Why Leon Bridges’ Powerful New Song ‘Sweeter’ Is Effective On Every Level
Released in the months following George Floyd’s murder, the song “Sweeter” by Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin is heavily informed by those events and the ensuing outcry. Here we explore what makes the song work so well on every level.
Guest post by Dan Olivet of Soundfly’s Flypaper
George Floyd was killed seven blocks from my house. It’s been a tumultuous month since then, but also inspirational and transformative. The neighborhood has united in a way I’d never pictured, with an eruption of ideas and blueprints for enacting restorative justice both in the neighborhood, and across the country.
One of the key takeaways for me as a white person researching anti-racist strategies is that this is a time to listen to and amplify BIPOC voices, and to take a back seat as much as I can.
And, although writing this piece is perhaps a step in the wrong direction in a way, I do want to use a rare break from silence to take a moment and celebrate the ways in which one flower of a song recently sprung from our country’s recent racial cracks — an R&B masterclass collaboration between singer-songwriter Leon Bridges and musical polymath Terrace Martin (and Robert Glasper), released a few weeks ago, titled “Sweeter.”
This piece has been healing for Bridges, who said upon the song’s release:
“The death of George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was the first time I wept for a man I never met. I am George Floyd, my brothers are George Floyd, and my sisters are George Floyd. I cannot and will not be silent any longer.”
We’re going to examine ways in which this song heals, expresses pain, and skillfully implements musical expertise. I’ll be focusing on the “live” version of the song, not the studio recorded single, mostly because there’s more to celebrate; like an instrumental solo by Martin and an extended outro.
This song starts with a flutey synth patch sustaining one simple note, which we will soon hear as the fifth note of the B♭ Major scale, our key. This minutes-long note will hover there throughout almost the entire song, and, there’s a lot to unpack in just this one note.
Poetically, you could compare it to the ringing in your ears after a bomb goes off. George Floyd’s murder was that bomb. (*The editor likens this to the low hovering presence of Floyd’s ghost watching over us from heaven.)
Symbolically, it represents something unresolved. And the music theory behind this note supports that, as our ears have been trained by the countless songs we’ve heard to want to hear the fifth note of the scale, or the “dominant” note, resolve to the “tonic,” or first note. Functionally, this note sounds slightly unstable.
It wants to return home.
It does. At the very end of the song, this hovering pang of hoped-for resolution, so omnipresent it’s now soaked into your clothes, finally gets swallowed up by a pulsating, slightly overdriven tonic “home” note from the organ. And oh, doesn’t it feel like drifting off to sleep after a soft good night kiss.
The vocal melody is based on the major pentatonic scale, which is like the major, but missing the fourth and seventh notes of the scale. This is why the first time he deviates from the more constrained five-note scale, using the fourth note of the major at 1:08 on the word “stole,” it carries a weightier emotional emphasis, just like you’d expect a negative word like “stole” to have.
The other two times he silkily blares outside of the pentatonic scale, on the words “rain” and “sang” (1:47 and 1:55), it clashes mournfully with the harmony, as this time that fourth scale degree it is not a member of the chord triad underneath. But, we’ll talk more about those chords soon…
To my ears, Soul music always leaned a little slower, maybe the slowest of the genres with a backbeat. Even the canon’s faster songs, like “Get Ready” and “Move On Up” for example, with their laid back delivery, always put me at a no-rush ease. “Sweeter,” twice as slow as either of these songs at 64 BPM, is like spooning through a DQ blizzard.
It’s a thick tempo, but it also leaves a lot of space. Like when your groove is this close to a clock’s tick-tock there’s plenty of room for some rhythmically rare “32nd notes.” Listen for them right away, in the hi-hat, as they finish the first and third bar of the song with a “tih-tih-tih-tih,” whispering to that lonesome flutey synth dominant.
Also listen to how the holy-souly spirit takes control of Terrace Martin’s saxophone at 4:03 for a quick 32nd notes jog.
We start with our intro, then jump right into a chorus followed by the verse; then another chorus, and then comes the bridge, which you could also think of as an alternate second verse if you’re upset you only got one; then another chorus, and then another bridge (or alternate verse) and chorus, which they don’t have time for in the single; then Terrace takes his solo; and then the extended outro (relative to the single version).
Expressed neatly, with number of bars per section in parentheses, this looks like:
I(4) – C(8) – V(8) – C(8) – B(8) – C(8) – B(8) – C(8) – S(8) – O(7)
Notice how the outro, at seven bars, appears to be cut short, this happened because they ended by punctuating the song with the one-bar title refrain.
First of all, it doesn’t get any better than Robert Glasper on keys curating the harmonies here folks — seven Grammy noms, three wins, including a 2012 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album — an absolute treat, and another reason I picked the live studio version over the single.
To start, both the chorus and the verse share the same progression of two three-chord ideas. First (roman numeral chord types in parentheses):
Gm7 (vi) – F/A (V) or F6/A – B♭ or B♭add9 (I)
Then the next three-chord idea:
E♭M9 (IV) – B♭/D (I) or Gm7/D – Cm11 (ii)
After these progressions are firmly established, the bridge harmony (at 1:45) expands upon the first chorus-verse idea, starting with:
Gm7 (vi) – F6/A (V) – B♭add9 (I)
And then continuing on with two more chords, a passing secondary diminished chord:
Bº (viio/ii) or maybe G7/B
And finally a Cm11 (ii).
And in this instance, the minor two chord (ii) acts as a kind of question mark, as in most Western music it is usually answered by a (V) to (I) cadence, which here, never comes.
Next, as if those two extra chords weren’t impressive enough, the solo section (at 3:45) drops on you like an MMORPG expansion, with three more chords!
Gm7 (vi) – F6/A (V) – B♭add9 (I) – Bº (viio/ii) – Cm11 (ii)
D7♭9♭13 – E♭M7 – F6 (or maybe Dm/F)
Holy wow, this song is such a masterclass! You get your audience acclimated to a chord change of three, then you surprise the listener with a fiver extension, and then bang: Eight beats with eight chords! Look under your seats, everyone gets one — relentless harmonic motion.
Also, listen here to how the bass line just chugs it up the mountain, tracing a full ascending G natural minor scale, wedging in a passing major third from that secondary diminished (Bº)! Damn that’s fine, a slow steady levitation straight up into that spotlight from above.
Before we go, a quick word on the lyrics.
All of Bridges’ words here are worn on the sleeve, but the lyrics that especially grab my heart and gave it a twist are: “You stole from me my chance to be,” because of what the next lyric is. This line, connected to the next, reads: “(You stole from me my chance to be) hoping for a life more sweeter.”
This is just devastating, to hear Bridges hint at the possibility that he’s lost hope, or that his hope was stolen from him. Oof.
Similar to how this lyric operates on two levels, expressing two sentiments, I’d like to point out another lyric full of double sentiment: “And I wish I had another day, but it’s just another day.” If you need the double meaning in that explained, I don’t know what to tell ya; dig deeper, my friend.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief deep-dig into what Variety calls a “powerful anti-racist song,” Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin’s “Sweeter.” Till next time, keep hoping for, clamoring for, and working for that sweeter life.