Music critics, too busy Collapsing Into Then, will never be able to Collapse Into Now
In a single sentence, our illustrious Lloyd was able to crystallize my every gripe about music reviewers in the modern era:
“With the arrival of each new R.E.M. record, this critical frame seems to solidify even further, to the point that it has, I would argue, calcified into a reactionary take that prevents the reviewer/listener/consumer from considering the band’s new music on its own merits.”
As I arrive at the later edition of my mid-30s, I am thankful that many of the musicians I loved as a youth have not absconded to a Floridian golf-cart geritopia. At least a half-dozen times per year, the new releases will include a record from a band whose name was patiently emblazoned upon a Calculus folder or a Spanish-English dictionary. (We can just gloss over the fact that they were placed between catchphrases from Martin or In Living Color). Without fail, the critical consensus will center around the phrases “A solid attempt at a return to form”, or “A failed grasp of past glory”. When evaluating a release from an artist that has been releasing albums for at least a decade, I keep waiting for a reviewer to ask these two questions:
1. “What would I think if this record was the band’s debut album?”
2. “What if you we presented this band’s entire catalogue at once, and asked to select a personal Top 10 from the artist, or rank the albums in order of preference?”
For many of us, #1 is the default experience – in that seminal moment when we first discover a musical entity, whatever record we are hearing is, in all reality, their “first” album. Somewhere, there’s a 15-year-old listening to Collapse Into Now with literally (or as Rob Lowe’s character in Parks and Recreation would say, “litt-raly”) no idea of their mammoth footprint upon our musical landscape. I know, because at one time, for another epochal band, I was that kid.
As 1989 turned in 1990, I ran into some ruffians that scoffed at my musical preference for the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, in addition to some of other favorites from the previous year (Kenny G., Milli Vanilli, and a whole slew of Top 40 songs like “Buffalo Stance”, “Wild Wild West”, “Straight Up (Now Tell Me)”, and basically anything on MTV that sounded like it could’ve been a B-side on Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force’s Spanish Fly. What can I say? I had no idea you weren’t allowed to love U2, Hall & Oates and Full Force). These wild and crazy guys turned me on to Rush’s Presto, thus I began my lurch towards the prog scene. Unfortunately, my knowledge of rock was limited, outside of whatever Mark Goodman snuck into MTV playlists in the early ’80s. Besides, I’ll still take the view that far more vital things were happening in mainstream music than the caricature of itself that guitar-rock had become as the ’80s came to a close (Warrant?). During a session of after-school rowdiness, where I had the “honor” of driving a bunch buzzed-out mountain kids around our windy-ass roads despite the fact that I was –
1. Only 15
3. Blind in one eye, and can’t see out of the other
my friend Shannon hands me a tape, and says “Throw this in, duuuuuuuude.” Trying to avoid the Lindsey Buckingham “Second Hand News”, I made sure to keep the windows at their breeziest, smoke-clearingest setting. After pretending to know the tune, eventually I just had to admit defeat. Baaaad idea.
Hey guys – who is this, again? It kinda sounds like “Tall Cool One”?
The other Four (at different entrance times, but similar levels of derision):
WHAAAT!?? YOU DON’T KNOW THIS? YOU DON’T KNOW ‘BLACK DOG’? IT’S ZEPPELIN, DUDE!
I was pretty damn embarrassed. I knew the name, but I had no idea what they sounded like. Not wanting to face a future of similar shameful moments, I surveyed the scene to borrow their first six records and immersed myself in all things Zeppelin. Eventually I would learn that the banshee wail from “Immigrant Song” was the same voice I remember warbling through “Big Log” in 1983. Yes, I was a fan of a whole slew of songs by some guy named Robert Plant, knowing nothing about his previous outfit. After a few weeks of basically living with dubbed cassettes of 6/9 of their studio-recorded catalogue – Rerun and Michael McDonald would be very disappointed in me – I got to hear each record as if they were all debut albums (or “alba”, if you are into Latinate pluralization of second-declension neuter nouns). Hence, “Boogie With Stu” and “Communication Breakdown” being my favorite Zeppelin songs, simultaneously, or “Carouselambra” following “Good Times, Bad Times” on a homebrew “greatest hits” tape (my brother found In Through the Out Door at a gas station, a record that appeared to be owned by no one). Soon, John Paul Jones’ clever collection of tunes became my favorite Zeppelin album, especially “In the Evening” and “Fool in the Rain”. Excited to share my discovery with my new friends, I was cut off before even finishing the title of the record. “Dude, that’s awful, man, don’t play that shiit in my car!”, they said. Needless to say, I was flummoxed.
Had I experienced Led Zeppelin when it was released, or became a fan after hearing what many call The Runes, I might have viewed the In Through the Out Door the same way as those ruffians – as a cheesy disco keyboard disaster (apparently, they never heard it until I played it for them, largely because they were told to avoid it by their older siblings). But I didn’t have several years of getting the Led out to serve as the proverbial stone staircase, which was only growing more unmovable with each passing post-Zeppelin year. I soon learned any “new” release – which, for all intents and purposes, In Through the Out Door was for these kids – would always be compared to their past greatness, and not evaluated as a singular entity. However, the rapid boom-and-bust cycles of musical movements may eventually create an entire subculture that has never been exposed to the very acts we take for granted. I’m greatly anticipating the “I just got 100 mp3s of some band called The Old 97’s” post that will appear on Tumblr in a few years. Hopefully (s)he titles it “You Could Save the Highway If You Crash With Me Tonight.“