This is a thinkpiece that stemmed from my very recent review of Aaron Watson’s Vaquero. In that review I stated that many people will be quick to criticize the lyrical content for being very basic and rarely ever transcending beyond either love songs or nostalgic songs. I also asked a question in response to that – are the lyrics really even the most essential part of an Aaron Watson record? Especially one where he more than compensated for it by expanding his sound?
It’s a hard question to answer clearly, but it also got me thinking, what are the elements that comprise an artist, song, or album? More importantly, are there are elements that are more an important for an artist to hammer down on as opposed to others? Also, does one need a mastery of every single element to truly be a great artist? I thought about these questions, and today I’m going to try and give you all MY viewpoint. Again, MY viewpoint, not yours, MINE.
In my opinion, I think the basic elements of any song boil down to these three elements:
- Vocals – This is a tough one to really describe. Yes, we all like and/or dislike music at times based on how much we like or dislike an artist’s voice, but it goes further than that. For me, when I’m judging someone’s vocals, I’m looking in terms of power and personality. For example, not everyone has the pipes of a Chris Young or a Randy Houser (although these days they probably have better material than these two), but then you have someone like say, Aaron Watson who often shows a ton of earnest passion or charisma depending on the mood. More on personality, I also recently applauded Jason Eady’s version of “Barabbas” since I thought Eady really brought a certain amount of weight to the song in terms of his vocals. For me, vocals encompass a lot of what I think about an artist’s music, but the important theme of it (and this post) is – it’s not the only element. We also have…
- Production/Instrumentation – I coupled these two since, being the musical dummy that I am, I wasn’t sure how to really differentiate the two. When I think of production I’m often thinking mood, whereas instrumentation helps to bring that mood to life so to speak. For example, one of my favorite moments production wise came last year with Sturgill Simpson’s “Breaker’s Roar”. Sure, you could hear the orchestra at the beginning leading in the song, and the moments of pedal steel throughout were nice, but in terms of production, it really felt like a calming song. How? Well, that’s where I’m at a loss when it comes to these type of things, but really, whenever I heard that song I always imagined sitting on a shore somewhere staring at the sun and just feeling calm, despite the song being darker in its lyrical content (but we’ll get to that later). This really speaks more to producers than it does to singers, but still, there are some artists that have a good chemistry with certain producers. I’ve loved Dave Cobb’s work with the Southern-Rock band Whiskey Myers, and I’ve always been a fan of Jay Joyce’s more experimental production. Again though, it’s not the only element. We also have…
- Lyrics/Themes – Probably the most important element, not for me, but for many of you out there. Usually when I read a review of an artist’s work, I always somehow find mention of the songs and the stories woven within rather than the mood it brings upon you or whether or not the artist in question is able to captivate you with their vocals. They’re the hardest element to master as well, and that’s because we’ve heard some utterly fantastic material over the course of this journey called life. I mean, Jason Isbell, Robbie Fulks, James McMurtry, Jason Eady, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves….the list goes on. These are all artists that do more than write words, they write poetry, even at the expense of any fancy production techniques such as McMurtry’s 2015 album, Complicated Game or Eady’s 2014 album, Daylight & Dark. Sometimes you’re able to combine elements such as lyrics with your production like Brandy Clark’s 2016 album, Big Day in A Small Town. Again, though, it’s not the only element.
Well those are the three elements I consider to be the backbone of any song, and while I’ll never be a connoisseur of music, I can at least have confidence in that. Believe it or not it goes even deeper than that though, mostly because we gravitate towards different elements. Over the course of my life I’ve discovered I gravitate more towards production and instrumentation, probably a reason I love the Infamous Stringdusters and Aaron Watson albums so much, even if the former is also great in the lyrical department. You might always need some hard hitting lyrics to get to you, or maybe you’re just a fan of strong vocalists. Or maybe you’re like me and gravitate towards different elements at different times. Sometimes I’m in the mood for more serious stuff like Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson, and sometimes I’m in the mood for something easier and fun like Cody Johnson or Aaron Watson. Variety is after all, the spice of life.
Another big question that arises when looking at all of these elements (or even elements I hadn’t even considered before) is, “does an artist need to have a mastery of every single element to be the best possible artist?” I would say no. For example, last year an album like Cody Jinks’ I’m Not The Devil was essentially a triple threat in regards to the elements mentioned before. Meanwhile, an album like Al Scorch’s Circle Round The Signs specialized heavily in fast paced rhythms and TONS of fiddle and banjo. I prefer the latter even though the lyrical content isn’t quite as strong, mostly because Al knew what he did best and hammered down on it rather than sacrifice something else just to make an average album.
That’s why in regards to Vaquero I don’t know if it’s a fair criticism to judge the album based on its lyrical content. It may not be our thing, but judging certain artists based on things they’re not built for is like criticizing a bird for not being able to swim. That bird can’t swim, but it’s damn good at flying, just like Aaron Watson is damn good at what he does – making fun music for his fans that’s fun without being stupid like the majority of what you hear on country radio.
So with that said, are there any other elements that comprise an artist, song or album? Well, outside of those 3 basic elements, I would honestly say the last important element is individuality, or rather, what makes an artist truly stand out from the rest of the pack. Artists like Sturgill Simpson and Robbie Fulks operate on the “expect the unexpected” motto when crafting a new album, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lydia Loveless is always going to be full of piss and vinegar, and again, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Individuality is hard to talk about at length, mostly because all you need to say is that you know it when you hear it, and you know why like certain artists consistently.
So is there anything else to it? Let me know in the comments below!