The Elusive Alchemy of Context
Music critique is a tenuous thing. No one has ever espoused the opinion that it is a simple venture (as I read that over, I am sure that someone has - most likely a musician), though many people would call it 'lazy' or 'worthless' or some other pejorative. To be fair to that point of view, there are plenty of bad examples of professional criticism, as there are plenty of bad examples of hot air balloon flying, computer programming, sausage making, and literally anything else that has ever been attempted by humankind. And also in fairness we should clarify that critique is very rarely as hard as making a piece of art that is worth critiquing. For myself personally, I happen to take a lot from the art of critiquing - I find that, when done well, it provides me with another take on a piece of art that I would not have had on my own, and it gives me a new tool to apply in appreciating (or not) the art itself. That is just going to have to be the jumping off point for us today. If you don't or can't acknowledge any of the above, then you may not even want to bother reading past here.
But if we accept those as true things - 1) rock writing is difficult, and 2) it has merit - then we have to own up to the idea that it is a playing field that is not at all level. Here's what I mean: Rock writers (and I'm going to use that term to describe all music critics and reviewers who specialize in current music, not just rock--so get used to it) have the unenviable task of not only defining the sound of a record (and I am going to use that term to denote any recorded music in almost any format unless specifically stated otherwise, so get used to it), but also giving the record a context in which to exist. This last part is key. However, the true and lasting cultural context cannot be fully known at the time. Only after some spins of the earth ( at least months, more likely years - although in our frenzied and ever-more globalized, viral culture, the time needed here is becoming less and less) can we see how a particular piece of art fits into the context of its time. Writers often gamely try to predict what the context will be; some of the more enterprising ones attempt to create a context with varying degrees of success. But the fact is that the context (of anything) cannot be known until time has passed and we are allowed to look back, reflect, and ascertain how something fit (past tense) into the culture it helped to shape (even if only a tiny amount).
Now, all this seems pretty obvious, almost to the point of being unnecessary. I don't pretend to be telling you anything you don't know or can't put together on your own. But it leads to an interesting question: what would it look like if we routinely looked back on these items with a critical eye, after the context had been firmly established, and re-worked the critiques of the then-present? It is something our nostalgia-inebriated society has done with increasing regularity with the advent of re-issue albums: when the 10-, 15-, or 20-year re-issue comes out, we are often treated to a look back at what the original meant, in its original time. As a reader, I get something from this type of retrospective review that I don't get from pieces about music that is current and dripping with "now"-ness. They can offer a chance to re-discover a piece of music while bringing an entirely fresh perspective that, for obvious reasons, could not have been achieved upon first release. (Full disclosure: while I have mixed feelings about American culture's current frenzy for nostalgia, I tend to drink the Kool-Aid when push comes to shove.)
The idea of looking at past works in a new way, in a new light. De-constructing what it meant within the context of what it now means. It seems like it could get kind of heady, and I'm sure it will at times, but it will also allow for some new discussions. One that we can have in black-and-white together, as a community, about what things meant and how that relates to shaping what they became - are those two things symbiotic? are they unrelated? does it matter? is it all too "meta"?…I don't know. Maybe. But I'd sure love to talk about it.
And what kinds of things can we discuss?
How The Antlers' second album Burst Apart continues to entertain, becoming more cohesive and thought-through and engaging with each listen, years after its release…
How Room on Fire is almost indisputably a better record than Is This It, and what that means for The Strokes' legacy…
How Radiohead's The Bends fits into the band's oeuvre, with numerous subsequent albums and their reigning "Biggest Band Ever" status coloring the lens…
Whether or not Human After All was the flop it was purported to be at the time, or was perhaps a gambit by Daft Punk to prove something about the inferiority of man in the face of machine… (This article actually exists: check it here if interested.)
What musical fads could we have done without? Rap-metal? Garage revival? Chillout? Have any of these things faded so far into the rearview and failed to make any real mark that they may as well not have existed?
Of course, all these are just musings. I certainly don't have an essay to write on each one, although I think some of them are pretty interesting ideas. What I do know, and what I'd like to write about, is that every time I randomly hear an older piece of music from any source, I find myself remembering with varying degrees of clarity and articulation what I felt about it at the time and what I feel about it now, as someone who is definitely older and maybe somewhat wiser. I revisit what I thought it meant at the time to my narrow scope of how (capital 'M') Music works in the scheme of cultural definition, and I almost invariably find that I was wrong in my initial assessment. However, and this is important, I find myself girded by the knowledge that I could not have been right at the time. Very few people probably were. In the game of defining a context in the present, we almost always lose. This is not a bad thing - it is innate in our nature to question what things mean, and just as innate to attempt an answer - it just means that we need to give it time, re-focus the lens, and give that context another go after it has all settled into a past that has become rigid and beyond question.
So come with me. Let's do this.