Wed 13 Jul
To some extent, you’re forever doomed to listen to whatever music you favored in your formative years. For me, from college up to my late twenties, I spent a lot of time listening to music from the United Kingdom — the dance-rock graftings of Madchester, the so-called “shoegazing” brand of droning indie experimentation, and then the more distinctive, less obscure — and less characteristically independent — brand of traditionalism known as “Britpop.” These days, I can sport all the Arcade Fires and Ying Yang Twins I can muster, but at heart I’m most inclined towards the catchy, knowing and facile hooks of pale British youths from the early to mid-1990s.
It’s a habit that even I treat with suspicion, because I’m well aware that my take on any new music is colored severely by its resemblance to or dissimilarity from the albums of that era. I know that I’m predisposed to even the most crap stylings from those sub-genres, and when presented with new work from those artists, my interest is piqued. But I make perhaps an overly conscientious effort at objectivity, always questioning whether the music is really decent, or whether it’s just making a cheap appeal to my lazier musical tastes.
It’s with that combination of bias and skepticism that I recently approached two graduate projects from some of the more prominent artists from that era: Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s follow-up to his unexpectedly successful Gorrilaz debut, and the reunited pairing of ex-Suede founders Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler as The Tears.
If you were a fan of Albarn’s first release under the Gorillaz name, it’s hard to imagine you’d be particularly disappointed by the second, “Demon Days.” It’s as uncanny and aggressively experimental as its predecessor, and Albarn populates it with a new retinue of excellent guest stars and an abundance of irresistible, brainy dance hooks.
But if you didn’t much like the debut, you’re not likely to warm up to this one either. Albarn, who has become increasingly prolific and ambitious in creating his own pastiche of styles and sensibilities, falls down a bit on the job of cohesiveness. The album is nothing more than the sum of its parts — many of them ingenious and sparkling, but they all fail to come into alignment to produce a sustained, coherent listening experience. Gorillaz continues to be be fascinating, but it has yet to live up to the potential of all the raw and dazzling ideas released under its rubric.
Where Albarn has committed himself to an ostensibly forward-thinking path of dancefloor rockism, his old rivals from Suede have chosen to hold their ground. The thirteen new tracks on “Here Come the Tears” are vintage Suede in style and substance; in many ways, Anderson and Butler sound exactly like they did before their acrimoniously split a decade or so ago.
That’s not necessarily bad. Butler’s guitar work is fluid and virtuosic in ways that it hasn’t been since he left the group that made him famous, and Anderson’s voice, while it has evolved, remains true to its Suede origins — no dramatic changes in register or approach for him, despite years of drug abuse and rough living. That voice also happens to be one of the most distinctive and, for my money, one of the richest in popular music.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the quality of Anderson’s lyrics have decreased markedly since his days with Suede. More than ever, he is preoccupied with a theme that might best be described as ‘solidarity among desperate loners.’ He sings gratingly often and with remarkably little cleverness about camaraderie among the scorned, and the idealized oases to which they might one day escape.
It’s a shallow theme to begin with, but his rendering of it is itself shallow. Never particularly innovative, he managed once at least to suggest depths with his words, to approximate artfulness and bring at least ambiguity to the majesty of Butler’s music. If the obvious and banal lyric sheet of “Here Come the Tears” is any indication, he has apparently lost this talent altogether. It’s a glaring shortcoming that does tremendous disservice not only to Butler’s guitar, but also to Anderson’s own ability to deliver fantastic vocals, a skill that remains undiminished.
For all their faults, I can’t help but listen to both these records carefully and repeatedly. They’re imperfect and not likely to appeal to those unfamiliar with Blur or Suede, but they’re also solid works, or at least solid enough to keep me interested. Basically, it boils down to this: having listened to these artists for over a decade — through some terrific and also some horrific releases — I feel in many ways bound to them.