I’m way behind on my attempt to review every UK No. 1 of this year. Let’s pretend this song is still immediately relevant to the charts, yeah?
I’ve historically been a bit conflicted with Clean Bandit. They’re certainly the best instrumentalists working in mainstream pop at the moment; their songs sound sublime and are musically so far ahead of their contemporaries that it’s almost embarrassing.
The issue is that they keep collaborating with their contemporaries despite them never quite seeming to gel. Place one of Bandit’s precise, complicated instrumentals next to an over-singer like Louisa Johnson and you get a track with no room to breathe, forcing their less ostentatious sound into the background and allowing the song to be dominated by it’s worst element. Similarly, place it next to a wholly uncomplicated artist like Jess Glynne and you get music which is entirely unsupported by its lyrics, resulting in something unsatifyingly meaningless. Too far to either end of the spectrum and you get stuff that doesn’t work: there’s a specific vocal style that serves Clean Bandit well, but it’s so percise that no-one quite seems to know what it is yet.
They’re getting better though. You’d think that Rockabye, the song they did with Anne-Marie and Sean Paul, would end up criminally overloaded given that it features not one but two guest artists, yet it’s actually quite controlled. The thing that makes it work is that there’s an in-song reason for one performer to overpower the rest. The entire track is about the hard work but ultimate self-sufficiency of Anne-Marie’s single mother character, providing a surprisingly deep portrait of how single mothers need more support but are still strong on their own. To reflect this, every single element of the song other than Anne-Marie takes a supportive role to her vocals, from Sean Paul making singular utterances which highlight the important parts of Anne-Marie’s story to music which largely keeps itself out of the way unless needed. Everyone’s working together to highlight and bolster one element.
The fact that this is rare for a Clean Bandit song says something about the band which I haven’t quite said yet. Because I usually prefer the instrumentation to the lyrics in any Clean Bandit song, I have a tendency to argue that Clean Bandit is a great bunch of musicians being underserved by guest artists who don’t get what they’re doing. This perspective implies that Clean Bandit don’t have any control over their guest artists though, which is almost definitely wrong: while I don’t know exactly how they write their tracks, I doubt that they just record the music, send it to the record label and then leave it to everyone else to add some vocals on top of it. Which means that if Clean Bandit have a major flaw, it’s that they don’t write their intricate music to play to the strengths of their collaborators. If you’re going to keep using guest vocalists, you might as well start adjusting your sound for each one. Clean Bandit have never really done this, and so are as much to blame for their songs never quite coalescing as everyone else.
Meanwhile, Rockabye has everyone on the same page and working together to produce a singular effect, everyone being given well-defined roles which feed into the song’s central point. This is what truly separates Rockabye from the rest of Clean Bandit’s discography: the feeling that the music and the vocals are actually working with and off each other as opposed to being merely played over each other in the final dub.
And while Symphony – Clean Bandit’s latest No. 1 recorded with Zara Larsson – never quite reaches the heights of Rockabye, the interplay between Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson is there, working off each other to produce some really quite interesting effects and some very solid storytelling.
The song is about a lonely person who’s developed a crush on someone, the song serving to express their desire to date. It starts off by setting the scene: the narrator talks about how she was tired of “solo singing on [her] own” and talks about how her crush helped to imagine an unlonely life. This is communicated through a very sparce opening where the only instruments are a piano playing single notes in a very separated plinky-plonk fashion, over which is laid the narrator’s voice and an awful lot of echo, making it feel like the narrator is singing to herself in a large, empty room. Then the pre-chorus kicks in and the lyrics move to present tense. The single notes become chords which speed and build up, leading to a sense of forward momentum. This is where the singer and her crush come together, where everything fits into one…
Except it’s not. The music drops out of the chorus and we’re left with the singer largely singing to herself while the piano music flits between the pauses. And so a tension is created: the singer and her crush haven’t got together. And you feel that tension: the music built you up and has left you hanging. You feel in limbo. An effect is made, and it’s a palpable one.
With this framework, the song has now set up what the rest of it has to do: keep building up the instrumental passages until they eventually reach a crescendo, resolving the songs tensions and allowing its characters to finally come together. And so it starts doing that, introducing new instruments to the mix constantly and using the ebbs-and-flows created by it’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure to maintain its sense of tension while constantly moving towards an increasingly inevitable finale. While the finale feels inevitable though, it never feels certain. The first musical fake-out has taught us that the crescendo promised by the song is not guaranteed. And of course, despite the ending being inevitable, the song never actually features the singer and her crush getting together. As such, we’re left with a tumultuous snapshot of a relationship-to-be, preserved in amber and carrying all the nerves, joys and fears that developing a new crush tends to bring. It’s effective and beautiful; compare it to the relatively aimless Rather Be and you’ll see that Clean Bandit’s abilities as storytellers have improved greatly.
And the real joy of it is the way that the lyrics use a symphony metaphor in which the singer’s “solo-singing” merges with her crushes melodies and tunes in order to form a full symphony, this being exactly what the music does. The music explains the lyrics and the lyrics explain the music: everything fits and feeds into each other. There’s no difference between vocals, instruments and melody here, they all fit together into one text.
This might seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill – a song has matching music and lyrics, big whoop – but a lot of pop music nowadays shows nothing even close to the fundamentals being displayed here. As I’ve said before, despite me being a very harsh critic of modern pop music, it’s really has to do very little for me to like it. In a world where something as confused as One Dance can be No. 1 for 15 weeks and Ed Sheeran is somehow an apparently acceptable songwriter, a song as proficient as this is frankly exemplary.
Clean Bandit have always tried very hard to be as good as they can and now their efforts are finally playing dues, fulfilling at least some of the potential evident in their earlier works. It’s not quite Rockabye but that’s mostly because using some interesting narrative structures to liven up a bog-standard love song isn’t as half as interesting as using interesting narrative structures to illuminate a very specific tale of single-motherhood in the modern age. What it is though is very good. As their worst, Clean Bandit are one of the most interesting bands going; based on the strengths of these two songs, you could plausibly argue that Clean Bandit are currently the best pop groups in the charts right now.