Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I don't know if popular song is explicitly designed to attach itself to moments in time, but it certainly seems to do this quite a lot with me. Perhaps it is due to its directness, or what purists alternately call its general lack of subtlety (fairly?). Devoted readers will find the following line of thinking familiar: while I firmly believe it has several artistic merits, I won't deny that popular song generally does not reach the level of structural complexity needed to withstand the level of scrutiny that other forms of high-art receive; but my personal inclination is to ignore this. By which I mean that I find the disconnect between the theoretical and the practical sufficiently large for me to focus on the latter. In doing so I don't mean to dismiss the potential limits in the form as being irrelevant, but rather to assert that the medium has given some tangible strength and force to my life. And that is why I continue to give it attention.

Indeed, I have been thinking lately that popular song often serves primarily as a canvas on which I project myself. Consequently, the pleasure might be not so much from something inherent in the music, but rather from the contours of my own mind, places only awakened through this very "primal" music. Recent listens to old Dylan favourites corroborate this line of thinking, and also brings up the classic lyrics-as-poetry issue. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes Dylan's lines are a bit impenetrable, and not as infused with a sense of purpose as one would expect from a Poet. But I feel this analysis is from a reading of the lines, rather than a listening of them. Who knows why it makes such a big difference, and if Dylan was conscious of this? But, for me anyway, there is a big difference, and I still find myself experiencing the same breathlessness at a good Dylan song as I do when recalling a particularly beautiful couplet. The pleasure comes from the way his lines dance inside my mind, and the images they conjure. Discerning what makes the words powerful when sung seems akin to asking why a particular melody can bring one to tears. (Perhaps there is an explanation, but I don't particularly care to find out.)

With all this is mind, it gives me a new perspective on that elusive notion of soul that is commonly associated with popular song. Whatever structural problems it might have, I believe one can't objectively deny this quality, which loosely corresponds to the visceral thrill the music inspires. There's a related Xgau concept, the "emotional complexity" of rock music. I feel like these are all trying to pin down why the music can be as pleasurable as it is. My contribution to the matter: maybe we're looking in the wrong place to explain popular song. Maybe the emotional complexity is not of rock music but of ourselves.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The diligent reader might cite the following as being radically delayed responses on my part, but while I probably could've written about these songs much earlier, I needed time to be sure. Except the last one, which I added just now, and have heard probably three times. Can you spot the theme?

1) Gram Parsons, "Return of the Grievous Angel". It's surprising the lyrics are borrowed, because thematically they seem to be prime Parsons territory: like the album cover, bright blue optimism and hope. As his album openers go, I might like it more than "Christine's Tune"- and that's saying something.

2) Captain Beefheart, "Bat Chain Puller". God the Cap'n is one cool guy. Though I don't have a literal understanding of what he's singing about, I'm pretty sure he takes his writing seriously - he once criticized Dylan for a clumsy line, which implies he must put some thought into his own lyrics - and at the very least the words are atmospheric. Regardless, I'm positive he takes his music seriously. Being a neophyte both with his catalogue and the general progression of the blues through rock music, my sentiments might not carry much weight, but - the last time I felt this sort of visceral thrill from the blues was probably LA Woman. (Ditto the last remark of (1)!)

3) Morrissey, "That's How People Grow Up". I wonder if Morrissey represents the last truly iconic popstar that manages to capture my imagination (and how). While a lot of modern music strikes me as being good, it will be a while before I encounter someone whose every word seems infused with personal meaning. This one claims to understand that life doesn't begin and end with you, and uses that to address his ancient lament about being unloved. It should come as no surprise that I happen to share a lot with the image that Moz projects; so, a life-lesson for him is one I can always use for myself. (c.f. "Break Up The Family" and "Ouija Board, Ouija Board" for past examples in this vein.) If nothing else, it's sometimes good to know that one's feelings are not unique.