I recently finished a novel, The Killer Angels, whose prose could be charitably described as straightforward and strong. You could also call it basic, unassuming, or dull, depending on your tastes in literature. It’s a book about a tough subject – war – and while it isn’t Hemingway, it’s fairly restrained in its descriptions and retellings, much to its benefit.
I’ve been an avid reader my entire life. I’ve read many books; books that have ran the gamut in sensibility from high to low. I’ve been challenged, engrossed, and upset by the pages I’ve buried my face in over the years. I’m also cognizant of how my tastes have evolved. If I had picked this book up a few years back, I would have likely been unmoved and bored and would’ve tossed it away in short order. I liked my writing flowery, with pages rich in vocabulary and overflowing in detail. But my tastes have shifted. Now I have an appreciation for the minimal.
Many creators have put together great works that are nearly overflowing with ideas. Even more creators put together works that are truly overflowing with ideas. Great writing, like great music, can be maximalist in nature. A surplus of voices, the implementation of multiple stylistic conventions, and tonal shifts galore can all add up to an ebullient masterwork. Or they can lead to a muddled product that will not engage anyone aside from the composer. Dazzle all you want with your technical prowess. But if no one’s connecting to your art, then you’re just getting high on your own supply.
What then is the case for small gestures and restraint? What it boils down to is this: there’s a great deal of power in the unsaid. What better way to make something stand out by making it the only something? Compelling material can pop in high relief when it has nothing to compete with. But there’s something else. The real strength in the minimal is those gaps and voids, where context becomes abstraction and a listener’s imagination can run wild. Employee Of The Year’s remix of Wild Belle’s It’s Too Late takes this philosophy to heart. Every aspect of this track rings out and the spaces inbetween are caulked with emotion. The results are mesmerizing.
In a song like this, not much is happening and everything is happening. Very few effects employed here, and what is utilized is imparted in dashes and bits. There’s some doubling on Natalie Bergman’s vocals and hey affect and ache, unadorned. The electric guitar is used mostly to add a bit of texture to an acoustic piano. This results in a simple two-chord progression taking on some new emotional heft. Best of all, the lyrics match the subdued sonic atmosphere. When Bergman relates the core of her desires, simple and direct as they are, her only accompaniment is a gently undulating synth line. While she eventually completes the verse with the full strength of the production behind herm her desires couldn’t be more universal, and she doesn’t need a lot of words and sounds to convey them.
I need a man that treats me right
He’ll feed me supper more than twice
I’m not asking for lots of fancy toys
Someone to keep me warm at night.”
Anything but stark, every part of this track stands out like black ink on white paper. Oh by the way, I loved the book. I loved this track in much the same way.