Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Art of the Bridge: Bright Side of the Road


"Bright Side of the Road" is the springing, upbeat track that leads off Van Morrison's relatively unheralded masterpiece of 1979, Into the Music. Considering that '79 was the peak period for the Clash and the Ramones and the whole punk/new wave thing, it's understandable that Into the Music slipped through the cracks. But Van Morrison fans know it's one of his very best albums. For anyone interested in Van, I'd shortlist it along with Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Wavelength, and his live double LP, Too Late to Stop Now.

This song came up on my iPod this morning, and what jumped out at me, alongside its general effervescence, is how strong the bridge is. Classic song structure is defined as AABA, with A being the main verse and B being the contrasting middle section. A good bridge does a couple things. It takes the melody in a fresh direction, but it does so in a way that subtly leads or circles back to the verse, in fact making the verse feel inevitable upon its return. It also provides a lyrical contrast, often in perspective or tone. In "Bright Side of the Road," the verses for the most part come across as first person statements addressed to a lover. The bridge on the other hand is spoken from a reflective or dispassionate perspective, offering a big picture take on the human experience.

In this tune, the bridge appears twice. After an intro and two runs through the 16 bar A section or verse, the bridge comes in at about 0:54. It runs for 16 bars, followed at 1:16 by a return to the verse, now featuring call and response background vocals, which elevate the proceedings. Thus far, then, you have the classic AABA structure. From here on out, the song uses the A and B forms to different effect, deviating from the classic pattern. At 1:36 we get an instrumental interlude (a harmonica solo performed by Van), which consists of one 'A' verse of 16 bars. Then the bridge or B section reappears at 2:00 to take us out of the instrumental and lead us back to a concluding vocal run through the verse. This is fairly common strategy. After that last lyric verse, the song repeats the A section the rest of the way out, but now with Van riffing, the singers answering, and the band cooking their collective asses off.

One reason this period was strong for Van was because he had Katie Kissoon on background vocals and a horn section consisting of Pee Wee Ellis on sax and Mark Isham on trumpet. Kissoon is possibly England's preeminent background vocalist. Ellis played sax for James Brown, and Isham went on to a successful career as a soundtrack composer.

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