Posts Tagged ‘music’
If a rock star survives long enough, there inevitably comes a point in his or her career in which every new album is hailed as a return to form. It can be amusing to see this little drama played out every two or three years—as it did, for instance, throughout R.E.M.’s last active decade—but it isn’t hard to understand why. Rock criticism is a singularly thankless job: it’s written on deadline, often with only a few days to consider the work in question, but it concerns itself with a form of art defined by its effect on us over months or years. When an established star puts out a new album, it tends, at minimum, to be polished and professionally produced, with a handful of exciting songs; at first listen, we naturally compare it to our memories of earlier works that have sustained the same qualities over decades or more, and the initial comparison tends to be favorable. Before long, however, the new release is invisibly absorbed into the rest of the artist’s discography, while the older material, tested by time, retains its staying power. And when the next album comes along, in that first blush of excitement, it’s easy to see it as, say, David Bowie’s best work since Scary Monsters.
This is why it pays to be a little cautious with the reviews hailing The Next Day as one of the strongest albums of Bowie’s career. In this case, we need to be especially careful, because it’s his first new album in ten years. Bowie, to put it mildly, is an interesting guy, and it’s been so long since he’s given us anything new that it’s easy to give his latest album more love than it deserves, if only because provides an excuse for us to think and talk about him again. That said, even after a few listens, I think it’s a very good album: my favorite tracks are probably “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow?”—the latter largely for its cheeky vocal appropriation of the bridge from “Apache,” the greatest of all rock instrumentals. All the same, I’d probably place it slightly below some of Bowie’s later work, notably the wonderful Heathen, or even Hours, an uneven album that nonetheless contains what I think is Bowie’s best song. And although I’ll continue to listen to this album a lot over the coming weeks, it’s just too soon to say how it will hold up over time.
Yet it’s still a major work, precisely because the wait for it has been so long. Bowie spent most of his career evolving in public, and toward the end, the result was often an album, like Outside or Earthing, that felt a few steps behind the sounds it was so fluently appropriating. The Next Day, by comparison, comes from a Bowie that is hard to recognize: it was recorded in private, almost in secret, after what seems to have been an extended period of reflection. It’s tempting, then, to interpret the result as a statement of what Bowie himself considers to be the heart of his career, which is why the album’s sound is so revealing. In the words of Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker:
The problem is that the production that Bowie and [producer Tony] Visconti chose for the songs puts this record, sonically, closer to the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars of eighties albums like Let’s Dance and Tonight than to some of his slightly hidden gems from the past two decades.
Frere-Jones is disappointed by this, but to me, there’s a more profound message here: as great as the earlier songs may be, Bowie seems to understand that his work needs to be recentered, gently but firmly, on the most nakedly commercial music of his career.
Because it’s in his persona as a superstar that Bowie’s legacy endures, if not to listeners, than certainly to other artists. Last week, I posted a quote from Saul Bellow, which reads in part:
Writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers, political thinkers, to name only a few of the categories affected, must woo their readers, viewers, listeners, from distraction. To this we must add, for simple realism demands it, that these same writers, painters, etc., are themselves the children of distraction. As such, they are peculiarly qualified to approach the distracted multitudes. They will have experienced the seductions as well as the destructiveness of the forces we have been considering here.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this perfectly describes Bowie, who, like his disciple Lady Gaga, understands that before you can ask us to reflect on the meaning of stardom and illusion, you first need to achieve the somewhat more straightforward task of becoming the biggest pop star in the world. At his best, Bowie, who took both his name and his earliest creative breakthrough from Kubrick’s 2001, saw the future more clearly than anyone else. And the skull grins through even his most unabashedly mainstream moments. If you listen carefully to “Let’s Dance,” you can hear something rattling in the background, alongside the slick horns and synthetic percussion. It’s the sound of Bowie’s false teeth.
Last week, I finally picked up a copy of Elysium, the eleventh studio album by the Pet Shop Boys. At this point in the duo’s career, it’s hard to start any discussion of their work without marveling at their longevity: “West End Girls” came out more than a quarter of a century ago, and although they’ve never had as great a hit in the United States since, they’ve remained an integral part of synthpop and dance culture on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as providing much of the background music for my own inner life. Elysium isn’t their best album—its tone is deliberately muted and melancholy, within a narrower range than usual—but it’s still lovely, catchy, and superbly crafted, even if there’s nothing quite on the level of the stunning “The Way It Used to Be” on Yes. (I’d agree with Andrew Sullivan that the strongest track is probably “Breathing Space.”) And although I’ve spoken at length about the Pet Shop Boys before, I thought I’d take a moment today to focus specifically on what they’ve taught me about storytelling, and in particular about genre, reticence, and irony.
It’s fair to say that it took a long time for the Pet Shop Boys to get the critical respect they deserved, largely because they were working in a critically unfashionable genre, and even now, some of that condescension still persists. The synthpop of the early ’80s sounded like it had been made by machines; it was emphatically crafted in the studio; and its tools were relatively inaccessible, at least at first, so it had none of the working-class appeal of other forms of popular music. In their early days, the Pet Shop Boys were often mistaken for arch Thatcherites, despite or because of the irony of songs like “Shopping,” and there are countless musical artists who attained greater critical success without a fraction of their talent and originality, simply because they happened to look more like our idea of what a singer-songwriter should be. Yet the genius of such albums as Actually and Introspective derives from their realization that synthpop can, in fact, be the vehicle for songs of great emotional complexity, although only after its conventions have been absorbed and transcended. And if it look a while for the rest of the world to catch on, the Pet Shop Boys seemed glad to keep the secret to themselves.
This has something to do with their own reticence as pop stars, which has greatly influenced my own feelings about artistic detachment and understatement. From the beginning, the Pet Shop Boys have engaged in an ongoing debate with rock music, which all too often conceals its own calculation and commercialism—and even less desirable traits, like homophobia—behind a front of feigned emotion and openness. Typically, the Pet Shop Boys reacted by going in the opposite direction, concealing themselves behind layers of increasingly elaborate production, playing characters that made them seem like the effete consumers that their critics assumed that they were, and treating emotion as a slightly chilly joke. But this detachment created the conditions, if you were listening, for some astonishingly moving music. Proust writes somewhere of a man who craves human company so desperately that he becomes a hermit, in order not to admit how much he needs other people, and that’s the impression I get from the Pet Shop Boys’ best albums. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as affecting if it hadn’t been filtered first through so many layers of pointed irony and impersonality.
In some ways, this has encouraged me to disappear into my own work. There’s a lot of me in my own writing, but you have to look carefully to see it: I’ve avoided autobiography and the first person, happily immersing myself in the mechanisms of plot, but don’t be fooled—these novels and stories are my primary way of dealing with the world. What the Pet Shop Boys taught me is that craft and artistic invisibility can be as valuable as confession, in their own way, when it comes to expressing the personality behind it, especially in genres where detachment is encouraged. This may be why I find myself most comfortable in suspense, which has a mechanical, slightly inhuman aspect that can feel like the fictional equivalent of synthpop. If anything, I could use a little more of their wit and, especially, their irony, which they turn, paradoxically, into a means for enabling their underlying earnestness. (When their earnestness comes undiluted, as in the new track “Hold On,” it can be a little hard to take.) Elysium shows that they still have a lot to teach us, if we have the ears to hear it.
So when I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.
We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.
[Songwriting] has something to do with expectancy. A well-known tune sets up a challenge. There’s a template. Now, can he do it? The trick is to avoid what the listener has provisionally guessed. You have to satisfy the task but avoid predictability. That’s what is creative—the surprise.
I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, often for a very long time, before writing them down…I change many things, discard others, and try again and again until I am satisfied; then, in my head, I begin to elaborate the work in its breadth, its narrowness, its height, its depth…I hear and see the image in front of me from every angle, as if it had been cast [like a sculpture], and only the labor of writing it down remains.
Like most people, I first caught up with Stephin Merritt, best known as the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, sometime after the release of 69 Love Songs, which is simply the richest album of pop music released in my lifetime. Since then, I’ve endlessly explored Merritt’s work—including his many side projects, notably Future Bible Heroes, sung by the always charming Claudia Gonson—until his songs have taken up permanent residence in my subconscious. And more than any other contemporary songwriter, Merritt has consistently made his own creative process the secret subject of his music. He exemplifies songwriting as both an art form and a craft, thanks both to his productivity and his remarkable technical skill.
His productivity is perhaps the important thing. Although he’s slowed down a bit since 69 Love Songs, Merritt remains more than capable of cranking things out when necessary, and sometimes it shows—his discography is full of charming but disposable novelty songs. And yet the fact that he’s writing novelty songs at all is striking in itself. I love Arcade Fire, for instance, and yet it’s hard to take them altogether seriously when every song sounds like the second coming of Christ. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Merritt coming off as bombastic or sanctimonious. His prevailing mode consists of light, facile irony, and he seems more interested in superficial cleverness than anything else—until, of course, he blindsides you with emotion.
And the effect is a cumulative one. Merritt was especially smart, or fortunate, in conceiving a magnum opus that played to his strengths, which are productivity and understatement. 69 Love Songs manages to seem epic while being composed of the most modest parts imaginable, like a cathedral built out of matchsticks. Maybe a quarter of the songs are throwaways, and even some of the strongest tracks (“The Book of Love,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”) feel like clever realizations of a single image or conceit. And yet their very modesty is appealing. Individually, the songs feel tossed off, almost like divertissements, but taken together, they seem as big as all of pop music. (As David Mamet points out, the nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it has to look like a nail.)
Of course, this productivity wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t harnessed to an impressive level of technical skill. Merritt is massively informed about the history of music, and although he never seems to strain, his bag of tricks, both musical and lyrical, is deeper than that of almost any other active songwriter. Part of the fun of listening to his songs is the obvious pleasure he takes in rhyme, genre, song structure, and ironic pastiche. Like the Pet Shop Boys in their classic period, he understands that irony and detachment can be more affecting than simple earnestness. (After spending much of the week listening to 808s & Heartbreak, I can’t help thinking that Merritt could do amazing things with Auto-Tune.) And when he does decide to pull out all the stops—as in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” possibly his most underrated song—the result is stunning.
With his recent albums, Merritt has begun to move toward a lusher, more acoustic sound, but I still prefer his earlier work, where the songs sounded like they’d been recorded with a Casio keyboard on the lowest deck of the Titanic. (Get Lost, probably his strongest conventional album, represents an ideal balance between the two extremes.) And he still seems capable of almost anything. If great drama, to quote Mamet once again, consists of people doing extraordinarily moving things in the simplest manner possible, then Merritt isn’t just one of our finest songwriters—he’s one of our best storytellers of any kind.
I don’t think there are any clichés I try to avoid. As soon as I spot a cliché, I go for it. I feel like clichés are the most useful thing in songwriting. They’re the tool on which you build all the rest of the song. Clichés that other people should try to avoid, I suppose, are rhyming “dance” with “romance,” or putting the word “love” at the end of a line and having to rhyme it. That’s about it. If you want to write a love song, you need to not try to write it for a particular person in a particular situation. It needs to be vague, otherwise you’re going to fall into trap after trap of trying to rhyme with somebody’s name. Keep it vague.