Since the salad days of summer 2015 when I first cracked into the wet and wild world of these so-called “podcasts,” friends of mine had only one thing to say: “Listen to SONG EXPLODER.” Again and again I heard this mantra, but I was resistant. After trying and failing to enjoy NPR’s ALL SONGS CONSIDERED due to finding a mortal enemy in the tastes and personality of Bob Boilen (it’s love/hate, actually—I consider him the Batman to my Joker, but I digress), I didn’t want to be hurt again by a podcast dealing with music. Thankfully, SONG EXPLODER put all of my fears to rest. Sure, it’s a podcast about music, but it feels like something much greater, exploring the nooks and crannies of musicians and how their personalities, interests, and sensibilities combine to make some of modern culture’s most memorable songs. The coverage on Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Sticky Drama” is probably the closest host Hrishikesh Hirway has come to coinciding with my personal tastes, but I can say with full honesty that I’ve never walked away from an episode without a larger sense of respect and amazement at the work that goes into creating.
The structure is simple: take a song by a popular artist, typically in the Pitchfork sphere of “indie,” and break apart each and every component of it, with the artist explaining how they came up with and why they included all the parts that they did. It doesn’t produce knock-out results all of the time (I was surprised to find the recent Slowdive episode a bit of a disappointment), but when it works, boy howdy does it. And it usually does! Bonobo’s episode is a marvel in terms of recognizing and appreciating the intricacies of an artist who makes music that sounds superficially simple, Patrick and Ralph Carney’s breakdown of the theme to BOJACK HORSEMAN is one of the most fun experiences I’ve had with podcasting in general, Mitski’s explanation of “Best American Girl” is as personally and emotionally evocative as you probably expect, and yes, even Metallica proves that there might be more to them than meets the ears as they dive into “Moth into Flame.” But friends and lovers, trust me, the episode that forever seared SONG EXPLODER into my memory as something to pay attention to is Justin Hurwitz explaining LA LA LAND’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”
As a classically-trained, professional jazz saxophone player, my father’s always exhibited derision for the vast majority of music that I listen to and explore, but I’ve never seen him so blown away as he was upon learning about Justin Hurwitz. Although the episode is by far the most redolent in terms of musical theory from what I’ve heard of the series, as my dad will tell anyone who listens, it proves that Hurwitz might be the only real genius working in film scoring today, and demonstrates what an unsung field soundtracking is in general. But even if you feel it gets a little lost in the weeds, hearing Hurwitz talk about juggling the passionate and the technical is a stellar stand-in for the impact of the show in general. While anyone could get on a stage and get musicians to talk about their influences, Hirway’s talents as a host shine through as we hear the vulnerability and openness exhibited by his interviewees—and the fact that his voice is probably the most soothing thing currently existing on the face of planet Earth. It’s never just as simple as walking into the studio, striking up the band, and seeing what comes out of it, and the humanity that SONG EXPLODER exposes is the show’s trump card.
At the risk of getting too hyperbolic, I really do think SONG EXPLODER can make the world seem like a brighter, more vibrant place. Yes, on a literal level it’s just letting you hear some of your favorite musicians explain themselves, but on a larger level, it’s an encouraging argument for taking the time to fully consider the tiny moving parts that make up our daily existence. It’s important to remember that living, breathing people are behind the media and culture that we consume, especially for someone who fashions themselves as a critic, and that sentiment can easily be extrapolated to the vast swaths of people all around us. I always leave SONG EXPLODER with a smile on my face, and it’s really a no-brainer for your next podcast download.