In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we’re plowing through some of our favorite songs for spring.
My colleagues may wax sentimental about songs of spring awakening and blossoming flowers all they like. But the first song that popped in my head when this topic was posed is the same thing I think of whenever my wife asks me about the forecast each morning. “It’s Gonna Rain.” Throughout the spring months, Steve Reich’s groundbreaking minimalist work tends to play on a loop in my head, its central, maddening phrase the aural equivalent of the shitty precipitation that’s currently been playing on a loop throughout the workweek. It’s spring? Yeah. “It’s Gonna Rain.”
Like a persistent on-and-off drizzle with occasional peeks of sunshine, “It’s Gonna Rain” creates a seesawing of emotions. And like spring, sometimes it’s downright annoying. Especially in his early days, Reich worked in an arena of electronic composition that’s more about the science of the process than it is about creating things meant to be enjoyed. His later, most famous pieces—Music For 18 Musicians, for example—achieve a pleasant sort of hypnagogic trance state with their pulsating melodies. But his earliest works—built out of found-sound street recordings committed to tape, then cut up and repeated in loops that phase in and out of each other—practically dare you to keep listening. I still remember the first time I ever heard Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain,” his first major work, while I was on acid. I volleyed between a state of revelatory bliss and believing I’d gone insane. (I don’t particularly recommend it.)
Of course, you don’t have to be on psychedelics to have the same experience. “It’s Gonna Rain” is unhinged enough on its own, taking a simple snatch of apocalyptic sermonizing from a manic street preacher, then turning it into a dizzying, 17-plus minutes of shifting rhythms and garbled speech where time and language seem to melt. Drawing influence from his contemporary Terry Riley (whose reworking of Harvey Averne’s “You’re No Good” offers a similar feeling of engrossing derangement), Reich loops the patterned phrases against each other to create a primitive form of phasing, with each second of delay creating new disjointed disharmonies. And at the middle point, just when you think you’ve hit a patch of relief, the second half of the piece kicks in, a cacophonous flood of guttural noise. It’s like the clouds finally breaking in the sky, only to make way for even bigger thunderheads.
In Reich’s work, you can hear the seeds of decades of sample-based dance, experimental electronic, and ambient music to come, all blooming from the idea of composition as mathematical manipulation. But just as April showers bring May flowers (and all that happy-go-lucky crap), before those seeds can sprout, “It’s Gonna Rain.”