YourZenMine and two; a comment made by the compiler of the chords to ‘Manchild’ on a well known music tabs website which asks, ‘Is this the most discordant song ever written?’Quite out of the blue, I have been drawn to thinking about the song ‘Manchild’ from two differing sources. One; a review of Neneh Cherry’s 1989 debut, ‘Raw Like Sushi’ by Aussie commentators
I’ve always liked ‘Manchild’ and it is still, for me, one of the stand-out tracks on the ‘Raw Like Sushi’ album. One of its major features is its unusual chord progression which flits across keys like a butterfly in a flower shop. In theory a musical key comprises a set of chords based on the notes of its scale, a bit like a paint palette using set colours of a chosen theme (say, browns and oranges for an autumnal setting). Normally, a song would move between these related chords giving a smooth comfortable ride. ‘Manchild’ is the equivalent of introducing splashes of primary blue or red from an unrelated palette where it is least expected and upsetting the normal order of things.
For example, the song is nominally in the key of C♯ major, but even in the first line of the verse we are wrenched onto a chord of E major – a chord having no business at all squatting in the home key of C♯ major - before lurching drunkenly onto the dominant chord of G♯ major. Then it gets worse as the next phrase starts on F major (not the ‘correct’ F minor), briefly redeems itself by rising to F♯ major before rushing off recklessly to C and then E major again prior to ending the verse on a chord of D major – an agonising half-tone from where it started on C♯.
And so it goes on whilst the melody struggles manfully to hang on during the rollercoaster twists and turns of the quirky harmony. It’s thrilling stuff, but it is not discordant in that the chords themselves have no internal dissonance, but it is unusual in the way that it dives in and out of unrelated keys yet manages to hold itself together without alienating the listener.
The overall effect of all this is to make the ambience of the song a little ‘unsafe’ and challenging for the listener who has to constantly readjust their assessment of where the melody is going as it is buffeted away from its safe harbour notes by the underlying harmony. This is what music should do, in my opinion, it should surprise and reassure in equal quantities and this song does just that.
But then Neneh Cherry has always been a pusher of envelopes. She famously appeared on TOTP to perform ‘Buffalo Stance’ whilst 8 months pregnant and in the video for 'Manchild' she holds a teeny tiny baby, presumably her own. Is this baby the youngest person ever to appear in a pop video? I think we should be told.
What we already know is that ‘Manchild’ could well be one of the most ‘discordant’ songs ever written and it’s all the better for it. Whether it is Rock ‘n’ Roll is another question altogether.
YouTube won't let me embed the video here so you'll have to go here to see it and just listen to how those chords lurch around like a ship in a storm.