Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Album As Work Of Art: An Overwrought Personal Account

There is a downside to having unlimited access to so much good music in our post-contemporary society. With easy downloads and file-sharing and Shuffle functions so prevalent, new music comes at the ear in a flood. Add to that our ADD-riddled attention spans that have almost become a necessity in this multi-tasking digital era, and what gets lost is the simple act of sitting down, putting on a new album, and doing nothing other than listening to the recording.

I am guilty as anyone of it: often downloading multiple albums in a single day, playing KEXP while working on something else, or lazily choosing Shuffle on iTunes or the iPod. What happens is that music becomes background score. Maybe it's having grown up on Hollywood movies and always wishing my own life had a soundtrack. Or maybe that repressed dream of becoming a deejay drives me towards the mixtape rather than the album.

But for years, when I did choose to play an album specifically, it was based on what else I was doing - deejaying a soundtrack to my life as best I could. Probably not all that uncommon, I suppose: if I was getting ready to go out for the night, put on Outkast or N.E.R.D. or The Who; if I was home alone writing, something chill like DJ Shadow or TV On The Radio did the trick; if I had company and needed something that didn't distract from good conversation, put on Grand National or Spiritualized. You get the point.

Recently, however, a new record has reminded me the enrichment that comes with simply listening to an album as a piece of art. And why not, really? We go to a museum and gaze amazed at a Picasso painting or a Calder sculpture, attempting to absorb every bit of it. We go to the theater and focus only on the film presented to us by the Coen Brothers, turning off the cell phones and postponing the potty break so as not to miss a frame. So why do we feel that those works of art should carry any more weight than modern music? Why should we disrespect Pet Sounds by merely playing it in the background while we vacuum the rug?

The album that created this mini-epiphany for me was Untrue, by Burial. Little is known about this critically-acclaimed Hyperdub recording artist, an anonymous producer from London. In a rare interview late last year, Burial spoke of his anonymity:
"I love...old jungle and garage tunes, when you didn't know anything about them, and nothing was between you and the tunes. I liked the mystery; it was more scary and sexy, the opposite of other music. Only about five people outside of my family know I make tunes, I think. I hope."
What Burial created with Untrue is experimental electronica, a cohesive collection of atmospheric dubstep tracks with ghostly vocal loops and shadowy ambient motifs that are quite plainly haunting. Listening to the album in headphones for the first time reminded me of the first time I heard Dark Side Of The Moon in headphones: quite frankly, they are more than a little disturbing. But what it also does is draw you in, not allowing itself to pass as merely background music. The album would come to its finish and I'd immediately start it over, not wanting it to end. And when I wasn't listening to it, I'd here bits and pieces of it in my head. I'd hear the clank and hum of the washer/dryer and think I was hearing a sample. I'd hear a low-flying jet wash out the giggling of a neighbor-girl across the alley and slide back into the album. The very sound of silence called to mind the hypnotic dreamscapes of Untrue.

What separates Untrue from other albums, though, isn't my newfound fascination with dubstep, but rather that sense of cohesion that establishes an album as art. I'm not specifically talking about the Concept Album, per se, though some certainly may be included. I'm simply talking about albums that work as Capital-A Art. The reason we don't view all albums as Picassos is because 99% of them are nowhere close. Most albums are just a collection of songs arranged in an order intended to keep the consumer interested long enough to listen to the whole thing.

Along with Dark Side Of The Moon are the classics like Pet Sounds or Blonde On Blonde that established pop music as Art. Here are a few cohesive albums of the past decade or so that I view as Art:
Radiohead, Kid A
Radiohead, OK Computer
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Arcade Fire, Funeral
Danger Mouse, The Gray Album
Mos Def, Black On Both Sides
DJ Shadow, Entroducing...
The National, Boxer
The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, self-titled
(Honorable Mention: Guns 'n Roses, Appetite For Destruction)
If anyone out there has read this far, I'd love to hear others that you consider in that esteemed list. Please feel free to drop them into the comments.


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