Thursday, 12 August 2010

A Now Familiar Arcade

As you will know if you read JB regularly (as regular as a once-a-month post gets, with apologies) you’ll know I’m fascinated by the fact that ‘all the music, all the time, anywhere’ has somehow become the de-facto solution to commercial music - because it isn’t. 
As the industry hurtles towards cloud-based solutions – it’s about to find out that consumers are about as ready for the cloud as they were for 1st generation subscription services when Napster advertised during the super-bowl in 2005.
I could go on, but this post isn’t about business models but consumption models. Specifically, a mode of listening that I have found increasingly works for me – that of putting an album of heavy rotation – repeated listening – sometimes for days at a time.
It worked recently with the National. It also worked with Gorillaz – The Plastic Beach album I revisited and only listened to properly after being inspired by the band’s Glastonbury performance (who cares if the Glasto crown was unforgiving, it looked and sounded brilliant on telly). The Janelle Monae album has had a similarly dedicated airing.
Most recently though, it’s been Arcade Fire’s latest, ‘The Suburbs’. As is my want, I skipped their first two records partly due to the indie hype around them and partly due to what I had heard not arresting me (I found them just too noisy). This time the reviews about them ‘lightening up’ along with a £5 price tag on 7 Digital, was enough to swing it.
Last week I played ‘Suburbs’ on the headphones during 3-4 commutes to London & back – roughly as many times I played the album (16 tracks, 1 hour). I liked it but that was all. It sounded a little bit too evenly-paced if anything.
Then something extraordinary happened. I left it a day or so, then put the album on in the evening – headphones on – and chilled. Eureka. Every track separated and revealed its own character – which was one thing – but then each song also began to make sense in its place in the sequence – with the album subsequently becoming much more than the sum of its parts. In short, it’s an absolute classic.
The album takes you on a journey – a jaunty uplifting start, then a coming down in tone but a serious raising of the quality bar with 4th track ‘Rococo’. The second quarter is then a gradual development of depth – and then come the centrepiece – ‘Surburban War’ – which is the kind of track we could expect from Radiohead or U2 when at the absolute peak of their creative powers – and that’s saying something. Quite expertly, a punkish rock-out track ‘Month Of May’ follows that, and then the album takes you on a cool-down with a bunch of more reflective songs. There’s a lift right before then end and then a kind of genius in closing the album back where it started, but with a stripped down finish. It doesn't so much end as resign.
The whole experience is superb. Now I do like themed records and this one does have a theme – of returning to the landscapes in which you grew up – with the weird, existential tingling that can create. And this is at a time when I’m also reading Michael Chabon’s ‘Manhood for Amateurs’ – in which he places the role of being a father (of 4!) in the context of his own childhood, including this same idea of revisiting both mental and physical landscapes that look or feel like fragments of alien places by the time we’ve grown up. If ever books needed accompanying soundtracks, and presumably soon they wil...
And to think I almost skipped 'Suburds', since I’ve got a backlog of music I’ve been trying to get to for several weeks, months even. It’s why I don’t currently subscribe to a music service and I don’t know if I will again in the short-term. I’ve a feeling if I’d streamed ‘Suburbs’ – in part or fully, it would never have reached that part of my subconscious that brought me back for a proper listen – the one that changed my relationship with the record for good.
I’ve now over-played the album of course, so I’m laying-off for a while and searching for the next life-affirming feed. But I’m not looking at streaming any candidates for now because I just don’t want to jeopardise this process that is really working for me in terms of enjoyment. I know the sweet shop is there on the corner and is stocked to the hilt with new stuff, but I’m willing to keep walking by until I’m really in need of a sugar rush. For now the slow-release recipe is working just fine.