Recently, I attempted to compile, with the help of a few friends, a list of popular-music recordings that might be bad on purpose. I admit, for the sake of the conversation, that not everyone agrees about these albums. Not everyone agrees that they are bad on purpose. In fact, a particular ambiguity is part of the conversation here. Someone is always ready to stick up for the bad-on-purpose album. It remains to be done, the work in which some scholar compiles a list of works from the Renaissance up to the present that are intentionally bad (Pierre, or The Ambiguities?), teasing out the historical circumstances that inform this slippery sub genre.
There is still time to elucidate the platonic essence of supposed-to-be-bad, to dissect and qualify it across media platforms. And yet as an introduction to the supposed-to-be-bad problem, as I say, I am amassing a partial list of popular-song examples of same: The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics; Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music; Trans, by Neil Young; The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle, by the Sex Pistols; Simple Pleasures, by Bobby McFerrin; Third Reich ‘n Roll, by the Residents; Alive, by Lester “Roadhog” Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys; Philosophy of the World, by the Shaggs; Self-Portrait, by Bob Dylan; Bikini Wax, by Killer Pussy; Death of a Ladie’s Man, by Leonard Cohen; Bluejeans and Moonbeams, by Captain Beefheart; Filet of Soul, by Jan and Dean; Here, My Dear, by Marvin Gaye; Like Flies on Sherbert, by Alex Chilton, The Shit Hits the Fans, by the Replacements; and so on. Feel free to send me more examples.
To reiterate, in no case listed above is it universally agreed upon that the album in question is “bad,” nor whether it is supposed-to-be-bad. (Indeed, I have already devoted an entire column to my considerable love for Metal Machine Music.) And yet there is a confounding quality to all of these albums in which the intention of the artist is so obscure as to leave the audience member to struggle, for a while, to situate herself. It’s as if the question of intention is so burnished from the product that a listener faces the music with out any preconceptions at all, and must learn anew how to listen. These listening experiences are like the first time you hear Tuvan throat singing, and you have to come up with a frame of reference for that unearthly sound. Often, we feel we have a context for the popular song, for its form and for its limited palette of lyrical concerns. But the supposed-to-be-bad genre shears away a frame of reference, and suddenly we stand naked before the Devo E-Z Listening Disc, or something similar, trying to decide what we are supposed to think. In these instances, new approaches to critical vocabulary oftentimes spring to life.
I had this experience, a few years ago, while listening to Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart album. Indeed, Christmas In the Heart, to me, is not at all that different from Devo’s E-Z Listening Disc. I could not, for some significant period of time, understand whether I was meant to like Christmas In the Heart in the same way that I like, for example, Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison, or Patti Smith’s Easter. Or Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Or even Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. The idea of a Jewish, former evangelical Christian, folk music historian, and rock and roll titan recording, e.g., “Little Drummer Boy,” one of the most reviled of all Christmas songs, just does not hit me in the spot where I put Christmas spirit. And yet, last Christmas, I mentioned my resistance to Dylan’s Christmas songs to a friend, and her response was: “Well, for me, that album feels exactly like the Christmas season.” This is a nuanced response, I think, and a sophisticated one, and it is informed, I believe, by the it’s-supposed-to-be-bad critical distance.
I have been having the same reaction to Dylan’s new album of Sinatra covers, Shadows In the Night. So I decided to ask an acquaintance, Scott Timberg, a formidable critic of all things popular who writes frequently for Salon and elsewhere, if he would discuss the Dylan album with me. Scott has a new book out, right now, called Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (from Yale University Press), which is a very trenchant investigation of the socio-economic forces that are arrayed, these days, against cultural literacy and critical distinction. So he seemed like a perfect foil for any discussion of the ideas alluded to above. I should note that I appear very briefly in Scott’s book, and that’s how I came to know him. Even without his generous shout-out I would tell you his ideas were well worth your time and attention. This exchange took place by e-mail in the month of January 2015.
Here’s “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a Frank Sinatra cover from an album of Sinatra covers by Bob Dylan, noted rock and roll-era lyricist. I think it has been quite some time that Dylan has been wanting to release an album in which he did not have to bother with the nasty and difficult business of composition. Debate on the album will likely focus on the fact of this being an album of Sinatra songs, that is, songs by a notoriously gifted singer, a singer who managed to make truly miraculous talent look off-handed and unstudied. That Bob Dylan has a “bad” voice is by now well-known, and the apologists who speak to the greatness of his voice, most of the time, concentrate on his voice as it existed sometime between 1965 and 1975, when, Nashville Skyline notwithstanding, he settled into a certain gruff poeticizing that is hard not to admire greatly. Those who favor the early Dylan, in general, do not as a rule stick up for the post-Time Out of Mind voice of Bob Dylan, the pre-emphysemiac croak that even when cleaned up for the studio is still noteworthy for its “badness.”
So let’s speak to what is before us in this case: a singer with a very “bad” voice, a singer with almost no technical facility left, beyond, arguably, good phrasing, attempting to make an album of songs popularized by an extremely good singer. The results, it seems to me are very, very bad, but perhaps, in some ways, bad in an interesting fashion. The tendency among Dylan religionists is to find a rationale for even the most mystifying of Bob Dylan exercises (now that we have the outtakes from the Self-Portrait period, e.g., it becomes almost impossible to insist that Self-Portrait was bad, though I continue to think that it is very, very bad), rather than to say that, in truth, the thing that once drew us to Bob Dylan can no longer draw us to Bob Dylan, at least not on Shadows in the Night.
“Full Moon and Empty Arms” was recorded by several parties before Sinatra got there. Apparently, the original composition filches its melody from, of all places, a piano concerto by Rachmaninoff (Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor, Op. 18). It is a spooky and beautiful melody, palpably lunar in its way. Sinatra’s version was released in 1945, and accordingly it’s hard not to think of it as having a wartime allegory to it. It speaks to loss and a kind of meditative expectation, and Sinatra’s command of the melody is, as you should expect, spine-tingling. Here’s a link.
Dylan strips the song of its over-the-top, big-band era arrangement (there’s a bit of horn writing before verse three that reminds me of Gil Evans and “Sketches of Spain”), replacing it mostly with pedal steel. The pedal steel sounds very retro in that way that Dylan has sounded for a few years now, as if moonlighting from a early seventies George Jones gig. There’s a whisper of snare. It’s a clever arrangement, much subtler, if that is what’s warranted, more “Blue Moon” than “Full Moon.” But what Dylan cannot be considered to have done, in this case, is to have sung the song. Really, the entire time, you are wincing in preparation for whether Bob is going to go for the high note at the end, when it is fully documented, at this point, that Bob does not have an octave at his command any longer, if indeed he ever did. But go for the the high note he does, and where Sinatra hits the note gently and waits for the vibrato, Bob just kind takes a stab at it, with ambiguous results. The mix backs away from him. As elsewhere, he has to flatten the melody a bit, streamlining some of its minor/major tension, which is not a rock and roll melodic vocabulary, not as I understand it. It’s as if jazz, for example, or Rachmaninoff, had never happened.
Dylan also depletes the song of its historical vitality, by releasing it in a period much less resolute as regards military activity and attendant loss. It doesn’t seem to have that allegorical level at all. In fact, the way in which the song functions, beyond being simply a very luminous and beautiful song, is as a curatorial effort. Bob is proving (as he also did abundantly on his “Theme Time Radio Hour” satellite show) that he has really great taste, and that, in particular, he is interested in pre-rock musical material. The allegory here is a curatorial allegory.
My question, though, is: is it good, beyond its merely curatorial interest? I’m asking you, because your book is, in part, about the winnowing away of critical standards with regard to contemporary music and art-making. Are the Dylanologists, in some ways, no better than the fans of Taylor Swift, if respecting Dylan requires intense convolutions in which we rationalize the Sinatra covers as somehow adequate, in the same way that we rationalized the Dylan Christmas album? Is Shadows in the Night good, therefore, and/or is “good,” as a criterion, contaminated across genre lines in these difficult times?
The other night I took a break from barnstorming for my book and went to a casual but sort of amazing meal thrown by a friend of a friend on Capitol Hill, DC. The host was a former San Francisco chef who put out a mix of traditional central and northern Italian antipasto—prosciutto, salumi, goat cheese, truffle cheese, etc.—along with crusty Italian bread. A simple pasta course followed. There were perhaps seven of us; we got mildly smashed on decent Mediterranean reds as we talked about politics and prose and enjoyed the food. (The music, mostly Charlie Parker and Bill Evans, may’ve been chosen for my benefit.)
To be clear, these were all ingredients than have been hailed for their quality, authenticity, and local roots for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. There was no ironic bad wine, no postmodern pesto. (Okay, the anchovies may’ve been a bit avant-garde; only the chef ate more than one.)
But while we all came from different places—California, Austria, Israel, Maryland—everyone pretty much agreed this was great food and in a larger sense, a wonderful meal. Would I want my cultural diet to be as conventional as this? Would I (and the others) get tired of having bread and wine every night? Maybe. But there was something joyful and cool about being able to kick back and enjoy a shared sense of greatness (or at least serious goodness) with people who until the hour before had been perfect strangers. Is there something we can lean from this about our cultural life?
Okay, enough with the metaphors. (Though interesting to note: The idea of “taste” in culture—at least in the West—originated with food.) I know you want to talk about art that is “born to be bad.” I’ll get into that, but let me just say of Dylan: I consider the run from Freewheelin’ to Nashville Skylight one of the greatest bursts of sustained human achievement in history. The period from Highway 61 to Blonde on Blonde through the crash, John Wesley Harding and what we now call The Basement Tapes is just stunning, I don’t share my fellow Xers’ love of Blood on the Tracks but there is great stuff on that and Desire. And his voice is an amazing expressive instrument—think of the phrasing of “Positively 4th Street” or “Queen Jane Approximately” or “4th Time Around.”
But what the hell happened to this guy? There are good songs here and there, with Time Out of Mind a high point of a dreary run, but sheesh! Does anyone really think even the best song from post-’97 Bob can hold a candle to an ordinary song from the 60s? Some very smart people like Jonathan Lethem disagree with me, but I think Dylan has been MIA for a long time and singer/songwriters like Richard Thompson, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and others—all profoundly influenced by Bob—have turned out much better work than he has for just about 40 years now.
So to compare the Dylan to the Sinatra version of this song tells me more about a musician who has reached such a point of renown that he can do whatever he wants. He’s like a novelist so august no one will edit him. I don’t know that it gets us into more complex aesthetic questions than hero worship and what’s become a sort of critic-proof career.
But paying attention to issues of quality—can we talk about it? Can we agree it exists? How does it exert itself in a world ruled by the raw marketplace and the click-driven Internet that is its servant?—is indeed important to me. Thanks for your interest in my book, Rick, and let’s keep talking about this.
So the question is: does quality exist? This is a funny question, because it is an immemorial question, and, as such, it is a question that in some ways appears to have been solved since Aristotle. Sure, the good exists. Quality exists. And, by and large, everyone operates as though it exists. This week I was going to teach a passage from The Sound and the Fury (from the “Benjy” section thereof)—at least until the not-very-bad storm blew through—and in this regard I reread the opening of The Sound and the Fury. I confess that when I read it in college I was, I think, not entirely smart enough to get The Sound and the Fury. I certainly loved As I Lay Dying, and, god help me, I loved Sanctuary. And Light In August. But the incredibly density of Benjy Compson (the learning disabled narrator), its chronological slipperiness, was admirable to me, but hard to follow. However, it is with complete confidence, at this moment in time, that I pronounce William Faulkner better than Dean Koontz or Clive Cussler. I base this judgment on intuition, and on my experience as writer, editor, and teacher. And yet of what does this intuition consist? What, at the end of the day, is the phlogiston at the flaming heart of quality? What is the thing-ness of quality that I agree to when I agree that it exists? People of a religious cast are lucky in a way, because they have an easy answer to this question. The ultimate source of the good is the demiurge himself. Good, according to this argument, is hitherto existing, and we know it, because we are calved off by the demiurge, and therefore we know the good, as we are part and parcel of the good, destined to be reunited.
But what is the secular answer to this dilemma? If we all agree that quality exists, or we think we all agree that quality exists, on what grounds do we cleave to this certainty?
Because, frankly, I was educated to believe just the opposite. While Brown University, where I did my undergraduate years, may have understood its basis in a Platonic ideal of education, and, as such, it may have operated as though quality were an undisputed ideal, it also believed just the opposite, in that those were the years of post-structuralism and semiotics at Brown, where relativism is the coin of the realm. And while I understand it is easy to poke holes in relativism if you are, say, Allan Bloom (the guy who wrote The Closing of the American Mind back in the day), or, e.g., any conservative commentator, in the same way that quality is obvious and everyone agrees about it, relativism is also obvious and everyone agrees with it. For example, if you take a writing example, it is obvious in some ways that Philip K. Dick is a bad writer, technically speaking, but he’s also a breathtaking imaginer, and an almost unnaturally brilliant schematizer about the future and its slings and arrows. We balance our resistance to Dick’s stylistic infelicities, because he is so incredible otherwise. If you don’t like that example, how about: Amos Tutuola. I once got into a tremendous amount of hot water for teaching The Palm-Wine Drinkard, because, according to one African writer in my class, it was disrespectful to all the great African writing to teach the African writing of this guy who writes in pidgin English. But I actually like Tutuola, and find him moving, despite his pidgin English. Is he a writer of quality or not? The same could be said, for example, of the later work of Allen Ginsberg. First thought, best thought! Do we use the same criterion with respect to poetry when we talk about the later Ginsberg that we use when we talk about, e.g., a Robert Lowell or an Elizabeth Bishop? Relativism of the cultural sort—we just don’t understand the criterion of excellence in Japan which would lead them to think that Puffy AmiYumi is important—is explicable, and in certain cases accurate. While I do, as you know, detest Taylor Swift’s music, I am also certain that the young women who are her fiercest adherents do not lie when they say that what she is selling is important to them.
I wish it were otherwise.
I agree with you—if we talk plainly about the work of Bob Dylan—it is hard to cotton to Down In the Groove, or Under the Red Sky, in the same way that we talk about Blonde on Blonde or (for me) Blood on the Tracks. But is there a way that we have failed to account the internal dynamics of Bob Dylan’s output that make possible Christmas In the Heart, and like examples of eccentricity. Here’s the relevant video:
This is the guy who wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” wearing a blond wig, a guy who used to be an evangelical Christian, attempting to dance (a little bit) in a video of a song that sounds a lot like The Pogues or like a Polish wedding band, singing about Santa Claus and his nose, etc. When asked if the Christmas in the Heart album was ironic, Dylan responded angrily that even asking that question demonstrates how clearly his intentions were misunderstood. So what is his intention?
Can the same be said of, e.g., the Neil Young of Trans? Here’s live footage of “Sample and Hold,” the hit from the album, performed in Berlin:
And then compare that with the image of an audience reaction to the TRANS tour that David Grubbs used for the jacket of his album with Mats Gustafsson, which makes clear how the Louisville crowd felt about the gig:
Neil Young, who’s on your list of artists of credibility, was in fact sued by his own label for releasing Trans, or rather for releasing Trans and then Everybody’s Rocking, a one-two punch of inexplicability. I actually think Everybody’s Rocking is great. It even has a song “Wonderin’” that Young played in many other contexts over the years, without a rockabilly varnish on it at all. If you take the fifties backing vocals off of “Wonderin’,” it does, in fact sound entirely representative of Neil Young’s work.
So my question is the whether “quality,” the Platonic ideal of same, has to be applied to Trans or Everybody’s Rocking, et al., without consideration of some mitigating application of relativism, some explicatory application thereof, though I will admit that Neil Young did in fact say this about Everybody’s Rocking: “What am I? Stupid? Did people really think I put that out thinking it was the greatest fuckin’ thing I’d ever recorded? Obviously I’m aware it’s not.”
You and I can disagree on some things: I like Zuma, you like Tonight’s the Night. Is Giant Steps better than Kind of Blue? Emmylou a better singer than Gillian Welch? Portrait of the Artist better than Dubliners? I don’t expect you, me, or other people I respect—Zadie Smith, Frank Rich, the vintage-clad dude at the record store—will reach a perfect consensus on all of this. We might even have some passionate disagreements.
But to refuse to acknowledge that the issue of aesthetic quality even exists—however tricky it may be to articulate and codify—is as dangerous as tossing out other extra-market notions like the common good or the public sphere. I don’t want a world in which these things don’t exist and aren’t defended—in which we sit around debating their existence while they get crushed by big money and everyday power.
The other day a youngish literary woman I know was at a meeting about finding a way to unite and protect small presses and literary magazines, which in many cases have had a tough time in the new post-recession, post-Internet economy. Apparently it degenerated into an hour-long argument about what “literary” is. Now, I spent a lot of my college years having those conversations, and still find them fascinating. I admire the way some of my favorite writers—Kelly Link, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz—splice horror or SF or folk tales or private-eye stuff with traditional literary material. But let me make the obvious point that culture folk in the age of cultural postmodernism and economic neoliberalism have challenges that previous generations did not. And that contrast pretty heavily from the way we thought about literature, music, art, theater, etc., in the days of romanticism and modernism.
It reminds me of what I call the Ross Macdonald problem. The ‘50s and ‘60s (and early ‘70s) detective novels by the Canada-to-California writer drew from Chandler and Hammett as well as Auden (with whom the author had studied at the University of Michigan), hailed by Eudora Welty, steeped in Freud and symbolism… There is no way to read this stuff and not see that this is a “literary” writer—whatever that means—even though he’s working in a pop genre. We can extend the argument to the brooding Delta blues of Son House, the jazz songs of Billie Holiday, the New Wave science fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Robert Silverberg, the graphic novel of Dan Clowes and followers, the dumpster diving bricolage of Beck, etc. I am very, very, VERY glad to have these people working and producing—but it certainly confuses our sense of what art or literature is. If they are in the same world as Bach and Corot and Joyce and Martha Graham, what does culture mean?
You were at Brown in the early ‘80s; I was at Wesleyan a bit later. Most of my intellectual guides got their degrees at your alma mater or Yale; many of them were incredible teachers and brilliant people. I fell hard for postmodernism myself and studied John Cage, Thomas Pynchon, feminist theory, the French post-struc critics, and so on. It all seemed like a fine idea at the time.
But then we reach the law of unintended consequences. Postmodernism cut the foundation out from under us—killed the idea that the arts and literary were something holy or transcendent—leaving culture entirely exposed to the logic of the marketplace. I used to love those thinkers and their audacity—it reminded me of punk rock. But I realize now that postmodernism is just another word for neoliberalism. Reagan and Warhol were secret lovers, and Jeff Koons and Lady Gaga are their nasty little millionaire children.
At the risk of tearing the fabric of this argument: Let me mention that I don’t find the Dylan Sinatra record nearly as bad as you do. I mean, it’s hardly his best work, but stands up fine among post-Blood Bob. I like the fact that he covers mostly non-obvious Frank songs and he’s probably singing as well as he can. This is not a dare-to-be-bad kinda thing from what I can tell. If it has anything to do with the culture crash, I can’t quite discern what that is. There’s other stuff that worries me a lot more.
Wouldn’t be a very interesting exchange if we agreed about everything! And in this regard I hew, to some degree, to my original supposition, that a belief in “the good” coexists with a belief that there can be substantial cultural differences as regards what the “the good” is, such that culturally universal art is a rare thing indeed. Or, to put it another way, a lot of work that appeals to me—Dub Housing, by Pere Ubu, e.g., or Lick My Decals, Baby, by Captain Beefheart—is almost universally reviled in the mainstream. So are these records good? They are certainly to me. The gen pop often puts it like this: there’s no accounting for taste. Or they say: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. These bromides codify relativity. And the fact that this relativity can coexist with a belief in the culturally excellent, this is the kind of human paradox that I associate with complex characterizations. After all, since Nietzsche an uncertainty about the validity of oppositional or dialectical thinking has been a reasonable uncertainty. This post-dialectical state of affairs, in which grey is the black and white of it, seems to me to resemble the facts on the ground. After all, as I heard today, the very first song to win a Grammy for “song of the year” was “Volare,” by Domenico Modugno. I think that was 1958. Thirty-two years later Milli Vanilli got one. Best new artist? I think so. What is important is not that Milli Vanilli were musical frauds, from my point of view; it’s that people thought those recordings were of any merit at all.
Given that this is the case, I nonetheless have to return briefly to my arguments about the Shadows in the Night album. I wrote what I wrote before the whole album was released. I had mainly the single to go on. But now we have the whole album. I note that Pitchfork, after a long review talking about all the ways that the album is great, how it reveals so much about Bob, and he’s singing better than he has sung in years, etc., concludes thus:
Shadows in the Night may pose some compelling questions for the Bobophiles who scrutinize every line and every word of every Dylan song, but for the more casual, less obsessive listener, it can be a bit of a snooze. The songs are well chosen and certainly revealing, but Dylan and his band play them all pretty much the same, sacrificing any sense of rhythm for stately ambience. Once they strike a mood on opener “I’m a Fool to Want You”, they never stray from it. That gives Shadows a distinctive identity in Dylan’s catalog, but it also has a leveling effect. Each song hits the same tempo and strikes the same tone, so that swoon quickly turns somnambulant. As the album progresses, the songs sound more and more emotionally muted, as though this style of American pop songwriting was good only for providing ruminative ambience rather than sophisticated humor, feisty insight, or infectious rhythm. Say what you want about Sinatra, but at least the man could swing.
My contention is that very few people will be listening to this album in a year, in part because of the issue of dynamics, but also because we go to Bob Dylan for the lyrics, and a Dylan album without the lyrics is, however expressive these lyrics are, not exactly a Dylan album. The terrifying thing, Scott, as you know, is writing. No one wants to write very much, because if you write, you have to express, and committing to that is something that most people tire of. At one time, no one on earth could do it better in song than Bob Dylan. That Bob has been steadily eroding his reputation as a lyricist for the last twenty years. He has now succeeded in being merely an interpretive singer. The issue is not, for me, whether or not it’s an okay album. It’s an okay album. The pedal steel sounds great! I do not dispute this. It’s whether it’s a good record by the artist who made Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks.
I would like to pay particular attention to “That Lucky Old Sun.” It’s the last song on the album. Part of allure of Shadows in the Night is this idea that it’s somehow a Sinatra album, and that it catalogues Sinatra obscurities. But I think Sinatra’s recordings of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “That Lucky Old Sun” are not archetypal Sinatra recordings (they are not even particularly memorable Sinatra recordings to me). “That Lucky Old Sun” has a definitive version, by Frankie Laine, with a really big ending, which preceded Sinatra’s version by several months. Interestingly, there seem to have been four recordings of “That Lucky Old Sun” in 1949, including two in one month, by Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. Bob would have been about 8 years old at the time. (When I was 8, Bob released Nashville Skyline.) If you ask me, Armstrong’s is the better version, but you can’t exactly quarrel with Sinatra’s wild, confident phrasing. He lags the beat some, in this way that is, insouciant, irreverent.
But these aren’t the only versions, by any means. In fact, every major singer of the last generation has covered this song. Willie Nelson covered it (just how you’d imagine he would), Dean Martin covered it (a real jazz take on it, if you ask me, with big syncopated horns, and a double time rhythm on the verses), Aretha Franklin covered it (quite extraordinarily). There’s a great a cappella rendition by Crossroads. Solomon Burke (his seems to have an electric sitar on it). The Isley Brothers. Sam Cooke. Jerry Lee Lewis. Ray Charles. You name it. In fact, it’s not a Sinatra song, at all, and it’s not, despite the fact that it was released in 1949, really a Big Band song. It turns out to have a lot in common with gospel music. It’s not really a pre-rock song, as advertised; it’s just one of those songs that can traverse genres without any problem at all. Brian Wilson named an entire album after “That Lucky Old Sun,” and basically tried to spin the nature/civilization opposition of the lyric into an entire suite of songs (including spoken word passages by Van Dyke Parks), and surely no one has concentrated upon the nuances of the thing with more intensity than Brian. It bears mentioning that Wilson was born one year after Bob, so he would have been 7 when the Armstrong/Sinatra battle of the bands took place.
Bob’s version has a punctilious little horn chart at the beginning meant to recall the Sinatra recording in verse one. And he apes the octave jump that Sinatra goes for at the end, and that last bit is so inadvisable, such a Hail Mary moment, that it cannot, to me, appear to be other than a little bit funny. I have to say it—it makes me laugh. And, to this extent, while I understand you are more concerned about people thinking Taylor Swift is good, I am more concerned about about, e.g., Jon Pareles saying “It’s not a put-on.”
Meaning that the it’s-supposed-to-be-bad argument is near at hand, and everyone is trying to come up with an angle. I think Dylan cannot sing the trickier chromatic melodies here. I think he doesn’t know what a dotted quarter note feels like in the hands of musicians from New Orleans. He made one record in New Orleans, but it was not a jazz album, and so he does not know. Dylan lands on the rhythms like a blues singer, and that flattens some of the nuance in “That Lucky Old Sun.” Try listening to the Armstrong version! He’s such a miraculous singer that there’s not a bad line in the thing, and he never seems to break a sweat. He doesn’t go up at the end, even though the band goes for it.
I do think that the critical community is not up to the job of reviewing this record, and it’s because Bob Dylan gets a pass, based on his achievements in days gone by. But that is to be in default, because the job of the critical community is to rightly describe what is happening. And so, while it might not be a compelling example, for you, for me it’s exactly like Robert Christgau (“the dean of American rock critics”) giving Taylor Swift a free ride.
Originally, I wanted to talk about it’s-supposed-to-be-bad because I wanted to talk about Syro by Aphex Twin, twelve years in the making, subject of 2014’s most massive marketing campaign (Aphex Twin glyphs spray-painted all over the streets downtown). I thought it was an especially bad album, unfocussed, lazy, and without a single idea that had not been explored by Richard D. James back in the nineties. It was as if he wanted to get the attention off of him, so spooked was he by the reputation, and the best way to do this, apparently, was to make a record exactly like an Aphex Twin album, with the skitterskatter disco beats, and the detuned synth blips, without any surprises of significance, so that he might go and do his work in peace. The last Aphex Twin album, you might recall, the one before Syro (which I think means “zero,” as in “less than zero”), was called Drukqs, and it took the enormous giant step of conjoining truly manic beat-chopping with stately, melancholy prepared piano compositions that were more like Cage than they were like anything else. Drukqs was kind of a masterpiece. It was one of my very favorite albums in the “electronica” genre. Syro had none of this going for it, excepting that if you survived its boringness, you got to an acoustic piano piece at the end with the sound of birds out the window in the background. A really lovely piece, this last, almost too lovely, actually. Meditative in a way I am slightly suspicious of. Few albums were praised as liberally as Syro in 2014, and I couldn’t understand any of it. Am I wrong? Could it be that my idea of “the good” is simply way out of whack?
Just when I was giving up on all this, on writing about Syro, on persuading people that it was just not as good as everyone was saying (“The care and virtuosity with which these tracks were assembled is immediately obvious, but nothing feels difficult; the record’s easy flow despite it all is one of its primary virtues, and there’s something new to uncover with every listen”), just when I was thinking all of this, Aphex Twin released a follow-up album, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments, pt2 EP. And suddenly everything that I disliked in Syro has been replaced. The timbres are ingenious, the mix of tempos and moods is immense, there are acoustic passages throughout (and more solo piano), and the drum sound is less disco-centric, and more hip-hoppy or jazz-like. On the whole, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments is the album of a restless chameleon doing what he does again. I have been listening to it a bunch in the last week, and that’s after having to force myself to get through Syro, just so that I could be sure I disliked the whole thing.
Is Bob Dylan, whose rarely-the-same-album-twice is the playbook on which Aphex Twin’s mercurial earlier career was built, going to be as smart about the infiltrate-and-double-cross approach as Aphex Twin has been? Is that what we ought to do about Shadows in the Night? Just assume something better may yet come, if Bob can continue to produce new music in his eighth decade?
First of all let me thank you for inviting me to be part of this and discuss some of the issues that underlie Culture Crash with a novelist/music scribe I’ve long admired, especially when you are riffing on heroes like Van Dyke Parks and Solomon Burke. Let me also say, “Jane, you ignorant slut…” Okay just kidding; I’ve always wanted to say that. (Everyone under 45 is now completely confused.)
Okay so let’s start where you do, with that I take to be your fondness for avant/noisy/edgy/etc. stuff. I mean, I prefer Safe as Milk to Decals and the Mekons to Ubu and Baudelaire to Jarry but, uh, can you remind me what essential fissure or disagreement this is supposed to reveal? When I argue that quality is real (if elusive and hard to articulate) and essential to pursue and define I do not mean that everyone is going to agree on everything. For what it’s worth, my taste is probably more conventional than yours—I think its far edge being marked out by artists like My Bloody Valentine, Eric Dolphy, poet Heather McHugh, early Thomas Pynchon, director Wong Kar-Wai, post-Shostakovich composers like Lutoslavski…, i.e., you get farther “out” than this and I find the work less resonant. But who says we all need to agree?
Here’s recent example that hope illustrates what I mean. Right now we have a rock/pop music marketplace in which a lot of mediocre stuff rises to the top—Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, One Direction, bro country, Imagine Dragons, etc. And crap oldies bands like the Eagles and Billy Joel earn the majority of touring revenues. So what we need some mechanism by which the good stuff rises up—some non-market mechanism by which an interested listener can find the good work, and by which a musician doing something soulful, innovative, brilliant, whatever can be heard and (we hope) make a living. We had music criticism, the alternative press, and record stores (with their High Fidelity-style clerks)—who could turn you onto Yo La Tengo, Richard & Linda Thompson, Alejandro Escovedo, Flying Lotus, Townes, Grant Green’s jazz guitar records on Blue Note, Nightmares on Wax, etc.—but all those things are fading fast.
What we have instead is the Grammys. The rise of awards shows in the national consciousness—driven by and then reflected back by press and media coverage—is kind of the cultural equivalent of winner-take-all-capitalism. It’s a way celebrities hog more attention than they already have. (It’s like the George W. Bush tax cuts—take from the lower and middle for the sake of he people at the very top.) Of course, contests and pageantry have been important for the arts and culture going back to the Festival of Dionysus and before. (Okay, we’re going back, what, 2,500 years here? Way before Little Richard.)
And this substitution for a real search for quality means that not only do Pere Ubu and Beefheart not show up on Grammy awards, neither does the more conventional stuff I like—Thelonious Monk, VU, Elvis Costello, The Clientele, The Zombies, Coltrane, Marvin Gaye before “Sexual Healing,” The Smiths, ‘70s Van Morrison, A Tribe Called Quest, Eno, Massive Attack, ‘70s Bowie, etc. (Some of these artists were nominated once or twice—big deal.) Lee “Scratch” Perry didn’t win until 2003. And the Lifetime Achievement Award is the way the Grammy folks cover their asses for ignoring major figures during their actual lifetimes.
Dylan! Lord knows the man needs no more kudos now, but the Grammys people ignored him for the best decades of his career while giving awards to acts like Toto and Christopher Cross and the Starland Vocal Band. (!!!)
Sorry for getting lost in my disdain for that stupid show. My larger point is that we need gatekeepers—something that is not just the market and not just an algorithm—and we need them not to be lame. Otherwise we have no hope against the corporate Pop Industrial Complex. And a lot of cultural genres—movies, especially—work this way as well. (And some critics/academics side with the popularity contest—see my sorta controversial chapter “Self-Inflicted Wounds.”)
Am I able to reason from first principle or Nietzsche or Kant to an easily definable notion of musical or aesthetic quality or “the good”? Probably not; my sense of all this is intuitive. But neither could Malcolm Cowley or Leslie Fiedler or Pauline Kael or Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs or Hilton Als or the other critics I admire. I doubt Robert Hurwitz of Nonesuch or Manfred Eicher of ECM or Mac and Laura from Merge could come up with a real ironclad definition of great music either. Not sure it matters that it can’t be put into words—a lot of what is valuable about human life can’t be.
So I know you wanted to talk about Dylan. You’ve listened really closely and rigorously to this new record. I like the pedal steel, too! Otherwise, I dunno. I like it better than much post-Blood Bob but I gave up on him a long time ago. The other night I saw a truly stunning solo-acoustic show by Lloyd Cole and he encored with “I Threw it All Away,” which came out, the year I was born, on a record that was certainly a comedown from the previous few albums… But can you imagine Bob putting out a record with as many good songs as Nashville Skyline? In the ‘60s he was just flying so goddam high. After Blood we get a good song or two (“Hurricane,” “The Changing of the Guard,” “Most of the Time”) on every record or so, but he’s over for me.
I think what you get with the excitement over every post-Time Out of Mind Dylan record is a combination of the auteur theory (“How does this new release fit into this major figure’s body of work?”) and the way huge, important artists sometimes get a free pass after a while, which isn’t particularly good for them (what I call the Norman Mailer problem). Maybe Aphex Twin is in a similar spot these days, with the faster metabolism of the electronica world; I don’t know, they were always a bit manic for me… The whole thing is annoying, but doesn’t seem to me a major cultural crisis.
But a lot of other stuff does seem to me bad, nasty, a rigged game—and getting worse. You can read all about it in my cheery new book, Culture Crash. (But please but it at your neighborhood independent bookstore or Powell’s of Portland.)
Thanks, Rick, for a lively and grimly enjoyable conversation…. All best, Scott