I was listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on BBC 6 Music the other day. She was about to play an Autechre track, which will be the last piece on the forthcoming album. She said she often listens to the last track on an album first. Various listeners responded on social media to say they did that too. It made me think, why would you do that? Or more precisely, what is it about the final tracks on albums that makes them so interesting?
Before I ponder further on this vitally important question – in the midst of covid, Brexit and the US presidential election – I need to acknowledge that this may be a generational thing. Listening to an album the whole way through, in sequence, may not be standard practice anymore. Or maybe generational is the wrong word. It’s the technology – it just tempts you to listen to standout tracks, the ones you’ve read about, or had recommended, or heard on the radio. It’s so easy. Stick them on a playlist and move on. Listen to a whole album? Too much hard work.
But it pays dividends when you do, because even now, the musicians making albums are putting their hearts and souls into these constructions: telling a story, their story. And the end of a story is always an important moment. With a book or a film or a play that is just stating the obvious. So why not an album too?
So, the last track on an album is always significant – let’s agree that and ask in what ways. I think there are a few possibilities. First, there are sometimes songs so epic they have to come last – anything following would be diminished, a trivial afterthought. Second, there might be a song that is just very different to the tone of the rest of the album. It might be experimental, a pointer to the band’s future direction. Or something that the artist just wanted to say, even if it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album. Third, it may be something that has real personal or political resonance for the artist, which, in turn, is transmitted to the listener. Fourth, it might be a comedown song, a respite after the frenetic activity that went before. And fifth, it might just be the end point of a narrative, a story. In past days we might have called it the last act of a concept album.
All these things overlap, of course, but let’s look at a few examples in each category.
When I thought about this a whole load of classics came quickly to mind: “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen, “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” by Bob Dylan (which took up the whole of side four of “Blonde on Blonde”), “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (ignoring the brief national anthem), “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, “Purple Rain” by Prince, “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin… but wait a minute, “Stairway” was only the final track on side one of Led Zep 4. Since the age of the CD that just makes it track four of the album. How wasn’t it the last song? That honour went to “When the Levee Breaks”, which is pretty epic in its own right. These are all totemic songs, the artists at the height of their powers. The songs crank up and just keep going. They blow your mind when you first hear them, and most other times too. How could anything else follow?
Sometimes things do though. Think of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” on “OK Computer”, which I used to think of as their “Bohemian Rhapsody” when it first came out. It’s track two on the album. Typical perverse Radiohead! Another one is “Marquee Moon” from the album of the same name by Television. One of the greatest songs of all time in my view. The guitar playing remains hypnotic to this day. It’s another one like “Stairway to Heaven” – the closer on side one of the vinyl. And continuing to disprove my theory, Bowie’s epic “Heroes” nestles in the middle of what was side one of the album. Maybe if he’d known it would be the anthem that signalled the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989…
The odd ones out – or maybe not
Initially I was thinking this category was about songs that presaged new directions for a band. But then, thinking about examples I couldn’t come up with many. One might be “Essex Dogs” by Blur, off their eponymous album, which marked a change in direction by the band in any case. “Essex Dogs” was the weirdest thing on the album, and confirmed that Britpop Blur was no more. Perhaps a better description is the odd one out. An interesting example from last year is “Dublin City Sky” by Fontaines DC, on their debut album “Dogrel”. A great album, full of three minute rushes of poetic punk pop, evoking their home city of Dublin. But nothing evokes it like “Dublin City Sky”, in which the afterburners come off, the acoustic guitars come out and singer Grian Chatten sounds like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. It’s a song from the heart which somehow sums up all that has gone before, but in a very different style. Another Irish band, U2, took things a step further with the last track on their brilliant album “Zooropa”, which I regard as one of their finest. It’s their most Bowie in Berlin-sounding album, their most electronic. But then they go and stick a Johnny Cash collaboration called “The Wanderer” on the end. I can’t think why. Because they could, I guess. I just hope Mary Anne didn’t listen to that one first!
Another striking example in this category is Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, which is the final track on one of his later albums, “Uprising”. It’s notable for its resonant lyrics, but also because it is just an acoustic strum. There is no reggae beat, from the king of reggae. And yet it has become one of Bob Marley’s most celebrated songs. Because of the political and spiritual resonance of the message.
One more in this category, courtesy of Louis Grantham, son of my friend Jon, and fellow festival-goer. The three of us have had a lockdown game going where we take turns in choosing a theme and then each of us comes up with a song that fits. Yesterday I suggested best last track. Louis selected “Take It or Leave It” from The Strokes’ 2001 debut “Is This It?, the album that heralded an indie revival. A suitable message for the last track of such an assertive album. But he also mentioned “Love, Love, Love”, the final word on the Murder Capital’s “When I Have Fears”, which was my album of the year in 2019. It’s a dark and dynamic album; and the title of that last track, and to some extent the music, seems out of synch with the rest of the album. But as Louis says, on one level it provides a possible answer to the angst of the rest of the album – though a somewhat ambiguous one – but on another it makes you asks questions about what went before. And as a result, it leaves you wanting more.
The personal and the political
Immediately, in this category, I thought of songs like “Sarah”, Bob Dylan’s paean to his ex-wife which closes “Desire”, one of his mid-70s classics; and “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen, which brings the intensity and anger and celebration of “Born in the USA” to a reflective end. But I want to focus on songs of Stina Tweeddale that bring the three Honeyblood albums to an end. In each case they are unlike any of the songs that came before, so they could have featured in the previous category. Musically they are fairly simple, lyrically they are heartfelt and self-questioning. There is an internal dialogue taking place in Stina’s head which finds its way into the music. The closer to Honeyblood’s debut album of the same name is “Braid Burn Valley”, which is a park in South Edinburgh near Oxgangs, where Stina grew up. I’m not sure whether this song is autobiographical, but it feels like it. She is losing herself in the wilds of the park, pondering a love lost, and possibly a violent ending to the relationship. The song begins wistfully, picks up brutally as she sings of another f****** bruise and goes silent. Then a simple piano refrain emerges as she sings of a shooting stars and happier times. You are left wondering about the pain. She returns to Oxgangs for the final song of the magnificent second album “Babes Never Die”, called “Gangs”. Don’t let your fear keep you here, Stina intones. Self-explanatory you think, but is she addressing herself or someone else? She left for Glasgow, where Honeyblood is based, but does your hometown ever leave you? Not in Bruce Springsteen’s case – see above. Honeyblood’s third album is “In Plain Sight”. Musically, it is more varied and less guitar-based, and perhaps lacks the raw emotion of its predecessors. Until the last track, “Harmless”. With its simple piano motif, it resembles the last part of “Braid Burn Valley”, but for the feeling it emits it could have been called “Helpless” rather than “Harmless”. Stina is baring her soul and it doesn’t sound like she is in a great place. If you like the final song to leave you asking questions, in the way Louis describes earlier, Stina definitely obliges.
Straddling the personal and political, and in a rather self-reverential way, are the Clash in their first two albums. 1977 debut album “The Clash” is, for me, the greatest of all punk albums, an impassioned call to arms. It had everything an 18 year old armchair rebel could have asked for! Written mostly in the third person, the band turn to themselves in the last outburst. We’re garage band, we come from Garageland! Raise those fists! They are less triumphal on second album, “Give ’Em Enough Rope”, having experienced the ups and downs of fame and the music business. “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” is addressed to their followers and the messages are mixed. The music business isn’t great, but it’s better than working in the factory.
Two other favourites from the late 70s got darker and more political in their closing statements. One was The Jam, with “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”, which closes their third album, “All Mod Cons”. The album was already getting pretty edgy with “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street; “Down in the Tube Station” really finishes you off! It reeks with paranoia and right wing violence. Not a nice place to be. This was Jon’s choice for a closer, and he’s right to say how often you thought about this song when you were travelling back on the tube late at night. Note the past tense in these upended times. Equally dark, though not quite so direct, was Elvis Costello when he ended his tour de force “This Year’s Model” with the sinister “Night Rally”. After the personal disgust that threaded its way through the album, Elvis turned outward and political for the denouement, and left a nasty taste in your mouth. Great song though.
After the party, the comedown. You look back at what went on and survey the wreckage. And hold on to the good memories. One of the best examples of this that I know is “New Year’s Day” by Taylor Swift, the last song on 2017’s “Reputation”. It’s a brash, even bombastic album, where Taylor really went for the R&B/dance sound. It worked brilliantly and was sensational live. But all good things come to end and “New Year’s Day” really did sum up that after-party feel. It’s a lovely, rather touching song, and gave us a pointer, though no-one could have expected it, to the beautiful lockdown symphony that is “Folklore”. More of that another time.
One of my favourite bands of the last ten years are Glasgow’s electro-indie-pop champions, Chvrches. Their second album, “Every Open Eye” signalled a move to a more pop-orientated sound (and look) after their brilliant debut, “The Bones of What You Believe”. It was mostly bangers until they reached the conclusion. “Afterglow” has you dreaming as Lauren Mayberry’s beautiful voice wafts around you. It was no surprise that the band lit the roof of the Albert Hall with a starry night sky when they played “Afterglow” there in 2016.
I have to mention another Bruce song here. It’s “New York City Serenade”, the final piece on his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”. A true masterpiece – album and song. The album has a variety of moods, but the penultimate song is the rousing “Rosalita”. A celebration of love, hope and rock’n’roll, and still a staple of Bruce’s live shows. After that where do you go? Well, as I said under Epics, that might be where you end. But Bruce had other ideas. He played his ode to New York, to midnight in Manhattan, to all the losers and the chancers and the dreamers. Starting jazzily, with some lovely acoustic strumming and then a mellow wall of sound, Bruce extemporising, before it all falls away again. One of my favourite Bruce songs, and the one I chose as my final song in our challenge.
Radiohead rarely do anything conventional, but they do have a penchant for the comedown song at the end. And they are all tunes of real beauty. From the ethereal “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” on “The Bends” to “True Love Waits” on most recent album “A Moon Shaped Pool”. And on the journey, “The Tourist” soothed the soul at the end of “OK Computer” while “Videotape” was weirdly mournful on “In Rainbows”. Things got weirder on “Kid A” with “Untitled” and woozily jazzy on “Life in a Glasshouse” from “Amnesiac”. Every Radiohead album takes you on a ride you weren’t expecting – they give you some time to reflect at the end.
The last act
Some albums tell a story. It may be from beginning to end, it may just occupy part of the album. But there is a distinctive narrative. It’s something that David Bowie was attracted to, especially in the first half of the 70s as he went through various personas. Ziggy Stardust was one and the Ziggy album ended with great melodrama as Bowie sang “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” It wasn’t long before Ziggy was left behind. “Diamond Dogs” was even more of a concept album. The dystopian city with rats as big as cats. With overtones of Orwell’s “1984”: we love you big brother. And it ended with the disturbing but insanely catchy “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”. What could it all mean? It wasn’t wholesome.
Two of the great soul artists had stories to tell that ended with songs that have resonated through the years. Marvin Gaye’s iconic album “What’s Going On?, a cry of anguish and bewilderment at America at the beginning of the 70s, began with the beguiling lament of the title track, drifted through meditations on the times, sought solace in God, but ended with the most powerful protest on the album: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. What an incredible song – and what a groove. Stevie Wonder’s story was about love. Lost love, despair, self-realisation, recovery and then hope. All in three songs: “Blame it on the Sun” – but my heart blames it on me – “Looking for Another Pure Love” and the uplift at the end, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”. Anyone going through a break up should listen to these songs and take solace from the final message.
So where does the story end? Where else but “The End”? The last song on that amazing suite of songs that occupied side two of the last album the Beatles recorded (though not the last they released). “Abbey Road”. That stretch of music from “Because” to “The End”. The Beatles’ parting shot.
And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make…
Except there was a hidden track.
Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say…
I think that a lot of bands treat an album like they do a gig- so they try and smash it with the first song and go out on a high note too.
Then again some of my favourite bands eg Roxy Music, have never ended an album with one of their better songs.
I can also think of quite a few albums where the first side was massively more impressive than the second side.eg A Wizard, A True Star; Joshua Tree,Hunky Dory, Man Who Sold the World, Moondance;etc
Agree with all of that; and the tendency to load up on the first few is even stronger now, given attention spans in the streaming age.