Thursday, September 09, 2010

The "Album Of The Year" (And Some Further Thoughts On The Death Of Indie)

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.


DarkoV said...

I, like you, have been underwhelmed, make that severely underwhelmed, by Arcade Fire. Neither "Funeral" nor "Neon Bible" made it past a 2nd hearing. It wasn't the production nor the musicianship nor the earnestness (although..the earnestness was a bit too much), it was...the lack (on my part) of connectedness. Hell, I tried, especially since the band members were from my alma mater. They even made it into the qtrly magazine from McGill (I'm sure as part of the contribution shilling campaign).
It wasn't the band; it was me. So, your review gives me the kick in the proverbial; I'll give 'em another shot.

As far as Bruce is concerned...well..I never latched onto the Stones, Beatles, Dylan, or Zeppelin. Bruce is it. And...if you like (as you seem to from the review) "Darkness on the Edge of Town" as much as yours truly, then put your order in now for this. November can't arrive soon enough.

Back to Arcade Fire. A few weeks listened to, at this point. Still hit the spot? Just confirmin'

As per usual, great insights AND connections.

Whisky Prajer said...

The Suburbs has yet to wear on me, in contrast to their earlier work, which has yet to win me over.

As for the Springsteen package, after ogling some of the specifics on his official site, I put mine on order.

DarkoV said...

WP, You went for the whole $100+ pkg? I'm impressed...I went the cheapo/less complete route on this issue. I'd certainly be interested in your take on the complete package.

Whisky Prajer said...

Wup -- correction: No, I did not commit over 100 of my favorite dollars. Went for CD + DVD, however.

yahmdallah said...

Count me in the "Wha?" crowd for Neon Bible. Though I gave it an obligatory third listen on the stereo (the first two being headphones and the car), just to make sure that didn't make it come alive. Alas.

Nebraska, though, yeah, you have to be in the mood, but when you are, there's nothing else like it. The sole exception is "Reason to Believe" which I can groove to whenever I hear it. The initial image of a guy poking a dead dog with a stick just does it for me, as does the chugging guitar.

Cowtown Pattie said...

I mostly just like to look at the Boss.

Oh, and how perfect is my word verification: prybeg

Cowtown Pattie said...

Since I began the 7th grade, I have lived 90% of the time in the 'burbs. I get it.

And I have tried, tried, tried, to broaden my listening habits; alas, I have become my parents' child and pronounce most anything pop after 1973 as crap, (the parental units, on the other hand have a cut off date of 1954 unless you are speaking about Johnny Cash or Buck Owens, or Merle Haggard).

After 1973 = crap with a few exceptions; the Bruce being one of them.

Whisky Prajer said...

Y-man - you went two more rounds than I did with Neon Bible. Must qualify you for something. And as for "Reason To Believe" I'm obviously very fond of that tune as well.

CP - The Boss has certainly kept the engine tuned and the body buffed over the years, hasn't he?

As for The Year The Music Died, I've picked through various yearly hit-lists, and for me the fizz tends to flatten after 1979. Which I can't quite wrap my head around, because I was 14 at the time, and most people think fondly of the music that eased them into early adulthood. But that would require me to love the likes of Tears For Fears and A Flock Of Seagulls, etc. -- and we can not be having that, now.

Cowtown Pattie said...

And don't forget "Everybody Wants To Rule the World"...

Hmmm, buff.

Whisky Prajer said...

Alright, CP: settle down, and save it for the vacation.

yahmdallah said...

My "year the music died" is here.