Sometimes it’s the most profound part of a song, or the moment that interrupts a narrative’s confident surface. Often, it’s a backing up, a taking stock, a few seconds of reflection, poignant or even painful.
The bridge -- also known as the “middle-eight” for its eight bars -- connects a chorus to a verse; it’s associated with Tin Pan Alley and Lennon-McCartney. Arlen-Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” (“Someday I’ll wish upon a star ...”) and the Beatles’ “Yes It Is” (“I could be happy / with you by my side ...”) have great ones, the first rueful, the other assertive.
But its roots are far older, and the bridge has persisted as a key songwriting structure despite the attack on convention by punk, grunge and indie.
While some bands today reject the bridge and its formal, polished connotations, it continues to be a key to emotionally resonant and musically organized songwriting: Commercial songwriters use them as elements in a formula, but a handful of today’s best musicians rely on the bridge nearly as artfully as Cole Porter.
“I sort of regard the bridge in a magical way,” says Aimee Mann, the critically respected singer-songwriter. “It separates the men from the boys. It’s a mark of hanging in there, finishing the job, making sure it’s a real song.”
Mann admires the use of bridges by songwriters such as Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Jon Brion and Elliott Smith. “I like the bridge because it’s like the counterpoint, ‘On the other hand.’ I think the best version of this was Lennon and McCartney. They wrote bridges for each other’s songs, so you would have a totally different approach,” both emotionally and lyrically.
The song “We Can Work It Out,” for instance, has a typical McCartney optimism to it, until the bridge, thought to be by Lennon, becomes darker, more dubious, and more hurried on the bridge -- “Life is very short, and there’s no time ...” Says Mann: “It’s like the devil’s advocate.”
“Sometimes the song feels like it needs to go somewhere else,” says Richard Thompson, who wrote a harrowing bridge for “Walking on a Wire” and a nostalgic one for “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven.”
“The art of the bridge is that it’s an exciting place to go, and the unexpected can result.”
In favor and out
The bridge goes back to one of the earliest blueprints in Western music: sonata form, which was codified in the late 1700s and serves as the foundation for not just the piano sonata but the symphony and concerto. In some cases, the bridge “modulates,” changing keys to give the piece a new, sometimes darker, emotional flavor -- as does the related sonnet, with its volta, or “turn,” where an ode to a beloved can turn melancholy.
But in much of the music of the 19th and early 20th centuries -- the rural music of Europe or North America, from 12-bar blues to folk and country -- the bridge never took.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, classic American songwriters such as Porter and the Gershwins used the bridge to bring refinement to their songs -- songs adapted as jazz numbers by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and others.
In the early ‘60s, the bridge was reborn with the British Invasion. As song form stretched out in the ‘70s, structure fell out of favor, but even punk bands the Clash and the Buzzcocks -- and post-punks such as XTC and the Smiths, for which the bridge was the place for rhetorical questions -- wrote concise and effective middle-eights. The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” has a bridge.
Music critic Ira Robbins points out that bridges often find a new vocalist taking over for a few bars, whether it’s Keith Richards in Rolling Stones bridges, Pete Townshend for the Who, or Mick Jones for the Clash. Sometimes they provide “a 90-degree turn in the middle of the song.”
By the ‘90s, alternative and indie rock were busy deconstructing the rock song or adding layers of distortion. Nirvana and “lo-fi” groups such as Sebadoh and Pavement couldn’t be bothered with structure; post-rock groups such as Tortoise weren’t interested.
But Benjamin Nugent, whose book “Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing,” which comes out in October, says the bridge is on its way back.
“What a bridge does, generally, is interrupt the beat that a dance song depends on, so for a long time it wasn’t the most desirable thing to have,” he says. “But starting in about 2001, people had been so saturated with grooves -- whether in dance music or teen-pop -- that they started yearning for clearly structured songs and vocal performances that don’t embellish the songs much. So what’s happened is a return to the Cole Porter-Burt Bacharach-Beatles elements of a song.”
The evidence, he says, is in the work of artists such as Smith, who wrote sublime bridges his whole career, and the White Stripes, who wrote memorable middle-eights with shifted rhythms on “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “You’re Pretty Good Looking.” Or the Shins, whose “So Says I,” about the loss of personal control, has a bridge (“In our darkest hours ...”) where the singer sounds like he’s losing his footing.
“It’s the hardest part of a song to write,” Nugent says, “and a place for really good songwriters to show off.
“Elliott Smith once said, when he was a kid first trying to write songs, his favorite parts were all transitions.” His best bridges “give you the thesis statement of the song,” Nugent says, sometimes adding a new instrument to the mix for emphasis. In “Southern Belle,” the music becomes tougher and the lyric more accusatory on the bridge: “How come you’re not ashamed of what you are--"
“He gets away from the metaphors he’s been using throughout and states the real meaning of the song.”
A staple of R&B
Sometimes you find it in unlikely places. Tim DeLaughter of the Polyphonic Spree writes expansive, oddly shaped, choral rock songs that often rely on traditional, if overlong, middle-eights. But the bridge itself, he says, remains a mystery to him.
The bridge has a parallel history in black music. As 12-bar blues turned into rhythm and blues, it picked up the bridge, which became more than just a structural element.
“The important thing about a bridge for R&B people such as Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield,” says David Ritz, who co-wrote books with several soul giants, “is the literal and metaphorical confirmation that a song is a journey.
“At its heart, R&B is a spiritually informed music; it’s about transformation, going somewhere. So the bridge is this path you walk. It’s more than just cocking your head in a different direction, but a confirmation that we’re ‘Moving Up,’ ‘People Get Ready,’ ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’
“So when James Brown shouts ‘Take me to the bridge,’ it’s more than just ‘Take me to another place in the song,’ ” Ritz says.
As R&B became more dance- and groove-oriented in the ‘70s, the bridge became more rare, and it hasn’t maintained its prominence in hip-hop, though it still has a place in the “bedroom R&B” of R. Kelly and Usher, where the bridge serves as a sigh before the seduction.
Some accomplished, critically acclaimed bands -- Fiery Furnaces, Bright Eyes, Wilco -- use the bridge rarely.
Even some craftsmen dislike it. “My favorite songs generally don’t have bridges,” says Stephin Merritt, songwriter for Magnetic Fields. “They’re good enough they don’t need them.”
And though he writes structured, often Tin Pan Alley-derived songs, he says he uses middle-eights only when he needs to lengthen a song. Bridges he detests: the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” and so on.
But the bridge still stands for many as a sign of sophisticated, crafted songwriting that reaches for a complicated emotional effect. “It’s a very delicate thing,” Smith biographer Nugent says, “to depart from the melody and come back to it and not have it look strained.”
“Just as in real life, bridges are beautiful things,” Ritz concludes. “They can thrill you with their sweep and their logic.”
A sampling of bridges worth crossing
Scott Timberg tapped some music writers and musicians for a list of the top 10 middle-eights.
“Townshend brings a plaintive, pleading quality to the bridges he sings,” critic Ira Robbins says of the Who song. “Roger Daltrey’s burly, defiant verse/chorus delivery is contrasted by Townshend’s more profound and personal bridge work.” (“Don’t cry / Don’t raise your eye / It’s only teenage wasteland.”)
“Up the Junction”
Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook
“Bridges aren’t as important as how you come out of them,” musician Ted Leo says. This song by Squeeze “is made brilliant not by the bridge itself but in the key change, coming right out of the bridge, that starts the last verse, lifting the song to a higher (literally and figuratively) level.”
“Let’s Get It On”
and Ed Townsend
“The song is a seduction, in the tradition of metaphysical poets like Donne and Herbert,” says Gaye’s biographer David Ritz. “The bridge seems to take off the edge; it’s brilliantly sneaky -- ‘I ain’t gonna push, I won’t push you, baby.’ ”
This is one of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann’s favorite bridges. In a sad, metaphor-packed song, Smith suddenly sings, “No one deserves this,” and a piano comes in to underline it.
“Could I Leave You--"
The bridge from the musical “Follies,” says Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, “tells us that the singer has had an affair; it gives the song another dimension.”
“Strawberry Letter 23"
“We spent a whole tour singing the vocal line on the bridge of this song,” says J.P. Caballero of Dios Malos, “because it sounds so sweet.” The bridge of the hit by the Brothers Johnson begins, “With my baby, I am free ...”
and Gillian Shakespeare
“It’s good, sunny, orchestral pop,” says the Polyphonic Spree’s Tim DeLaughter -- though the song by First Class gets darker on the bridge (“Mmmm, I never thought that it would end ...”).
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
It’s the favorite bridge of Carl Newman, songwriter for the New Pornographers. On the bridge -- “We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table ...” -- this bitter Beatles song turns harsh.
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”
Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin
“It’s tricky,” songwriter Richard Thompson says of his favorite, sung by Vera Lynn. “A beautiful key change.” It begins, “The moon that lingered over London town ... “
“Salt of the Earth”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
“In the verse and chorus Jagger allows you to believe he might be singing some kind of anthem for the workers,” says writer Benjamin Nugent of the Rolling Stones song, “and then in the bridge he quiets down and admits how indistinct and unreal the faces in the crowd look to him.”