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Answering the Dirty Projectors’ “Impregnable Question”

T he first seconds of the Dirty Projectors’ newest album speak volumes about what’s to follow. Dave Longstreth’s trembly hums at the open of “Offspring Are Blank” lay out the first of many “challenging harmonies” to follow (as various reviews delicately put it). The rhythmic puzzler “About to Die” follows, and next is the incomparably weird “Gun Has No Trigger”; it’s not until the fourth track that there’s some relief.

So Swing Lo Magellan isn’t lacking for things to talk about here. But for this first post in a long while (sorry!!!), I’ve just got a (comparatively) quick note about one of the simplest, most accessible songs on the whole record: “Impregnable Question.”

This album’s got a bit of a positive correlation between track length and musical complexity – and “Impregnable Question” is the second shortest tune. It’s very conventional, with none of the metric or harmonic twists that permeate the other songs. Instead, what’s interesting lies on a more subtle level: the relationship between the harmonies and the lyrics.

The structure of “Impregnable Question” is very simple, with just a twelve-measure progression repeated four times. That’s plenty of time, though, to establish one major musical theme: the denial of any traditional authentic cadence — that is, a sequence where the V chord resolves to the tonic. That’s the cornerstone of traditional “functional harmony,” the theory that each chord in any given key has a purpose, a “function.” The idea is that there are three basic major chords in every key: the tonic, or I, which is the starting and ending point for progressions; the sub- or predominant, or IV, which usually leads to the dominant; and the dominant, or V, which resolves back to I. V-I is the most common and traditional cadence there is.

But there’s no V-I motion anywhere in this song. Every V (here, E-flat major) instead steps down to D-flat, the IV. This thematic denial of any expected resolution is taken even further in the melody. Longstreth never even sings the leading tone, the seventh note of the scale that so yearns to resolve upward to the tonic. It’s the one scale degree that calls that strongly for resolution — but we never hear it.

Take a listen:

The chords:

   Ab                               | Db         Cm
01 If there is                      | ever the impregnable ques-
                             
   Ab             Bbm               | Db            Eb
03 -tion of "Why?    What           | did or didn't pass?"
                             
   Db            Ab                 | (Ab)
05 It would help to seek            |
                             
   Db         Ab                    | (Ab)
07 comfort in destiny,              |
                             
   Db        Ab        Bbm          | Dø7       Db
09 but I really don't. We don't see | eye to eye.    But I
                             
   Ab        Eb7add4                | Db           Ab
11 need you,   and you're           | always on my mind

This expected-resolution-denial theme is driven home at the most dramatic point in the melody, right at the start of the tenth measure. Take another listen to the video – the first time is right at 0:29 (then again at 1:07, 1:42, and 2:16).

Longstreth sets it up by systematically lulling us with two slow-moving D-flat/A-flat pairings. “It would help to seek…” [pause] “…comfort in destiny…” then another pause.

But then he finishes that sentence with “but I really don’t,” and the melody suddenly moves on through a minor chord and down to the crucial moment. There’s no pause this time as he reaches down to the low F and swings back up to the high A-flat for “We don’t see eye to eye.”

The chord that hits on the first “eye” is called a “secondary dominant” – in functional harmony terms, it’s a dominant chord poised to resolve to something besides the tonic (most often the V or vi). Here, it’s a half-diminished seven chord rooted on D, the tritone, one of the most most conspicuous notes he could choose in the key of A-flat major (noted above as Dø7). In most worlds, you could expect this chord would resolve to E-flat. But in “Impregnable Question,” nothing resolves the way it “should.” Just like all the other dominant chords, this one moves to IV instead.

I should note here that it is not at all uncommon for a V chord to resolve to a IV, or even for a V or vii/V (a secondary dominant of V) to resolve to IV. It’s such a common device that there’s a term for it, based on the whole functional harmony theory mentioned earlier, and the standard progression I-IV-V-I. That progression’s reversal — I-V-IV-I, or a retrogression — appears in probably thousands of pop songs.

In this case, however, it’s notable because of a great marriage of music to lyrics. The opening lines are a direct call to disregarding the seemingly inevitable: “If there is ever the impregnable question… it would help to seek comfort in destiny, but I really don’t.” And immediately after that, Longstreth sets up the song’s central tension: “We don’t see eye to eye, but I need you, and you’re always on my mind.” The second verse repeats that line, driving the refrain home.

But in the third and final verse, Longstreth answers the tension: Rather than the conflicted “we don’t see eye to eye,” instead he sings “What is mine is yours in happiness and in strife. You’re my love, and I want you in my life.” In other words, there may always be tension, be it in music or relationships. But Longstreth’s narrator refuses to let the tension control him; his dominant chords obstinately resolve to IV, and he’ll dedicate himself to his love regardless of any discord. Most rewarding to us, the listeners — the music cued us in to that response well before Longstreth states it outright.

Just one enjoyable moment of many on this excellent album. More to come!

Becky Sullivan, with special thanks to Nick Curry


Songs cited: The Dirty Projectors, “Impregnable Question,”  Swing Lo Magellan, © 2012 by Domino Records, WIGLP272.