I’ve got the CD of Lou Reed’s 1987 album New York right here. The liner notes read: “This album was recorded and mixed at Media Sound, Studio B., N.Y.C. in essentially the order you have here. It was meant to be listened to in one 58 minute sitting as though it were a book or a movie.”
Now, I think I speak for all Lou Reed fans when I say, he’s full of sh** here, because these songs made killer mix tape materials, from “Last Great American Whale” to “Busload of Faith” to the melancholic and serene “Xmas in February.” Also, just listen to it.. he put gaps between the songs! It’s not even tactilely composed as a rock opera, where one song runs into the next, like say the “Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise into “A Day in the Life.”
What he’s doing here is obviously pretty subjective, and amidst the recent bevy of fallen rock stars our concepts of the music obviously get somewhat occluded by emotion (often cheap, Hallmark emotion), not to mention ridiculous “new albums” of lost material which are usually flaccid enough to warrant the fact that the artist obviously didn’t want that material out. Maybe Reed was just disgusted with singles themselves. The ’80’s were a period of almost unprecedented uniformity and mass-production, culturally informed as they were by the Cold War and Reaganomics, and marked by an anemic creative dearth in mainstream music (hence propagating punk rock and the indie noise scene of Sonic Youth, Big Black, grunge, etc.). Video games and computers were taking off in Middle America, and “crack and guns” were taking off in our nation’s ghettos (Manhattan among the worst of these, in many spots), all distractions from the reality of the wealthy capitalizing on militaristic production and a conservative tax system. Pop music couldn’t possibly comment on this grand scheme — its themes are too small-scale and gushy.
Reed went much further than anyone on the planet toward grafting a viable perspective on the sheer magnitude of social problems plaguing the U.S. in the ’80’s, yet he’s writing these catchy, party-worthy songs! It’s not some Rush or E.L.O. type conceptualism, full of phantasmic characters and glorious swordplay retribution. It’s framed as rock and roll — of which the lyrics aptly comment on malaises of the world without the necessary panoramic solution at hand, for that’s what the music is there for. The music is a soothing catalyst in and of itself, and could only exist in such an environment of calamity and ubiquitous hopelessness.
So something’s got to give here: there’s got to be some artistic tactic which is implicit, counterintuitive and illogical, that Reed is wielding here, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. Reed is likely making concessions for his own medium, similar to Kurt Cobain expressing misgivings about an inability to embody femininity within the stifling realm of hard rock (his MTV meal ticket). He is saying, ignore the true nature of my creation here (power pop), and treat it as if it is something different (rock epic, which wields less appeal anyway). As is shown in the lyrics, he is disgusted with the way things are. This disgust reaches across the semantics of his diction and into his instinctive exhibition of behavioral totalitarianism. But sorry, Lou, your indignation wasn’t potent enough to defeat the gravitation of the classic songs you created.
Still, I feel some albums do call for duration’s totality. Here they are, and songs especially indicative of this:
The Wallflowers – “The Difference” (Bringing down the Horse)
It’s the best of times, and the worst of times with this number — as a proud owner of Bringing down the Horse on burned CD, I can waywardly see what the label was doing by releasing this as a single (“Invisible City” is maybe a little too melancholy and down, though much more melodic and soulful). But only juxtaposed with the acutely melodic, serene and stunning “Three Marlenas” (as well as the aforementioned track six) does this song work, because by contrast it’s able to tap into the kitschy, almost “punk” affect of “dumb” music, “dumb” as in the positive connotation which Kim Deal ascribed to Nirvana for repetitive but intimidating and hypnotic numbers like “School.”
Pearl Jam – “Light Years” (Binaural)
Everything the critics, the haters, say about Pearl Jam is probably true: they do take themselves pretty seriously, they were never really assembled for indie, or the hipster crowd, everything about them is BIG. They tackle big issues (abortion, Ticketmaster), they make big statements (all of their songs which aren’t Brendan O’Brien goof-offs), they’re made for big crowds, birthed even as they were as somewhat of a de facto supergroup, featuring members of Green River/Mother Love Bone. Mike McCready isn’t a moderate guitarist like say Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan — he’s a spotlight-obviating virtuoso. “Light Years” can seem out of step with the times if you just take it as a single, but the high-stakes aching purported all over Binaural welcomes this deliberate number as a sort of headrest, a gentle mourning for a lost friend tending toward saturated melody, the chafing the album’s general panic and frenzy with some soothing deliberation and reflection.
The Who – “See Me, Feel Me” (Tommy)
I just discovered something pretty interesting, which is that “See Me, Feel Me” was originally not its own song at all, but an extract, the second half of Tommy closeur “We’re Not Gonna Take it.” Tommy is 80-odd minutes that goes by like a breeze, with constant rock earthquakes of guitar and drums pounding all corners of your psyche, and this outro plays like a classic cathedral encore — you can even practically see the band taking their bows at the bookend of this classic, inimitable concept album.
Pavement – “Heaven is a Truck” (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
As is his wont, Stephen Malkmus can be pretty indignant and scathing all over this album (“Elevate Me Later,” “Unfair,” “Fillmore Jive”), and the final segment of “Stop Breathing” is pretty much the very definition of tension, so it’s quite a reprieve when the reflective piano of “Heaven is a Truck” comes in, and we get goofy lines about truck driver fantasies like “Loosen my dress / Tie me up just like all the rest.” Elsewhere the imagery is sunny and pleasant, like “She is the queen of the past in Pasadena” (or something like that), and overall serene simplicity is exuded by this number, perhaps a bit too cheeky and narcotic for single territory.
Chuck Berry – “You Never Can Tell” [Pulp Fiction (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)]
I have to admit, my snobbery, or just churlish rancor, skyrockets when it comes to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Like if someone puts it on in an office or something, I’ll be like, I bet I enjoy this more than you do! The whole thing undoubtedly makes for great driving music, from the bouncy glee of “Jungle Boogie” to the lugubrious quagmire of loneliness that is “If Love is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags).” Credit Tarrantino for choosing a song for this “doin’ the twist” scene that’s sort of dumb in a good way, playing up the importance of average or unremarkable situations and so infusing the situation with a certain false, but cinematic, enthusiasm.
The Roots – “Guns are Drawn” (The Tipping Point)
If this album is lame, my 20 year old self sure didn’t get the memo, delivering pizzas all summer in my crime-ridden hometown, desperately in need of some “electric relaxation” in the form of this album and the Beastie Boys goofy but political swan song To the 5 Boroughs. Already a fan of the band’s prior album Phrenology, I viewed this as not a full-fledged followup as in an attempt to try to outdo themselves, or create the ULTIMATE Roots album, but as a companion piece — light, airy and playable, with grooves of melody like this song flanked by episodes of emceeing acrobatics like “Boom,” “Web” and “Duck Down.” Get to the end with Dave Chapelle doing the chorus? Yup, I usually did.
My Chemical Romance – “Sleep” (The Black Parade)
This is another album of supreme stakes-upping.. it’s like, Oh my god, I’m crossing the street with my girlfriend! This is the most important situation ever! Still, the band does generally have the chops and songwriting to back it up, and “Sleep” is the classic rocker of phantom-importance (the sound byte even reminds me of that lady on the Butthole Surfers’ “22 Going on 23,” who per some research was found to be faking having gotten raped), but the band just sell the whole thing so well you just can’t help but be somewhat drawn into their arena rock high jinks.
The New Pornographers – “Falling through Your Clothes” (Twin Cinema)
Sometimes album sequences just tend to reflect each other, and after the epic crash course in eternity that is “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” this gentle little ditty acts as the perfect emotional sanctuary, before we get back into the nitty gritty with “Three or Four,” “Star Bodies” et. al. God DAMN is this album good! I used to hear “Use it” on bar playlists quite a bit, and “The Bleeding Heart Show” has every bit the right to have been used on a University of Phoenix commercial… “Falling through Your Clothes” is like the ephemeral satyr, a touch of untruth as a way of affirming all of the true-blue swagger pervading rampantly elsewhere.
The Beatles – “You Never Give Me Your Money” (Abbey Road)
I doubt this song would be very good as a single (though people do erroneously sometimes try to call it out and play it individually), and certainly, against “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “Penny Lane,” “Come Together” and company, it doesn’t quite stack up. Sometimes these songs almost have a respectful British cathedral feel, as if they’re playing piano next door to some legend performing, or a doctor performing heart surgery, and they don’t want to be too loud, or shine too bright. Plus, what’s with that dumb title?
Bob Marley & The Wailers – “Get up Stand up” (Live!)
You’ve got to credit the Wailers here with great production of a live album — a full, orchestral sound within the mode of rock, modified slightly and rhythmically into “reggae” but with drums that would still be proud to bellow from a Van Halen stage. This particular track is probably the less melodic of the bunch, stacking up against stiff competition, albeit, such as “Trenchtown Rock,” “Lively up Yourself” and “No Woman No Cry,” but stylistically it’s still got the funky organ and that “trenchant” groove, leaving the concertgoers with the aftertaste that with these great songs better come some social change, or they’re meaningless.