Rating 0.0, 10.0
I really wanted to review the new Shins album. Because of recently adopted “high-horse” stance on music piracy, I waited patiently for the kind folks at SubPop to mail me the CD. “Cool!” I thought when I finally got it, two weeks before its release date.
When I listen to an album I’m going to review, it’s a little bit different than any other music I listen to. I can compare it directly to my college days. For example, when my English professor would assign the class some Nathaniel Hawthorne to read, I wouldn’t crack open the book and think to myself: “time to enjoy me some Nathaniel Hawthorne!” I would think: “Oh shit, I better understand this or it’s community college for me”. Well I wasn’t what you’d call a model student, but I didn’t end up at community college either. In terms of Hawthorne, I read it all, underlined half, and forget everything.
The first listen is time for the music to wash over me. If I was into visualization – which I’m not – I would visualize myself as a pebble stuck in the sand, with the music washing over me like ocean waves. I try not to allow myself specific thoughts about song structure or lyrical meaning; by tuning out as much as possible I allow the tone and the mood of the sound overtake me. “Wincing the Night Away” elicited no strong emotions, leaving only weak echoes of suspense, anxiety and regret. I didn’t feel a consistent flow throughout, but rather, shifting and settling parts.
It goes without saying that a lot more is going on with a piece of recorded music besides its mood. So I won’t say it. But all these other things, I try to observe them, try to make sense of it all. Headphones are crucial, because this allows you to hear the intended mix. I’m no audiophile like some of my friends, but I can definitely notice the obvious stuff. The production on this album is very precise: everything seems to have a boundary about it. It doesn’t seem to me like anything is happening that shouldn’t be happening, that hasn’t been story-boarded and rehearsed. Songs like “Red Rabbits” conjure up a dreamlike world, while “Turn on Me” has a rock sound that feels decades old.
Eight, nine, ten times I listened dutifully to “Wincing the Night Away”. I still hadn’t even jotted down a page worth of notes. I started grasping for angles. I went to Amazon.com and noted that the album was number two in music sales, behind Norah Jones, and ahead of Mellencamp and Madonna, among others. I thought this might be a clue. I started one draft where I was drawing comparisons between myself and Natalie Portman. This hadn’t been my intention and I quickly erased this document. I woke up one morning with a chorus strongly imbedded in my consciousness – the same chorus I had been loudly deriding the previous day. I wondered what kind of angle this might be.
In the course of three weeks I listened to “Wincing the Night Away” in its entirety at least fifteen times. At listen eleven I knew I wouldn’t review it. For whatever reason I just couldn’t find an angle. What irritated me was that I couldn’t even tell if I liked it…this felt like a major glitch to me. How could I review something that I was completely indifferent to? I didn’t need qualification when I wrote that paper about the haunted mansion motif in Hawthorne for my English class, but this was different, wasn’t it? Didn’t I like pop music?
Around this time I started to experience an existential dread oh so familiar in my post-college life. The “why me?” syndrome took hold. Why should I care about the specific ways this particular thing makes me feel? More importantly: why should you care? You, the reader: I’m talking to you. Why should you care about what I think? If I don’t care, why should you care? Why should you care even if I care? Why why why?
If you’ve ever been lost in existential thought, you know how this thinking knows no top, bottom, or sides. A couple years ago – it could have been more – I remember reading a review by this guy Brent DiCrescenzo on Pitchfork. He was at the time the wittiest, snobbiest, harshest reviewer on the staff. He was also my favorite.
I don’t know if it was his last, but I read a review by him where he basically described how a smart, hyper-perceptive reviewer might implode while in the process of writing. He talked about the role of nostalgia in terms of the importance of a piece of art. And that is treacherous terrain indeed. I don’t remember the details, but I got this image of an obsessive intelligent young man throwing in the towel on what he thought he might love the most. But not only that: he is forced to admit that he was wrong the whole time, that his whole journey had been a scam.
I truly believe that any legitimate reviewer will have these feelings of doubt and non-relevance. That’s just part of being a thinker. There are many ways of explaining that ‘the more you know, the less you know’, and they’re all true. But the trick with reviewing something is that you have to quell these dissenting voices in your head. If you can’t, then why bother? If the name Descartes comes up in your blurb about the newest Snow Patrol, then something has drastically misfired.
Something in me was misfiring. I was coming to the conclusion that I just wasn’t made out for the reviewing life. I was taking it too seriously. On every level of awareness, “Wincing the Night Away” showed me that I just wasn’t cutting it. A better writer would have chosen any one of the angles I came across, fidgeted it around a bit and cranked out a review. I never did really get a feeling for Hawthorne either: maybe analysis just ain’t my thing. Maybe my taste in music (and literature) sucks. Did I like Arcade Fire first, or did I read that I liked it first? The thing with existential crisis is that it isn’t pigeonholed to one aspect of your life: it is your life.
Today I bought the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I brought along a Sony Discman so I could listen to it on the walk home. I ended up walking for two complete listens. You know what? It’s great. I was at the self-checkout line at QFC buying some tall kitchen garbage bags while song seven was playing – song seven is awesome. It really is. I felt it and I knew at the same time I would never be able to take anyone along on this understanding with me. And it made me think about “Wincing the Night Away”, and I knew that all I could do was give it a zero. And all that was left for to me to do was to give “Some Loud Thunder” a ten. The thought was simple, and there are a few different sayings about the simple things in life, about the credibility of simple things.
Is it validation we’re after, oh readers and writers of music web-blogs? Or is it something deeper?
Or is it something stupider?
– Scott Roots