24 Jan 2013

2012: The Year in Musical Disappointments

2012 was a frustrating kind of musical year for The Night Mail. Despite the fact that there were significant new releases from practically all of my super-official, fantasy-league, pantheon artists* (including my two hyper-ultra-official, gun-to-my-head favourite bands**), it was actually a pretty disappointing year for music. Or maybe it was because of that fact. There's nothing quite so conducive to disappointment as looking forward to things.

For one thing, I didn’t really latch onto any earth-shattering new artists or stylistic ideas, and - while admittedly this might be due to some personal critical oversight on my part - skimming over the various ‘End of Year’ lists on my most trusted blogs and webzines would suggest that my own awareness of the year’s hypees wasn’t too far removed from that of the broader blogosphere hegemony.

For another thing (strike two), 'Call Me Maybe' aside, it was an incredibly bad year for proper pop too. It's a good indication of the state of affairs when learning the 'Gangnam Style' dance becomes a significant plot thread on Glee. (Notes for a future thesis: Arguably the success of the first two seasons of Glee had a lot to do with the quality of the chart pop circulating at the time. To some extent, the requirement to include hit songs has a determining factor on the direction of the plot and the nature and affective quality of the musico-dramatic set-pieces available to the writers. Glee has been crap all year, go figure.)

Even more frustrating, of course, was how deflatingly average most of those new records from my personal kennel of Big Dogs actually turned out to be. It might signal some sea-change in my musical taste, or the result of my burgeoning thirst for unequivocal political engagement in art and music, but 2012 seemed like one of those years in which the duds align. I realise that, as bands develop and settle into long-term careers (which is certainly a good thing, and difficult in the current cultural/economic climate), not all records they produce will be as successful or as significant as the rest. But it’s still unfortunate when a slew of ‘all-time worst albums’ all turn up at once. Fine albums, of course, because these are primarily god-like geniuses we’re talking about, but at the same time, worst albums, and particularly disappointing for that reason.

I do have a Top Ten Favourite Albums of 2012 list, all of which I love and will come on to discuss in due time, once I’ve gotten over all this negativity. But I do have to mention a few key perpetrators, aka...

My Top Three Musical Disappointments of 2012 (in no particular order)

Xiu Xiu’s Always

Xiu Xiu are in the coveted ‘gun-to-my-head’ league. I love them so much. Their newest album is the first full-length record in a prolific ten years which actually feels like a rehash of old material. It feels original only in the way that Xiu Xiu still don’t really sound like any other band, but - unlike all the previous albums - it doesn’t feel like a new statement, in the way that all their previous albums did. The very fact that several of the songs make quite explicit reference to past records makes Always seem more like a Xiu Xiu tribute album, emphasising a particular reading of the band’s affiliation to pre-existing ‘alternative’ subcultures whose potency has already been exhausted or co-opted into reified, commodifiable signifiers ('emo'/'goth', anyone?).*** It’s something of an exposition (or ‘retrospective’) of ‘Xiu Xiu-ness’, ‘for the fans’, which ends up doing a disservice to the power of the music which is being revisited. (And the fans already have the other albums anyway...)

This investigation of 'Xiu Xiu-as-community', as support group, as cult, is explicitly referenced in the album's artwork, with photos of the band's name tattooed, scratched and carved onto skin, an extension of the various galleries of fans' body parts (feet, mouths, asses) which are exhibited on the band's website (over 18 only). This focus is clearly articulated on the opener 'Hi', a role call for the alienated, isolated and emotionally-vulnerable. But the community, the group catharsis, which is an aspect of the band's reception, is something that leads on from the music, that uses the music, but is ultimately not part of the music. This is important, because the kind of hyperbole and tortured solipsism which Jamie Stewart explores in his lyrics and in his musical persona don't really work if they're being sung in chorus, or at least they shouldn't. They resonate only as the expressionistic outburst of a single psychological subject, in its lonely encounter with the world. The uncomfortable 'emo' effect only enters when alienation and suffering become the badge of the fan, with everyone enjoying suffering together, using emotional trauma and sexual abuse as a kind of identity tag. There is an important collective dimension to Xiu Xiu and its fanbase, but it must remain a positive one, that aims to transcend, heal and prevent such problems (and, ideally, fight the capitalist society and its social institutions which engender them). Such extreme alienation and isolation make no sense if they are truly shared and collective, unless this generates a proper political dimension.

Always doesn't both me too much though. There are some really good songs ('Honey Suckle' and 'I Luv Abortion' in particular), and I can still listen to the old ones instead. We shouldn’t always think of an artist’s output in terms of a chronology of works which replace each other successfully. Still, maybe consider this a little intervention, from one of those fans: it didn’t work so good this time. Thankfully, with JS, there’s always new stuff on the way and I’m very very excited about the upcoming collab with Eugene Robinson: Sal Mineo.

Rufus Wainwright’s Out of the Game

We all know that 2010’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu was a massive disappointment, touching and adventurous as it was, but Rufus’s newest release makes that album look like a resounding success. I mean, what was with bringing Mark Ronson onboard? All that ‘Mark Ronson®’ arrangement crap that made him famous for some reason was already going on in Rufus’s previous records, just in a much better, more inventive and purposeful way. Instead, every song on Out of the Game is like a singer-songwriter's battle against the forces of banality, rigged from the start and ultimately doomed to dismal, serial failure. I suspect that everyone involved knows that the whole thing was a mistake, and I imagine we can confidently resign the record to the position of nadir. I hope that just because Rufus is nice and settled and happy now doesn't mean that he's resigned himself to repeating these swipes at MOR recognition.

Dirty Projectors’ Swing Low Magellan

[aka The Night Mail's Controversial Opinion of 2012, no. 1]

I know everyone loves it, but... it’s their worst album. It’s boring and simplistic and one-dimensional in a way that Dirty Projectors have never been before. I feel particularly compelled to say this, because the dominant discourse around the album was the one in which Dave Longstreth ‘finally lets his inner pop purity shine through all that “difficult”, “complex”, “weird” and ultimately extraneous “experimentation”, proving once and for a musician to be truly great, and reach' - (eurgh) - 'maturity, they must prove that their personal style is still recognisable in discrete three-minute bursts, using conventional metres, rhythms, forces and textures, and writing only about love from a personal, autobiographical perspective’. It’s the same argument as those who round on sophisticated installation or conceptual artists and ask: ‘But can they draw?!'.

There’s a distinct discursive ideology that comes into play here, dictating what is to be considered (paradoxically, of course, and implicitly) to be the ‘highest’ form of pop music. The old (conservative) ‘authenticity’ argument, which emphasises ‘intuitiveness’, ‘directness’, ‘accessibility’, ‘unpretentiousness’ and ‘organicism’, is invoked with relish as soon as an artist steps too far in that direction. Previously, a musician like Longstreth simply wouldn’t be eligible for this kind of ranking, but with this record he has clearly put himself forward for nomination, and so we have critics automatically praising its ‘unpretentious eloquence’ and ‘emotional and structural accessibility’. Grayson Currin of Pitchfork claims: ‘[Dirty Projectors] come toward Earth just enough here to feel like a proper rock band working in service of songs about love and confusion, anxiety and celebration.’**** Yeah I know, it sounds pretty lame to me, too.

Clearly, all of these privileged values are laden with unchecked assumptions and ideology (returning to Pitchfork: what is an ‘intuitive arrangement’, for example, if not just mindlessly copying whatever the convention of the time is? And don’t get me started on Longstreth’s purported ‘counterintuitive approach to guitar’!). But the positive lesson here, for me, is that Longstreth’s ‘complexities’ are not mere obfuscating ‘ornamentation’, preventing us from accessing the ‘pure, vulnerable humanity’ which we eagerly search for at the ‘core’ of his music. The ‘complexities’ are the music - content, form, both together. In the process of making something 'accessible', if that is actually possible, surely what is accessed must remain consistent.

It reminds me of the ridiculous and tiresome invocation of - (ugh) - 'Pseuds' Corner' in online comments under philosophically-informed arguments and academic criticism ('I think you're reading too much into it'), as well as our society's response to all philosophy and theory (and most academia) in general. It is not a question of philosophers obfuscating simple ideas with 'clever-sounding' language, or creating the appearance of something out of nothing through tricks of meaningless jargon, it is just that such language has been invented in order to attempt to discuss the previously undiscussable, to approach some kind of precise communicative understanding about certain modalities of conceptualisation which are inaccessible to everyday language. This is why pop philosophy cannot ever penetrate very deeply into the nature of things, and why it certainly can't be relied upon to provide conclusive arguments for radical politics. It is difficult to learn theoretical and philosophical language, but it is also necessary in order to consider particular aspects of what we perceive as the world (although art can sometimes help).

Behind all those condescending - (ughhh) - 'Pseuds' Corner' accusations, there appears to be a belief that everything is really very simple, that it must be very simple, and that attempts to understand things as complicated are always misguided. They know that 'truth' is simple and tangible, even if they don't know what it is exactly, or else they know that 'truths' don't exist and aren't worth thinking about, and that's why they don't even attempt to comprehend the academic language or argumentation, and thence counter it on its own terms. In the same way, ultimately, if that pre-formulated pop music ideal - love and confusion, anxiety and celebration, the vulnerable and the human etc. - is what you’re always listening for in all music a priori, then of course the other Dirty Projectors albums are going to sound like ‘a menagerie of eccentricities’.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good to hear what idiosyncratic artists can do with archetypal pop forms, and I really like it when Animal Collective, Deerhoof or Xiu Xiu get into their pop mode. It’s certainly a valid direction in which to experiment, and the Dirty Projectors already achieved it successfully on Bitte Orca. Songs like ‘Stillness is the Move’ and ‘Two Doves’ are better than all of Swing Low Magellan put together, and they’re hardly inaccessible. I just take (huge) exception to the fact that this is ‘their best album by a mile’.

So consider this as another friendly intervention, in the face of apparent universal critical consensus. It’s a good album, but it’s their worst.


So that was my 'Bottom Three'. After an initial cluster of disappointments early in the year, I became less and less inclined to seek out these new records from my old pantheon. I’ve yet to even listen to the Shins’ Port of Morrow or Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz, but I'm told my trepidation is justified. I’ve just recently embarked upon Why’s Mumps, etc. which was lightly trashed (though so far I’m not hating it), and I’ve pretty much given up on all Mark Kozelek’s new stuff. Grizzly Bear’s Shields remains, unplayed, beside my CD player. The day will come, but I guess for now there’s comfort in the not knowing.

But enough negativity: continue to the next post for my TOP TEN FAVOURITE ALBUMS OF 2012!!!


* i.e. Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Jens Lekman, John Maus, The Magnetic Fields, Mark Eitzel, Mark Kozelek, Micachu & the Shapes, Owen Ashworth, Perfume Genius, Rufus Wainwright, Scott Walker, The Shins, Sufjan Stevens, Why? and Xiu Xiu

** i.e. The Magnetic Fields and Xiu Xiu

*** Examples of 'intertextual' references include: 'Beauty Towne' for 'Clowne Towne', 'Black Drum Machine' for 'Black Keyboard' (which also recalls A Promise closer 'Ian Curtis Wishlist'), 'I Luv Abortion' for 'I Luv the Valley', and 'Smear the Queen', with its shared vocals, clearly echoing the bands cover of 'Under Pressure' with Michael Gira on Women As Lovers.

**** Most of my 'quotes' here come from the Pitchfork review - read it here - which I find a particularly extreme example of the ideology described, but also a symptom of Pitchfork's penchant for 'totalising' review narratives (i.e. fitting the album review into some bigger story about a cultural moment, or a biographical detail, or a particular feeling or image, or a personal anecdote or reference), fun to read but very prone to speculative assumptions which, when added together, can formulate quite a strongly ideological critical discourse across the site. This is problematic because of the precedence and power that Pitchfork now has within the increasingly web-based, web-mediated indie music world, ordering/framing not only our reception and understanding of music but also the types of music that we are able to hear, and eventually the sort of music which is encouraged (or possible) to be made. Where musical culture, and music-in-culture, is concerned, Pitchfork has incredible command over the 'distribution of the sensible', and their critical ideology - though it came from an admirably independent-minded place - is now massively privileged. I hope to start a series of posts pinpointing and critiquing various ideological trends on Pitchfork, and a few either major webzines, especially where they restrict the different ways that we might think about music and what kind of music can be made (and how politically effective music could be).