Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reviewing Albums

The first tape I ever owned was a Beach Boys greatest-hits, the first CD I ever owned was the soundtrack to the Big Chill—thanks Mom—and the first vinyl record I bought was a hardcore punk 7” EP. Were I to enter the new technological age, and purchase a digital download, it almost certainly would be a single mp3—the new Rihanna song, let’s say—in any case, as with my initial forays into all other music formats, it would not be an entire album. Ah, yes, the album—that doomed and anachronistic medium (we are told)—at every turn of my music-buying life has been diverted, chopped up, abbreviated, made irrelevant, and at the same time (we need look only to hip-hop as a genre) bloated, crammed with filler, expanded to the full 80 minutes allowed by the CD.

One need hardly point out that the “maximizing” of the album (compare Metallica’s Black Album (1991) at sixty minutes to Slayer’s Reign in Blood at twenty-nine minutes (1986) for an index of the CD’s tendency to promote, uh, “epic” ambitions in music) and the album’s increasing irrelevance are two sides of the same coin—the longer and only inconsistently-rewarding $18 album begs to be summarized, stolen, and cherry-picked from. So it is both a relief and an aggravation to remark upon Pitchfork Media’s continued dedication to the album as the only serious work of musical art (while Lil’ Wayne’s mixtapes are treated as charming “deconstructions” of the album’s untroubled supremacy).

In what does Pitchfork’s allegiance to albums consist? Alas, this can only be answered as a tautology (though it is the tautology of their aesthetic, and not mine). Pitchfork’s reviews treat albums as deep and meta-critical meditations upon…the album form itself. It is as though every album (in indie rock) were a minor recreation of Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½, with its mise-en-abyme of the director’s making a movie about making a movie (or several?) about...artistic dilemmas. Applying this ready-at-hand formula to reviewing occasionally tedious and usually unprofound contemporary rock music does, as one might expect, yield some tedious and unprofound results.

You don’t need me to tell you that the most-acclaimed and innovative art is often a meditation on the medium itself: from Velasquez’s Las Meninas to Don Quixote, until Godard’s Contempt, this is a reliable way to produce one’s masterpiece.

It’s worth doing what in grad school they call “close reading”—let’s take the opening of a Pitchfork review of some Death Cab for Cutie album:

Love isn't watching someone die, contrary to what Ben Gibbard memorably sang on Death Cab for Cutie's major-label debut. No, love is watching someone grow and change and still staying with them-- whether we're talking about family, friends, romantic interests, or a little college-town indie rock band from about an hour-and-a-half outside Seattle. Death is just the dénouement. In the three years since their platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated Plans, Gibbard and Death Cab producer/guitarist Chris Walla have both entered their thirties, coming off a wave of successes that included 2003's Transatlanticism going gold and the debut by Gibbard side project the Postal Service becoming Sub Pop's best-selling disc since Nirvana. That's a whole lotta love.

Narrow Stairs, Death Cab's second album for Atlantic and sixth proper LP overall, is one of the darkest and most muscular in the band's discography, but they're still aiming for the same place: your heart. It's an album about growing and changing and becoming resigned to the fact that you'll never be truly content.

In brief, the album is about the band’s process of realizing that this was the album they needed to make. Hmm. As if that weren’t circular enough, this point is introduced by a quote from the band’s previous album! which I am assured that “love” and “death” are just metaphors for the vicissitudes of the music industry and creative process. That might be true, but what profit—when this produces platitudes like “You’ll never be truly content” or nonsense like “death is just the denouement.” Oops: Pitchfork insists upon the Francophile diacritical mark—dénouement.

But let’s play nice. This isn’t about pretentious spelling or Death Cab. Let me give you a sampling of other such moments from Pitchfork’s recent history, where the album’s lyrics are taken as a commentary on the art of making an album.

The sound is huge, but the song is a simple ode to being needed, about the pleasure in caring for something, whether a child or family pet… In other words, it's about accepting responsibility and most of all about growing up, which is something Animal Collective seem to be doing brilliantly, with their creativity and adventurous spirit intact.

"This loneliness ain't pretty no more," she sings on [El Perro Del Mar’s] "This Loneliness", acknowledging the melancholic draw of pop music in general and her music specifically.

On "Mushaboom", the signature track from her 2004 breakthrough album Let It Die, Leslie Feist [of Feist] claimed, "It may be years until the day my dreams will match up with my pay." Now, after countless sold-out shows across the world, close to half of a million records sold, and placement in a commercial for British bed manufacturers Silentnight, it seems safe to say this NPR darling's "pay" should be satisfactory.

Whether the implications of the line are intentional or not is difficult to say, but when, on "Paper Cup Exit", [Sonic Youth’s] Lee Ranaldo sings, "It's later than it seems," the band seem to be keenly aware of their age and relevance. That self-awareness, both of an appreciably long canon and the four lives it has traversed, makes Sonic Nurse all the more remarkable.

Is there a problem with reviewing records this way? Frankly, yes. For one, it privileges English-language pop music over other genres: the Pitchfork model is always about lyrics. For instrumental music, or music with other things on its mind than its own importance, there is precious little to say for this style of review. Further, the model is extremely well-suited to the masterpiece: 8 ½, Don Quixote, Sunset Boulevard, Remembrance of Things Past—works with something interesting to say. The “meta” remark contained in snippets of contemporary indie rock have, well, let’s say they have somewhat less insight to offer. Pop music is melancholy; we have to grow up; achieving one’s dreams is not always so great; getting old sucks: these are all cheap insights.

As English majors in college, Pitchfork’s reviewers surely know the instant reward of showing that something called “form” is reflected in something else called “content,” and vice versa. If this tawdry hermeneutics is the only way to appreciate full-length albums in 2008, perhaps it is a kind of devil’s bargain. Still, it is worth remembering that on one hand this lyric-based method is akin to reviewing a film based on a print-out of its script, and secondly that no less an artist than Bob Dylan is (famously) singularly resistant to this kind of biographical/self-referential reading; with the exception of his disastrous “Christian period.” Should a method of aesthetic appreciation not be as well suited to evaluating successes (as those of Dylan’s classic but most sphinx-like period) as to indulging the pretentiousness of failures?

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