Metallica, on the other hand, has bypassed serendipity: In the band’s senior years, its process seems to be completely and satisfyingly industrialized. As a prelude to writing its latest album, drummer Lars Ulrich is given an iPod containing 1,500 proto-riffs and maybe-ideas: chordal blurts, noise-stammers, and hummings-into-the-mic produced by guitarist James Hetfield during various sessions and sound checks. (“There’s nothing that happens in this band these days that’s not recorded.”) Ulrich winnows it down, this vast germinal pile, to 20 or 30 viably squirming riffs, and takes them to Hetfield. Is this even songwriting? “I’m letting you in on a lot of trade secrets here!” says the jumpy Ulrich. “I’ve never really talked about this stuff in this detail.” One of these riffs—the one known as “plow” because, Hetfield says, “it had that feeling of just, it could push through anything. It’s like, Okay, nothing’s gonna stop this riff”—will eventually form the basic grid of Metallica’s “Moth Into Flame.” Which, as it happens, is not that great a song. It’s no “Master of Puppets.” But oh how I love, having enjoyed it in its nudity and sincerity, that beautiful plow riff.
Multiple collaborators; months, sometimes years of on-again, off-again work; false starts; fiddlings; breakthroughs; accidents; exposures. It is, or it can be, a proper grind, writing a song. This, too, Song Exploder teaches us: that as the initial song-impulse is mingled with the world, with the material and the technical and the mortal, it takes a certain kind of grit to see the thing through. Big Boi, building his hustler’s anthem “Order of Operations,” works with the producers Scott Storch and Diego Ave, the songwriter Eric Bellinger, and his own patient sense of craft. The words need to be right, but so does the timbre. “My voice has a little raspiness to it,” Big Boi says, “and I know how to control it with breath control; I know how to make it hum, or make it smooth at certain times.”
Sometimes a single comment or detail will, synesthetically speaking, illuminate our hearing. The composer Daniel Davies, on John Carpenter’s twinkling, tight-as-cheese-wire Halloween theme: “The purity of that piano is what makes it scary.” The techno auteur Jon Hopkins plays an A-flat bass note on his synth, but then pitch-bends it so low that the note separates into subterranean-sounding electronic pulses—a chthonic throb that will become the rhythm track for his magic-mushroom epic “Luminous Beings.”
And sometimes the testimony has the heft of a sermon. Yo-Yo Ma, being Yo-Yo Ma, gets a special episode of Song Exploder, in which he talks about his lifelong relationship (“literally the first piece of music I learned”) with the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. At weddings and funerals I have fidgeted like an oaf through many listless and creaking recitals of this piece. It has always seemed to me to be just there, inert, part of the furniture of tradition. But here comes Yo-Yo Ma, speaking with great eloquence about the filtration of the prelude, over the years, through his nervous system and through the totality of his livingness. “Any experience that you’ve had has to be somehow revealed in the process of making music. And I think that almost forces you to make yourself vulnerable to whatever is there to be vulnerable to. Because that, actually, is your strength.” His performance, his cello, scrapes every membrane of culture off the prelude. I’m exposed to it, exposed by it. Made vulnerable to Bach, at last, by the words of a musician.
This article appears in the June 2019 print edition with the headline “The Story of a Song.”