Fade Out

No, this isn’t a cryptic way of announcing that the blog is going to end. I’m not stopping. Ever. In fact, things are about to get exciting round here. I want to talk about actual fade outs.

I miss the fade out. Last night I was walking home listening to Jon Auer’s quite wonderful You Used to Drive Me Around, enjoying the long, slow fade, and thinking about how little of the newer music I listen to actually makes use of the technique. Then I started wondering if anyone else had noticed.

Turns out I’m not imagining this, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Actually, people who pay more regular attention to proper pop music than I do noticed years ago:

The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. Among the year-end top 10 songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the ’90s, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top 10 lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out, Robin Thicke’s purposely retro Blurred Lines. Not since the ’50s have we had such a paucity of fade-out songs.

William Weir, A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now…, Slate (2014)

The reasons for the decline of the fade out are fairly obvious and don’t take a lot of unpacking. Artists are terrified of fans skipping their song and moving on to the next, so they need to stuff them full of anticipation or incident until the moment they stop, so no one reaches for the skip button. A trend towards songs that build continually until they stop is the inevitable result.

For years, I thought fade outs were a “pop” technique, a cheap trick that my lo-fi, alt. and indie-rocking heroes were better than. If you can’t work out a way to bring your arrangement to a proper close that’s reproducable in real time on stage, then what kind of musician are you? And for sure, anyone who’s seen that famous live clip of the Eagles doing Hotel California at the Capital Center that ends with them just suddenly all hitting one chord four times and stopping – cha-cha-cha-cha – will attest to the difficulty of coming up with a “live” ending to a song that faded out in its studio recording. Whether you like the song or not, you’d have to admit that the way the Eagles closed out Hotel California live was lame as hell and undercut the whole thing.

But of course, there are no hard and fasts here. The fade out on Hotel California is effective, and on the whole it was worth ending the studio recording that way, even with the knowledge that they’d not be able to do it the same way live, rather than compromising the recording by ending it in a way that they could be replicated. And when you start thinking about some of the truly great fade outs – Sara by Fleetwood Mac, for example, which ends with Stevie Nicks calling out into infinity about a “heartbeat that never really died” while an ocean of Lindsey Buckingham’s multitracked vocals and guitars swirl around her – it becomes clear how effective an emotional tool the fade out can be.

You Used to Drive Me Around works the same way. The sort of situation that Jon Auer is singing about is not an easily resolvable one, so the long fade out isn’t just an excuse for Mike Musburger to play some more expansive drum fills; it’s actually wholly appropriate to the subject and the mood of the song itself.

I hope that some enterprising artist or other starts championing the fade out and it catches on again with this generation of musicians. They’re missing out on a potentially really powerful technique through letting it fall into disuse.

 

 

 

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One thought on “Fade Out

  1. farflownfalcon

    I’m not greatly troubled by the lessening popularity of the fade-out. On the whole, they’ve tended to irritate me, usually for one of two reasons.

    One of these is the sense that the fade out is there just because the band don’t really have a good idea of how the song means to end, as you suggested might be the case with Hotel California.

    The other is when the song fades out just when it feels like it’s getting interesting, when the musicians are letting the song open up and out and the feel is turning into more of a live jam. There’re a number of tracks I’ve come across where the song proper is over, and the guitarist sounds like he’s about to get really stuck in, only for the audio to drift off into the ether.

    It’s leaves me wishing I could have heard what was about to come next, which in some instances might be the point. In others the post-song jam maybe didn’t amount to the promise signified by that little bit of lightning you hear before the fade out. There’s little doubt that in many cases the imagined in your head music trumps what really happened in the studio, but even so this teasing version of the fade out grates with me.

    I would agree it’s a useful tool and works from time to time. In my own recordings, I’ve used a fade out two or three times in about thirty tracks – this strikes me as a fair ratio. One of those was done committing the exact musical crime I describe above! Also, some bands (my own included) play a live version of a fade out, taking down the volume notch by notch as the song draws to a close. I think this is a nice device, though arguably a different beast to the one your blog is considers.

    Reply

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