Sums and Parts: The Conundrum of the Album as an Artform
Nothing worth doing is easy, to paraphrase a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, one of the brightest beacons of good ol' American pragmatism. This thinking says that anything that is enjoyable is made more so in a way that is directly proportional to the amount of work and difficulty it takes to reach. In the eyes of the original Rough Rider, success without effort is empty and meaningless. This is a maxim that we have long deployed in service of toughing it out through school, work, and life in general, but does it also apply to our enjoyment of music? Does something that is easy to like somehow become less likable, after its novelty has faded? Perhaps some things are made fundamentally more beautiful only after their scars and imperfections are made visible, their outer layers peeled away.
For several generations of fandom, the album has been the primary mode of music production, music release, and music appreciation. Albums can give us all the things we want: they can give us dynamics, fluctuation in the polish or tone of songs from one to the next that can provide an overall schema to the work; they can give us narrative--whether in concept, mood, or in the form of an actual story--a defined way to listen and regard them; they can give us a statement, whether it be an overarching concept, an intellectual conceit, or simply a loose association of themes, an album can provide a window into the artist’s goal across the formulation and release of the work, this can even be a meta-statement that includes the album itself within its own reckoning.
I feel it necessary to point out here that I firmly believe that the album will never be bested as music’s primary artistic presentation, even though it probably goes without saying that I would feel that way. But with that being the case, I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors if I never questioned that reasoning, considering that my own confirmation bias is at play here, perhaps heavily so. There are some issues with the album, as a form, but they are by and large of a somewhat insidious nature, less glaring holes in the façade than nagging instances of a muted sort of corrosion beneath the surface.
I was reminded of one such flaw recently while re-listening to Tigers Jaw's 2017 LP Spin. Spin didn’t make it into my top albums of the year discussion, even though I enjoyed it very much from beginning to end. The Scranton duo of Ben Walsh and Brianna Collins were able to calibrate such a smooth power pop album here, one that delivers at least 8 highly singable choruses and several moments of out-and-out musical genius hidden inside verses, bridges, and codas. I didn’t hear an album all year that had such strong hooks paired with lyrics that were both relatable and simple in the way that wisdom is simple; the fact is I hadn’t heard an album with those qualities in such high potency for several years. Critics were complimentary on it overall, resulting in a Metacritic score of 69/100 - a very good score, but one that falls notably short of widely-recognized brilliance.
Considering this incongruity led me to spend some time reflecting on why I, and other critics, didn’t regard it more highly in relation to other albums from 2017, and the answer requires me to be honest with myself about a fairly ugly by-product of the above-stated mentality that regards albums as the highest form of musical art: albums that are made up of uniformly great songs are not always considered great albums. Or to put it another way, albums like Spin are often regarded as less than the sum of their parts. Your mileage may vary on whether or not you are guilty of the same prejudice or whether you have a similar read on this particular album, but for me Spin serves as a good case study to point out some logical inconsistencies that are at least somewhat due to what we expect from an album.
Let’s define some terms here. Since there is so much latitude these days when discussing releases and what constitutes an “album” in an ever-evolving climate, I’ll clarify what is meant when I use it. When I speak of the “album” in this context, what I am talking about is an artist’s collection of songs (usually between 6 and 12, but can be more or less) that is released all at once with its own unifying cover art (and potentially other visual accompaniment). The total runtime is between 25 and 85 minutes, with most falling in the 30-60 minute range, and most of the included tracks have not existed anywhere previously – obviously, these are generalities, there are exceptions to all of them, but the majority of albums fall within the majority of the above parameters. These are not compilations (where the songs were released elsewhere before), or EP’s (extended plays with less tracks and shorter runtimes than traditional albums, AKA long players [LP’s]), or live albums (which may actually be albums of a sort but tend to be more a document of the performance[s] than of the songs). Albums evolved shortly after the rise of the vinyl record, partly due to the amount of audio information that could be included without any significant deterioration in quality or playback: about 20 minutes per side of vinyl = 40 minutes of music. The term “album” however, comes from even earlier, when several 78 RPM discs would be packaged and sold together in bound collections, comprising what basically amounted to a large book, or “album” in the same sense as a photo album. Through coincidence, or chance, or some fundamental truth about our human attention span, the amount of music contained in an album of 78’s turned out to be relatively close to the amount of music we grew to equate with that of a modern album. The rest, as they say, is music history.
Now that we are on the same page with regard to what an album is, it’s time to make the case for what we want from it – or, more accurately, how what we think we want from it might differ from what we actually want. Pure logic would dictate that an album with a high ratio of great songs to lesser songs would be considered a great album. And while that would be true if the determination rested upon sheer numbers, the actuality is a much more complicated thing. Take Weezer for an example. While their post-“Beverly Hills” period has become either a rhetorical hill to die on or an unfunny punchline in recent years for longtime fans and critics, it can’t be disputed that they were a seminal band of 90’s college-rock and “alternative”. Their first self-titled album, referred to as The Blue Album due to its cover photo of the band against a blue background, was produced by The Cars-mastermind Ric Ocasek and chock-full of amazing songs. From the opening fingerpicked notes of “My Name Is Jonas” to the unapologetic classic rock soloing of “Only in Dreams”, each track is a wistful teenage daydream packaged in aural reference points expertly calibrated to generate a perfect storm of whimsy, nostalgia, and catharsis as only a great song truly can. This is an album full of great songs.
Fast forward a couple of years: Blue had torn up the charts, as much as an album like that could in those days. Weezer toured incessantly behind it and Rivers Cuomo, frontman and primary songwriter, grappled with feelings of malaise within the framework of his newfound success while also physically dealing with the debilitating after-effects of a recent leg surgery. Coupled with that, his artistic vision and position as Weezer’s de facto leader led to tensions within the band that would soon result in the departure of founding member Matt Sharp, who would go on to devote himself full-time to his side project, the Rentals. And as if that all weren’t enough, fans of the band seemed to clamoring for something more – they knew Cuomo could write great songs, but wanted to see what was under the hood.
"…they said there was no depth of emotion [in "Buddy Holly"]. That really bummed me out in a big way, so I was determined to head the other direction with the second record…[to] talk about what was happening in my life and how I felt about it."
The reaction to all these conflicting stimuli was for Rivers and co. to write the album that many still consider Weezer’s true masterpiece: Pinkerton. The sophomore effort put off some fans at first - there wasn’t an “Undone” or a “Say It Ain't So” anywhere to be found here. The songs were full of histrionics, careening wildly from high to low and happy to sad; they were full of misunderstandings; they were carved from the limestone of hurt feelings. In some ways, this almost didn’t even seem like the same band who had previously penned something as easygoing as “Surf Wax America”. But after some time went by and the initial shock wore off, Weezer’s fans were ready to admit that they loved this album, and many of them loved it specifically because it wasn’t as polished as Blue. While Pinkerton has its share of great songs, it is not defined by its songs – it is more defined by its themes and its moment in time. Its Madame Bovary-inspired aesthetic and its uncomfortable honesty laid bare an artist who was tortured by every romantic relationship he'd ever had and unsure of every step he was taking, but also one who was supremely simpatico with a fanbase who at times was also given to a keen sense of “Why bother?” when it came to love, school, careers, and things in general. In Pinkerton, they were able to find not only a great songwriter, but a character that they could identify with – someone who had beckoned them close and opened up his diary, but the diary had turned out to be a mirror. It’s messy, it’s chaotic...it feels more authentically like the ways in which people actually think and feel, and it gives us insight into the underlying motivations behind the album's creation in a way that Blue didn't, or couldn't.
This scenario is illustrative of my point about great-song albums vs. great albums. Blue is an album full of great songs. Pinkerton is a great album. Interestingly, it doesn’t get that distinction by having better songs than Blue – this is subjective of course, but I don’t think it’s a controversial opinion. Blue has 10 songs that could have gotten major radio play (maybe 9 if you consider "Only In Dreams"'s length prohibitive), several of which did back then and a few that still do to this day. Pinkerton has maybe four or five that would have even made a dent in rock radio, in terms of sheer catchiness or fitting in with a zeitgeist. I would argue that this is part of why it works so well as an artistic statement, and the comparison helps to show what Blue is lacking: a sense of narrative and growth. As mentioned previously, narrative is something we tend to look for in an album. Often times this narrative aspect can be a very loose and undefined thing, but a sense of someone changing or learning something through the course of the song cycle will give a project an artistic leg up on one that doesn’t offer that element. In that respect, Pinkerton offers the sense of a character throughout its songs, and it gives that character an arc that we can all understand, one that’s less about events unfolding and more about realizations happening internally (“the girl I liked turned out to be gay” or “I’m fixated on Asian women” or “it’s time I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started going out again”, etc). At the end of it all, the character is less resigned to his sadness but still mindful of it – he has learned that none of this stuff is the end of the world.
Contrast this with Blue, which sounds almost more like it was manufactured on an assembly line that only churns out “hits”. The songs all contain discrete stories or journeys within themselves, but when taken all at once the whole thing doesn’t congeal into a whole the way that Pinkerton does. In a sense, The Blue Album can be said to actually be hampered by how great its songs are, because they are all great songs in the same way – we see all the finished products, and they are enjoyable for what they are, but we’ve seen nothing of the creative process or the fundamental dreams and desires that inspired them. While the voice, both physical and literary, stays the same throughout, we don’t have the sense of a person who is growing and changing before our eyes.
And this is just one example of how this can go. Another instance that inspires a similar dichotomy is the case of Jimmy Eat World. Most of the band's fans love 2001’s Bleed American, and for good reason. It contains the bands biggest hit to date, several very good follow up singles (that all did quite well for themselves in terms of airplay), and is full of slick, professional songs made by a band that has both grown into and fully arrived in their own sound. With all that commercial success and the obvious high ratio of classic songs to non-classics, one would think that it was the consensus pick for the best Jimmy Eat World album of all time, but one would be at least a little bit misguided in that assumption. While many do claim Bleed as their favorite by the band, at least as many longtime fans give that lofty title to Clarity from 1999, an album that offers a bit more in the way of dynamics, from the pop rock sensationalism of “Lucky Denver Mint” to the meandering and alluringly endless “Goodbye Sky Harbor”. While the disparity between the sentiments for each project isn’t necessarily as striking or as pronounced as in the case of Weezer’s first two LP’s, Bleed, later retitled to Jimmy Eat World due to the proximity of its release to 9/11, remains another example of an album that is full of great songs but not overwhelmingly considered the best album in the bunch. (By the way, I’ll ask the reader to forgive my constant leaning on 90s and 2000s rock to make my point – it just feels like the easiest and most widely accessible way to do it.)
But what, if anything, does this have to do with Spin? In a concrete sense, nothing. How the discographies of two other unrelated bands are viewed really has nothing to do with Tigers Jaw. But the mentality behind why Spin is universally liked for its songs but not necessarily considered a great album might be one that’s similar to what’s been proposed in the two cases above, and the correlation might be too strong to ignore. Tigers Jaw delivered a wealth of effective and gorgeously-realized songs with Spin. While there is a mathematical purity to thinking that 10 out of 12 great songs on a record means it’s a great record, much of the evidence points in another direction: that to be a great album, an LP has to give the listener something beyond great songs. Arguably, Spin doesn’t do that so much as it showcases how good the band is at crafting 3-4 minute gems.
Let me poke a hole in my own argument here, though, one that I think bears acknowledgement. A lot of people will tell you that the “album” as we know it is, at best, a relic of a rule-following and patriarchal 20th Century - at worst, something that is dead already and was never taken that seriously to begin with. They might say that releases in the past decade by high-profile megastars like Beyonce, Jay-Z, Radiohead, Frank Ocean, Rihanna, U2, and others have blurred the lines of both what an album is (or can be), and how it is distributed. They might say that the next decade should be expected to diminish those boundaries even further in terms of technology and creativity, that the current thoughts of what an “album” is and what it means will be all but disregarded in the near future. With the end result being that spending time debating something so trivial, “great songs on an album vs. a great album”, can be a fun thought experiment but probably doesn’t really mean anything.
This opinion certainly holds some water; the landscape of music release and distro is one that has shifted more in the last 15 years than it had in the previous 50. Throughout the album’s first half-century, the only real obstacles it faced had to do with format changes, from vinyl to 8-track, 8-track to cassette, cassette to CD, (almost) CD to minidisc (remember those?), CD to mp3 compressed files, mp3 to digital streaming, and streaming back to vinyl. And nowadays every one of those options is on the table…well, maybe not 8-track, but you get the point. Digital release makes it possible for artists to release single songs on a whim that are completely untethered to anything larger, no “album” needed. And the resurgence of cassette tapes (ugh, I have feelings on this) could lead to a corresponding resurgence in extended singles or EP’s for physical releases, which could corrode the importance of the LP on a larger scale. While all these things are true and could lead to exactly those outcomes, what purveyors of this argument are discounting is that through all the format changes, and all our technological innovation since the dawn of the internet, and all our desire for something new and fresh and bold, the album, as a medium for musical presentation, has never yet been in serious jeopardy. So while there have been profound changes and there is no reason to think that there won’t be more of them, the album’s framework is one that is still woven into how we listen, how we compartmentalize, and how we consider an artist’s work both against itself and within the larger continuum. For that reason, if for no other, considering how we regard albums and what we look for in them still seems like a worthwhile pursuit.
If we accept that there is truth in this, then what does that mean about what we look for in an album? It is hard to say anything unequivocally, but I think we can take away some interesting considerations at least. Firstly, there are great songs and great albums, and the two potentially have less of a relationship to each other than we may believe. An album full of great songs is not necessarily a great album; conversely, a great album isn’t necessarily full of great songs. This conclusion points to our need for connection in music. While it’s inescapable that we do connect with songs individually, when we sit down to take in an album we want some sense of scope, something that shows us more than the finished versions of 12 perfectly well-done songs. We want some level of rawness, of blood and sweat; we want ink-stained fingers and balled-up fists; we want tears of joy, knowing smiles, and moments of reflection. We want a protagonist we can see ourselves in who learns something about themselves or the world around them, for what they learn may prove to be something that we can use to learn about our own situations or relationships. Scores of great releases throughout modern history can be categorized according to which side of this line they fall on. While not a diminishment of great-song albums, it’s a curious case of how sometimes we would rather the ugly truth than a great-sounding set of pretty treatises.
In short: maybe we don’t always want great songs. Maybe we want something more complicated.