Monday, October 09, 2006


The pop album is very quickly becoming an outdated concept because music is outgrowing it, both artistically and commercially. The most ambitious music aims for something beyond the album, as well it should : this is, after all, a form which evolved forty years ago, when pop outgrew the 7 inch and wanted to do something more grown-up, something more like what jazz musicians were doing. For a long while, the rock album became an event, both in the expectation that greeted its arrival, and the ritualist way by which it was carefully taken out of its wrapping, played on headphones, its gatefold sleeve pored over and examined for coded drug references or speculation that the bassist might in fact be dead etc etc.

I would be interested to hear what readers think was the last rock album qua event. The sheer quantity of bands and albums and record labels (and, more to the point, the sheer quantity of music on a CD) means that a release doesn’t feel special, however much you love the band or artist or opening single. Even if you ignored all music released before 8 October 2006 and spent 24 hours a day listening to new releases, it would still be impossible to hear everything – impossible, even, to hear most of the stuff you are interested in. The release of the third Baby Bird, Fatherhood, was as close as it got for me, but that was a completely personal thing – he only released a thousand copies of it.

The 45 survived long after the birth and consolidation of the album, of course, but one wonders whether it would have if MTV hadn’t come along. And one wonders whether the album will survive the age of the download, and the desire for something other than 45 minutes of well-crafted, thematically linked pop music.

The result of the slow death of the album is that the few shining examples of really great post-millennial albums tend to be very traditional. An innovative musician will shy away from the album, trying to play around with form, exploit the potential for randomness in hearing music that computers create etc. They will (hopefully) create something shocking, scary, provocative. They will tell you something about the world in a form, or in a way you have never before encountered. But anybody sticking with the album had better bear its limits in mind.

The Go-Betweens were always the classic albums band : each of their albums are short, concise, song-and-narrative-based, conversational, humble, beautiful. Their final album, Oceans Apart, which was released last year but which I have only just heard, is quite, quite beautiful. Clocking in at 39 minutes, it does not experiment with form at all. It barely rocks out, but gathers itself at a subtle pace which casually grabs and stops you mid-breath. Mark Wallis and David Ruffy’s production is bathed in echoey baritone guitars, washes of woodwind and bass thrum like a cuddle.

It reveals, as the Go-Betweens always do, a bold romanticism for relationships and for the Australia in which they so rarely recorded. But the revelation is Robert Forster, whose wiredness I must admit always jarred a little for me against Grant McLennan’s swooning tenderness. Forster’s “Darlinghurst Nights” is the track of his career, its lyric recalling a bittersweet and unresolved period of youth, and its roll-call of characters – “Marjorie and Kim, Andy and Clint, Debbie, Bertie, people came and went. And then there was Suzie who we never ever saw again” – truly evocative. And his singing on “Lavender” is incredible – completely guileless, like McCartney’s singing on “She’s Leaving Home.” As for McLennan, well his best song, “This Night’s for you,” is positively Forsteresque.

The Go-Betweens are an easy band to get dewy-eyed over, not least because McLennan’s death in the spring means that we know this is their last album. They exude innocence and humility, and more importantly their creativity was given fruition by genuine relationships : McLennan and fellow Go-Between Amanda Brown (the oboeist who, on Tallulah’s “Bye Bye Pride,” contributes the band’s killer 20 seconds) were partners during the 80s, and the adoration that Forster and McLennan shared is palpable.

Shortly after his death, Amanda Brown said of McLennan:

"Grant's songs captured an Australia that was influenced by his love for contemporary American writers like Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver and songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. These writers inform his images of Australia, which range from the landscapes tinged with nostalgia and loss, suburban life, epic narratives and, of course, exquisite love songs."

The album is really very much like the novel : unsatisfactory for much of what we want to say, but perfect for these kind of Big Themes. Postmodernism has barely eroded the conservatism of rock music, and it certainly had no noticeable influence on the Go-Betweens. Maybe that’s because postmodernism is a regrettable by-product of a voracious world. The Go-Betweens were not of that world, which is why they never made a bad record. And in Oceans Apart, they made their best.

[If you have never heard the Go-Betweens, this is a video of “Streets of your Town”. Listen to it. Now. You’ll be hooked, I promise].


Blogger minifig said...

I don't think you need to hammer the nails into the coffin of the album just yet. It is true that legal downloading has led people to buy by the track rather than the album, but if you have a look at torrent sites, where a large number of illegal downloads are available, they're all by the album. And, for all of the record companies' witterings, CD sales aren't in terminal decline, it's just that people are far more choosy about what they choose to buy when they can get hold of an album they're interested in for free.

CDs were hailed as the end of the album format due to their abilities to be played on random and to skip tracks. It didn't seem to materialise, however.

In fact, as download speeds increase (as they inevitably will) downloading an album's worth of music will take a few seconds, and I think this will lead to a resurgence in the album format.

I think the change that this "revolution" is more likely to bring about is within the albums themselves. I think that "45 minutes of well-crafted, thematically linked pop music" will, as you suggest, draw to a close. Albums are more likely to become a collection of discrete songs, readily played on random since that is how mp3 players lead you to listen to music - so perhaps a bit less of the 17 minute prog-rock extravaganza.

Also, and to draw a close on my ramblings, I think the future will see albums being essentially free, or extremely cheap, since they will never be able to compete with free downloads. Albums will, therefore, become adverts for live shows (where most bands make most of their money anyway). Bad news for the record companies, but pretty much good news for everyone else.

12:22 PM  
Blogger darling vicarage said...

you were wrong, you can write about music

6:43 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

DV - thank you. You do it rather better though - will we get to hear your views on Bang on a Can @ the Barbican soon?

MF - you may be right about the album. It goes back to the old form/content debate - while new musical forms have been born in the last decade, none of them have really toyed with the form of the album. They have stayed within its perimeters. So, for instance, when Dizzee Rascal came onto the scene, his music was very exciting and new and presented to us London in the 00s. Yet Boy in da Corner felt oddly conservative, as if the format was holding him back.

4:42 PM  
Blogger darling vicarage said...

strangely, I didn't think much of 'Streets of Your Town' when I first heard it, but I just heard it again, and I think I experienced a little shiver.

9:20 PM  
Blogger darling vicarage said...

argh, bugger - after a day of trying to figure out why I love that Go-Betweens song I've just remembered - the intro is sampled on a really bad, really cheesy noughties disco single by Milky, and even worse, I think I prefer it. shameful.

8:07 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

First Stevie Wonder, now this...

6:57 PM  

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