Songs That Know How to End, Part 1

Sometimes the final note says it all.

Peter Fenzel: On a recent podcast, we talked a bunch about “Don’t Stop Believing” as a song that, both content-wise and musically, resists satisfaction and resolution. And we talked about how so many popular songs end in a fade or don’t resolve—because “music isn’t about finishing music”—but also because I suppose a lot of them are meant to be played one after the other on the radio without signifying an end to your listening session.

So, the question was posited: what is a song that ends? And we mean this in every sense—harmonically, narratively perhaps, in meaning and theme and content—that arrives at satisfaction and resolution as it concludes.

Jordan Stokes: The definitive example is probably The Beatles “The End,” which is sort of revealing, in that it is shows McCartney trying very hard, just for a minute there, not to write pop music.

The Abbey Road B-Side suite is about a lot of stuff, I’m sure, but one of the things it’s about is working out some kind of Freudian anxiety towards classical music. Big, elaborate, multi-sectional form is one of the things that classical music does well. So here’s Paul saying, “Look, I can do this too, we are proper musicians.”

Another thing that classical music does relatively well is endings. So if Paul wants to play the art music game, he needs to have an ending… and he makes a great one!

But if you just listen to it on its own, without listening to the rest of the suite, it’s a pretty bonkers track. Like, it barely even qualifies as a song. (In that sense, I guess it’s actually a pretty bad answer to this question.)

Fenzel: So, as you mentioned, in some kinds of music, things do end reasonably often and well, and in others, less so. You already set classical music aside, and I’m tempted to exclude country and folk music as well, even when it’s popular, just because maybe they participate less in the phenomenon we’re talking about. Country and folk tend to “end” a lot, but they can feel pretty unsatisfying when they do it. Maybe it’s that so many of the songs don’t venture far enough from the root to achieve much of a place to come home from? Stokes, you would know better than I do.

But consider “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a song we discussed at great length in 2012.]

I find it interesting because the end of the song is a repetition of the chorus of the sort you hear a lot on the radio. But it doesn’t fade out; it actually does stop, and the place where it stops seems like a reasonable place. On the other hand, it hits reasonable places to stop a lot, so maybe it’s not notable enough that it stops at any one of them.

I bring it up because content-wise, it’s interesting, as “there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealin’s done” of course refers to death. So each time the chorus repeats, and it does a lot, it’s sort of saying “at some point you’ll die.” But, from a “temporal reading” standpoint, the words “the dealin’s done” end each chorus on its own, and by itself that says “you’re dead.”

The end of “The Gambler” is thus a kind of horrific situation, as it seems you can repeat the chorus an infinite number of times, as long as you start the next chorus immediately. But as soon as you stop repeating, the song is over, and you die. So that’s an interesting finish. But I’m not sure it’s what we’re looking for.

John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a similar sort of song, in that there’s a clear syntax to the form. Each “country roads, take me home… …take me home, country roads” run is a little country road, that goes around and up and back down, and then home again. Very pumpkin-spice latte folk rock, it seems to me.

But it ends like ten times. And that’s both the comfort and the problem: there might be a lot of country roads, and they may go a long distance, and you may see some sights, but at the end of the day a lot of them are the same and kind of boring.

Stokes: I like how you’re like, “we should probably exclude country” (immediately analyzes two country songs).

These are both really interesting examples. I feel like the Kenny Rogers one sort of sets up your Grand Theory of pop music endings, which is that they are all about death. Because, sure, in this case the lyrics are actually about dying, but the analysis that you set up — where you can happily repeat the chorus forever as long as you never stop repeating the chorus — applies to pretty much any song you can name. I really like that reading, though. Maybe it’s a little overdetermined, but all the most interesting theories are. It reminds me of the notion that, in visual art, still life paintings are always about death, because you either paint skulls, which are dead, or fruit, which will be dead.

The song that I want to put it in dialogue with, since we’re talking about country, is Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

This isn’t a song that ends in the way that you probably mean: if you skip right to the end, you’ll find that it sort of trails off (although it’s not quite the standard fade-and-repeat, either). Lyrically, too, it goes nowhere. Unlike “The Gambler,” which tells a coherent little story over the course of its five verses and four choruses, “I Walk The Line” pretty much keeps repeating the same idea in different words, over and over again. So it seems like a classic case of a song that goes nowhere.

But the music! “I Walk The Line” has a weeeeeeeeiiiiirrd formal/harmonic structure. Each verse in itself is pretty simple, but he modulates at the end of every verse. And right off the bat, there’s something weird about it, because he’s modulating down. This isn’t a thing in pop music. Like at all. You modulate up so you can sing it higher and more intense. So the first verse is in F#, the second verse modulates down to B. The third verse does modulate up, but only to E — not quite as high as the song started out. Then the fourth verse drops back to B again, and the fifth takes us back to F#. Harmonically, it’s a palindrome. Which feels again static and circular… except that there’s more going on here than harmony.

So quick sidebar: we talk about modulating up and down, but actually it doesn’t work that way. Tonal space loops back onto itself like the map in Pacman. Keys have no relative “height.” But actual sounding music does move up and down… and crucially, when Cash closes out the song with that B->F# key change, he moves down. At the start of the song, he moved down from F# to B. So rather than reversing that motion and ending up where he started, he drops down still further, and ends up singing an octave below where he began.

The lowest register of Johnny Cash’s voice is a magical thing. It has this sublimely resigned, almost defeated quality, even when he’s singing lyrics that ought to be happy (let alone when he gets into his apocalyptic mode). Any song that starts off with Johnny Cash singing his high notes and ends up with him singing his low notes has gone on quite a trip.

But this one implies an even further trip. The song started out high, and has been see-sawing erratically down, down, down… it ends with that weird droning hum that Cash uses as a lead-in to every verse of the song, so you get the feeling that if the song continued, we’d just get another verse… and with that another modulation. But although the circle of fifths runs on forever, Johnny Cash is emphatically NOT going to be able to do that. This is the bottom of his voice! It doesn’t go any further down than this!

So if “The Gambler” ends with a situation where you’d be fine if you could just keep repeating the chorus forever, “I Walk The Line” ends in a situation where you absolutely CANNOT keep going any further than you actually do!

And yet the lyrics swear up and down that this is not the case. He promises over and over again, in as many ways as he can, that he’s going to keep on singing this song forever. And the end of the song gets nearer and nearer, and his voice gets lower and lower… “For you I’d even try to turn the tide.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment… tide ain’t gonna turn, though. And you hear that in the weary, leathery chiaroscuro of Johnny Cash’s low notes.

Next week in Part 2, we go from the Man in Black to the men in flannel, Alice In Chains.

2 Comments on “Songs That Know How to End, Part 1”

  1. clayschuldt #

    So you’re going to mention “American Pie” in part 2 right? I mean, that song ends after telling a story and the last line is “this will be the day that I die.” Low hanging fruit, but please pluck that


    • Joey Headset #

      I’ll have to take your word that American Pie actually ends. I’ve never made it past the 7 minute mark on that mess.


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