Sunday, October 16, 2011

October 16: Don McLean, "American Pie"

Artist: Don McLean
Song: "American Pie"
Album: American Pie
Year: 1971

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they are without question the most rare of all occurrences within the history of recorded music, there are a handful of singular moments that completely defy every logical and justifiable trend to date.  These elite songs quickly take on a life of their own, and not only do they obscure every other song of the era, but they also tend to eclipse the artist in question as well.  Furthermore, songs that fit into this category have a timeless quality that is far beyond that of other recordings, and they are the few songs that one simply cannot picture not existing.  While such songs can be found across the entire history of music, regardless of genre or time period, each such recording is almost synonymous with the artist that performs it, and the name alone brings the song to mind instantly.  Standing among these very special songs is a performer who "accidentally" found his way in, finding an unsurpassed balance between rock and folk, and the perfection he achieved is even more impressive given the fact that the song in question can be found on Don McLean's second studio album.  While his debut was certainly not a failure, it garnered McLean some attention due to other artists covering the song, but after his second album was released, his name would become nothing short of legendary.  Penning what remains one of the greatest melodies and lyrics ever composed, there is simply no other song in history that carries the same weight as Don McLean's 1971 classic, "American Pie."

While there are a number of riffs and progressions that stand today as unmistakable, the soft, almost unassuming piano piece that opens "American Pie" easily ranks among the greatest, as McLean is able to extract a great deal of blues feeling within the first notes of the song.  It is the fact that he is able to have such a strong mood set into place so quickly that serves as one of the keys to the appeal of "American Pie," as even when the tempo increases, the feeling of lament is never lost.  In many ways, it is the solitude that one can feel in the piano that makes the most impact within the song, as one can picture McLean playing it in a large, empty room, as he uses the medium of music to its fullest, expressing his deepest emotions.  However, later in the song, "American Pie" takes on a far more "modern" feel, as the swing that comes via the acoustic guitar is nothing short of perfect.  On many levels, it is this sway and bounce that is reminiscent of many of the mid-to-late 1950's "pop stars," and this is a fitting tribute when one considers the many "reasons" that the song came into existence.  It is also this more up-tempo approach of the song that prevents "American Pie" from becoming "too down" for wide appeal, and yet it is the sense of melancholy that runs through every instrument that makes the entire musical arrangement stand as absolutely unforgettable more than forty years after it was first released.

Adding to this extraordinary musical perfection, both the vocals and lyrics from McLean are as ideal as one can find anywhere, and one would be hard pressed to find another song that has as universally memorized lyrics.  McLean's voice is strong throughout the track, as he matches the mood of the music over which he is singing, and yet there is a somewhat soothing undertone to his pitch at every turn. It is also through his vocal performance that the blues of "American Pie" are most apparent, as he is clearly letting the music itself dictate the length and emphasis within many of the words, and it is this element which pushes the song to further greatness.  Even when he seems to be singing of celebration, there is a darkness within his voice, and this balance cannot be heard in the work of any other song in history.  However, one would be remiss to not take into account that the lyrics to "American Pie" stand today as some of the most treasured of all time, and yet one can interpret many of the words in a number of different ways.  While it is well-known that the opening verse was written in reference to when McLean learned of the death of Buddy Holly, one can find reflections of other historic events within the remainder of the song.  Yet while these words certainly echo significant moments in the years leading up to the recording of "American Pie," they can also be seen as more philosophical musings, and the multiple ways that one can read the lyrics serves as the final element which makes the song truly extraordinary.

When one looks all across the long history of recorded music, there is no question that "American Pie" rises quickly to the top, as it easily stands as one of the most important songs ever captured on tape.  From the way in which Don McLean blends together folk, rock and blues to the overall tone of the song to the words themselves, this sort of musical perfection and impact is beyond a rare achievement, and this is much the reason that it remains one of the longest songs (in terms of length) to still receive widespread, regular radio airplay.  The song has also been covered countless times, with a handful of performers releasing their own studio versions and finding moderate chart success.  However, there is no question that even with the myriad of later covers, it is the Don McLean version which stands high above all others, as there is an endearing, timeless nature to his voice as well as the orchestration over which he sings.  Furthermore, while "American Pie" is almost overflowing with references and imagery, the fact that it can be enjoyed just the same if one knows nothing of the "true meaning" behind the words is the final testament to what a spectacular song McLean recorded.  Quite literally every element of the song is perfect, and it stands as one of the few recordings in history that can easily appeal to fans of almost any style of music.  Whether it is due to its historical significance or simply the sheer beauty of the musical form, there is no other song in history that can measure up to the pure genius found within Don McLean's monumental 1971 recording, "American Pie."

1 comment:

ngcummins said...

Thank you! "American Pie" was fabulous in 1971 and still is today.