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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Inner Light" speaks to my anxious self in a re-emerging social climate

Elderbrook and Bob Moses' lyrically driven house production has been a personal anthem since I first heard it about half a year ago.

It's fair to say that I've listened to tens of thousands of musical compositions in my lifetime. Heck, judging by my mammoth, catch-all house playlist, I've listened to well over 2,000 house tracks alone — and those are just the ones available on Spotify.

It's also fair to say that I've only been left speechless by a minuscule fraction of pieces I've heard. Between my general loquaciousness and my love for talking about and exploring music, it takes an extraordinary work, and being introduced to said work at an extremely precise moment, to render me nonverbal via contemplation.

One of those songs and moments came into my life as last July turned to August. As I prepared to return to Berkeley for my senior year, I was extremely hesitant to participate in any aspect of typical student life. Going to games, taking time to hang out with friends or join clubs, or even attending in-person class felt like a burden too heavy for me to bear. All the while, I was battling an uptick in my anxiety and self-doubt, fearing consequences for actions I had yet to take. When I heard English singer/producer Elderbrook's "Inner Light," a collaboration with Canadian electronic duo Bob Moses, something just clicked within me. Between Elderbrook's story of someone who's "too self-conscious to dance" and the song's muted house groove, it was incredibly relatable in that moment, and it continues to be as I continue to open up myself to experiences new and old like I did a couple years ago.

Before I say my piece, though, just appreciate the song's video. It's a selection from a 2018 dance film entitled The Great Ghosts, capturing inertia through innovative use of a massive turntable at Paris' Panthéon. I'm stunned by just how well it fits the track; the separation and uniting of the two dancers corresponds brilliantly with Elderbrook and Bob Moses' production arc and dance-based lyrical theme.

I'd become drawn to Elderbrook's work near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions, when I just all typical, more mainstream electronic music just felt too loud and pulsating to fit the mood — yes, even his smash hit "Cola" with CamelPhat, an act I'm sure to feature in this space at some point. His work largely de-emphasizes the big percussion that many major acts employ, with his distinctive vocals taking the lead in their stead. Elderbrook's voice sometimes reaches quite high for a male (think Chris Martin upper range if you'd like), and it's often on the fragile side in the vocals, but it is always clear, and through this clarity his lyrics are dependably able to drive his tracks.

On "Inner Light," Elderbrook captures social anxiety to a T as he guides someone to build up the confidence to dance. I particularly like how he shapes his vocal performance on a larger scale: he combines fragility with compassion in his higher, sparser verse lyrics, before really finding the groove in the chorus with a stronger, steady mid-range vocal on the song's tonic of F-sharp. It's as if he's attempting to mirror the change in confidence he wishes to see in the person to whom he's speaking. I rarely see such a strong correspondence between vocal performance and narrative arc in electronic music, so I really appreciate it when an artist does so.

I also really appreciate how Elderbrook's ultimate message with his lyrics is that the subject of his song has the power to actualize the personal change they want to see themselves. Sure, he's there for guidance, but in the end, the titular "inner light" is contained within the self, and it's up to the individual to make the decision to get out there. After all, what's there to lose in dancing a bit? If nothing else, you get to express yourself and healthfully let out some likely very pent-up emotion through said expression. Who knows? You might even be good at it, especially if you hone your craft by continuing to put yourself out there.

Underneath Elderbrook's vocals, his and Bob Moses' understated production provides a soundtrack for those churning emotions, slowly building up a piano-based groove. Usually when a house groove starts with piano, it's a punchy, dry synth-piano sound, with fist-pump-worthy chords; that's been a staple since the dawn of house with records like Black Box's "Ride On Time." Elderbrook and Bob Moses, however, take a decidedly opposite approach, employing what comes off to me as a reverberating grand piano. It immediately sticks out from the house pack, and it continues to do so as it forms the track's harmonic and melodic basis. The lowest notes outline the four-chord loop, which is strengthened first by low- to mid-range piano chords and later by a sub bass joining in to double the low line at the chorus. Meanwhile, the initial higher piano figure is quite similar to Elderbrook's chorus melody, strengthening the connection between the song's vocal and instrumental strands.

Typical house percussion does emerge in the first chorus, along with an additional high synth, but these elements don't make up the heart of the production — rather, they augment the already existing core, while providing the sonic impetus for the song's subject to get out on the floor. It's this sort of approach, which in multiple ways seems to reverse decades-old trends in house and dance in general, that make me think of "Inner Light" as a song-first production, rather than dance-first... and the story the song tells is one which particularly resonates with me as I build up my own confidence again in a reopening world. It's not the kind of production that tends to gain chart or airplay traction, but it's a side of electronic music that I hope you can appreciate like I do.


Postscript — Post-posting chordal revelation: I don't know how I didn't realize and/or make mention of this until the day after writing this, but in going back and listening to my recent selections again, I found that "Inner Light" has something central in common with "Message in a Bottle": there's no tonic chord in the main progression. We never get an F-sharp (specifically F-sharp minor) in the loop, which sticks out to me as saying that the person to whom Elderbrook is speaking hasn't found their inner light yet. Unlike "Message in a Bottle," though, the chords don't change, meaning we never hear a chord based on the tonic at all, even if it doesn't sound at rest like the E Major in the Police's chorus.

However, the chordal intrigue doesn't stop there, because I then realized that "Inner Light" is a track in a minor key... which only utilizes major chords — in order, D Major, E Major, B Major, and A Major. That's an incredibly unique attribute I don't think I've ever noted before in a song (though I highly doubt I haven't heard such a composition before). What makes it all even more beautiful is that, despite this seeming incongruence between key and chords, the tonic and key are still very well established through the initial high piano line and Elderbrook's vocals. The result is a song with somewhat dark musical underpinnings, but an uplifting upshot thanks to Elderbrook's lyrical message and the constant major-chord tonality.

...Gosh, I love being a music nerd sometimes. It helps me understand why pieces of music affects people the way they do. I've always had a bit of trepidation when it comes to turning that lens inward, but in doing so I've ended up being able to analyze tracks more deeply than ever before. Thanks for reading and enjoying what I continue to find.


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