Memories I Will Never Find
456 · 23 October 03
I need to give up. There's not enough time left in my life, nor hours in my weeks. My shelves are full, my iPod is full, my mind is too full. It is full, like my house, with many things I love or need, but also many things I don't care about much, and always knew I'd throw away when I needed the space for something else. Well, I need it now. I need less: Less music I'm trying to understand or remember or catalog or store or hear or think about hearing.
And yet, I still think music is the best thing people do, and as long as I am alive, I will ache to hear how it's being done now. There are more and more people, and maybe even increasing percentages of them making music. If I'm lucky, I'll hate some of it, and be ignorant of some more. But there's still too much left. I have to be able to draw a line between what's worth caring about and what isn't, and let go of everything on one side. Most glaringly, perhaps, I have to quit buying albums by bands whose previous albums I already have and don't feel that strongly about. I've got Muse's 1999 album Showbiz somewhere. I remember thinking it was OK. I have their 2001 album Origin of Symmetry somewhere, too. I remember liking it briefly. This is what I have to give up. I have to not buy the new Muse album. This is simple and important.
But people, en masse, hate simple important things. Where there is something that ten people must do, there are twenty people trying to sell them excuses not to. Instead of solving problems, we build machines for making the problems seem acceptable, or for confusing the deduction from cause to effect, or for salving only the most obvious symptom. Thus chemically inert junk food when we ought to just not eat it, or regenerative braking for cars we shouldn't be driving, or showy image wars against the most isolated and defeatable. If I can put a room of music on a hard drive, maybe I can free up the room without sacrificing the music. Hard drives are bigger, compression is better. Innovation is seductive.
But this is not a storage dilemma, it is a moral imperative. The real problem is not that I have too many CDs, it's that I am reluctant to trust my own convictions. I resist definitively saying no. I prioritize scrupulously, but then refuse to accept the final implications of my own discrimination. And thus collection, which can be a perverse expression of moral clarity, becomes acquisition, which is a methodical expression of amorality. I have 7000 CDs. You might argue that there's no good reason for one person to have 7000 CDs, and in that you would be quite wrong. There are excellent reasons for me to have 7000 CDs. There might be good reasons for me to have 70,000 CDs, were the format not about to be supplanted. There is that much music I would cherish and learn from. But the 7000 CDs I currently have aren't all part of it. The five new albums I bought last week probably aren't all part of it. There's more to add, but a lot to subtract.
And what better place to start subtracting than with an album I don't want that I haven't even bought yet? What easier test? Can I give the new Muse album up? Yes.
Ah, but technology always has one more offer to make. We know you've decided not to buy this album, and we totally respect your strength and resolve. But that needn't mean you can't listen to it. If you heard a song on the radio, that would be serendipity, not weakness. If somebody played you one, because they loved it, that would be intrapersonal connection, not materialism. If, say, you were hanging out in the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysées, and there was a machine you could wave a CD's bar-code at and it would play you the songs, and there was a pile of Muse CDs sitting right beside it, surely there would be no harm in picking a CD off the pile and waving it. We're not trying to sell you anything, we just want you to have a good time.
And so, here I am. You can set these tests for yourself, but what if they are the wrong tests? I didn't buy this album, but then I listened to it in the store, and liked it. In fact, I liked it a lot. I liked it enough to guess that it could change my mind about Muse. I really hoped, as I bought it, that I would be right about that, because if I were wrong, it would be a failure of judgment as well as discipline, and that would mean the whole imperative was in trouble.
I think I was right about it. Radiohead have disappeared into their own entrails, and the Stereophonics aren't eating enough protein, and Idlewild never loved Rush. Muse play into one of the spaces left, where rock can be both grindingly elemental and sweepingly grandiose. Dominic Howard batters and smashes at his drums with the measured British version of post-Nirvana abandon, pushing songs exactly halfway over the precipices of catharses with Chris Wolstenholme's bass alternately muttering and buzzing in tow. Even rhythmically, this is rock in ambitious complexity, precise and harrowing where it might have been laid back and suggestive. But then the important notes start, and the words, and it's Matthew Bellamy's band. His guitars roar and swirl through these songs like shards of dissolving ghosts. His piano runs clatter off the walls like perfect hail, and his synth programs glitter like mica refraction. He sings like Thom Yorke recovered from consumption sufficiently to focus and plan and scream a little. And he may not have many new phrases for what he's feeling, but at least he's willing to let the feelings tear some of the old phrases out of him.
And I whatever I wanted to think about this album, I'm entranced and uplifted. "Apocalypse Please", the opening, rises on clanging piano and Bellamy's fraying howl into freefall crescendos with arpeggiator runs slashing across cymbal twitches. "Time Is Running Out" plays creaking bass across crisp, tripping drums and pingingly ethereal piano until the massively redemptive guitar chorus finally wells up. The gauzy "Sing for Absolution" snarls and wails like Travis and Coldplay mastering their reticence and firing their boring guitar techs. The cataclysmic "Stockholm Syndrome" slams back and forth from atmospheric suspension to pummeling drive like Radiohead starting over again with their new toys and a decade of repressed fury and reluctant joy. "Falling Away With You" is a gracefully serpentine lullaby for dreamers who have overshot sleep.
There's an intermission in the middle, like the way your nerves would have hummed while you turned the LP over, and then "Hysteria" batters into distorted, decimated glamour, as if continuing Filter's extrapolation from NIN. "Blackout" is the most lethargic stretch, tempo-wise, but strings and backing vocals push it out of Radiohead malaise towards early-Waterboys folk reverence. "Butterflies & Hurricanes" burbles like its own remix, and then erupts into a battle anthem for player pianos. "The Small Print" is a concussive, compressed sprint somewhere between Idlewild's directness and 3 Colours Red's stentorian punk. The fractured, undulating "Endlessly" is what recent Radiohead songs might sound like under the influence of half-heard old radio standards instead of half-tuned shortwave codes, and "Thoughts of a Dying Atheist" is like Thom Yorke's distension folded into distressed power pop. And "Ruled by Secrecy" starts out as an epilogue to a finale they forgot, but patiently builds into selfless symphonic bombast, and when it flutters to an end I feel like we have vanished into movie fog, not drawn our last faint breath.
Whether this will cross your line between affecting and pompous, of course, I can't predict. The cover has a man staring up into the sky, a gas mask hanging from his hand, as silhouettes of inexplicable people cross the dry ground around him in endless formation. The music is approximately this same grade of intricately defiant earnestness. We're never sure if we're dressing for armageddon or rapture. In a context more fond of dressing for soda commercials or system crashes or wherever it is that you can still smoke in bars, this is liable to seem atavistic or irrelevant. I'd like to think it's more mature than the more fashionable styles, but it may well be less. It may be that expecting this much drama from music is something we're only supposed to do as kids, before we have our fantasies beaten out of us by logistics and plumbing. But if so, then this album is actually another real souvenir of my trip to Spain and France, not just a circumstantial one. Look down from the third spire of Sagrada Familia, and tell me what you feel. I feel that there is no limit to what we can do. I believe that Gaudí's church proves, better than any other man-made thing I've ever seen, that there has never been any higher authority above us. Presumably he would hate this idea. His vines and leaves remind me (and here maybe he'd feel vindicated) that our most fevered creations are meager and stark compared to the natural world we make them within, but if the greatest thing we've made is woefully inferior to the simplest thing we were given, to me that's the most profound argument for our efforts. The smaller we realize we are, the more critical it is that we are not afraid to outreach ourselves.
Placebo: Sleeping With Ghosts + Covers
I meant to not buy the new Placebo album, either, and failed for half of the same reason. It was on a Paris listening station, too. In this case I wasn't entirely convinced by scanning, but I thought there was hope. That probably shouldn't have been enough. "Bulletproof Cupid" is raw and enthusiastic, but I wish it had words. "English Summer Rain" quivers and ticks, but I wish it had more words so it didn't have to repeat them so much. "Sleeping With Ghosts", to me, is listless in exactly the way Muse's slow songs avoided. "Something Rotten" drifts disconsolately into dub. "Plasticine" is a little too pleased with its own spareness, and then not quite sure enough of it to resist production games. "Special Needs" demonstrates how badly a Black Box Recorder-ish idea can go wrong when sung in an alienating sneer. "I'll Be Yours" whines, "Protect Me From What I Want" squawks, "Centerfolds" is drearily emasculated.
It's not a total loss. "This Picture" is spiky and vital, synth burble invoking just enough New Wave to betray a sense of history without sounding constrained by it. "The Bitter End" is quick and uncluttered, maybe an update of Joy Division where Interpol was an homage. "Second Sight" peals and soars, like a cheerful Bauhaus resurgence. But I knew I should have given up on Placebo, and I didn't, and this is the price. These songs aren't enough. I should have known that when I listened to them in the store.
But actually, I did. Scanning the album tracks didn't change my mind, it just made me willing to have my mind changed. What changed my mind was the bonus disc, sold with the European version of the album, of covers. If I don't love Placebo, maybe I shouldn't care what they do to other people's songs. But I do. At least, I do when the other songs include Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill", the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind", the Smiths' "Bigmouth Strikes Again", Big Star's "Holocaust" and Sinéad O'Connor's "Jackie". What does it mean if a band I'm ambivalent about loves the same music I do? I wanted to know. I needed to know.
For the most part, the results are predictable. There are ten covers on the disc, which suggests the band probably didn't expend heroic effort on any one of them, and that's pretty much what it sounds like. "Running Up That Hill" sketches the original's rhythm and hooks, but seems blithely oblivious to Kate's characters' spiritual dilemma. "Where Is My Mind" mimics most of the timbres, but doesn't sound even faintly deranged, which makes the chorus question just sound inanely rhetorical. "Bigmouth Strikes Again" is a botched mess, Brian Molko smugly exaggerating every one of Morrissey's coy nuances. "Holocaust" would have failed Molko out of a This Mortal Coil audition in less than a verse. And without Sinéad there's no point to "Jackie" at all.
But where the originals aren't so inviolably precious to me, the covers seem a lot more interesting, which strongly suggests that the problem is me. Placebo's remake of Robert Palmer's "Johnny and Mary" sounds like its guitars are being squeezed out of mylar tubes, and ends up something like Missing Persons deconstructing John Cougar Mellencamp. The exuberant flourish of T Rex's "20th Century Boy", with sighing backing choirs, may be flashier than the original. A Folk Implosion-esque mumble through Serge Gainsbourg's "The Ballad of Melody Nelson" is a moody set-piece. I hate Depeche Mode's "I Feel You" in, apparently, any form, but the goofy caricature of Boney M's "Daddy Cool" is a frothy throwaway I'm perfectly content to enjoy a few times before discarding.
And this, in fact, will be Placebo's lesson for me, and my next test. It's OK that I bought this record. I wanted to spend a little time with these covers. I knew they would be undercrafted and might miss points, but also that Placebo wouldn't deliberately undercut them any further. We filter so much through our preconceptions and acquired prejudices, it's almost always easier to understand each other on topics where one of us doesn't care as much. I know that, but I don't mind being reminded. Sometimes truth is reinforced as well by a parade of throwaways as by anything enduring. Sometimes art's ephemerality is the audience's responsibility. So now here's the part I have to learn: take these throwaways and throw them away. It's OK that I bought this record. It's OK to want to know. And now that I have known, it's OK to forget.