Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Are we living too fast for slow pop?

Couple of years back I was at a music conference featuring a panel of ‘new millennial’s (young people to you and me) discussing their music listening habits. One explained in all seriousness, that he had “tried putting a CD and just listening, but it didn’t really work for me”. Older members of the audience, including me, sighed out an involuntary laugh.

I intended then, to write something about some of the albums that I grew up with when I was a young adult, reflecting on just how different the experience was then – as a child of the 80’s, musically speaking. Putting on a CD and ‘just listening’ was exactly what we all did. Habitually, frequently, repetitively.

It’s rapidly becoming a lost art in itself though – and this fascinates me. It does so partly because I’m convinced the industry is missing a trick commercially by not promoting more pure enjoyment from music – instead becoming obsessed with access, discovery and acquisition. The most recent example of course is latest ‘buzz’ music service mflow, which has the tagline ‘Discovery it’s the greatest thrill in music’. Nothing wrong with it I suppose, yet there really is something wrong. However, that’s something for another post.

The other fascination for me with modern music consumption is not commercial, but cultural. I think the millennial guy who couldn’t get through full album session is missing out on one of life’s simple, exceptional pleasures. And it worries me that it’s going this way for the majority. When Observer Music Monthly surveyed the UK’s listening habits back in 2005 it found one third of music fans claimed they did still play albums from start to finish ‘occasionally’. I wonder what the proportion is now.

What brought this subject back to me was reading La Roux’s ‘Soundtrack of my life’ in this Sunday’s Observer (sadly, now sans its Music Monthly supplement). Elly Jackson observes – on the subject of one of my favourite and prime examples of slow-pop – Tear For Fears’ ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ that:

“The way it’s recorded and produced is incredible. People don’t take that much time over music any more. And if you did, all your fans would fuck off somewhere else, ‘cause they’re so fickle nowadays”.

I like this quote because it captures both the cultural and commercial trends in music production and consumption. We simply lack the attention spans, as well as the time, and the market responds to that by not supplying such demanding product.

That said, I for one am still trying to create the time and clear the headspace to listen to Joanna Newsome’s latest 3-disc magnum opus. What was she thinking?

For me, the classic slow-pop albums of my formative years are a unique thing, largely of the past. They are unique in that these records tended to contain a mixture of both massive hits, but more experimental, almost sub-classical tracks, either in-between – or sometimes given their own ‘side’ (Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ being perhaps the most complete example, with its ‘The Ninth Wave’ second half). These records were made by artists at their commercial peak, coinciding with their creative urge to experiment and move forward.

Sequencing was massively important in creating an impression of vast depth for these records, which sucked the listener in – making a more immersive experience than any 3D film or website I can think of. Both ‘Big Chair’ and ‘Hounds’ are superlative examples. Another would be OMD’s ‘Architecture and Morality’ (the latter two albums curiously and perhaps rightly, not featured on Spotify et al.).

Other examples? Perhaps the masters of this whole process were Talk Talk. Perhaps the best example of such a work is Dark Side Of The Moon.

There are probably endless examples from days past. But where are the modern slow-pop masterpieces? They hardly exist – partly because the culture we live in leaves them little space in which to thrive. We are no longer connected by this type of cultural experience – too busy discovering, accessing or sharing what we haven’t really listened to that much!

I’ve previously argued that Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ might well be the last example of this particular ‘genre’ – a popular but experimental album. Since Radiohead have ‘moved on’ from albums, they may not supply any more of the same. U2’s experimental side and commercial peak seems long since past. Can we look to Elbow, or even Coldplay to do something a bit old-fashioned – namely connect massive popularity with a risky but ultimately successful creative formula? Or even La Roux per chance.

I hope they do and I hope it sparks a renaissance for slow-pop, for the sake of the new millennials.

My top five slow-pop records then, which I would not dream of mflow-ing you, but would advise you to get on to Amazon now...

1. Kate Bush: Hounds of Love.

2. Tears For Fears: Songs From The Big Chair.

3. OMD: Architecture and Morality.

4. Talk Talk: The Colour of Spring.

5. U2: Zooropa.

Ps. For the record, I like mflow – both its current execution and its possibilities, but for me it still isn’t quite the answer to the faltering music industry model.

I’m on mflow as ‘keithj’ if you can find some slow pop for me!


mark e said...

hello keith.

interesting take on the whole absorbing an album issue.
i am very much part of that era.
sitting down and soaking an album up from start to finish.

admittedly your list contains records that i am not overly keen on hearing, but i totally agree with the sentiment.

so, with that in mind, here are a few other suggestions from the ireallylovemusic archives :

- the flat earth : thomas dolby.

surely the epitomy of experimental, sonically deep and interesting, but still very listenable pop music

- a secret wish : propaganda

the ZTT golden era is littered with such stuff, but this has to be the ultimate 'slow pop' album.

- plastic beach/demon days : gorillaz

seriously. i think both of these albums demands end to end listening to fully get them, both are experimental, both made for the mass pop market.

- big night music : shriekback

the band mellowed the funk, extended the studio to its limits, and made the ultimate late night deep listening experience. hence why many tracks ended up as the background to moody slo-mo panning shots in michael mann movies and miami vice.

i'm sure i have many more .. just let me sleep on it.

mark e

Anonymous said...

interesting how music reflects the cultural landscape.... thanks for the article

Real J.O.B said...

interesting how music reflects the cultural landscape.... thanks for the article

Peter (the other) said...

I found this post very enjoyable (steered here by Dean Kay at ASCAP), and from a quarter ("consultant") I am usually highly, knee-jerk suspicious of. Yes, I agree with your concerns, sentimentally.

But, as someone from an earlier generation still, let me welcome you to true old fogey-hood. Things change and we can't stop them. The history of humankind is one of improvement, the sort that is often three-steps forward and two steps back (wasn't that a silly walk?). It is not just the commercial forces but the human zeitgeist that drives these things, and at some age, most of us step off the belt to whinge and moan for the rest of our days, but at least we have our precious albums to listen to.

Things are getting better, it doesn't mean we have to like the new/better. It is different. And the universe has a really wild sense of humour: some decades from now someone will rediscover the long form and some newly minted ol'geezer will complain.

Phil Freihofner said...

Maybe the lack of patience you are describing is due to the presence of too much "stock" music writing. If I hear something that barely varies from something I've heard done 50 times already by other song writers, I get bored. Time is too valuable to waste on recycled cliches. I'm in my fifties and grew up with LPs, so it's not just about generational shifts.

Also, as one's tastes develop, the criteria for what one wants to listen to at a given moment can become very specific, leading to a lot of quick rejections of music of even the highest quality. I'm happy to listen to "whole albums" if the music works for me. But what works varies from day to day and mood to mood.

My conclusion would be more that many of today's listeners have developed their tastes to where they are very discriminating, due to the experience gained by the sheer volume (if nothing else) of what they have already heard.