While The Chills may be remembered more prominently, The Clean recorded arguably the best song to come out of the Dunedin Sound movement. Jangly, but not precious, slacking, but not underachieving, Anything Could Happen is as impossibly simple as it is catchy. Hamish Kilgour is playing the drums like he’s trying to stay awake. Peter Guttridge sounds like he learned the bass yesterday. It’s the roguish charm of David Kilgour that propels the track. His woozy delivery of downright Dylan-esque lyrics and laid back 60s-style strumming catapult the song into all-time classic territory. Not a moment is misplaced in the surreal pop masterpiece whose ripples can still be felt decades later in lo-fi records recorded around the world.
Not all perfect pieces are rousing, high energy works. Franz Ferdinand hit the spot with a heartfelt apology over trepidation at taking the next step. “I stand on the horizon/I want to step across it with with/But when the sun is this low everything’s cold on the line of the horizon,” Alex Kapranos half croons, before the song takes an unexpected turn into disco funk territory. But Kapranos’s solemn vocals keep things anchored, turning some of the angular edges soft. It’s a surprisingly effective work of incongruity. Eventually it gives way to a dreamy, rolling coda that sees the crooning fall away to a gentle coo. “Oh, the North Sea sings, won’t you come to me baby? Won’t you come to me?” It’s repeated over and over again, turning hypnotic before erupting in a joyous splendour. Finally the music drops away completely, leaving only those same words, which have grown from regretful pleading to confidently romantic. It’s a swelling, transformative song that never forgets its groove.
From an absurdly young age, Supergrass began churning out rock songs so good it was like they’d existed forever. Though associated with Britpop, they were always a band a bit out of time. Early hit Alright feels like it could have barreled straight out of the 60s, while 1999’s Pumping on Your Stereo is a glam rock thumper with swagger to spare. “Life is a cigarette you smoke to the end/But if you rocket the middle bit, oh you’ll burn all your friends,” sneers Gaz Coombes, battering down the door to the song. For a trio, the band achieve a positively massive sound. It’s a full-on party complete with clapping over the backbeat, infectious secondary vocals and self-congratulatory applause to close the whole thing out. Giddy enthusiasm spills over into every corner of the track. It’s a stomping instant classic that leaves even the most cold-hearted skeptic powerless in resisting the Supergrass groove.
Paul Simon is one of the rare artists that spent a career releasing perfect songs. He produced plenty of formidable works while performing in Simon & Garfunkel, but his first true faultless effort as a solo artist was Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. Before Kodachrome, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, and the impossible brilliance of Graceland, came this frothy snippet about getting in trouble for unspecified mischievous deeds. The lyrics are brilliantly vague and specific at the same time, producing a grandly exciting tale of goofing off and getting bailed out, while leaving the details fuzzy enough to create an enduring mystery. The frivolous story is a perfect match for the effervescent instrumentation. With an instantly identifiable guitar intro, and the ever-present hiccup of the cuíca, the song’s sound is as distinctive as it is enchanting. Add to that the greatest whistle solo of all time and a rousing “Whoa-oh!” that kicks into the final verse and you’re left with one of the most jubilant songs ever put to tape.
It’s hard enough to write a good song, but some artists are able to produce a track of undeniable perfection. Robyn’s Call Your Girlfriend is one such masterpiece. One of the greatest pieces of pure pop ever recorded, it’s a pulsing, joyous electro track. The lyrics are a surprising mirror to single Dancing on My Own, which was released just under a year before. No longer the spurned lover watching her boyfriend betray her, Robyn is now on the other side of the equation, expressing titanic empathy for the girl that’s getting left behind. “Call your girlfriend/It’s time you had the talk/Give your reasons/Say it’s not her fault,” she implores. It’s a display of almost unimaginable compassion as she tries to talk to her boyfriend into helping his girl through their breakup. She reassures him “It won’t makes sense right now but you’re still her friend/And you let her down easy.” But aside from being the soundest advice around for how to end a relationship, the song is also thrillingly catchy and totally exhilarating. Anchored by a simple, pumped up boom chick beat, the song is overflowing with chirping, bubbly synths, but never is a garish way. It knows when to breathe and when to push, rising and falling in an irresistible cadence to make an explosively satisfying track that achieves the pinnacle of dance perfection.
Sometimes the goodbye is the thing itself. In Townes Van Zandt’s heartbreaking Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel, the farewell isn’t about starting a new adventure or being forced to leave your love behind. Instead, the goal is the goodbye. Something bad’s been going on for far too long and it needs to end definitively. Van Zandt’s voice is strong but calm as he tells the tale of breaking free from a woman who’s using him. It’s a tug-of-war, describing power plays and moments of manipulation on the way to independence. “How long will it be before he sees/That you own his legs but his mind is free?” he asks, while nearing the door. The song is somewhat of a departure for Van Zandt, lyrically defiant and direct. It’s also one of the fews songs in his catalogue to employ drums, with a gently rolling beat making itself known almost exclusively in the chorus. Even though they’re upbeat, they give heft to his words, a richly rendered series of parables and accusations. It’s all working up to the final goodbye, with Van Zandt practically daring her to care: “I ain’t gonna try to make you cry/The teardrops couldn’t find your eyes/It’s all been swell, Miss Carousel/The time has come for leaving.” There’s not much satisfaction to be had from the situation, but he proudly takes what he can, slamming the door on the ugly chapter and striding away with his dignity.
Not all goodbyes come with a dose of sadness. Montt Mardié’s Set Sail Tomorrow is a playful bon voyage that has no room for regret or apology. He sets plans in motion to skip town tomorrow, leaving behind the depressing monotony of his current life for the grand adventure of somewhere new. He doesn’t even know where he’s headed (options include Paris, Tokyo and the South Pacific), only that a change of scenery is the only thing that can save him. As he relates his plans to a friend, he wistfully assures that “Goodbye, it doesn’t mean forever/I’m just longing for palm trees/And for something to matter.” His tone is defiantly hopeful, confident in the possibilities that lie ahead. These possibilities are reflected in the sprightly orchestration, flitting around from a stately trumpet to a soft jazz clarinet, each instrument seeming to represent a different option in front of him. It’s a triumphant declaration that makes the choice to leave sound easy as he prepares to set out on a journey of self-discovery.
Aside from her keenly observed lyrical honesty, Laura Marling’s great strength is her wide-ranging emotional delivery. Both talents are clearly on display in one of her most nakedly vulnerable songs, Goodbye England (Covered in Snow). As she weaves the story of leaving a relationship gone sour (or maybe it was always sour, but she was too in love to see), Marling traverses from fragile to fiery, from scared to empowered, with raw candor. Few writers and singers can transition so effortlessly from delicacy to strength, but the whole gamut is gamely on display here. And it’s not a strength in being vulnerable that I’m talking about. Marling has the ability to be don’t-fuck-with-me tough. She doesn’t quite find that level in this song, but she does display admirable resolve in the face of doubt. “I’m on my own/it’s too hard,” she cries, after leaving behind a crumbling relationship, but she knows that she deserves better. She has labored over a kiss-off and knows exactly what she needs to do. “I wrote an epic letter to you/It’s 22 pages front and back and it’s too good to used/I tried to be a girl who likes to be used/But I’m too good for that,” she proclaims. She is buoyed by her friends and family who promise: We will keep you, Little One, safe from harm/Like an extra arm, you are a part of us. Their support gives her the freedom to move on. She begins and ends the song with the same memory of her lover looking “smart” in the snow. The first time around it seems like an image she’s trying to hold onto, but by the end of the song it’s clear she’s finding the courage to release it.
One of the finest songs ever written, Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne is a bit misleading in its title. Instead of a story of two lovers parting, Cohen tells the story of two that can’t quite seem to separate, saying goodbye without meaning it and unable to tear themselves from their relationship. The song is a cyclical story of farewell and renewal, where so long never really means goodbye. Unlike Bob Dylan’s Farewell, which sees the singer wanting to stay but knowing he needs to leave, Cohen attempts to part ways, but always finds himself drawn back. He tells Marianne, “I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spiderweb/is fastening my ankle to a stone.” Meanwhile, she goes from holding onto him like a “crucifix” to leaving when he said he was “curious.” And while the whole affair could turn quite dour, Cohen makes it sound positively romantic with a swaying 3/4 composition that overswells into a grand chorus of girl group backing vocals to contrast his sincere delivery. It’s a song that can completely transform based on your mood, from plaintive to hopeful in an instant. When Cohen delivers the line “We met when we were almost young” I can’t quite decide if it’s one of the saddest or most endearing I’ve ever heard. His voice, like the lyrics, is loaded with emotion without being conspicuous in meaning. It is the final element in the intersection of craft and artistic instinct at which the song stand alone.
Leave it to Bob Dylan to turn a simple farewell based on English folk song into a touching mediation on moving on. At first blush, the song appears to be a traditional about being forced to leave one’s love behind. But much like Boots of Spanish Leather, which Dylan penned around the same time, there is room for more complexity. In that canonical track, Dylan turned the classic farewell story on its head by writing an epistolary beginning before the departure occurs, and ending when it becomes clear that the distance has grown too great. In Farewell, the mournful goodbyes before the journey begin as expected, but it slowly becomes clear that the singer is not truly being forced to go. In fact, they are leaving despite obstacles that might stand in their way. That’s not to say that it isn’t a fraught goodbye, but the way that Dylan expresses the pain reveals what’s going on beneath the surface:
So it’s fare thee well my own true love/We’ll meet another day, another time It ain’t the leavin’ that’s a-grievin’ me/But my darlin’ who’s a bound to stay behind
The singer simply needs to leave, not because there is something wrong with his love, but because sometimes we all simply need to leave to find ourselves. Even though the “weather is against” him and he has no clear destination, even though there is a sadness in saying goodbye, it’s become necessary to go, to discover a new life. And with that necessity, the singer is resigned to the aching task of saying goodbye to his old life. It’s an elegant and heartfelt farewell: an apology, an appeal for goodwill and an expression of love all wrapped into one.