Arts & Culture

Reviews: May/June 2020

A podcast about how songs are made; a book about economic inequality.

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Song Exploder
Hrishikesh Hirway ’00 (podcast)
Reviewed by Alan Light ’88

“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true,” Bob Dylan once wrote. There is a profound mystery at the heart of songwriting, which even its greatest practitioners recognize: where does a song come from, and how can the combination of a few minutes’ worth of words and music mean so much to so many?

For more than six years, the biweekly podcast Song Exploder has sought to understand and explain this mystical process, with consistently remarkable results. In each episode, host and creator Hrishikesh Hirway ’00 asks a musician or band to “take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.” The podcasts often examine new songs, though not always. A recent episode told the story of Semisonic’s still-omnipresent 1998 hit “Closing Time.” The group’s Dan Wilson explained the track’s inspirations, from the mundane (his bandmates asking him to write a new song to end their set) to the literary (the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop) to the personal (his wife’s pregnancy).

Hirway, who created the West Wing Weekly podcast and a new series called Partners, which examines creative collaboration, is himself a musician; he composes music for films and leads multiple bands of his own. In Song Exploder, he introduces most of the episodes but edits his interview questions out—leaving only the artists’ voices to lead us through the evolution of a single song. Over approximately 20 minutes, we hear various demos, drafts, and isolated instruments. For Vampire Weekend’s “Harmony Hall,” the story starts with a voice memo: singer Ezra Koenig mumbling and humming the title phrase into his phone while walking on the street.

Many of the subjects of Song Exploder are indie rockers, but Hirway has also featured legends like U2, Fleetwood Mac, and Metallica, and a range of others from metal band Slipknot to Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Along the way, he has accomplished an incredible trick: simultaneously demystifying the practice of songwriting and elevating the awe we feel for these magical creations.

Music journalist and author Alan Light is the cohost of Debatable, on SiriusXM.