Reading “Best of 2009” album lists

Posted on December 26, 2009

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Well, it’s that time of year again, and what we all suspected turns out to be true: Sometimes a great many people like things that seem to other people to have very little value.

The album that confused me the most (on the most lists, least stimulating musically within genres that I feel like I can comfortably discuss) was The Antlers – Hospice. This is a work (like Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones, which I was forced to read recently for class and which caused a violent revulsion in me that should probably be kept to a separate post) that has a built-in catch 22 when it comes to criticism, which is that it was composed about and in response to tragic events in the life of the author, and any critique of the music/writing can easily be read as critique of someone who has gone through a personal hell I have never had to deal with.
But, allow me to attempt a strictly musical critique of Hospice here.

(I should clarify that the album is nowhere NEAR as awful as The Lovely Bones. I only made that comparison because of their similar backstory-related invulnerability. I’d also like to note that despite reviewers persistence in making a big deal out of the backstory, Peter Silberman, the songwriter and lead singer of The Antlers, has, to his endless credit, refused to elaborate on it much at all. On the other hand, he did write an album about it, but the double-blind required of any artist who attempts to make popular art out of personal experience is very complicated. You must pretend to be writing only for yourself so as to be exploring your feelings honestly, yet at the same time you are making pop music, and there is a 100% chance you will be playing that music for other people later and thus projecting a public persona for yourself through it, not to mention trying to make money off it. Like I said, complicated.)

My initial reaction to Hospice was that I might have liked it a few years ago, and that despite my boredom with such dramatic yet completely consonant music these days, it was good music to listen to in a rainy car while feeling bad for yourself. I mean, surely its over the top drama was justified by its subject matter, right? Still, when the U2-style 3-3-2 chorus kicked in on the third track, “Sylvia”, I literally felt embarrassed. I felt prickles of shame on my back, which means a lot coming from me, because I love hugeness in music, and is also too bad because those airy, glitchy, Broadcast sounding keyboards that start the song are very pretty. It’s something about that first phrase of the chorus melody, when the vocals jump the octave. The second time I tried to listen to the album (first time I was writing something and only half paying attention) I literally flinched and threw my hand out to hit the space bar and stop the song. The tone of the vocals up there could I suppose be perceived as emotional, but to me it just sounds out of tune and thin, and even whiny (which I mean purely in terms of tone and not content, and which I think is hard to contradict).

The vocals, actually, are one of the main sticking points for me. Something about that close mic’d, super quiet vocal style that leaves the hard consonants hanging in the reverby void invokes a physical feeling, especially heard on headphones, akin to being touched repeatedly by someone you don’t want touching you. The one song that really worked for me was Thirteen, which is unsurprisingly the one song where lead singer Peter Silberman was not singing lead, not to mention one of the songs with the least traditional structures and least oh-my-god-this-is-so-emotional-it-is-one-giant-crescendo arrangements.

The other thing that got to me (present in nearly every album on the best of 09 lists as well) is just endless, unvaried diatonic melodies and chord progressions. I know, I know, it’s pop music, I should go elsewhere for challenging composition. But this choice seems especially bizarre in regards to Hospice, with its turbulent emotional material. The dissonance between painful emotions and very consonant music is a key part of the introspective tradition of pop songwriting, but it just rang false to me here. Cancer songs sound weird with cute chiming keyboards and bouncy pop rock backbeats and big choruses with lots of major 7th chords, and this is coming again from someone who loves nothing more than pop music about death. The sickly sweet music (like eating a bowl of powdered Stevia) removes from the lyrics any kind of sharpness that may have been there, and some combination of sharpness and sweetness is needed, some kind of delayed gratification, tension and release. Hospice is all release, which is easy on the ears at first and then ultimately unsatisfying. This, in combination with the vocal style, is perhaps why the album (seemingly made for me in so many ways) doesn’t resonate with me at all. Hospice also shares the very, very common (to my ears) pop music phenomenon of recent days where melodies can be on one hand completely tonal and easy and on the other completely and instantly forgettable (The XX being another band that typifies this). It’s almost paradoxical but it’s everywhere.

The monotonous release-release nature of pop music is certainly nothing new (actually, the fact that both Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors are on most top lists is a sign that people are more accepting of harmonic and formal experimentation than before, though I find Droste’s GB songs (which is most of them) to be a little dry), but I think I’m reaching the personal point where music that has nothing at all difficult in it doesn’t bring me joy anymore (although if that’s true why do I still love Brill Building songs so much?). The argument can be made that the difficulty in Hospice comes from its emotional content, but it didn’t really pack a punch for me the way it seems to for others. Maybe as someone who uses death to contextualize almost everything that happens to me, I’ve just worn the carpet a little thin in that area of my mind, or maybe the lyrics are just not that great. The image of someone tying a rescue copter’s rope around his own neck in a noose is just…well, a little cement-handed. This is where the catch 22 comes in, so I suppose I’ll leave it there, but I do wonder about how much of the meaning of this record is created in the minds of the listeners due to the mysterious yet oft-blogged backstory that in some sense proves the authenticity of the pain in the songs, making it okay to give yourself to the emotions fully without fearing for your credibility. And, of course, if that is true, does it make it less valid? To me, yes, but there isn’t really a foolproof argument to be made about it.

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