<Once again I direct the reader to Tom Ewing’s blog, which was certainly the progenitor of this idea>
<I encourage simultaneous listening and reading!>
I’m listening to this version of too little too late on Youtube. The bit of ‘acting’ at the start is a bit ridiculous. “It’s just disrespectful, David”! Right, anyone who has read any of this blog, or knows me even a little bit, will know that I love Jojo. I would say without any hesitation that ‘The High Road’ is in my top five albums of all time. ‘Too Little’ is not even my favourite song on the album, but it definitely caught me by surprise, and I spent a good few days listening to it almost non-stop when it first came out.
Actually, it reminds me of one particular time. A house party at Al’s place in Oxford. I think it had just come out, and he had put it on an itunes playlist – pretty early on in the night – I think to ‘test the water’. I had probably heard it once or twice before that, but for some reason it really hit me hard hearing it them. I was stunned by how good it was. I had been pretty disparaging of Jojo’s first tune ‘leave (get out)’. Mainly I had been baffled by it – the faux-seriousness of the relationship presented etc.
Second listen already. I feel like I could listen to this all night…. When Al played it that night, it sounded so right. He described the chorus of this song, and that description has stuck with me. He said that it sounds like Jojo is being swept along by the chorus. It’s so fucking accurate. The actual content of the lyrics is actually pretty similar to leave get out. As is the acoustic guitar (which i think might be a very expensive synth patch); but the delivery, especially in the chorus, is so much more vulnerable, so much more believable. It is also massively more competent. The voice is more ‘mature’, it is so multi-layered, but delicate. The chorus really does make it sound like the song is engulfing Jojo. However, when the melismatic ad-libbed outro comes along, she suddenly bursts through with such defiant aplomb it is staggering. I don’t want to talk so early on about how good the super high notes are at around 3.35 – but they are insane. I don’t care if they’re autotuned. They’re such a perfect moment in pop music, that they transcend all…
…right stop there. I seem to be getting carried away as the song builds to a crescendo each time. The above is strewn with typos (I have allowed myself one minute to write any additional thoughts in between each playing, but I will leave typos etc for the end.) It’s strange, I do really buy into the emotion of this song each time I listen to it. The build up of the song is so expertly balanced. The half-length first chorus really sets up the end; whets the appetite. When the hi hat in the pre-chorus does that sort of double time pattern, I actually feel a little tingle of excitement; i know what’s coming./ I think you would ‘know’ what was coming, even if you hadn’t heard this song before. It deals in the tacit language of pop music construction absolutely expertly. It hits all the expected hit points, the ebb and flow of the song is beautiful. It lets you know the journey you are on, but gives you the confidence to sit back and let it wash over you and enjoy the ride. But it is more than that. The vocal harmonies and arrangements are almost baroque in their complexity. I could listen to this song a hundred times and not unpick all the amazing moments and subtle additions to the main vocal line. I will try in this next listen to point out a few of my favourite points.
The one down side so far, is the guy’s voice at the start; he seems to be slurring his words a bit? And I don’t like him saying ‘alright, hold up’. But apart from that, I am starting to think that this was the best way to spend a Friday afternoon I could possibly think of. Ok first one. 0.44. Just after the first ‘alter-ego Jojo’ (that’s what I’m calling the backing vocals – more on that later) has said ‘you know it’s just too little to late’, there is a slight like delayed bounce-backed ‘oo lay’ (presumably of ‘too late’). It sounds distorted. It sounds class. The lower harmonies, quite quiet, in the chorus, really flesh out the sound – more so than the electric guitars – and give it such a gorgeous natural chorus effect (as in the effect, not the part of the song). Around 1.45, The harmony on the line ‘but it wasn’t enough’. It is such an odd harmony. Is it higher in pitch? What is the melody of it? It jumps around, ethereal. It is quite low in the mix as well, all the harmonies are. This adds to their understated subtlety, and probably adds to the emotion of the main voice. 1.50. The little derisory chuckle. Absolutely class. I know that last words of that verse are “wanna communicate”, but I always think of them as “want a communiqué”. Maybe they are. I hope they are. I don’t know why that would be better. It would though. And then straight into the brilliant harmony on the lines ‘I’m letting you go, I’m loving myself’. Are they fifths? I admit I paused this play through to check. A hinted-at pentatonic melody as well – so good in RnB tunes. The pronunciation on ‘say’ in the chorus is also particularly ear-catching. 2.38, the way the reverb allows the backing vocals “I have so much to give” gradually fade out into a breathy tone cluster, which segues into the synth-strings part. Then we’re into the fabulously histrionic warbles at the end. I have been pausing this all the way through. Now I’m just enjoying the ending…….. 3.10 there is a slightly distorted ‘woop’, with delay. A herald of the falsetto magnificence to come!
Immediately in to number 5. So, I was talking about the ‘alter-egos’ in this tune. That is how I think of the myriad backing vocal tracks. It sounds like, without painting Jojo as some sort of psychopath, multiple voices of the same person talking over a problem. I mean this in the sense that, even though there is a ‘you’ to whom this song is directed, I get the impression that this is some sort of inner-working; that the song, it’s message, its lyrics – are all being played out in Jojo’s head; the other voices are facets and conflicting feeling about the problem of ‘Disrespectful David’ manifest. She is working through this problem alone. Then by the triumphal ending, the decision has been made, she has come to a decision (she hasn’t gone to his soccer game). So the main vocal talks almost sorrowfully at first about the faith she has placed in ‘Disrespectful David’ (D.D. from now on!), makes apparent how vulnerable she is, and were it the lone voice, it would hint perhaps at forgiveness (albeit reluctant). However, the backing vocals provide, instantly, a stronger, more resolute ‘you know it’s just too little, too late’. The ‘you’ that the backing vocals are talking to is Jojo; the backing vocals are talking to the main vocal line!!!! They provide strength for the main vocal, so by the second verse, Jojo can even laugh (snort) at the ‘other’ you (D.D.) and by the end, the main vocal line has usurped the backing in the confidence stakes, the backing vocals continue the refrain, very much in the background, as the main vocal line let’s go of the spectre of D.D. (in a cathartic howl).
There is such a sense of resolution in this song. It is so self-contained. Is it pushing it too far to call it filmic? Yes. Probably. But not only does it lead you on a sonically satisfying journey, it also leads you on an emotionally satisfying journey, too. It has an arc to it, one that is both obvious and recognisable in its immediacy and use of common pop language, but it stands up to repeat listens because of its expert construction and execution. Even the middle 8 – so often the phoned-in filler in pop songs – is excellent and appropriate and fitting within the arc. That was the really bad thing about ‘Leave (get out)’; the middle 8 has absolutely nothing at all to do with the rest of the song. I usually feel a sort of anti-climax with middle 8’s; but this one is such a beautiful breakwater before the ending. It both cleanses the palate and sets up the returning themes; a mini changing-same. For it is different, but so intrinsically part of the same verse-chorus paradigm. It’s a third space! One that, once heard, is so entirely necessary in the song. One that retroactively gives credence to the verse-chorus relationship – shows how symbiotic the verse-chorus relationship is. Thematically, it is great as well. The main vocal ‘self’ reflecting upon itself; turning itself into the ‘you’ that the song it talking about, the backing vocals chiming in, adding themselves and their strength into the main vocal voice “I can love with all of my heart, I have so much to give (I have so much to giiive)”, before coming to the resolving line in the song “with a player like you, I don’t have a prayer”. The solution has been reached, the internal consternation settled; all that is left to do it inform D.D. of the decision. I’m going to watch the video now!
So, the premise of the video is absolutely ridiculous. A few different scenes. Jojo and D.D. in a car. D.D. at a party, necking on with another lass. Jojo, horrified, leaving the same party. Jojo in her room. Song begins. Actually, I think the video gives some credence to the above assertions. In ‘Leave (Get Out)’, Jojo is constantly flanked by a couple of lackeys, who add a couple of turkey-necks and derisive glances to the subject of Jojo’s angst. But crucially, the lackeys assume the role (if only in the video) of the backing vocals as well. So Jojo is talking with her friends. However, in ‘Too Little, Too Late’, she is alone; and the camera work emphasises her isolation; it looks almost like she is in a prison cell – or some alternate hyper-reality. There is not even the hint of an other presence. At around 0.35 Jojo is seen gazing forlornly out of the window, next to a picture frame. Yet both these reflect Jojo’s image. There is no outside world, no picture of friendly (other) faces to rely on here; just herself. Emphasised further by the shots of inanimate objects. [I don’t want to come across as creepy here, because I am fully aware of the creepiness of liking Jojo. It isn’t sexual. I do really just love the music!!! – but as a side note, i have noticed that she seems to have maybe fractured her cheek on the right hand side, which becomes evident when she smiles. Shit – that does sound creepy, doesn’t it! Ignore that bit!].
Then a photo wall of ‘moments with D.D.’ – flashbacks to when they were taken. I could write something here about photography, but I won’t (she’s about to bin them all anyway!) I don’t have time. Then Jojo reading a book at D.D.’s soccer practice (I wish I could see what she was reading. In my head it’s Isaac Asimov or Roland Barthes! Creepy again.).
Then D.D. out with some lasses, ignoring Jojo’s phone calls. I don’t have a mobile phone, so I don’t appreciate the significance of this ‘snub’, but Jojo seems pretty narked by it.
Then D.D. wants to watch the football, without Jojo interrupting him. Actually, I’m on D.D.’s side on this one.
A few montage shots of the ‘story so far’, then we come to the climactic scenes. D.D. is playing football (or soccer), Jojo chucks out the large teddy that D.D. had won for her at the carnival that everybody apparently goes to but that I’ve never even heard of existing in real life. Jojo emotes in the rain. Actually, the final scenes show D.D. sink to his knees, crestfallen, at the sight of the goalie saving his shot, and his team losing 0-1. There is literally nobody in the stadium, and only a handful of people behind the goal. Those people cheer the save, so must be supporters of the away team. I conclude that it can’t be a very important match (were it a cup final, for example, the place would be packed – Americans love their college sports). D.D. has set his sporting standards ridiculously high. There have been more than a few games in my long-standing relationship with NUFC where a 0-1 defeat at home has been positively a victory! In fact, my dad started the game against Man U. this year by saying anything less that 0-7 would count as a win. Chill out D.D., it’s just one game!
(and, p.s. D.D. – the defence are backing off – the chunky looking defender in white (2.46) is walking towards you. Take a touch – bring it into the box, and either shoot from close range, or pass it, low, into the ‘corridor of uncertainly’. Easy. To the victor go the spoils.)
p.p.s. even if it goes in, it’s only going to be 1-1.
Anyway. Drawing to a close here now. I’m just going to enjoy this one. For anyone who hasn’t heard the rest of the album, I recommend getting it. I bought it from Amazon in the Greenwich University common room when I was doing a PGCE. I had turn the screen towards the wall and complete the transaction quickly, like I was ashamed. If I had known then what I know now of ‘The High Road’, I would have advertised the fact that I was buying it. It really is one of my favourite albums of all time. Usually pop albums have ‘the singles’ and ‘the dross’. But there are a number of album tracks on this album that are superlative. Among the highlights are ‘Anything’, with its sample of Africa by Toto, ‘Good Ol’’ With its squeltchy synth and dubiously sexual lyrical content (“I know all the back streets, we can take the alleys, there’s no hurry”). But the standout track is ‘Like That’. The vocals are gossamer thin, yet precise. The backing track is an exemplar to all those who lambast the over-perfection of digital recording and computer software interference with the ‘human’ elements of a song, that these things can be beautiful and sensitive and artistic and deeply creative. The subtlety of the soundworld in ‘Like That’ like no other pop song I have heard. But I’m not supposed to be talking about that song.
Jojo: “It’s just disrespectful, David”
D.D.: Lurg iwuzjustalkinduerr. yunoiluvyu
Jojo: It’s about what you do, not what you say
D.D.: Alridezoldup Iavzumthinforyu Ahwanchudubeethereonzadurdeh
That absolutely false bit of dialogue aside, this tune is FAR from wearing thin on me.I am close to calling it perfect. Fuck it, it is perfect. Every time I listen to it, I pick out something new. This time it’s the bass line. There is one obvious moment where it breaks through to the surface at around 1.39, immediately before verse two starts. But aside from that it is just there- like so much in the song – providing such depth. Actually, much of the music is unobtrusively ‘there’ – so much of the soundscape is given over to the vocals. But there is space within the track. Maybe because of the ‘human’ element in the song, the precise, clinical execution of the backing track is negated (or at least eased slightly). There is space enough in this song – the dynamic ranges are pretty wide; it allows you time to rest and think (that glorious middle 8 again) – it gives you a chance to put yourself into the song – it doesn’t bludgeon you with sound like so much pop music does; one of the side-effects of having an almost limitless number of tracks to fill and sounds to fill them with, is the tendency to over-produce to over-egg the pudding and consequently leave the listener a bit shell-shocked after listening. Actually, you don’t give them the time to think throughout the song. That is what too little too late does well; it allows you to think throughout it.
What have I learnt from this preliminary experiment? That great songs like this allow you to listen closely – to concentrate on the constituent parts, to peer intently at the minute subtleties and grains of brilliance – or you can take a step back, regard the thing as a whole, and allow it to wash over you. There are so many elements in this song worthy of concentrated listening – the lyrics, the vocals (just the backing vocals), the production, the musical sounds, the structure – each time, something new catches my attention. But then other times, I just allow myself to be swept along by it. It has such an urgency sometimes, somehow liquid. It reminds me of waves and currents and tides. It has a self-contained arc that can be enjoyed, like the best films, in and of itself.