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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Ain't No Sunshine" is a clinic in musical succinctness

125 seconds. 26 "I know"s. Four chords. One perfectly short piece of art.

Of all the aspects of popular music, length seems to be one of the least frequently discussed. When it is mentioned, it's usually because a song is exceptionally long; take, for example, Taylor Swift's 10-minute version of "All Too Well." However, with this entry I'm highlighting the other side of the coin from the revised "All Too Well," "American Pie," and the like — a song that is exactly as short as it needs to be.

Clocking in at just two minutes and five seconds, Bill Withers' breakthrough 1971 hit "Ain't No Sunshine" is the second-shortest of the 181 tracks I've selected to date (only the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko" beats it out on brevity). In that time, Withers musically says all he needs to say. The song's backdrop is simple, and he reflects that in his lyrics and chord selections. The repetition he does provide further focuses and highlights the song's emotions, resulting in a satisfyingly complete single regardless of running time.

Withers wastes no time with an introduction, beginning the first verse right away. The starkness of his vocal-only opening makes it stand out — it's a musical move that presents a performing confidence, but also displays a character's vulnerability. This exposed nature is furthered by the other elements of "Ain't No Sunshine": the soft instrumental backing led by Stephen Stills' guitar in the opening; the emotive strings that enter afterward; and most of all, Withers' lyrics.

It's hard to put the song's words much simpler than they already are, and in their straightforwardness they present an authenticity of character. You really feel the emotion in the repeated title line and the refrain "Anytime she goes away," which combine to form the bookends and middle of three of the song's four verses (more on the odd one out in a bit). The other line that sticks out to me is "And this house just ain't no home," the penultimate line of the second and fourth verses. The house / home distinction is a powerful one that all comes down to comfort; it's a distinction I've come to understand myself in the past decade between the moves my family has made— and the homes we've established — and my various residences while in college — decidedly houses.

What amazes me about "Ain't No Sunshine" aside from how short it is, is the amount of repetition the song features. For starters, there are only four chords throughout the song (A minor, E minor, G Major, and D minor), a relatively low number for the time. Then there's the lyrical repetition to which I partially alluded in the above paragraph... but I guess I'll repeat some myself by acknowledging it here, before taking it a step further. The one verse which does not fall in line with the rest is full of repetition in and of itself; the third verse contains 26 consecutive instances of "I know," each with the same vocal contour.

It's a circulatory feat to get out all those "I know"s in one breath and 15 seconds — especially with the added pressure of the instruments dropping out, leaving the vocals fully exposed — but more than that, it's a tool with incredible narrative power, something I explored all the way back in September with Jimmy Eat World's "Sweetness." Here on "Ain't No Sunshine," the 26-fold repetition of "I know" is a demonstration of Withers' character attempting to come to terms with the song's central despair. The key word is attempting, because the subsequent lines ("Hey, I ought to leave the young thing alone / But ain't no sunshine when she's gone") indicate an inability to move on.

Other than a tag ending with two repetitions of the final line, that's all she (or really, he) wrote... and that's all that needed to be written. Bill Withers and producer Booker T. Jones recognized that "Ain't No Sunshine" tells a full story in four verses, and they demonstrated respect for the song by not pushing it any further. Every compositional feature is just enough, and "just enough" is a far tougher (and, for my money, grander) feat to achieve than "not too much."


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