The lead vocal is bone dry, filtered for low-fi splendor (no highs/no lows, either through microphone choice or EQ), and limited for a clear clamping-down on dynamics. The drum loop, the witty and open arrangement -- with banjo and theremin-like synth and harmonica -- beg for a vocal that also sounds artificial, and under the influence of machinery. The man is not super.
Doublings on the vocal, most obviously at the end of several choruses, singing, um, the hook and title, "I'm no Superman," allow for the feeling of crescendo in a mix whose pieces are kept static, unchanging and repeating.
The tune opens with tempo-synced tremolo on solitary electric guitar. It's a deep tremolo, modulating the amplitude fully to silence, and back up, with a sixteenth-note rhythm. Let us count the ways that this is so successful, recordingology-wise.
It is distinct.
Fans recognize the tune within two or three sixteenth-notes of wobble.
It celebrates time.
It spells out the tempo, even though the drums have not yet entered. In this way, it anticipates the entrance of the drums. Try not to play air drums when they kick in.
It makes room.
It strategically thins the arrangement, making room for everything else. Imagine the guitar as half-note or whole-note power strums that simply sustain -- without tremolo -- and you hear a crowded, muddy, mediocre mix.
So how do you do it?
Unless it's done with a plug-in, tempo-locking tremolo is not a trivial effect. On this record, the tremolo comes from the guitarist's rig, using the stomp box he prefers. But the band tracks freely, sometimes with and other times without a click track. As a result, no tremolo pedal can stay in sync. So they manually traced the tremolo envelope of the recorded stomp box onto an automation volume window in the digital audio workstation. Then they built a quarter-note template of the actual, flexing tempo as performed. Then a careful cut and paste and stretch exercise overlaid the automation snapshot of the stomp box tremolo onto the expressive time feel of the track. The result is organically synchronized tremolo.
There are other ways. The old-school technique grabbed the tempo from the snare drum (assuming it generally played a straight backbeat on 2 and 4). The snare drum fed a delay, with a bit of regeneration, set to a delay time that now repeats at the requisite tempo, a sixteenth-note echo in this case. It is set by ear, and each new snare hit into the echo overpowers the one before. In this way, the tempo of the echo loosely follows the organic time of the drummer. The output of the repeating, tempo-constrained echo feeds the side chain of an expander on the insert of the guitar. The result: tempo-synced tremolo, outside of the DAW environment, following musically expressive accelerations and decelerations.
For a more ornate tremolo, key the expander with the hi-hat, or a filter-derived consonants-only vocal. Explore, please.
Slap back echo, with regeneration for extra bounce, appears throughout the mix, on vocals and some guitars. It is particularly revealed on the "Uh-ah Ah-ah Ah-ah. Aaaaah-uh" vocal, and on the electric guitar flourishes that emulate that line. Actually, the guitar line happens first, so I suppose the vocal with the nonsense "Ah" syllables is alluding to the guitar part…
Chris Lord Alge mixed it, so compression abounds. But note in particular the heavy 1176 compression on the lead vocal, 4 to 1 ratio, medium attack (for an 1176, still pretty fast), very fast release. From mild, almost conversational levels to pop-punk-screaming, the vocal pretty much stays put. It's always front and center. Never too loud. Never too soft. The timbal character is gritty and engaging, with exaggerated detail and intimacy, no matter the performance intensity. Listeners feel directly connected in the restrained verses and the outgoing choruses.
A heavy does of Medium Room / Club reverb -- with a strongly colored reverb time around 1 second -- puts the listener in the pub with Billy and his electric guitar. The floor feels sticky and you can almost smell the stale beer as you listen. It's the perfect context for Billy Bragg's defiant attitude.