active world, but I can keep on dreaming.

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