No one will argue that context is important. No one! But how important is it exactly, and to what extent is context necessary to fully appreciate a work of art? Let's talk about it, shall we.
It's a constant issue in critical circles and I doubt it will every really be resolved. The ur example is Ezra Pound- does his fascism trump the excellence of his poetry? A similar but less cliche example, if you want to not be a generic blowhard at snooty parties, is Knut Hamson. Want to be more topical? Let's talk Polanski. These are all great examples of infamy, and while they may not seem to be directly related to the production of the creators' art, it can easily be argued that the two are inseparable. Your mileage may vary as to how well you can filter the product from the producer.
Stepping away from that crucial and obvious issue, is a more subtle one that is particularly germane to our little game, the critical review of music, especially at the album level. Most albums, as individual entities, undergo a 'life span' of sorts, with the artist as parent, and producers, writers et al. as extended family. Just like a child, an album is conceived, gestated, birthed, and then presented to the world, and I'd like to make consideration of this process a crucial part of our understanding. That's the context I'd like to take into consideration while looking at some new albums, and one old.
I've been on a bit of a Neil Young bender lately. Now, I've been a fan since I discovered "Rust Never Sleeps" on vinyl when I was a freshman in high school, but I'm really hitting the material hard lately. There are a number of Neil Young albums that until recently have been out of print on CD, but one remains that is out of print in all media, the first of his so-called 'Ditch Trilogy:'
Without context, "Time Fades Away" is still one of Neil Young's best albums, a raw live set that sounds awesome even despite its terrible production values. It's unfortunate that it's out of print, and probably always will be, for two reasons. One, it was directly mastered off of one of the first digital mixing boards, so there are no 'master tapes,' per se. Second, Neil himself has stated that it will never be released again, because it's not a good album. This is just flat wrong, and Mr. Young is lying to himself, though for good reason. To protect himself from the pain. Are you ready, kids? Context time, and it will make listening to this album an emotional experience. Even if you're not Neil Young.
After the rampant success of "Harvest," which was recorded with a band other than Crazy Horse, Young was pressured by his record company to go out on tour. His Crazy Horse bandmate and best friend Danny Whitten had hoped to come with, but Whitten's heroin habit had degenerated so far that he couldn't play anymore, and he was given a plane ticket back to LA, and $50. Whitten took the plane to LA, plunked the $50 down on some smack and promptly OD'd. Young was devastated, but contractually obligated to continue the tour. A host of problems ensued on all fronts: roadie troubles, drinking, grieving, and a throat infection. Young was forced to call in help from an unlikely quarter: his former CSNY bandmates David Crosby and Graham Nash, who assisted with vocals and guitar.
This all sounds like a recipe for a disc of complete shite trainwreck. The proof is in the pudding, though, and the already awesome disc is revealed to be one of the most profound statements of grief ever put down in music. Take a look at the verses of "L.A.":
If that doesn't break your heart knowing the story behind it, you are a soulless lead singer for the Decemberists or something.
What else can we find? Remember that historical data is not the only thing that can form context for an album. If you are an artist, your intentional actions need to be putting a best foot forward. When you think of how your album came to be, and where you would like to see it, think about whether your explanation will make you seem like a slavering goon. Especially to members of a group who are traditionally know for being jaded and quick to pick up on any weakness. Why yes, Army of Me, I am talking about you!
Their new EP "Make Yourself Naked", without context, just sits there and does nothing. Singer-songwriter stuff, low-key heartfelt singing about stuff that no one will listen to, acoustic strumming, some keys here and there. Coffee shop background noise. According to Army of Me, these songs were just demos. Wait, what? Also according to Army of Me, they were never intended to be heard. Huh? But, and I must quote their press release, this album is "an unexpected image of a naked man." No, 'goatse.cx' is an unexpected image of a naked man. This is a five song acoustic blorp from the lead singer of an indie-pop band, who are releasing it- opportunistically, perhaps?- and claiming attributes such as 'rawness' and 'intimacy' that simply are not there. Maybe some people like pablum, but not me. The context only makes it unignorable.
Okay, let's clear the taste of that out of our mouths. Who will rescue us? A release from Thrill Jockey? Oh, there's one ready? Thanks, TJ!
This is another five song EP, this time from Javelin. They're an electro-whatever duo, and what they duo they duo well. The songs have something that you don't get a whole lot these days- tasteful sampling, which combined with the general layered cleanliness of their grooves makes for a surprisingly versatile set of songs. The one thing about Javelin is that I don't really picture this music existing outside of the bedroom project sphere, or if live pretty much the DJ realm. Here's where I am wrong, and context comes to the rescue. Or does it, ultimately?
Javelin have done something pretty cool. Here I quote their press release: "In performance, Javelin use colorfully painted boomboxes that form large speaker totems (“boombaatas”) which can hang from the ceiling or stack up on the floor like pyramids. The signal from the show is broadcast via FM transmitter, thereby fostering audience participation (B.Y.O.Boombox) or fueling battery-powered, mobile parties. The duo has played venues as diverse as the children’s branch of the Olneyville Public Library (RI), to the Museum of Modern Art (NY), both of which happened in the same week." Well kiss my grits! That's awesome, so I understand that for them the performance bit is probably more important than just the music proper. Here is also where I ponder- you didn't think I wouldn't leave well enough alone, did you?
The music is good, but I don't know that it stands head and shoulders above what a lot of people are doing at any given moment- Gasoline Monk locally, ferinstance. Adding in their boombox towers and pomo album covers and all, makes for a more complete experience, and that is probably what they will be known for. This holds true for plenty of acts- GWAR, Lightning Bolt... and just so you know I'm not keeping any cows sacred, perhaps Kid Beyond? So long as the experience is fun and satisfying for both producer and consumer, all is well, and it is only overthinking hypercritics infected with some nasty recursive memes who lose sleep/burn unnecessary brain power over it.
Well, jokes on you with the recursive meme thing, constant reader. Tag. You're it.