Thursday, July 05, 2007

What are you waiting for?

I was listening to Grace by Jeff Buckley the other day. No, don't worry, nothing's wrong, nobody's died, I'm not suffering from chronic depression or anything. I'd just got the CD player mended, and reached for a random disc to test it. Grace was at hand. Damn, this is starting to sound like a sermon...

Anyway, something struck me as I listened to the album without its customary accoutrements of darkness, candles and stifled sobbing. There's a song on it called 'So Real', and it always gives me a chill when I hear it. But ask me anything about it - the music or the lyrics, anything - I couldn't tell you. Just now, I had to check what the title was. I don't even particularly like the song when I listen to it.

Context, as ever, is all. 'So Real' gives me tingles because it's the track that comes before Buckley's version of 'Hallelujah' and overplayed as that song might be, constantly used as cheap shorthand for emotional turmoil in TV dramas about American teenagers with great teeth, Buckley's 'Hallelujah' sends me to a deep, dark place that very little music can achieve. And 'So Real' is the herald to that feeling.

In my book about Radiohead, I discussed the way that people's listening habits have changed radically in the decade since OK Computer was released. The provision of music as discrete, downloadable tracks, rather than as a fixed album with a beginning and an end has meant that the weird thrill I feel as 'So Real' dies away might soon be nothing more than a quaint folk memory. People will still listen to 'Hallelujah', but it might be prefixed by any track, by any artist, on any iPod.

Kids are growing up who don't know the extent to which a track listing burns itself into your memory. I remember when my dad and I first listened to the CD version of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the liner notes was George Martin's first draft of the running order and now, with the newfangled wonders of a programmable player, we could make that order a reality. But as soon as track three began ('Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite', rather than 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', following 'With a Little Help from my Friends'), it just sounded... wrong. 'With A Little Help' sets you up for 'Lucy'. It just does.

And then there's 'Love You More', from the Buzzcocks compilation Singles Going Steady. It stops, abruptly, brutally, with the line "Until the razor cuts". And then, before 'Ever Fallen In Love' arrives, there's a yearning, anticipatory silence, possibly the most profound silence in rock 'n' roll.

Maybe that's what's been lost as the Great Rock Album bites the dust: the notion that some silences are better than others.


S said...

How very true. Some of my older albums that I listened to endlessly on my walkman or later on my first CD player which didn't have a shuffle/random button, just sound wrong if played out or order or followed by a track from another artist. There is a lot of good about how the new style way of listening to music but this is definitely still one of the pitfalls.

Having said all that, when I buy an album from one of my favoured artists I will purposely listen to it on order for a few weeks as I feel they have obviously spent time picking the running order for a reason.

Anyway my point being: I agree!

Anonymous said...

Many of my downloaded albums, I have no idea which order they are meant to be listened in, and will never find out. Not that I care much. The entire point of the album is dead - and my shelf-space is delighted about it, to be honest. At last, my minimalist home has the potential to appear in Living Etc. (Now, if I can just get rid of all the toys and my family.)

Hidden tracks, though, are now a royal pain in the arse, popping up as they do in the middle of some absolutely contextless musical experience.

And surely, the most anticipatory silence in Rock'N'Roll is the one provided by Mr Steve Harley.

patroclus said...

This is probably true for albums, but it doesn't mean that 'kids these days' don't have a sense of aesthetically pleasing musical order - aren't they forever making playlists and mix CDs? And who's to say they can't be as satisfying as an album tracklisting?

For more on the importance of what order songs go in, see this review of the Simian Mobile Disco album in Stylus magazine, in which the reviewer complains that the Simian boys are witless indie kids who have no sense of the narrative inherent in a DJ set.

Sooo...the narrative form of the album may be moribund, but other forms of musical narrative (playlist, podcast, compilation, DJ set, film soundtrack?) surely live on.

That may well be the most pretentious thing I've ever written.

Tim F said...

Thank you, James (for agreeing with me, I mean). Perhaps you'd be so good as to hang out on CiF occasionally, if only to rebut the accusations of paedophilia, neo-fascism or permanent adolescence that I have to endure.

It's not so much hidden tracks as the silences that precede them, Wyndham. I'm thinking of 'Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip', the surprise gift 20 minutes after the end of In Utero. And I see your Steve Harley and raise you Dave Bowie. "Ooo-ow Suffragette!"

Of course people understand these things, Patroclus, and that's something that goes back to homemade compilation tapes. (I once went from 'Heroin' by the Velvet Underground to 'Remember You're A Womble' - well, I liked it.) But what's lost is the collective experience (beyond that of the bedroom DJ and his mates).

And if that's the most pretentious thing you've ever written, you're just not trying hard enough. Awaiting your caustic response to The Blog Prog, and they haven't even made the bloody thing yet...

patroclus said...

Yes, I realised on my way to M&S that what you mean is that people are losing the collective experience, rather than the sense of a pleasing order of musical tracks. And you're quite right. But as I've said loads of times (mainly to cello, and mainly to her annoyance), I'm not a big fan of the collective cultural experience, especially when most of them are so overtly commercial in nature.

In fact the very phrase 'collective cultural experience' makes me think of the Millennium Dome, the Diana concert, etc., and that makes me want to run away and listen to one of my nice compilations that only I have.

I like the sound of 'Heroin' running into 'Remember You're a Womble'. You should make an mp3 compilation and put it up here. Make a personal cultural experience into a collective cultural experience...

I am looking forward to The Blog Prog. Given the number of BBC employees who have blogs, they should have acquired at least some grasp of the whole thing by now.

Geoff said...

I never use the random function on my mp3 player and any compilations I've ever produced have always sounded wrong. Other people do it better.

And Hallelujah is far and away my least favourite song on Grace. I wouldn't have got into him if I'd just heard that. Next time I listen to the album I am determined to fast forward through it. Maybe.

Andrew said...

Though perhaps if we're lucky enough to get a mind-blowing genius or two to release mind-blowing genius albums or two then the album might become something like the thing it was again.

amyonymous said...

I will refer back to your own expertise, Tim. OK Computer was a true album - i find it almost impossible to listen to it on random play. Subterranean Homesick Alien HAS to follow Paranoid Android.

But oddly, I don't need to listen to Radiohead's next 3 albums in their recorded order. I can set any one of them on random and it doesn't bother me at all.

hmmmmm..... I think there is meaning here, but I'm not sure I can articulate it.

Tim F said...

I see what you mean about the collective experience as a mass event, Patroclus - but is there not something pleasing about encountering someone who gets a shared buzz from that moment, during that album? Not as obvious and cliched as Bono dancing with that girl at Live Aid, but a bit more accessible than a random juxtaposition that only you and Steve Jobs's shuffle pixies know about.

But is that simply because you don't like 'Hallelujah', Geoff, or because it's been flogged to death? If Buckley were alive, would he be playing Live Earth? Probably.

Andrew, I suggested that in CiF piece a few weeks ago and was informed that my argument had been blown out of the water by Green Day, of all people. Well, that told me.

OK Computer is a concept album, Amy. But I daren't say it too loudly, or maybe TY will hunt me down and kill me.

Rog said...

I think the bran-tub serendipity approach of random play is a great way of discovering little played gems amongst the reedy backwaters of running orders in your collection. I defy anyone to deny that they’ve had to check the screen of their Ipod to see a track which they have possessed for years but not recognized.

There’s a shorter but just as significant 1 beat Wilsonian silence towards the end of Good Vibrations before you’re covered with a tidal wave of close harmonies. Mike Love on ya’!

Valerie said...

Sometimes we stumble, even trip on coincidence, and after I read this blog entry I picked up Zadie Smith's ON BEAUTY, which I've been reading this week, and read "Jerome had played his parents an ethereal, far more beautiful version of 'Hallelujah' by a kid called Buckley." I had heard of but not heard Buckley, so coincidence drove me to download it. It is lovely; still I think the Cohen version will always move me more, but that is because of time, and place, and memory. Though the last time I heard the song was when I was singing it in a jam session near the ocean in Western Australia, with two other voices raised with mine, unplanned harmonies piercing the darkness. We turned to each other when it was over in some wonder, all with the sense that something had been created that was more than our voices could have offered. That's the gift of a great song, I think.

But (as usual) I digress. I know exactly what you mean about the Buzzcocks album (a staple of mine), and so many others. I can remember so many moments in high school when we'd all start singing the next song on Wish You Were Here before it started, for example.

The mass cultural consciousness of order is something awesome and strange, but I'm not completely convinced it is gone forever. It may re-emerge in alternate form. Though I'm afraid that alternate form may be LOLCATS or some such ;-)

amyonymous said...

i'm back. i just had to say one more thing about hallelujah. somehow i missed the buckley version for years. and never heard cohen's version. i first "discovered" it when i took my then-young son to see shrek and the song was in the movie. i bought the soundtrack specifically for that song . . . and THAT'S what led me to cohen and buckley.