How k.d. lang Pulls Back the Reins: Phrasing and Artistic License

Cowgirl gets a medal for winning the competition

As a trained professional philosopher (yes, it’s true), I am not a big fan of reasons for the existence of things to remain concealed. In fact, I admit that I have a bit of a problem in this regard and insist on investigations with a  low probability of “roping the calf”. Yet, the lariat circles above in wait.  One of my pet peeves has been not really being able to ascertain what it is about k.d. lang that is so over-the-top-I-can’t-believe-I’m-hearing-this  good about her singing. I have been thinking about this for awhile now and do not feel like I have the answers I think I should have. It may well be that there are not any, but this is unlikely. How does the classic maxim go; the simplest explanation is probably the correct one?

Phrasing by “Whoa Nelly”

So, here we go…Hang on to your hats and glasses. I have an idea about how k.d. “pulls back the reins” at precisely perfect points in her performances.  To do this I’m going to harken back to my pal Miller (1996) whom I have been reading in an effort to suss out why k.d. lang’s voice is so mysteriously spot on, every time, all the time. He has this to say:

“Communicative language is not formed by stringing isolated words together. We express ourselves by organizing words into sentences that permit the progression of an idea. Groups of such sentences develop the initial thought. There is a direct correspondence between the role of words and sentences in spoken language and of notes and phrases in singing.

A singer presents musical and literary ideas spread out over longer periods of time than does the speaker. This duration factor allows the elements of vocal and musical expression to exceed those of normal spoken communication.”1

After reading this, I decided to do some detective listening. I listened to Big Boned Gal (mostly because it cheers me up, but also because I considered using it as the exemplar for this blog), Extraordinary Thing, and Pulling Back the Reins. I decided on the latter. And for those of you who have followed this blog for awhile, you know that I tend to favor k.d.’s original stuff.  This tune is on Absolute Torch and Twang.

I want to focus on the idea Miller (1996)  pointed to about “progression of ideas”. I argue that k.d. is a magician when it comes to doing this and that it is one of, if not THE most subtly conspicuous element to her art. What is it that she does, you ask? She pulls back, just a nanosecond longer here, a lot longer  there.  All of this foreshadowing the full on interpretive aural watershed that happens (you know, those part of songs that bring audiences to their knees).

Different Reins for Different Reigns

This is what I noticed about k.d.s “progression of ideas”.

1. The Pulling Back the Reins (PBR)  Refrain happens 3 times, and each time k.d. “takes off and lands” differently. Not a lot different, but different.

2. The words “Ran away” are the key progression of idea, even though the listener falls “behind” in processing how good the vocal slide is in the words “taaaaall in the saddle” that come one line before “ran away”.

The first PBR happens at 01:03, the second at 01:56 and the third at 03:26.  If you listen very carefully, you’ll notice that k.d. does whatever she wants as far as the meter (which seems like it is in 2 or a fast 4) is concerned. Do not try and force k.d. to follow a metronome, like I did, because she just doesn’t. And she has a kick ass band behind her that seamlessly go “astray” with her and make it all sound perfect.  So, since k.d. totally flies solo as far as this goes, it’s hard to really express what I want you to notice.  But, the first time she sings PBR she starts just a nano-second later than she does the other 2 times.  Also, the word “reins” goes up in tone. By doing these two things, the “ran away” phrase is not emphasized as much the first time.

The second time she sings PBR  the word “reins” goes down in tone. By the time she gets to “ran away”, the progression of ideas is emphasized. She takes  a lot longer to sing these words, and the tension is building.

The third time she sings PBR the word “reins” goes up in tone again and k.d. puts a ton of controlled pressure on  “taaaaaall in the saddle”.  In fact, there is so much pressure one may think that k.d. could not add anymore for the “Ran away” that happens last, but she does.

Motes of Beauty

I suppose my point in yammering on about this one song is that k.d. is kind of an unseen artist. What I mean is she does many teensy, small things that seem “normal” and go unnoticed. But they’re  genius. In fact, I am not  sure what k.d. does in this regard can be taught. It’s extraordinary, muted, subtle and overwhelming. She has such control of her own voice, that just a tug on the reins here or there sends the rest of us to musical Elysian Fields.

Pullin’ Back the Reins

Out of nowhere this gust of wind
Brushed my hair, kissed my skin
I aimed to hold a bridled pace
When with love itself I came face to face

Pullin’ back the reins
Trying to remain
Tall in a saddle
When all that we had well
Ran away
With a will of its own

I know your soul is wild and free
Like this galloping inside me
Tossed by instinct and where we land
Is vast and certain of all that’s planned

Pullin’ back the reins
Trying to remain
Tall in a saddle
When all that we had well
Ran away, ran away
With a will of its own

You know, I finally learned to break the run
And gently harness the love of someone
An equal parts of wait and trust
Is in control of the both of us

Pullin’ back the reins
Trying to remain
Tall in a saddle when
When all that we had well
Ran away, ran away, ran away


Read more: K. D. Lang – Pullin’ Back The Reins Lyrics | MetroLyrics


Richard Miller, On the Art of Singing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 110.

1 Comment

  1. Tryin’ to remain tall in the saddle–I’ve been there. Hard to stay up there when you’ve been shot down. And sometimes it’s really hard to tell just how you got shot down. Agree w/her voice and way of handling music; never heard anybody with that much control, even opera singers who have been at it for years. It’s partly hard-wired and partly self-taught, I do believe. Whatever it is, it’s amazing to hear. I so enjoy your ways of seeing and noticing things that nobody else ever seems to.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s