Column: Keeley's Corner
Celebrating The Neglected Art Of The Album
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 23:01
Anyone who’s read a single think piece about the music industry in the past, oh, decade or so, is undoubtedly familiar with this basic story: the industry is undergoing a paradigm shift, physical media are on the verge of extinction, and digital music is the new king. By now it’s a pretty trite and obvious narrative, and I don’t really have any interest in rehashing it. Nor have I ever really felt the passion of those audiophiles who decry these changes as fundamentally harmful. Yes, it’s true that digital music files are lower quality than vinyl, but for me the increased ease of access to music that iTunes, Spotify, and the like provide are largely more significant than the potential downsides.
Still, I do have one caveat. It’s occurred to me several times recently, whether I’m bouncing around campus with headphones stuck in my ears, listening to relaxing homework-friendly music, or queuing up the playlist I fall asleep to: I don’t listen to albums much anymore. I’m not sure anyone does, really. Songs, yes—creatively themed playlists, sure, but albums? In the age of iTunes, where songs are so easily available for individual purchase, the art of the album is too often neglected.
I find this trend a little sad, because I think the album is the ultimate musical art form. Too often, the album can be seen as simply a vehicle for songs or a convenient way to smother a few singles between a bunch of filler. Many, maybe even most, albums fit this bill, regardless of the quality of their individual tracks. But at its best, the album offers something more interesting: a thoughtfully composed, thematically integrated sonic experience.
The first album that I loved as an album, rather than just a collection of songs, was The Beatles’ 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s the ultimate concept album, from the iconic cover art to the progression of the tracks, which often flow directly into each other rather than beginning and ending discretely. The title track gets a reprise toward the end of the album, forming a nice circularity, yet the album isn’t wholly uniform. The Beatles make way for fascinating experiments, channeling Indian sounds on “Within You Without You” and ending with the complexly layered “A Day In The Life.” From beginning to end, it’s a fascinating and inexhaustible work. As a 7-year-old I wore out the CD from repeated play, listening again and again to fully explore its contents, even the parts I didn’t quite get. That’s the kind of listening experience that is all too rare today.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I measure watershed moments in my musical development in terms of albums, not songs. Two albums ultimately sealed my unfathomable love for Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen: Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Dylan’s is the ultimate breakup album, written in the lead-up to his divorce and encompassing every contradictory emotion about love you can possibly imagine. Darkness is the Boss’ angriest album, a sad and gritty look at working-class characters stuck in a rut and trying to rise above their circumstances. I am neither a lovesick poet nor a Jersey steelworker, yet these two albums formed a pivotal component of my soundtrack in high school. Eventually, albums become such familiar companions that you treasure every little detail of the sequencing—like how the long keyboard outro of “Racing in the Street” transitions to the pumped-up anthem “The Promised Land,” or how Dylan’s brilliantly ferocious, nasty howl of a breakup song, “Idiot Wind,” moves into the lovely, lilting harmonicas of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” These songs, to me, are inseparable from their location in their respective albums, and the ways in which they speak to each other.
Is the art of the album dead? Far from it, but perhaps we need to remember how to listen. For a long time, I tried but couldn’t get into Bon Iver, the celebrated indie folk group. I liked the popular song “Skinny Love,” but beyond that was left cold. All the songs I heard seemed the same, defined by Justin Vernon’s wispy falsettos and titled with random place names. Then I finally took some time to listen to the group’s two albums all the way through. I haven’t stopped since. Songs that didn’t click as individual tracks suddenly made so much more sense within the context of the album.
It’s a friendly reminder that sometimes we need to turn off Shuffle, ignore our playlists, and have the patience to listen to our music as it was originally intended.