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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Radiohead "Subterranean Homesick Alien" Song Analysis

Reader Mark Jay asked for a song analysis of Radiohead's "Subterranean Homesick Alien," so here it is. The song comes from the band's breakthrough 1997 album OK Computer, which has sold more than 4.5 million copies to date. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song's form, it's arrangement, the sound and production.

The Song
As you'd expect from an experimental band like Radiohead, "Subterranean Homesick Alien" has a fairly interesting form. It doesn't have a traditional chorus (although it does have one) and has no real bridge, but the sections that it does have work well together. They look like this:

Intro, Verse, Interlude, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Verse, Interlude, Verse, 1/2 verse (which could be termed a bridge), Chorus, Interlude, Ending

Unlike so many songs that end in a fade, SHA has a definite ending and it's a beauty as the changes are nothing like you'd expect. Very cool.

The Arrangement
There are a lot of layers in this song, but they weave in and out and generally never play against one another, which is the sign of a great arrangement. The song is really built around a stereo electric piano, but there are a lot of guitar parts that appear in every section, sometimes only for a phrase. The breakout of the arrangement looks like this:

  * The Foundation: the bass and drums

  * The Rhythm: the drums and a very subtle shaker

  * The Pad: electric piano

  * The Lead: the vocal

  *The Fills: guitars and sometimes electric piano

The Sound
British mixers have a way of layering effects that American mixers don't seem to grasp and SHA is a good example. By just listening to the mix you can hear all the parts layered almost like you'd hear them on stage. The vocal isn't dry, but it's the dryest part in the mix and as such seems up front with the drums and bass slightly behind. The piano is furthest back with a combination of a long reverb and a timed delay.

The song uses the stereo soundfield well as many of the guitars and the piano pan back and forth from left to right, sometimes with the dryer part on one side and just the effect on the other.

The drum sound is unusual in that the hat is very bright (it almost sounds over-EQed) and the toms somewhat back in the mix compared to the rest of the kit. Also, the bass part is a little on the woofy side and not that well defined, but when you put them together, they work in the song, which is what counts in the end.

The Production
There are a number of very cool things about this production. First of all, the use of stereo to keep the mix interesting, and the number of guitars parts that weave in and out of the song (I stopped counting at 12). Of course the performances are all great, which is something that you'd expect from a band of this caliber with no deadline for finishing the album. All in all, an enjoyable listen.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bobby - thanks for that. This has always been a personal favorite of mine - I encourage the readers to check out this track sometime - especially if from CD / non-lossy format; it really is a lush and rich mix that (to me, anyway) sounds just as good in headphones as it does on a nice pair of speakers. Thanks again for your analysis. - Mark A. Jay


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