Don’t laugh: the new Selena Gomez song is one of the most progressive pieces of music of 2017.
The writing team features people who’ve worked with the usual suspects – One Direction, Bieber, Gaga, etc – as well as a youngster named Andrew Watt who co-handled the actual production. I think Watt played a major role in the song’s progressive nature, mainly based on his past CV: he’s played guitar with The Roots, he’s collaborated with Jason Bonham, Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Sabbath), and Queens of the Stone Age, and he’s opened for The Cult. So he’s clearly a dude who knows what HM2 pedals and Mesa Boogie amp sims do.
The song is also “feat.” DJ Marshmello, who’s a huge DeadMau5-style EDM artist. He co-produced “Wolves” alongside Watt, which is apparent from its sonic palette.
Let’s talk about what’s happening here.
First, instrumentation and structure. We begin in a clean prog-guitar part that could just as easily open an Opeth track. That section leads into the first verse, which adds a Nine Inch Nails-style drum part – recorded/produced with so much source distance that I was instantly reminded of Reznor’s work on The Social Network.
Then we get the chorus, which has harmonic movements that are straight out of every single Iron Maiden chorus ever. The chordal movement itself is designed with limited synth padding, instead leaning on an attack-y bass part (possibly re-amped), Selena’s vocals, and more clean guitar (this time deeply-layered). And over the top of it all, Selena’s melody line is a country-pop chorus! Beneath those two elements sits an escalating-EDM snare/clap that we’ve all become extremely familiar with over the past few years, setting a common-time feel. Yet through it all, there is no 4-on-the-floor style drum/bass drop. This creates incredible tension, because your ear is expecting a huge jump-chorus. The melody is constantly moving, and the chorus is huge in its own way, but we never get a percussive explosion.
Next, something extremely rare in pop music: a climax following the chorus, featuring melodic material we haven’t heard yet, in half-time feel. Those three elements are, to me, insanely radical in almost any genre of music. The chorus is suggesting this massive build towards a jump-in-4, and instead we get this half-time feel based on an arpeggio that partially suggests a 3-against-4 polyrhythm. And all of the sounds of this climax are fresh: this isn’t an expansion of the opening motif, which is what you usually get in a pop song (if you don’t get a direct line back to the verse). So we’ve had a chorus built on anti-resolution and tension going into a groove-climax that itself moves in delayed gratification. Wow.
This format repeats itself, until we get to ANOTHER rarity in most music – an anticlimactic conclusion. Selena’s voice is almost completely naked on the final chorus, accompanied only by the Opeth-esque guitar that opened the track and interjections of vocal harmonies.
To top it all off, “Wolves” features a career-defining vocal performance from Selena, the kind of loose, raw, unprocessed singing that you basically never hear in pop anymore. I DARE you not to get chills from the second chorus, when she layers the hook in a soaring high-register atop a Devin Townsend-esque choir.
This is the kind of exciting, boundary-pushing songwriting that just doesn’t happen very often in American music. What a track!
P.S. check out the really cute iPhone-style video they made ✌🏻