Jesse Jarnow

“burn” – usher

#5 this week, #10 last week, 6 weeks on the chart

Usher, whose “Yeah!” has been nestled at number one since I relaunched this blog a month or two back, is now competing with himself in the Top 10. It’s a ballad, a love song (and a solo one at that), but retains the performative structure, where it flows from section to section in a… well, I want to say “cinematic,” but that doesn’t feel right. It’s more “episodic,” or something other metaphor that can be tied to television. The idea of the beginning, middle, and end do seem important to this kind of songwriting, even if that beginning/middle/end isn’t literally tied to a plot.

So, “Burn” begins with a quick spoken intro over, first, noise, then, strings and mellotron (I think). For the first two seconds of the song (noise and “I don’t understand… why…”) it sounds as if the song could kick in with one of those sharply mixed techno grooves. Instead, Usher’s voice changes, the strings establish themselves, and it makes the turn/commitment to be a slow tune. I love the way the keyboard and the strings work with each other, the keys sounding really sweet and romantic and ballad-like, in a way that would seem incongruous with strings that also sound really sweet and romantic and ballad-like… but it doesn’t, and they don’t. As the classical guitar comes in, this becomes the ambient base of the song, and the spoken part crests into an overemotive/soulful vocal (the strings drop out there).

There is no over-arching melody (at least one that jumps out), but – instead – there are lots of very small hooks (“I do but you don’t”, a quick jump to falsetto, an almost South African vocal break later on, etc.) that are predominantly rhythmic. I like that, actually, even if it’s not as elegant as having one really good melody. They’re like little nooks for the ear to discover (and definitely lend to the picaresque – there’s the word! – effect). The little blurp of white noise used to lead into the spoken intro also cues the chorus, and lets us know that we have achieved title. The picaresque is a neat trick. It makes music more playful, and keeps it from being entirely grandiose and serious. In terms of Usher, it also lets him find his own voice and way of singing.

As a follow-up to “Yeah,” it seems like a good choice. If one imagines that the only two tracks by Usher that somebody knows are “Yeah” and this – and those are the only two that I know – then they serve to establish Usher as a character. And, since this is a slow song, the message would seem to be that, gee, Usher has depth. I’m not convinced of that yet, but “Burn” is a pretty impressive performance, even if Usher himself comes off as a tad hyperactive and eager to show off his vocal range.

Well, buckaroos, I’m off for some travel this week. I’m not sure if I’m gonna update next week, or the week after… but circumstances will tell.