Early in the year a band I really like released a song I really didn’t. MAMAMOO, a K-Pop group that usually has colorful and quick tracks full of fun rhythms, released a painfully slow, plodding ballad called “Paint Me.” On this track MAMAMOO had done what too many bands do: they made a slow song that sucked. They took the naturally sparse, vocal-focused style of the ballad and the slow song and used it as an excuse to be lazy.
“Paint Me” has gorgeous singing and fine enough lyrics but almost nothing else to lift those vocals up. They back the vocals with a quiet rhythm that’s mostly piano with a touch of other instruments here and there. Even worse, the vocals and the instruments don’t go anywhere. They build up to the same point and fall into the same point over and over again with almost nothing of the composition or dynamics of the song being interesting. Listen to one minute of the song and you’ve basically listened to the whole thing.
Listen to a lot of K-Pop, a lot of American pop, a lot of soft rock, or a lot of chillwave and you’ll find MAMAMOO isn’t alone in making crappy slow songs. A lot of good bands make bad slow tracks by over-indexing on the vocalist or one solid beat. N.E.R.D. did this on their new album with “Lifting You.” The song assumes that Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams, and a beat with some fun clicks and bass sounds can carry the track, so, for the most part, it doesn’t do a lot. Aside from a small breakdown at the end, listen to the first minute and you know the rest of it. It’s dull.
For a long time, I thought the slow and downtempo just wasn’t my bag. I’d hear four minutes or more of a band basically repeat the same plodding beat without adding or subtracting anything and assume that was how slow songs work. Gradually, I’ve realized it’s just bands being lazy with a format that can do so much more.
Bad slow songs are full of dead space and dead weight. They’re tracks carried by a good vocal performance when they could be tracks that make a good vocal performance great.
Good slow songs are full of small touches and subtle movements. They’re tracks where often the vocals still take center-stage but the beat and the composition elevate the vocals so they carry the track even harder.
Slow songs generally have more open space than an uptempo track. They’re less packed with sound and they usually have a clearer main rhythm to follow. Because slow songs have clearer direction and more space to work with, they can showcase movement in a composition really well. Slow songs can make a simple rising action into a climax or a complex slow-build sound really sharp.
I hadn’t seen how clear and powerful a slow song could sound until I heard Natalie Prass. At first glance, Natalie Prass is another band all about one strong vocalist doing her thing. On a deeper listen, it becomes clear the strength of Prass’s music is in the composition and the way everything behind her builds her voice up into something really strong.
“Violently” really showcases Prass’s compositional skills. It opens up slowly, with very muted instrumentation and soft vocals. After about a minute Prass adds in strings and new sounds and lets the track get louder while it still stays calm. At two minutes she does away with the strings and adds in woodwinds, changing up the structure a bit. At three minutes the strings come back in force and the volume swells even more to the point where Prass’s vocals aren’t the only focus and at around three and a half minutes, the lyrics fall away. At four minutes, the strings and the woodwinds come together and everything starts to swell into one last burst.
Prass takes “Violently” from a soft, subdued, vocal-led track to a total instrumental breakdown with beautiful strings and woodwinds. For the most part, the song moves slowly and because of that the slow build of the composition really pops. “Violently” uses the space and distance between melodies and instrumental lines that slow songs create to make the slow build feel even clearer, subtler and smoother.
Another great example of a slow song comes again from the world of Korean music. Korean r&b artist DEAN recently released a tremendous slow song called “Instagram” with a great, understated composition that elevates his vocal performance. I broke that song down in more detail in another article but in brief, it does a great job of adding and dropping sounds and creating a layered beat that makes the singing feel more complete.
DEAN has enough vocal chops where he could coast on them and use them to carry a boring track but he doesn’t. He takes advantage of the slow song’s format to make the song’s composition pop, which in turn elevates his vocal performance.
That’s what most good slow songs will do. Rather than coast on a good instrumental loop or solid vocal chops, they use the space and the pace of a slower song to give their composition a better build and a rich backing track.