How Does “1901” Work?

The album version of 1901 is the first song I played on my Macbook. There’s a simple reason, which is that no other song at hand offered such sure-thing, beautiful, high-energy opening bars. The song’s already perfect before there’s even a hint that anyone’s voice will be joining the instruments, and while the lyrics and the melody have their charms, everything important is in that first half-minute.

What greets you before anything else are two sounds: a high-pitched guitar line and a restrained tamborine-shake. Then, barely a second later, there are two of my favorite sounds ever: a distorted, fuzzed-beyond-recognition digital buzz, which grabs your attention more than anything else on the track; and a quick set of pinging, artificial mallet hits floating high in the mix.

Taking it from there, briefly: about twelve seconds later, the drums kick in, taking over for the tamborine. Once the singing begins, a lot of this drops out, and there’s just the buzz and the drums; then four lines later, the guitar strum is back. As the first part of the chorus begins with “it’s twenty seconds ’till the last call,” there’s a new, warm guitar line, alternating with a second, and the drums in full effect; the buzz makes an exit. Then, before the last line prior to “fold it, fold it, fold it…” there’s a new, rising synth part, with stays there throughout the repeated “fold it”; the buzz returns for that, along with the mallet hits. The second verse and second chorus play out the same way; the last fifteen seconds pair a drum and a guitar on a new outro part.

The reason this all matters is very simple: with the exception of “It’s twenty seconds ’till the last call” until that last line before “Fold it,” and that brief outro, there isn’t a part of this beautiful song without at least one of its three distinctly digital elements: the buzz, the mallet hits, or that synth. And while the buzz and the mallets are the only parts that clearly have heavy filters, even the guitars are electric, and polished to sound crisply digital. It’s a song where the most distinctive elements, and overall aesthetic, are as computerized as it gets for guitar-based rock.

Now, listen to the near-acoustic live performance embedded up top. The changes aren’t much, in formal terms: the song starts twelve seconds later than the album version, excising the part with the tamborine; the drum-role is pared down and simplified to the basic rhythms they can get on location, sounding like a beatbox; the guitars are acoustic, rather than electric. Only two key elements depart entirely: that warm synth that accompanied “fold it,” and the resonating mallet hits.

Yet what matters more than any of that is the translation of the buzz, which goes from a distorted, insistent, dominant element–the track’s calling-card, what grabs your attention from the start–to a low-volume accenting strum. Live it’s an accessory, rather than the lead.

That buzz-sound is why I return to “1901” over and over, why I felt it was appropriate to hear as the first sound out of my new computer, why I’ll go to bat saying this is one of the best alternative-rock songs of the last five years. More than that, here’s a song where the entire presentation relies on using digital effects to define and fuse together its elements, at its best and most crisp when its sounds are most artificial.

And yet Phoenix strip the most distinctive element in the track of all its character, and move the entire digital-infused song to a place where the rules of the studio don’t apply and the key effects aren’t accessible–and the song remains a joy to take in. They’re on location in a square near the Eiffel Tower, and the song holds up, and holds its own, in every way. Like TV On The Radio putting out entire albums where they bury Tunde Adebimpe’s unbeatable voice low in the mix, sometimes there’s so much good going on in a musical approach that what you think matters most of all turns out to be completely dispensable.

Why, and how? Wish I knew. But it’s a hell of a thing to hear demonstrated, and more power to any band that can make it happen.

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