The Aging Punk.010

Monday, 21 April 2008

I have a confession to make. I have Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" on my iPod. I bought it off iTunes. I saw her sing it on Saturday Night Live, and my first reaction was "Oh, American Idol! Puke!" Then, about halfway through, I caught some of the words and quickly fell in love with it. (In case you somehow haven't heard it, she's singing about trashing her boyfriend's pickup while he's in the bar picking up some floozy. It's hilarious.)

The point is, I bought it off iTunes because I knew I'd never want to own the entire album (I have heard the whole album since, and I was right). I only buy tunes off iTunes when I'm only interested in the one song. If I like a whole album, I'll buy it on CD. In fact, if I like more than a few songs by any single artist, I'll buy an album. And I won't get some friend to burn it for me; I want the whole thing—the CD, the artwork, the liner notes.

The same goes for downloading off a musician's site. I will download songs to sample them, to get a feel for the musician, but if I like what I hear, I will go out and find a CD to buy. (I will also, of course, download songs which aren't available anywhere else.)

Why? It's not out of some obligation to make sure the artist gets paid. I buy most of my CDs used, so the artist doesn't get a cut anyway. (Although I will make a point of buying CDs directly from struggling artists, to support them.)

It's because I come from a generation which still considers an album a complete and comprehensive work of art, which should be experienced that way.

Before I go any further, let me clarify my terms. I know some people use the term "album" to refer specifically to a piece of vinyl. Not me. I use LP (which stands for "long-player") for the vinyl format. I use the term album to refer to a collection of songs released by a musician as a unit. The format doesn't matter. It can be a CD, an LP, a cassette tape, even an 8-track. When Radiohead released In Rainbows only as a download, it was still an album. An album usually has some artwork associated with it (some more than others). It also has a sequence; that is, the artist placed the songs in a specific order.

The term album actually predates any of today's formats. The LP was introduced in 1948. Long-players were 12" pieces of vinyl, which played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, and could (at that time) hold up to 20 minutes on a side. Before that, records were 10 inch pieces of shellac (suddenly that Aerosmith song—which is really an old blues tune—makes sense, huh?), played at 78 rpm, and could only hold three minutes on a side. If a record company wanted to release something longer, say a symphony, they would stretch it out over a series of discs, which they would package in a bound book format, like a photo album. Hence, a record album. (The first such album was a recording of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite in 1909!)

To me, this (listening to an entire album) is a question of respect for a work of art. If a musician has taken the time to assemble his or her songs into a single unit, in a certain order, I feel we should listen to it like that. (At least at times. I'm not one to deny the pleasure, at times the need, to just hear a single song.) While I wouldn't quite say we "owe" it to the artist, it is, as I say, a matter of respect.

(The question of what we might owe to artists is a tricky one. As a writer myself, I would certainly hope the public feels some need (or even desire) to pay something back in return for whatever they get out of art, but unless an artwork is specifically commissioned, I wouldn't describe it as something owed. Likewise, I don't feel artists owe anything to their public.)

More importantly, listening to an album as whole improves the listening experience (that is, assuming it's a well-constructed album, and not one just thrown together). In this case, context is everything. Each song takes on greater meaning, or becomes more interesting, in the context of the other songs on the album. Certain themes, lyrical or musical, may repeat. Certain contrasts, even contradictions, may become apparent. Basically, if your mind is still thinking about song A while listening to song B (or even songs C, D, E…), it may help you understand and appreciate song B better. An artist may want to say more than can be said in a single song. A group of songs, which may relate to a single topic, or even contrast or conflict with each other, allows the artist to make a more complete, and more complex, statement. And you, the listener, only get that complete statement by listening to the entire album. (And artwork and liner notes can be part of that complete package, making for an even richer listening experience.)

I feel like I should give some examples here, but I'm afraid that once I start I won't be able to stop. I'm trusting you know what I mean. But quickly, think about the yearning that runs through an entire Bruce Springsteen album, the alienation that runs through most albums by Pink Floyd or Radiohead, even the horniness the dominates albums by AC/DC and Van Halen (and damn near every metal band).

To make one specific, classic example, listen to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks all the way through. Although only a couple of the songs speak directly to his dissolving marriage, the totality of the songs provides a stunning and expansive portrait of his emotional reaction to that failure. Some other albums which, in their entirety, explore a similar situation in far more depth than any single song can are The Police's Synchronicity, Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, even The Rolling Stones' Some Girls (What? You didn't realize it's about breaking up with Bianca?), plus… okay, another list that could go on forever.

As some of you know, I am also a poet (blatant plug—you can order my book, Cows on the Freeway, off Amazon). When I give poetry readings I am always careful to assemble a set of poems which will resonate off each other. I make sure that the ideas one of my poems might make you think about will interact with the ideas the next poem will make you think, almost as if the poems were having a conversation with each other. The same thing happens on a well-sequenced album. In fact, I learned to do it by listening to albums.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to listening to (or purchasing) music by the song. That is, of course, how people have been listening to music for, well, centuries, probably even millennia. The album, as an artistic statement, is a relatively recent development. While the popular notion is that the Beatles singlehandedly invented the idea of a coherent album with Sgt. Pepper in 1967, rock artists had already been putting out such albums for a couple of years by then. Just a quick listing of major pre-'67 albums includes the Beatles' own Revolver ('66) and Rubber Soul ('65), The Rolling Stones' Aftermath ('66), Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home ('65) and Highway 61 Revisited ('66), and Frank Zappa's Freak Out ('66). Even before that, jazz artists had been producing coherent albums well back into the 50s. In pop music the idea goes back at least as far as Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours ('55) (another one of those "break-up" albums, in fact).

Before about 1966, rock music was all about 45s, i.e.: single songs. And even after that, they (45s) still performed a vital function. Some musicians didn't care to put out whole albums; frankly, some were incapable of that (or at least of producing whole albums worth listening to). But even the Beatles—credited (not entirely accurately) with inventing the idea of an album as a single artistic statement—continued throughout their career to put out singles which were only later collected on albums.

Even one-hit wonders contributed mightily to the history of rock music. If you doubt this, go pick up the Nuggets box set (a 4 CD collection of 60s garage rock). It is absolutely astounding how many bands may have only one good song in them, but that one song is a killer. This may explain why 45s briefly became the standard again during the punk years; it was another era of bands with one great song in them.

Of course, all of this goes way back before rock. Before albums there were 45s, and before 45s there were 78s (also containing a single song), and before that, there was sheet music. To take it all the way back, someone had to write an individual song before they could write a suite of songs. I'm just saying that once they started to write suites of songs, that made for a more fulfilling musical experience. If you only listen to single songs, you are denying yourself the full richness possible in music.

The curmudgeon in me is afraid that today's technology will cause young listeners to lose the ability, or at least the habit, of listening to music in context. Download a bunch of MP3s, throw them in shuffle, and, for the most part, you will end up with a series of discrete listening experiences—although I must admit that shuffle does provide marvellous opportunities for serendipity, when two songs which do relate to one another come up one after the other. I use the shuffle option on my iPod more than I should probably admit to here. And on my old CD player I used to love putting four or five CDs in, which may or may not have had some connection to each other, and mixing them up, specifically to see what juxtapositions of songs might come up. But I was listening for those connections. If your ear is not trained for such comparisons, when they do occur, they can easily go by without being noticed.

I see this happening all around me—music being taken out of any context, and reduced to discrete songs. This is true not just in how people choose to listen to music, but in how it is presented to them. There was a time, not too long ago, when radio DJs (at least those on FM stations) made some effort to play sets of songs which related to each other. Nowadays the only DJs I know of who even try to do that are the DJs on KCRW and other public/college stations, and Jim Ladd on KLOS, making a valiant effort to keep the process alive on commercial radio (and in the process proving that it does have its appeal). But most commercial radio stations might as well be giant iPods on shuffle. In fact, Jack Radio (a nationwide chain of stations) tries to make a virtue out of the random nature of its playlists.

I even see this attitude creeping into albums themselves. To give one example, Garbage's Beautiful Garbage (their third album) contains a number of great songs, but (for me at least) fails as an album because their order seems totally random. There's no flow, no progression, no development of ideas. The songs don't so much converse as push, shove and argue. I get the impression they decided no one was going to listen to the CD in order anyway, so why bother creating an order which made sense.

Listening to entire albums has long been a significant part of my musical experience, and has deepened and enriched that experience. Therefore, I will always vote for albums (whether CDs or LPs) over MP3s.

(To be continued next month, when I will tackle the by now moot, but still (possibly/ hopefully) interesting CDs vs. LPs debate.)


G. Murray Thomas writes and performs poetry because he can't sing. He can be found at

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