Thursday, November 11, 2004

You Know It In Rhyme 

I mentioned a while back that I was contemplating a response to Jonathan Strahan's post about the latest R.E.M. album, Around the Sun.

So here it is. I have no academic or professional background in music... but I know what I like ;).

Here are my rules about listening to new music.

  • It takes several listenings before one can pass judgment, or form an intelligent opinion. Many listenings, if the music is anything other than formula pop.

    • Corollary: I'm cynically skeptical about newspaper and magazine reviews that seem to pass judgment quickly, after listening to a new album for a few days at most, from an advance copy, before the official release. This applies to most reviews appearing in newspapers and magazines. I suppose professional music reviewers might be more expert at this than I am, but personally I can't imagine how they do it.
    • And also: I'm fascinating by how different people response differently to music. Jonathan responds to the lack of the drummer. It wouldn't occur to me. I respond to certain kinds of melodies, minor keys and ambiguous resolutions, and certain kinds of lyrics that evoke without necessarily explaining. At the opposite extreme is the long-time pop music reviewer for the L.A. Times, Robert Hilburn, whose reviews often seem to respond only to lyrics -- he adores Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young. And Roger Ebert, like Isaac Asimov apparently completely oblivious to music -- Ebert reviewed the South Park movie without once mentioning the songs, which I thought the highlight of the film.

  • Because, subsequent listenings, days and weeks and months and years later, can shift one's impression.

    • The more attractive a new song's melody seems -- the catchier it seems -- the more likely it is to quickly pall.
    • The songs that don't impress on first or second listening, that fade into the album drift at first, can eventually emerge as vital experiences on repeated listenings, as their subtleties sink in.

Then there is my own attitude, my own perspective, which is more about me than about popular standards about music. I respond to minor keys, to complex structures that are not apparent on first or second or even fifth hearing. I'm not a shiny happy people person. I don't look for music to make me happy. I look for music to evoke for me those ineffable impressions that I'd not previously realized, or experienced.

And I rarely form impressions about entire albums. More usually, particular songs, or groups of songs.

For example -- my favorite R.E.M. album might be Up, for the mordancy of "Sad Professor", the inspiration of "Walk Unafraid", and the glorious finale of "Diminished", "Parakeet", and "Falls to Climb". "Diminished" has this amazing structure: abc, bcd, abcd, c. It ends ambiguously, unresolved -- it's about a guy trying to rationalize the murder of his lover -- like certain Springsteen songs.

As for the current album, Around the Sun: the opener, "Leaving New York", strikes me as generic R.E.M.: just fine. "Electron Blue" is very catchy, like it a lot. "The Outsiders", with its rap/hip hop conclusion, very appealing despite. My focus lands on "High Speed Train", despite the backing vocals that initially struck me as cheesey, this is the dark penetrating song that explores without enforcing conclusions. And the finale, "Around the Sun", might have the most inspirational lyrics since I can remember: very fine.

But after another dozen listenings, I might change my mind.

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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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