Covid Time: A Musical Appreciation

Everything changed in 2020. The coronavirus bomb exploded in January and the repercussions are still expanding. The objective metrics are numerous – transmission rates, business failures, unemployment, and deaths on the downside; the stock market, family time, hyper-rapid development of vaccines and human adaptation (or flexitarianism) on the upside.

But so many things have changed that cannot be precisely measured. One of the subtlest changes has been our sense of time. What was once linear and structured has become circular and elastic. In musical terms, what was once in 4/4 time (“Rolling In the Deep” or “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” for example) has become a spectrum of time signatures, sort of like the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” which cycles through 3/8, 5/4, 6/4, 9/8, 10/8 and 12/8 time signatures. Phish, naturally, were on to this phenomenon early. When they released their Covid album “Sigma Oasis” on April 1, we were treated to a song called “Mercury,” in which they sang, “Your day is longer than your year.” And many years ago, perhaps slightly prescient, they played this stunning version of “Time Turns Elastic.”

So, yeah, time is now more rubbery, as Ken Babbs would say. It calls for a new soundtrack. an appreciation of songs that play with our sense of time, sometimes in amusing ways, other times in profound ways.

“Take 5,” for instance. Dave Brubeck was born 100 years ago and when he was 39 he released his masterpiece, a record that would come to define jazz for a generation or more – “Time Out.” The signature tune from that album, “Take 5,” cruised along in a strange 5/4 time signature, but it wasn’t the only tune that bent time. “Blue Rondo a la Turk” floated in 9/8, a time signature Brubeck picked up from a Turkish folk song when he was visiting Istanbul. The album was full of other odd time signatures, but Brubeck and his sidemen – Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Eugene Wright – played them so seamlessly that it earned them a gold record and put Brubeck on the cover of Time magazine.

There must be something about that region around Turkey that gravitates toward offbeat time signatures. Check out “Erghan Diado” by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir in 7/4 time. Their music is odd and compelling (it made for a spooky soundtrack when I binge-read Stephen King’s “The Tommyknockers” many year ago), but they really need to work on that name. For more contemporary songs in the 7/4 time signature, check out “Tatooed Love Boys” by the Pretenders and the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”

The king of easy listening in the 60s, Burt Bacharach, often strayed outside the confines of 4/4 time, most sublimely with “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” which cycled through 5/4, 4/4, 7/8, and 5/8 time. None of that bothered the great Dionne Warwick, whose version of the song seemed to stop time itself.

A personal favorite, the Grateful Dead, shrunk and expanded time at will. Back in their protean days of the late 60s, when they were striving for that sweeping psychedelic suite of sound, they titled one of their songs “The Eleven,” after its 11/8 time signature. “The Other One” came in a little faster at 12/8, and the reggae-influenced “Estimated Prophet” loped along nicely in 7/8 time.

EDM pioneer Deadmau5 artfully played with time in 78341316, which built three distinct layers of instrumentation around 7/8 and 3/16 time signatures.

Finally (for the purposes of this post, not in the canon of music), there’s Radiohead, for whom nothing seems straightforward. Examples of odd time signatures in their work are profuse. For our purposes, I like “2+2=5” – not just for its unique time signatures of 7/8, 5/2 and 4/4, but also for its title, an idea lifted from George Orwell’s “1984,” where people were told what they thought was true was in fact false. Sound familiar? And then, there is the sublime “Videotape” from “In Rainbows.” This is a Rubik’s Cube of time. So much so that Thom Yorke had to stop once during a live performance until he could figure out how to play his own song! It also inspired Warren Lain to disassemble the song in an obsessive 38-minute YouTube video.

Time is elastic, so we better get used to it. This playlist might help. Peace out.

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