My car is my audio haven. I drive too much to bother with FM radio with all its endless loop of top 40 charts and aurally violent commercials, so I’ve made the investment in Sirius XM satellite radio to keep me satisfied and sane.
I legit have put over 115,000 miles on my car in just under 4 1/2 years of ownership, if that tells you anything about how important quality listening material is.
As I was listening to my favorite station (Channel 35, SiriusXMU) the other day, one of the velvet-voiced female DJs was offering their commentary on Bon Iver’s “surprise” release, and it took me by surprise. She remarked about how unusual it was for Justin Vernon to have such a gap between his previous release — 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver — and his upcoming (30 September) album 22, A Million. Hm.
Now to be fair, there was wide speculation in the last 5 years about Justin Vernon hanging the hat up on Bon Iver completely.
(Indeed, he even admitted he wasn’t sure if there was a future there!)
My question is: when did it become ok to question an artist’s creative process and/or their vision?
As one of these older millennials (let’s just say the big 3-0 is knocking my door) I’ve borne witness to the worldwide technological paradigm shift of the last two decades. I’ve lived it. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re also around the same age and are familiar with coming of age in varied stages from low-, to middle-, to high-tech. We’re stuck in this odd limbo of remembering cassette tapes, laserdiscs, and CDs, as well as being expert handlers of literally every Apple device from the iMac to an iPhone 6S.
But how well do you also remember that glorious ignorance of world issues pre-social media? More specifically, how well do you remember having to wait until Sunday to read the Sunday Star in the newspaper to find out all of the latest and greatest celebrity gossip?
It is precisely this timeframe that has me intrigued.
I mean, really! How did those celebrities hold our wonder without constant status updates? How did anybody achieve a solid fanbase without being able to “connect” with us lowly laypeople?! And, most importantly, how did the public not forget about (music) artists when they disappeared into the creative (recording) process for sometimes years at a time in between works (albums)?!
This, friends, is the turning point.
We have become so accustomed to instant gratification and the ability to record and mix tracks within a matter of hours these days that we, the fans who so admire these creative heavyweights, have truly overstepped the bounds of encouraging artists to keep up with their craft to demanding new material every couple of months… lest we become bored with them and move on to the “next big thing”.
As a consequence, many sophomore releases of the last decade or so have been huge disappointments, paling in comparison to a cutting-edge debut that exemplifies what we believe the artist is all about.
Have we collectively missed this pattern?
So where, exactly, does Bon Iver fit into this discussion, other than the obvious timing of his releases?
Let’s have a quick comparative listen to one of my favorite tracks from Bon Iver, Bon Iver, “Holocene”, and the first track dropped from the upcoming 22, A Million, “22 (Over Soon)”.
“22 (Over Soon)” – Live at Eaux Claires 2016
*Though this is a live version, the clarity and quality is more than adequate to illustrate my point.
While we can’t speak to the level of finish, since comparing live and studio is kinda like comparing apples and oranges in terms of sound mixing, you’ll note between the two tracks that there is a marked artistic growth and style evolution in both sound and lyric.
Evolution, by its very definition, is a gradual, sometimes slow, process taking place over a period of time.
While it’s not unheard of for prodigies of any discipline to be able to more rapidly develop and flesh out new ideas and concepts, but those types are few, far between, and more than likely not keen on the idea of being in the spotlight as musicians, necessitating frequent social interaction (see: many prodigies are mostly thought to be awesomely autistic).
When we as fans insinuate ourselves into any given creative’s timeline, eagerly inquiring about “what’s next?!”, hoping for lengthy, multi-stop, grand-scale tours after every album release and sometimes demanding new material to keep us entertained, we are diluting the very product we consume without even realizing it.
Let’s pose another awesome group, Glass Animals, as an example, newer as they may be. First up is the track that had everyone’s attention right off, “Gooey”, followed by the first release we heard of their new album, “Life Itself”.
Between both tracks we can hear a lighter energy in “Life Itself” while still maintaining their animalistic, drum-based aesthetic, and as an early introduction to How to Be a Human, I know fans of Glass Animals everywhere were stuh-OKED. It’s as if my creative dilution theory doesn’t even hold water! But let’s explore.
Their sophomore album, How to Be a Human Being, releases today, 26 August 2016; their debut album, Zaba, released 6 June 2014; and these insane motherfxckers have been touring/playing shows every couple of days since February 2014, and are set to continue this schedule until at least mid-December 2016. ARE YOU FXCKING KIDDING ME? When did these people find time to even finish conceptualizing enough material with such a schedule, let alone PERFECT AND RECORD IT? And somewhere in the midst of ALL of that, they even found time to produce a one-off hip hop mini-masterpiece with Joey Bada$$, “Lose Control”.
When I heard their second single from album #2 dropped on SiriusXMU a little over a month ago, I couldn’t wait to devour it! So I drove around with the volume maxed out and my bass off so I could hear everything in detail… and was quickly… left pretty neutral.
Mind you, the melodic runs and beats on this track are absolutely mesmerizing. One of Glass Animals’ greatest strengths is the ability to layer intricate instrumentation so well that it’s like an aural puzzle rather than an assault. And Edmund Irwin’s vocal stylings are strong, as always! But the lyricism is not there for me. Despite some playful alliteration (which I’m clearly fond of), the thought seems to have been rushed, and the end result is a mashup of instrumentation and vocals which are not really… complementary, I suppose. While enjoyable, the track simply feels unfinished compared to their other work — like maybe they had a couple fabulous unfinished ideas they wanted to expedite — and it leaves me apprehensive for the flow of the album as a whole.
Sometimes it is better to take longer to complete a task, generate consumable content, or fully flesh out a concept to the chagrin of those concerned with the bottom line, than it is to rush and release.
All this being said, it hasn’t escaped me that utilizing yet another form of social media to express my thoughts on a matter, in a manner that would have been unheard of outside of a printed entertainment production just 15 years ago, is a threat to my entire premise.
How can I, a music blogger of all people, raise concern over a practice bloggers are notorious for: exploiting social media and the ability to acquire freshly minted material from our favorite and/or new artists as a means to race to be the first to promote the latest and greatest fxcking anything… ESPECIALLY MUSIC.
This is the consumer-catering environment we’ve cultivated within the artistic world. My entire argument is meant to challenge us all, myself especially, in recognizing that fast fashion is not just for clothing any longer, but the artists we pounce on so quickly are now disposable, as some crumble under the pressure and abdicate their projects.
All the same, there are many who exploit this seemingly flash-in-the-pan trend of late within their respective areas of interest by flooding the market with really subpar crap, expecting others to pounce on it simply because it’s new. Oh my God, does it happen, too!
Thinking of musical giants like David Bowie and Prince (may they both rest in peace), Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and The Rolling Stones, a quick Google search will reveal their discographies contain album release dates also 2-3 years apart. Remember: they were not in a world of endless death-by-technology. Time and some peace-and-quiet are crucial to the creative process, after all! I’m not even saying that a couple albums were devoid of some filler pieces, either… I’m just saying these highly regarded albums of yesteryear boast consistently high levels of quality as well as stylistic evolution and maturation, which makes the artists/groups timeless and unforgettable.
What are your thoughts on my creative dilution theory? Am I talking out my ass (not uncommon), or do you feel there is some truth to what I’m saying; as an artist, consumer, or a little bit o’ both? Drop me a line!