Puzzly Podcasts: Song Exploder as Truth Window

There’s no place like home . . . especially if your home has a truth window installed.

“A truth window,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an opening in a wall surface, created to reveal the layers or components within the wall.” The inner workings of a house become elevated to the status of a treasured possession, displayed in a structure reminiscent of a small china cabinet or an oil portrait’s frame. Often, though not always, the material seen through the window’s glass pane is straw, simultaneously intricate in its multiplicity (a straw bale is made up of so many individual strands) and deceptively simple, rustic. Reminiscent of how The Wizard of Oz‘s scarecrow thought that his straw construction necessarily meant the absence of a brain, only to find out at the story’s end that he had been a brilliant, complex thinker all along.

A 2011 blog post by Geoff Manaugh compares truth windows to cannulas installed in the sides of cows to make their digestive systems accessible, and to the purely hypothetical idea of installing an upside-down periscope into the sidewalk of a dense urban area, showing off the infrastructure below (“subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers”). A truth window is a bloodless dissection, an invitation to contemplate—even treasure—the buried mechanics that we normally take for granted.

Hrishikesh Hirway began the music podcast Song Exploder in 2014 with a similar invitation in mind. His recent TED Talk, “What you discover when you really listen,” begins with Hirway drawing a comparison between a song and a house. The musical artist puts all this work, all these materials (all these bales of straw!) into a song, and while the listener is able to appreciate the beauty of the finished product as they walk past it on the sidewalk, they are not usually able to appreciate the work or the materials, the insides, the layers. They need a truth window. They need a skilled interviewer to join the musical artist in breaking down the song into its component parts.

An example of a truth window showing off straw.

Hirway explains, “Inside a song, there are all these parts that get imagined, and written, and recorded, that are so full of thought and beauty, but only the people who made the song ever get to hear those pieces on their own. All those pieces get smushed together in the final version that comes out.” Enter Song Exploder, in which Hirway sits down with a different musical artist each episode to trace the evolution of one of their songs. Raw clips of individual elements from the song—a beat here, a backing vocal track there—are interspersed throughout explanations from the artists of how the song grew, layers locking together into fantastical, never-before-seen structures like in a game of Tetris.

Continuing the house metaphor, Hirway says, “I thought this way, an artist could bring a listener in, and give them a guided tour of this house they made. They could point to the foundation and say, ‘This is how the song got started,’ and then as more and more layers get built on top, eventually the full song gets revealed.” Over the course of eight years, Song Exploder has featured a wide range of musical artists, including Willow Smith, Yo-Yo Ma, Nine Inch Nails, The Microphones, and The Roots. The staggering array of guests spans genres, fame levels, and stylistic approaches to music’s creation. Similarly, there are a variety of approaches to thinking about music’s creation; each artist tackles the challenge of co-constructing their truth window with Hirway differently.

Neko Case, in the episode on her song “Last Lion of Albion,” is focused on the technical details, the use of vocoder and reverb and the inability to harmonize successfully with herself. She tells guest host Thao Nguyen (of Thao With the Get Down Stay Down), “I like reverb because it’s showing what your human voice is vibrating, and how that reacts to that surroundings. Like how far am I from that wall? Or is this room made of concrete? Is there a lot of glass in here? Is there wood? . . . It kind of reminds you that the room is an instrument in a way.” Christine and the Queens takes a slightly different tack when dissecting “Doesn’t Matter,” speaking in heaps of figurative language. She compares the song as a whole to a Greek tragedy complete with choral input, compares distortion to “doing lace details,” and says that the mistakes she heard on the track and chose to keep, “To me, sounds like a spine . . . It feels like if you remove that, everything crumbles.”

Regardless of whether an artist is speaking about the nitty-gritty technical behind-the-scenes of a song or the more emotive, poetic work that went into its construction, a common thread of attention to structure is sewn throughout these podcast episodes. The structure of a house, the structure of a room, the structure of a skeleton. Without fail, in each episode, Song Exploder opens up a little door in a song’s wall and waves listeners through, taking us on a tour of the subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, and sewers contained within, showing us first the haystacks and then the needles strewn throughout, sharp and shining, prizes you might never have thought to look for otherwise.


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