Monthly Archives: September 2020

The American Canon is Here

Just been looking at Rolling Stone‘s new Top 500 list properly for the first time. I’ve not had the time or patience until now to scroll through it all, instead just quickly skimming the top 100 and noting the howls of apoplexy on Twitter and in the comments. Apparently Antifa are responsible for Marvin Gaye’s rise to the top of the list. Yes, some people actually say that out loud.

It shouldn’t need saying, but just in case it does, the list is not the product of heavily armed wokerati seizing control of the Rolling Stone offices and locking Jann Wenner in a stationery cupboard. It’s much simpler than that. Rolling Stone is no longer run by Wenner and it’s no longer aimed at his generation. It’s pivoted to pop because if it doesn’t it soon won’t exist. The Penske Media Corporation that now owns it needs to make Rolling Stone credible again, and this list is a step towards making that happen. It’s a statement about what Rolling Stone stands for in 2020 (or at least, what it wants to be seen as standing for) – an outlet where you can read about Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift all in one place. Of course, that doesn’t make it radical; it just catches it up to where the majority of critics (at least British ones, who from my vantage point embraced poptimism more fervently more quickly than American critics) got to in around 2004 or so.

To the list itself, then. For all that fans of classic rock gasped at it, only three records surprised me at their inclusion: Shania Twain’s Come On Over, Eric Church’s Chief and 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Shania because I’d thought her pop/country hybrids were too cynical in their ear-worminess to have won lasting favour; 50 Cent because I thought he was a complete joke when In Da Club came out and assumed everyone else did too; and Eric Church because, really? I mean, OK, if that’s your thing, but really? I didn’t realise.

I was more taken aback by records that I’d assumed would be higher. Neutral Milk Hotel’s beloved-by-everyone-but-me In the Aeroplane Over the Sea all the way down at 375? I thought it’d be top 100. Joy Division’s Closer at 309 and Unknown Pleasures at 211? They’ve never been a band I care for, but again, I imagined their records would be way higher. Maybe I’ve just spent spent too much time listening to KEXP.

Of course, the list has flaws. It doesn’t have, sitting resplendent at the top, Judee Sill’s first album. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is not second. No Fred Neil, no John Martyn (not much British folk generally, actually). Jazz is treated as an afterthought, and reggae even more so: the highest-ranked reggae album, unless I missed one, is Bob Marley’s Legend.

I suspect that generational turnover will mean that when the list is next revised, it will look very different again, probably with a lot of boomer warhorses still there but fewer choices from the 2010s and 2000s. Time will tell. In the meantime, it seems pretty representative to me of the pop consensus in 2020, and why would it be anything else?

They Follow the Beck of a Bale-ful Star, Their Paths Are Dream Beguiled

Well, Tottenham Hotspur’s season just got interesting, at least potentially.

I’d been anticipating a rough year (that is, if the season isn’t ended prematurely by a new national lockdown, which seems likely). An early exit from the Europa League, an early exit from the League Cup, an early exit from the FA Cup, and a tedious scrap for sixth place in the league, as part of Jose Mourinho’s seemingly wilful campaign to turn Spurs from a team that reached the Champions League final and was, albeit briefly, part of the European elite, into domestic also-rans. That will probably still be how it goes. But with Gareth Bale’s return to Spurs on loan from Real Madrid, you just never know. Bale is, if nothing else, a wild card.

I wasn’t that gutted when Bale left in 2013, in all honesty. My favourite player of that era was Luka Modric, and I was much more frustrated when he went; the good thing about Bale’s departure was that, while they management wasted a lot of the enormous windfall, they managed to sign Christian Eriksen – as close to a like-for-like Modric replacement as was available at the time, and Eriksen was the best thing about Spurs during his tenure at the club.

Bale was a very different kind of player to the guileful Eriksen and Modric. They both possessed a vision, technique and range of pass that Bale never shared. Bale, by contrast, was explosive. His approach has always been to get within shooting range as quickly as possible, then let fly. He seemingly doubled his bodyweight in the gym in his last year or so at Spurs, losing nothing in terms of acceleration, and his left-foot thunderbolts were breathtaking in their sheer ferocity. Modric and Eriksen would leave opponents dizzy as they passed round them; Bale would bulldoze straight through them. There was something bracingly unrefined about Bale’s approach to the game; he played like the kid in school too fast, too strong and too damn intent on winning to let anyone stand in his way. From what I’ve seen of his contributions to Real’s successes in the intervening years, there’s still something of that in his game.

After Modric left, the team were dangerously reliant on Bale to do everything for them, the Andre Villas Boas gameplan – give it to Gareth and get out of way – making Spurs predictable and easier for the best sides to deal with. The defection of Bale and recruitment of Eriksen restored patience, intelligence and craft to the Tottenham midfield. I was, as I say, not overly traumatised by Bale’s leaving, the more so as he wasn’t leaving for one of our domestic rivals.

But with Spurs once again becalmed after a run of excellent seasons (the loss of Eriksen; the replacement of Mauricio Pochettino as manager when his record should have made him unsackable), the team is in need of something – anything – to give them a spark. The returning Bale might just provide it. How he’ll play with Harry Kane is yet to be seen; in his last seasons at Spurs, Bale seemed to be coveting the Cristiano Ronaldo role, in which he was both creator and goalscorer. But the horrifyingly stodgy Tottenham midfield needed a boost. Even if all he does is follow his old boss Harry Redknapp’s strategy – “fucking run about a bit”, for those of you who have forgotten – that might make a difference.

Gillian Welch, Living in the Now

I’ve been writing this blog a pretty long time now: seven and a half years. The problem is, I published pieces on most of my favourite music before I’d found a tone that wasn’t completely insufferable. Here’s a retake of a piece I wrote in 2013 about one of my favourite records ever, inspired by a Twitter exchange I had yesterday.

Something happened to Gillian Welch’s writing between 1996, when she released her debut album, Revival, and 2001, when she released her masterpiece, Time (The Revelator). In 1996, her songs were mostly sepia-toned, frequently sung in character, and narrated in the past tense: stories about hard-scrabble, often rural, lives. By 2001, she had largely abandoned linear narrative and past-tense settings, instead writing in what is clearly discernible as now, but seldom telling stories with a beginning, middle and end.

In the same period, she went from being a promising young up-and-comer to being possibly the best songwriter in the world.

Were these two things related? What was the relationship between them: causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if it was causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Writing original songs that aim for timelessness and woody authenticity is difficult, particularly if you’re setting them in the past. It’s easy for listeners to become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers (a critic for whom I have a ton of respect and who has written pieces I’d kill to have written) was negative about Revival when reviewing it for Rolling Stone:

“[Revival] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.”

Christgau was even less impressed:

“She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.”

He’s never given Welch the time of day since.

But these were uncharitable reviews, and in Christgau’s case possibly hypocritical: after all, he’d never complained that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville Train. He’d never castigated Randy Newman for not having lived through the Great Mississippi Flood when he released Louisiana 1927.

While neither Powers nor Christgau seemed able to hear it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and Revival contained several undeniable successes. Perhaps what was really going on here was a willed failure to suspend disbelief, a refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet long enough to properly hear the songs. When Welch adopted a character on songs like Annabelle, One More Dollar and Tear My Stillhouse Down, her middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – was an easy stick to beat her with.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), Welch had significantly altered her lyrical style.

It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival, but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (The Revelator). Instead there are meditations and recollections, and when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given disconnected pieces of it from somewhere out of the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April the 14th (Part 1):

When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.

It’s a world away from “We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust”.

So if her lyrics did change between Revival and Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?

Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody from Welch, and the very impressive singing and guitar playing from both Welch and her partner David Rawlings. But for a songwriter whose arrangements are mostly just two guitars and two voices, the quality of the lyric takes on even great importantce. When Welch and Rawlings came back with Time (The Revelator), the songs were more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April the 14th (Part 1) is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world of mobile telephones, vans and punk bands playing low-rent shows, but Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on 14th April: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.

Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a “ruination day”? What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies?

Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.

While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy, compared to this. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief after her own death; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless after being laid off and losing all his money gambling. In the world that the songs have established, these were not unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined by the listener.

By Time (The Revelator), she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave questions unanswered. April the 14th (Part 1)’s sister song, Ruination Day (Part 2), does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. Instead, it doubles down on the inscrutability of the earlier song. In Ruination Day (Part 2), the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.

Of course, some might consider raising questions like this and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this game and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time (The Revelator), it does feel just a little like she’s working with archetypes and well-worn stories.

Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on The Band’s second album), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.

The late Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the “awkward truth” that “to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness”. Welch more or less proved James’s contention by coming nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. Whether it was conscious or not, it marked a step change in her work. Time (The Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but that’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record in the first place.