Thursday, July 30, 2009

3 reviews of the Fucked Up album from last year

Last year, I wrote a review of the Fucked Up album that was published online somewhere, but now it is time to compare *that* review (in its structure and criteria) with *other* reviews of the same record (ignoring things like "positivity" or what the record is "really" like).

Here's my version:
Being a long-time fan of hardcore punk, I have watched Fucked Up's ascent with great interest, from their first US tour, playing in a store-front in Bushwick, to the promotional frenzy that recently culminated in a 12-hour performance (stunt) and this album being reviewed in the hallowed pages of the NY Times. And there is literally nothing interesting to be said about Fucked Up's transformation from a Poison Idea-styled punk band--who gained notoriety by releasing 2-song singles in a genre (hardcore) that tends to cram a dozen songs onto a 7"--into a double-album-releasing band with flutes, choirs, and the rest. Nothing interesting to be said, for two reasons: 1) viewed sub specie aeterni, no one really cares about "transitions," we care about albums: are they good? will we want to listen to them often?, and the whole "evolution" of a band involves this very suspect metaphysics of locating a sound in its infancy, tracing it into the present, or seeing what elements were discarded to pave the way for success and breakthrough. And, 2) this record is not all that interesting. If you recall some of Black Metal's "ambient" experiments, which could only be astonishing and beautiful to the most genre-bound hesher, Fucked Up obviously are banking on a surprise factor that has no real payoff--"oh my god they have flutes!"

Whenever I don't like a band, I explain, fake-apologetically, "Well, you know me, I like the Kinks, so..."--as though I didn't want to wade in too deep, and really I wasn't qualified, but rather naive and would stick with what I knew. What this formulation means, of course, is that I like music that gets stuck in your head. Not "pop music," necessarily--probably everyone has had Mozart and Wagner stuck in their head, and probably Celtic Frost and the Bad Brains can be just as catchy. But the essential thing is that music be memorable. This is why any focus on production, who's doing the back-up vocals, lyrical themes, and extraneous instrumental touches, really misses the point--we listen to music to rock out to *parts* that we remember and like. And Fucked Up used to be really good at this. Like most music nowadays, this new album is not catchy, but it is full of parts. What the noodling, build-ups, repetitions, and whatnot are *doing* while not being catchy, is anyone's guess. The best bands at creating interesting little parts are Metallica, the Clash, and the Kinks--and on their last album, Fucked Up were in this tradition. This record is a bit like Napoleon's 1813 campaigns in Germany: although incorporating many different elements (Napoleon at Leipzig relied on allied troops from all over Europe), ultimately the strategy relies on bulk and an unimaginatively straight-forward attack, and, well, if you aren't up on your history, you can Wikipedia "Battle of the Nations" to see how this record succeeds. In short, if there is some ambition to ambient jamming that Fucked Up want to pursue, if they can make it interesting, I will follow a song full of neat parts to the ends of the earth, but you cannot dress up the plodding and unmemorable songs here. A record should be judged not by its scope or ambitions but by how often, over the years, one will listen to it. Even with the greatest enthusiasm or curiosity or goodwill, "The Chemistry of Common Life" is not a record that demands or rewards much time on your turntable. (emphasis mine)

Here are some key phrases from the Pitchfork review:

shimmering overdubs, fractured harmonies, almost tactile in its texture, bongo-laced, refreshing take on religion.

One reads this review in vain if searching for questions like, "Is this record catchy?" or "Will I enjoy listening to this?" or (more profoundly) "Am I *supposed* to enjoy listening to this?"

From the Dusted review, we learn helpfully that the album, on the most basic level--the combination of instruments--does not work: The disparity between these vocals and every other element on the record never gets easy to process, even on multiple listens. In a way, that should be the end of the review: except that the reviewer obviously feels that this "dissonance" (my term) might in some back-door way be incorporated into the form... which is already to give up the game, critically speaking. It's like staring at an all-white canvas and wondering whether it is "art" or not---instead of the more incisive point of view: IF THIS IS ART, WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH ME? And with the best artists (cited above--the Kinks, Metallica, previous releases by Fucked Up), the answer to this question is a no-brainer. While the Dusted reviewer realizes that what is being attempted by the album is a kind of synthesis of disparate elements into a Leviathan, what is left out by her review is whether there is any PURPOSE to such a synthesis.

What we like about a style or a genre is not *within* that style or genre. The tragedy of current tastes is to confuse these two things--the appeal of an album with the contingent trappings in which it occurs--to behave as though what made Black Flag Black Flag, what made the Velvet Underground the Velvet Underground, what made your favorite band your favorite band--to behave as though this were some algorithm of a style. And both the reviews I cited have been hoodwinked into a fixation ON this style, rather than on the (proper) fixation: is this catchy? am I enjoying this? what is the purpose of this?, etc.

No comments: