I don't think it's controversial to say Umbrella is good - it was a gigantic hit - but it's weitd nobody seems to talk about what makes it that good.
A lot of commentary was just along the lines of "Ella Ella what a simple hook", but there's so much going on musically! Without all that, the "Ella" wouldn't hit nearly as hard.
First of all, there's two distinct chord progressions, in Bb minor. But both progressions imply Db major (the relative major) in the first half! So every phrase is essentially a bait-and-switch in mood. All the lyrics about devotion could be just sunshine and rainbows, but no - there's a darker, more serious side to it, because that's just how deep the lovers' connection goes.
One progression goes VI - III - VII - i (Gb, Db, Ab, Bbm) This is the one that everyone remembers and gets posted on most guitar tab sites. It only actually appears some way into the song - I think it's the first round of "Ella"s? - but it's incredibly catchy, satisfying, classic. Still - you'd probably confuse it for a "happy" progression if the melody didn't land on the same note as the minor chord at the end, which adds so much in an instant
But then there's the VI - VII - v/V - i. It's dark, and feels like it's always building tension, almost like a Shepherd tone! The core of it, the VI - VII - i chord progression was crazy popular in the 2010s (like in Midnight City or Starships), but the way that dominant chord (v, which is an F) is thrown into the mix builds crazy amounts of tension. At first it's just a short root note (verse one), implying that it's a standard dominant. Dominant chords always want to return home, to the root note of the key, so that already generates a lot of pull. But later, entire choruses/post-choruses use the progression with an F major - swapping the Ab out for an A, which isn't even in the song's key of Bb minor. This builds the tension even higher, demanding with every note to return emphatically to that home of Bb minor. Like the lover, the chord physically wants to always run "home"
You don't see this online because lot of chord sites get it wrong and forget that these two progressions alternate - but that's the whole magic of the song. It gives you so much pop sugar, but makes you wait for it, building tension with rich bitterness and endless climbing motions.
And there's more odd details:
The verse melody starts on an F over Gb in the bass - big stumbling block for singing it, instantly building tension with that major seventh interval
the bass synth sometimes suddenly starts playing a riff of D - Eb - F over that home Bb minor chord. I don't think I've heard Picardy thirds passing by so casually in pop, and it still lands so emphatically
And even the bridge is so clever, I can almost forgive the shitty keyboard sound. It starts on B major - a bII chord that has to be borrowed, because again, this chord isn't in Bb minor! Even better, it's the dominant chord to Gb major, which has started every other chord progression. Bridges are supposed to take you out of the song on a brief escape - sometimes they totally change key, sometimes they're just played differently, but Umbrella generates that respite in an instant with just one chord. And finally, the bridge ends on the major dominant chord - F major - but with an added 7 (like in Twist & Shout) mirrored in Rihanna's spectacular vocal run, building the tension to unbearable levels. And then the next chorus doesn't even use the more satisfying chord progression, it sticks with the tense one until the final "Ella"s roll around. Perfect use of never giving the listener too much of what they want, to make every sweet moment feel as intense as it can.
Also, people have commented plenty on the lyrics: how they all fit a theme, sound phonetically pleasing, and emphasise words that spell out devotion in all the right places. But I feel like all that can still go wrong, and Umbrella staves it off by using the words rhythmically too. The chorus is wordy, like the singer is unable to contain all these thoughts spilling out, all in catchy rhythmic brackets, finally leading into the "Ella Ella" hook. The simplicity of the hook is earned because the chorus gave us actual substance of the song.
I'm not even really a big Top 40 fan - I like what I like, but don't really feel the urge to engage with it most of the time. But when songwriting is as clever and detail-focused as this, it deserves a lot more appreciation than just talking about the cherry on top.
To me Richard Dawson is one of the best and most interesting and musicians around at the moment.
I think his music could be described "kind of folk?" He does, after all, sing a song about a "poor old horse". But Dawson doesn't really fit into that tradition. His influences are a lot more eclectic (and a lot more metal).
He's just released a new album, The Ruby Cord. I'm going to talk a little about that, along with his previous album 2020 (released in 2019).
I'm mostly going to talk about lyrics here, and their interplay with the music, as I'm a bit more able to discuss them than the music alone.
Dawson's last three solo albums have been moving forward in time. Peasant was set in a medieval village populated by a weaver, an ogre, a soldier, a faerie child. 2020 was a state-of-the-nation album, from a civil servant recoiling from a heartless benefits policy to pub owners dealing with a flood. The Ruby Cord looks to a mysterious future England, where a hermit trades crayfish for ocular upgrades, or a museum welcomes its first visitor in 1200 years.
A distinctive feature of Dawson's lyrics that I want to focus on here is that they tend to be very specific in their details. Not for him universal statements or metaphors. His songs are usually from the point of view of a particular character. This kind of detail gives them realism, but somehow rather than making them mundane it adds to the poetry of the songs.
I don't entirely understand how this works, but I'm going to try and explain it a bit, and generally let out some of my appreciation.
Even Dawson's voice is very distinct, with a high pitch and a distinct Newcastle accent that suggests a particular place for many songs. I've also heard him talk about how he thinks it's more interesting to vary the tune and meter of lines, something that discourages the use of repeated or generic formulas and enables him to write what he wants and then fit it into the music.
There's an exchange in the film Lady Bird where the main character objects to the idea she loves her town, saying she just pays attention, prompting the reply "Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
I think of that when I listen to Richard Dawson. Whether it's the people around him or the country around him, he gives it attention and care in his songs. The Hermit awakes to a new awareness of the life surrounding him, examining the eye of a miner bee - into the ommatidia, the tiny hexagons of the compound eye - then cataloguing the fungi nearby.
We've seen a huge wave in hyper-produced electronic music over the past few years, like hyperpop, cloudrap, electronic glitchy stuff of 2021-2022 like "dariacore" that mixes heavy plunderphonics with pulverizing mash ups and electronic glitch
variations of breakcore and other bitcrushed, fast paced music like “depressive breakcore” and “hexD,” crushed trap etc.
There's been a revival of Skramz from the early 90s, with bands that defined the genre making a comeback to play alongside new artists
A continuation of Avant-jazz like Black Midi and Black Country New Road
There's also a movement for genre and identity defiance via genre in general
What else defines this year in innovative music??
Listening to Deftones is like... Strange... One minute you could have the energy and confidence to tell that girl you like her, the next you can be balled up on the floor crying thinking about the past. Its truly amazing. No band I listen to has evoked this feeling from me. It's like feeling a high when I listen to Deftones. And the way Chino whispers or screams into the mic, and the way Chi plays his guitar so beautifuly, its like Chi and Chino are communicating in a different language. I'm yet to find a band that comes even CLOSE to this feeling.