I’ve been following Mitski’s rise and rise ever since seeing her NPR Tiny Desk concert, and was delighted to see her making a big commercial breakthrough with this track. I confess, though, to a little disappointment that she’s achieved this success with a song that feels so conventional and ‘safe’, when it was the defiantly iconoclastic song-writing approaches of her earlier work that felt like such a breath of fresh air. I mean, here you basically get the same four-chord pattern repeating all the way through the song (and the iconic I-III-IV-iv progression in Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, no less) with Mitski doing her best Lana Del Rey impression over the top for a little more than two minutes – just time for a couple of verses and choruses without any kind of middle section or anything. Sure, it’s perfectly pleasant, but also rather bland when compared with, say, her tremendously gutsy conjunction of modal melody and parallel major-chord harmony in the songs ‘Last Words Of A Shooting Star’ or ‘A Pearl’.
To be fair, though, she does deviate from the ’loop four chords until the cows come home’ format in some subtle but important ways. She doubles the harmonic rhythm for the choruses, for instance, which helps with the verse-chorus section differentiation (as do the backing-vocal layers, of course), and there are extensions of the iv chord at the end of each chorus (two beats for the first chorus at 0:59; four for the second at 2:00). I also like her occasional flirtation with the flattened third degree in her vocal line, first on “shine” at 0:22 (unlike the later “shine” at 0:38) and then on “mine” at 2:00. Somehow, her switching between the major and minor third degrees of the scale seems in keeping with the major-minor switch inherent in the chord progression itself.
One final thing to point out is that the key feels like it’s pretty much exactly half-way between Ab and A. I wonder whether it was sped up from Ab, or slowed down from A, or maybe just recorded at that quarter-tone pitch to match an instrument (perhaps the piano) with an unorthodox tuning? Listening to the vocal formants, I’m guessing it was sped up. Irrespective, with a four-chord singalong like this it seems like a bit of an own-goal to put it in a key that instrumentalist fans can’t easily play along to without retuning their instruments. But maybe you could argue that a non-standard tuning is somehow more ear-catching for listeners these days, given that it differs from the vast majority of modern releases that use an A=440Hz tuning reference. Certainly, a quarter-tone shift would be well-chosen to maximise the contrast in that case.
Typical! You wait ages for a hit song in the non-diatonic Phrygian Dominant mode, and then three come along within months of each other… First we had Sam Smith’s 'Unholy', then Kylie’s 'Padam Padam', and now Chase & Status with this song. And is it only me who wonders whether the titular similarity between the last two indicates the sincerest form of flattery? Regardless, this song spices up the mode’s four naturally consonant chords (ie. F, Gb, Bbm, and Ebm) with an additional chromatic major chord on the scale’s sixth degree (ie. Db) during the intro and “nobody badder than me” sections. As in the Kylie song, this involves temporarily reducing the mode’s characteristic augmented-second interval (from the second to third scale degrees) to a regular major second, but where Kylie does this by sharpening the lower note, Chase & Status instead flatten the higher one.
Another thing that’s striking about this production (at least from the iTunes version I downloaded) is how extraordinarily loud it’s mastered, while still somehow kind of getting away with it! A long-time benchmark here for me has been Skrillex’s 'Bangarang', but this track feels both louder and bassier, characteristics that you’d normally expect to be mutually exclusive where the old-school pursuit of peak-normalised loudness is concerned, simply because low-end typically takes up the most level headroom in most mixes. On reflection, I think there are a number of factors that allow such a high loudness without significantly undermining the end result aesthetically.
Firstly, if you look at the waveforms, the slightly rounded shape of the flat-topping suggests to me that some kind of soft-clipping was a big part of the loudness processing, and the main side-effect of that is odd-harmonic distortion. But the main bass/synth riff already has a strong square-wave character to it, so the square-wave-like odd-harmonic distortion side-effects of the clipping are therefore able to kind of hide in plain sight – again, if you look at the waveforms, the bass is clipping the master pretty much the whole time, and its the high level of that riff that I think is making the track as a whole sound so bassy.
The kick is also clipping a fair bit, but not as much as you might think, because it’s doing that trick I always associate with Dr Dre’s 2001, where it’s made to sound bassier than it actually is by virtue of appearing over bass notes most of the time. Actually it’s pretty tightly controlled at the low end when you hear it on its own (most of it’s energy here is around 60Hz, where the weight of the Skrillex kick is more around 40Hz) which increases the degree to which you can push it into a clipping routine before the distortion becomes undesirably crunchy – you perceive the clipping more as change in tone than as ‘distortion’ and much of the sense of subjective attack remains. That said, when both kick and bass play together, things do get a bit crunchy – although this is mitigated by the tight kick-drum envelope and also by an open-hat hit that frequently serves to disguise some of the distortion artefacts. The snare’s clipping too, but in that case the snare’s own noisy nature is more than able to mask its own clipping distortion.
With the vocals, however, these appear to have been loudness-processed in the mix to prevent them clipping at all, presumably because distortion artefacts become audible much more quickly on vocals than limiting side-effects. The overall result of all this is that although the track’s absolutely covered with clipping distortion, the distortion is heavily disguised by the nature of the sounds themselves, and any distortion that does break through into the listener’s consciousness simply gives the production more of an underground atmosphere – this is not meant to be polite-sounding music! It’s a remarkable feat of smoke and mirrors – albeit one that feels rather wasted in the current world of loudness-normalised streaming, where the competitive advantage hyper-loud masters has now all but evaporated.