During our family’s most recent visit to the bookstore, I noticed Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs behind the cashier’s counter. Even though I was underwhelmed by their last critically lauded album, seeing the new disc in an unexpected venue seemed enough like a sign to nudge me. I hoisted the books over to the cashier, nodded toward the CD and said, “You might as well throw that in, too.”
A young woman’s voice cooed, “Oh, good choice!”
I turned around. She and her guy were understated non-hipsters in their early 20s: children of the suburbs, most likely. “You liked it?”
“Loved it! Album of the year!”
She uttered a few more assurances, and I told her I was looking forward to giving it a spin. I had to wonder, though. She was more than 20 years younger than I, and roughly 10 years older than my 13-year-old daughter, who is thoroughly ensconced in pop. It was reasonable to assume the indie appetite had taken hold of my conversationalist, as it seems to have taken hold of so many listeners and artists — the final effects of which are a decidedly mixed bag.
Take, for example, the latest album by John Mellencamp. It’s the final product of a strictly observed exercise, that’s not a little “indie” in its austerity. The drill went something like this: You’re on tour with Dylan/Petty. On off-days, you assemble the band, keep the equipment vintage, get T Bone Burnett to set up shop in historic rooms where the original Americana songbook was recorded and see what happens when you stick to a single take.
What happens depends not just on the ability of those gathered, but on the listener’s willingness to indulge the conceit. The musical chops are there, and some of the rough edges are entertaining in themselves. Mellencamp’s songwriting has always been disciplined, and he’s an emotionally committed performer. But if, like me, you originally worried that the line, “Never wanted to be no pop singer” was more sincere than ironic, this album will achieve a limited penetration of your consciousness.
Penetration of the consciousness is what we’re after, of course. Acuity and sincerity of expression are usually the most direct means to that end. Mellencamp’s ability on this score is unquestionable. So what changes when an artist like Mellencamp reaches rock star status? Is it strictly a matter of listener prejudice? Is it all and only me?
Sure, probably. And yet I’m still given cause to wonder — by this nifty collection of The Boss’s first seven albums, up to and including Born In The USA, the record that changed everything not just for Bruce Springsteen, but for more than a few of his listeners as well. When I first contemplated the package I realized I hadn’t purchased any of these records in CD format. The store was offering it for $30 — an outrageous deal — so I bit.
What strikes me as I listen to these albums, many of them for the first time in over a quarter-century, is the unabashed ambition that drives them. Some of the album covers have a pointed Everyman quality (particularly Darkness On The Edge Of Town, with our acne-scarred hero standing lean and mean in Candy’s shabby room). But every single line is sung in a very pointed attempt to first conquer, then get the hell out of, Dodge. These albums were hailed as celebrations of the common man, but they were so much more than that. They were inspections, introspections, dissections, eviscerations and fillet-‘n’-fry ‘em ups, too. By the time Born In The USA hits the platter, the game plan isn’t just crystal clear, it is done. No part of the carcass has been left to rot.
All of which goes some distance in explaining why most fans of the Boss are more quickly inclined to reach yet again for Nebraska than they are for The Ghost Of Tom Joad, even though the latter is more lyrically accomplished. The first, most desperate ambition of the early years has been completely fulfilled. Can what follows ever feel like anything other than a footnote at best, self-indulgence at worst?
Here is where Johnny Cash’s final projects with Rick Rubin come to mind. I mean, good grief: those weren’t just footnotes, they were endnotes. Their phenomenal success could be blamed for some of the industry's current “How indie can we go with this?” mentality. Self-indulgent? Like you wouldn’t believe. Compelling listening? Um . . . yes, actually. They are compelling listening, because you get an unmistakable sense of the man. A guy with deep feeling who was probably more than a little unhinged, who loved an audience and didn’t shy away from the odd tantalizing confession to keep ‘em hooked. A guy who partnered up with a producer who was a brilliant listener and Svengali.
So where do Arcade Fire fit in this crazy circus?
I played The Suburbs on the ride home. It is tightly produced and performed, with no rough edges to speak of — no basements, hotel rooms or vintage tape recorders. For the first few songs I sat at a cool remove and thought, Yeah, I can see why younger folks get excited by this. Or: I can see how this song fits perfectly with the given theme, but I can’t say I’m crazy for it myself. Or: I could see this playing better in the concert hall than it does in my car, etc. Then I heard:
Now the cities we live in could be distant stars
And I search for you in every passing car
“Distant stars” seemed right to me. The metaphor is used only once in The Suburbs, but it is an extension of the “sprawl” that is remarked upon and explored with some variety throughout. It got me thinking about the trips I take to visit friends. They can be quite the undertaking, but there’s nothing for it. Really, with the exception of my wife, my dearest friends — my “closest” friends — all live many miles away from me. The nearest of them requires a 90 minute drive. I started wondering what this was all about, and then it struck me that this album was all about exactly what this was all about.
The key turned. The door opened. The music reached me.
I’ve listened to the album another half-dozen times in the half-week since. With The Suburbs I am now on the other side of the Arcade Fire equation — I can definitely see how this album will not have universal appeal, but it has clearly appealed to me. Personally, I might keep playing it daily. Or I might never play it again. Like Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad, if you’re not in the mood for it, it is the last thing you want to hear.
Sometimes that’s just the way it goes when you’re dealing with the album of the year.
Link love: Arcade Fire. And, for those who need reminding, Indie Is Dead.