Welcome to a new feature on the blog, “A Moment in Song”, where I analyze some of my favourite moments in some of my favourite songs. Music can work on many levels, with the best songs featuring a combination of lyrical content, musical arrangement, tempo, vocal stylings, and just a little bit of magic to create something memorable. But sometimes within a song is one transcendent moment that stands out, a moment that hits you the first time you hear it and every moment after that. That moment may only be seconds long, but it’s what you always remember when you think of the song. This feature focuses on such moments to try and highlight all the little things that make music such a special experience.
The Song: “Fake Empire” by The National from Boxer LP (2007)
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The lead off track to my number two album of the last decade, “Fake Empire” is easily one of my all-time favourite songs. Peter Katis’ sparse production is a perfect match for Matt Berninger’s baritone, with lyrics that work both as an example of dreamy romanticism and a quiet condemnation of American imperialism. The best aspect of the band is the way Berninger’s deep voice can fill a room with minimal effort, an aspect that’s never been put to better use than with this track. Bryce Dessner wrote the track, built around a simple tempo that slowly and confidently builds throughout. The production works so well that the Obama campaign ended up using an instrumental version of the song, which seems like an odd choice for someone looking to become president given the title and subject matter.
The Moment: 1:31-1:43
For my second choice in this series, I wanted to highlight a non-lyrical moment. Yes, lyrics tend to be the moments that stand out in music most often (or more to the point, how those lyrics are delivered), but this isn’t called “Lyrical Moments” – this is about the moments in songs that stand out and push them over the top. Interestingly, for a song that goes out of its way to highlight Berninger’s voice, its standout moment is turned over to the instrumentation. The song starts with nothing but a solitary guitar swell, simple piano chords, and the hiss of an old cassette to back Berninger, as his voice echoes amidst the seemingly empty production. This carries on for the first two verses and chorus refrains, until just after the second chorus, when a light tapping of the kick drum signals drummer Bryan Devendorf’s entry into the song.
Then the moment comes: the piano tempo changes up, moving from the deceptively jangly movement of the first minute and a half to more plaintiff single key strokes that give way to a couple of simple snare drum rolls. The first roll causes a bit of start, forcing you to notice the percussion that’s been missing. The second, a little more authoritative; the third seemingly establishing the new tempo. But then Devendorf adds a tom tom roll at 1:40 and changes everything you thought you knew about the song up until that point. This isn’t going to be a sleepy intro; the rhythm section has arrived to shake things up.
It’s an incredible simple move, bringing in percussion to switch up tempos after the song is well under way, but incredibly effective all the same. By the time the drums are done announcing their presence and Berninger returns with his third and final verse, I’m typically awash in goosebumps throughout my body. The drums and the piano then compete for attention for the next part of the track, creating in intriguing tension that seeks to shake the listener out of the feeling of being “half awake in a fake empire”.
The song later replicates its trick of changing tempo post-chorus at the 2:35 mark, when Padma Newsome’s horn fanfare comes in to close the track out. You could argue that this is Fake Empire’s finest moment, as it brilliantly caps the song’s transition from cozy ballad to triumphant barn-burner. With the horns (which were a late addition to the song), the narrator’s general apathy over the problems of the world are at least partially condemned, with the brass section providing the urgency the narrator can’t seem to muster. But as great as the final horn section is, the song was already made for me in the earlier tempo shift. Once you’re already blown away, later moments can only hope to keep you aloft.