I know you’ve probably heard Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” a million times before, but here, listen to it once again.
This is a pop song, and as such lies and dies by its refrain. “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone/And she’s always gone too long anytime she goes away” is an irresistible hook, and Withers’ voice sends it along with an easy soulfulness. This is the part you sing along with in the car. (The first line anyway–if you’re like me you hum your way through “And she’s always gone…” because honestly it’s a bit of a tongue-twister.) Then there’s also what I guess we’d call the bridge, where the band drops out and he just repeats the line “I know”. The impression that had accumulated for me from years of casually overhearing “Ain’t No Sunshine” is that this part is about two bars long, a brief quiet interlude before the song gets back to its business. But in fact it’s something more like twenty-seven. (If I’m counting right, and I may not be, because the rhythmic interplay between Withers’ voice and the drummer is trickier than it seems.) Anyway, that’s how many times he sings, “I know”. That may as well be the title. This is an audacious move. Withers brings his little wisp of a pop song–which already barely clocks in at two minutes–to a screeching halt in the middle, and does it so smoothly that you hardly even notice.
To get an appreciation for just how masterful this is, check out Devo’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, where they repeat the word “baby” over and over again until you’re sick of it.
This is the same trick that Withers pulls, but it turns on your being aware of it, and admiring Devo for their audacity. I don’t mean to bash Devo, who committed so deeply to their schtick that they burned straight through being a novelty act to find a soulfulness of their own. And comparing the two songs as wholes is apples and oranges. But in their approaches to this particular formal move, Withers’ is more exhilarating because it’s more vulnerable. If his repetition grates, his song is dead. If Devo’s grates they can always say, “But that part was supposed to be annoying.”
Don’t be confused by the fact that Withers plays it straight as an R&B singer while Devo wear their intellectualism on their sleeve, because craftsmanship is craftsmanship regardless of genre. I have no idea what was going through Withers’ head when he wrote that bridge. Maybe he decided to deliberately push the boundaries of what can work in a pop song. Maybe it just felt right. Maybe (and this is my guess) it was a little of both. Anyway, he ends up with fifteen seconds that sound so plaintive and lovelorn that their inventiveness is beside the point.
Breaking with conventional form to create an unconventional effect can be innovative, but breaking with conventional form in order to create a conventional effect is genius. The French have an expression for the first of these acts: avant-garde. It means “slightly behind the curve”.