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Levitate Me

In which I take all the magic out of one of my favorite songs by analyzing it to death.

“Levitate Me” is from the Pixies’ first record, the EP Come On Pilgrim, recorded and released in 1987. If you want to follow along I recommend this live performance.

It’s by Black Francis so who knows what the lyrics are really about, but to me they’re about transcendence through sex, being lifted up by someone to a higher plane.

I’ll start at the beginning. Musically, the verses are mostly about a continued attempt to leave the tonic chord, E. The chord sequence is E (for a long time,) G#, A, four times in a row. When Francis sings “Levitate me” the first two syllables are supremely dissonant against the underlying harmony; the guitar’s playing a G# chord, which includes a B# as its third, while he’s singing a B natural, creating the mother of all dissonances, the minor second. We’ll see a different minor second dissonance against a B# (or C natural) shortly.

The third line speeds up the meta-rhythm; it’s 12 beats long instead of 16, because we move to the G# after just 8 beats, not 12. At the same time it feels slowed down, as the lyrics are stripped back to “Higher place… levitate me”, and the yodel-like leap on “place” leaves him suspended on a high G# (as high as he gets in the whole song) for a whole bar, until the band finally switches to the G# chord underneath him so we can return to making progress.

In the fourth line we return to a normal 16-beat period, but the temperature is raised both because he’s singing straight eighth notes instead of the former sparse phrases and from the cross-rhythm: “Elevator lady” is 6 half-beats long against the 4-or-8 period underneath it, forcing him to throw in an extra “lady” near the end in order to end up in the right place. What is easier to notice on this line is that everyone starts really rocking out, but the structure is supporting that feeling as much as the volume.

Finally we move up to the dominant harmony, B, for the “If all in all is true” section. (The structure of a piece of classical music is, at its most general, a long move from the tonic (I) harmony to the dominant (V) harmony and back. Rock music is of course a lot less academic than that but this song happens to follow that pattern.) Here we’re in groups of 6 beats (a Pixies trademark) except for the fourth line, which now lengthens the period out to 8 beats to increase the anticipation of the resolution of the dominant to the tonic just that much longer.

The arrangement also opens up a lot at this point – everyone drops out except for the rhythm guitar. Combined with the increased tension of the move to the dominant, the effect is to keep us suspended in the air, waiting for the rest of the band to join back in for the return to the tonic.

On the second line of this section, Joey Santiago on lead guitar throws in a repeated C# that’s dissonant against the B harmony. The rest of the band gradually rejoins the party, and we return to the tonic in a classic F# (V of V) – B (V) – E (I) progression, with a C chord thrown in between the F# and the B, giving it a little minor flavor. Joey’s sustained C# finally makes sense than before when the band moves to the F# chord underneath him, then immediately makes even less sense when they proceed to a C chord (same pitch as that B# earlier), making a grinding dissonance against his note.

The same dissonance keeps occurring in the refrain; the harmonies are repeating C – B – E, continuing to emphasize the C natural, while Joey’s riff goes E-D#-C#-B against it, continuing the C against C# friction.

So that’s halfway through, and it’s time for another trip through the basic structure. This time it’s even more stop-start than before; the instruments stay in suspended animation while Francis’s utterances become ever more gnomic before proceeding to each G# – A – E conclusion. Meanwhile, Joey spends the whole verse sitting on the low E (the lowest note on a guitar) in a menacing tremolo.

The high point of the whole song for me (just beating the awesome Sprechstimme of “Come on pilgrim, you know he loves you” – listen to the Live at the BBC version if you really want to feel your heart stop) is in the second “elevator lady” section. Without warning, in the very middle of it, two extra beats are inserted. All the pitched instruments drop out as the drums throw in an out-of-nowhere ka-POW!, and then everyone picks up right where they left off. Meanwhile Francis has continued to barrel through with his repeated mantra, and because of the extra two beats, ends up in exactly the right place without having to insert an extra “lady” this time. The total effect is like motoring at top velocity through a speed bump, experiencing a second of zero-g while flying through the air, then landing with authority and speeding on with no one the worse for wear. I will never tire of it.

After that amazing moment it’s basically just a long slow return to earth, repeating the moves of the first refrain. There are a few extra cycles of the C – B – E pattern, performing a harmonic deceleration to accompany the tempo deceleration as we arrive at our destination. But boy, that was a pretty good two-minute trip to get there. Wanna hear it again?