We live in a world where bigger is usually better. Whether it’s phones, cars, or houses, the larger it is, the more impressive (supposedly).
For example, just think about concerts (remember when they were a thing?). Back in the day, a simple guitar and a couple of bandmates was more than enough to put on a riveting show. Now, you can’t go to a pop concert without the obligatory fireworks, intense dance routines, and at least seven costume changes.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All of these histrionics often combine to create an electrifying and unforgettable performance - just look at Coldplay’s mesmerising and kaleidoscopic Glastonbury performance in 2016.
But at the same time, there is an equally captivating quality to a one man show, with the blueprint for this having been laid out by Ed Sheeran. I was fortunate enough to see him perform on his divide tour, and the majority of the set consisted solely of Ed, his guitar, and his trusty loop pedal. It was extremely minimal, but it was also one of the most incredible and magical concerts I’ve ever witnessed.
I believe the unique appeal of an acoustic performance translates into recordings. For me, as good as a heavily produced and meticulously glossed track might sound, there will always be something alluring about just hearing an artist alone with a guitar or piano. Perhaps it’s because I grew up alongside the explosion of technology, where I was seeing the electrification of everything, while also having had a brief taste of the simplicity of a less ‘switched on’ world as a child.
But regardless of whether it truly is more authentic or not, listening to an acoustic version of a song is often a much more relaxing experience than listening to the original. Instead of being merely an alternative form of the same song, it seems to transform into its own thing, often with an entirely different mood and atmosphere, which brings with it a completely new listening experience.
Take one of my favourite albums of all time, for example - Florida Georgia Line’s The Acoustic Sessions. This is essentially a ‘Greatest Hits’ album, but with each of the songs re-recorded acoustically. FGL made their name as party-starting, beer-chugging anthem-makers, and while their vibe is a lot different nowadays, a lot of the songs on this project are from those early days.
FGL’s ‘Cruise’ completely shook up the Country landscape and smashed records left, right and centre. It infused Hip-Hop’s club-ready sound and energy into Country long before the time of Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ (Cruise was released way back in 2012). But listen to the version of ‘Cruise’ on The Acoustic Sessions, and it morphs into a sweet-hearted love-song. The vocals are almost identical, but the softness of the accompanying strumming, as opposed to the aggressive beat and muscled-up guitars of the original version, brings a tenderness that was previously absent.
It’s a contrast that’s also starkly apparent on Kelsea Ballerini’s recent double album release. She dropped kelsea in March, but followed it up in September with ballerini, which comprised of acoustic versions of all the kelsea tracks. The Apple Music Editor notes perfectly sum up the transformation of one particular song, ‘needy’, across the two albums - “With its beat-driven energy stripped away, ‘needy’ no longer sounds blissful, but a little uneasy at being in the grip of such emotion”.
Stripping a song back to its basics undoubtedly leaves the artist in a much more vulnerable position, with more attention being placed on their vocals and no safety blanket being offered by a cacophony of instruments and backing tracks. It gives the song a more naked feel, and this can, as with Kelsea Ballerini’s ‘needy’, bring a new sense of emotional insecurity to the track.
But even though there may be this newfound trepidation that often shines through as a result of the nature of the acoustic setting, the honesty and rawness of it pulls the listener in, and it introduces with it a whole new level of intimacy in the way the track resonates.
There’s something comforting about the fact that the artist is willing to enter this more open space, and the simplicity of the musical arrangement gels with this vulnerability to create a feeling of this being a genuine, honest expression of emotion.
Furthermore, we all know from our pre-COVID nights of clubbing that the songs of choice usually have a driving beat, a heavy bass and maybe some rattling hi-hats thrown in for good measure, hence why Hip-Hop and EDM are both immensely popular in the club scene. The musical elements are all designed to get your blood flowing and your pulse racing - they’re hype songs.
Which is all well and good, when you want to get hyped. But when you’re after a more relaxing experience, opting for an acoustic track is always a safe bet. As I mentioned before, the softness offered by the simple instrument-vocal union brings a warm, gentle feeling of quietude.
So given the clubs are a little off-limits at the moment with all the COVID restrictions, if you’re looking to switch off rather than switch on, check out this playlist of chilled, mellow and relaxing acoustic songs.
Despite my love for FGL and Ed Sheeran, the first song I would recommend checking out on this playlist is the acoustic version of Justin Bieber’s ‘Holy’, featuring Chance the Rapper. Unsurprisingly, the vocals are immaculate, and Chance joins in with a wonderfully tender verse, all laid across an unassuming yet lush bed of noodling guitars and a purposeful piano.