Dissect and 5 more music analysis podcasts

Music gets pulled note-from-note in Dissect; we look at Cole Cuchna's series, and a collection of other podcasts shining a light on musical minutiae

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 21 Aug 2018

The first two seasons of Dissect were clever. Clever-clogs writer and producer Cole Cuchna pored over To Pimp a Butterfly and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, unravelling all their metaphors, double meanings and underlying themes. He treated every line in every song as a puzzle to be solved, and even though he ultimately came to the same conclusion for every puzzle (i.e. Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West are geniuses) the whole thing was absorbing and enlightening.

But these are dense and verbose hip-hop albums. For the third season, Dissect is doing something subtly different by casting its eye over Frank Ocean’s Blonde. As an R&B record, Blonde doesn’t have the sheer mass of words of a hip-hop album. Kendrick can fit a novella into a single Frank Ocean wooohoooayayawooo, so can clever Cole Cuchna make his wordy analysis work?

Kind of. The first thing he does is blatantly cheat by spending almost as much time discussing Ocean’s Channel Orange album as he does Blonde, at a stroke doubling the pool of things to talk about. Secondly, he dives into some of the more oblique lyrics with maximum enthusiasm. Why is Frank singing about mangoes in the middle of this love song? Who the fuck knows, but Cole’s got a theory. It’s fair to say he overreaches occasionally. Is Novacane deliberately misspelled to allude to ‘caning it’? Is Nikes really a reference to the Greek god of victory, rather than trainers? Does Pyramids really contain “a literal wormhole into the future”?

He also spends more time on music than in previous seasons, rather than focusing so much on lyrics. It works fairly well. It’s cute to hear instruments isolated and put back together again, and it’s fun when they mess around with the vocals to show how they sounded before they were pitch-shifted. Fun, but mostly pointless. In truth, this is musicology for absolute beginners, which is fine, but if you know the difference between a crotchet and a quaver then you’ll probably end up rolling your eyes at some of the entry-level explanations.

The big thing though, is whether or not Ocean’s music is suitable for this type of atomistic analysis. Take the Ivy episode for instance. Ivy is a deeply lovely song about reflecting on a previous relationship, remembering the good times and letting go of hostility. It’s sweet, beautiful even, but it’s not complex. It’s not dense, lyrically. There’s no great mystery here, one or two nebulous lines notwithstanding.

The line-by-line approach can’t really unlock it or explain why it’s so affecting. Unsurprisingly, the summary of academic research into the physiological effects of loneliness doesn’t hit the spot either. Maybe it requires a romantic soul to expand on Ivy’s romance and Cole Cuchna, for all his alertness to allusions to Greek mythology, isn’t that guy. Or maybe there’s a more fundamental problem. The Dissect approach is enamoured with metaphor, analogy and resonance. But multiple layers of meaning, lovely as they may be, aren’t necessarily marks of greatness. You get the impression that Cuchna, in his obsession with double-meaning, has trouble distinguishing genius from cleverness. Slaughterhouse 5 and a cryptic crossword are both very clever; only one of them is a work of genius.

But we’re in danger of falling into the same trap here: over-analysing something past the point where analysis is worthwhile. Dissect is a fine podcast, and it’s lovely to hear someone talk about these unquestionably brilliant albums for hours on end. It brings these albums back to life, lends them a fresh perspective, and gives you a reason to spend some time with them. Clever indeed.

Five more music analysis podcasts

1) Song Exploder – Sort of like a miniature Dissect, every episode tells the story of a single song. Pretty cool if you want to know, say, why Grimes added a third hi-hat to the second verse of Kill v. Maim.

2) Soul Music – For almost 20 years this Radio 4 programme has been taking sad songs and making them even sadder. It’s getting a bit formulaic but when it hits the mark it’s still capable of reducing a headphoned commuter into a debilitated ball of phlegm and tears.

3) Sodajerker – Very classy interviews about the nuts and bolts of songwriting. The calibre of guests – Paul Simon, Alicia Keys, Van Dyke Parks et al. – must be a testament to something.

4) The Listening Service – This BBC Radio 3 programme attempts to tell the history of music by mixing musicology, neurology and sociology in equal measures (except obviously with more musicology than the other two).

5) Twenty Thousand Hertz – There are lots of noises around us that aren’t music, but that are still worth paying attention to. This simple documentary-style podcast tells their stories.