I’ll be your whatever you want
There is a pretty good case to be made that Cannonball by The Breeders was the best single of 1993. I think you could even make a case that it was the best single of the whole decade. If it happened to be someone’s favourite single ever I don’t think I’d be that surprised.
I’m reluctant to start comparing it to other singles from 1993, or from the nineties, or from any time ever, as it seems a bit of a worthless pursuit. I like the idea of lists and ranking favourites, at least in principle, but find that in practice it is a little futile. You can never really reach a satisfying conclusion with such an exercise, which I guess is the great argument for and the great argument against lists/ranking exercises/halls of fame etc. There were probably more culturally important singles. Depending on your taste, there were probably singles that you just enjoyed more. I know my tastes change regularly, so any list I produced would be redundant almost immediately.
But anyway, back to the song. And why it works. Now, I’m a little wary of peeking under the bonnet/hood too much in case it ruins the song somehow. And there is the old writing about music/dancing about architecture argument I’ve seen attributed to many different people (mainly musicians, unsurprisingly), that sometimes raises a smile, but doesn’t really withstand much scrutiny, but does sow a few seeds of doubt. How do you write about a great song?
Ah, the delayed start. Frustrating at the time, but something that when executed well (not here, I know) makes sense further down the line. Perhaps something about delayed gratification. Perhaps something with less icky connotations.
I’ll tell you a song with a great delayed start. Perhaps the best. Cannonball by The Breeders. Feedback. Distorted voices, soundchecking maybe. A strange chant. Some clicks on the drumkit. The bass riff, but in the wrong key. Then, finally, the bass riff in the right key and away we go. How confident do you have to be to play around like that for 20-30 seconds before even getting started? You have to know that the song you’re about to start is worth the wait. Or maybe you just don’t care. If people aren’t willing to wait, then that is their loss.
Cannonball is one the coolest songs ever. And it is cool because it doesn’t sound like it is trying to be. Studied cool isn’t cool. Nobody openly tried to be cool and succeeded. Cool just is.
That is not to say that the song is sloppy, or unplanned, or laid-back. It has the perfect balance between control, and controlled chaos (a dumb term and any smarter ones would be very welcome in the comments, folks). It is controlled in the sense that it waits before it pounces, for the start, for the chorus, for each and every hook that is precise, memorable, and complementary to the hook that came before it. The playing is tight (another dumb, horrible term, but without getting too muso-y, this is one well-drilled band here). Cool is being in control, perhaps.
And yet, there are bursts of chaos, grit in the oyster. The beginning. The odd shouts in verses, and bursts of distortion, the LOUDness before each chorus. Each of these is deployed with precision, adding to the song but not distracting from it. There’s a lot going on, but the song doesn’t draw attention to there being a lot going on. It is neat, not messy, but not in a fussy way. Cool is putting the work in, but making it look effortless, maybe.
And then it just stops, without any real big play-out. Like every great single it makes you want to listen to it all over again. Like every great single it makes you feel good, makes you feel cool. Although, of course, we are not cool. We just like a cool song.