Thursday, February 15

Wanted: More Failure

During lunch at a local sushi bar yesterday I was treated to some of Queen's greatest hits. Once that disc finished, KLF's The White Room started playing. After a couple of minutes, one of the young assistants behind the bar asked to nobody in particular, "What is this we're listening to?" And then a few moments later, "Is this the KLFA?" I should probably just be grateful that he recognized the music at all. Listening to "What Time Is Love?" I was struck, as I am each time I hear this music, how utterly banal this record can sound when heard in the context of background music. Of course if you're at all aware of the KLF's wacky situationist antics, their Illuminati fixation, or their satirical (or is it?) guidebook, The Manual, then The White Room isn't simply banal, it's gloriously, amazingly, brilliantly banal. The pop genius of the KLF was the way they assembled an audacious postmodern stew of (pop)cultural references, context, images, samples, and pranks, until the music itself could contain as much or as little meaning as you desired to find, depending on how close or how far away you want to get to it. Was there really a time when postmodernism was actually fun like this? It feels like a million years ago.

Last night on my way to see Eat Drink Man Woman I listened to The Divine Comedy's 1998 album, Fin de Siecle. I've been catching up with the band lately, working my way backwards from his newest album. Last week I finally got to hear Casanova. Here's what I've decided: Neil Hannon is one crazy, cheeky bastard. I'm predisposed towards orchestrated pop, but I had no idea how dramatic and over the top his records really are. He's included everything necessary to annoy the hell out of anyone looking for authenticity or sincerity: huge orchestral crescendos, showtunes, literary references, spoken word, pop-sociology, and approximately forty-two other ideas. How many times while listening to this music have I found myself asking, often aloud, "Is he out of his mind? Did he just do that?" Is he serious? Well, he's serious about being ironic, irreverent, and in your face. He's taking the piss and not taking the piss at exactly the same time. Which is to say he's seriously ambitious.

Lately, I've found myself thinking a lot about ambition as it relates to music. Or rather the lack of ambition. And the cynical how-dare-they appraisal (or at least confused head scratching) of any band that dares to color too far outside the lines. Don't you have to take the big risks if you want the big rewards? I'm sure there's some wildly inventive music going on out there somewhere, but mostly what I'm hearing are meager rewards from people playing it safe. When was the last time you heard an album that was absolutely horrible because the band tried something daring and failed? I wonder how this happened. Could it be related to the increased scrutiny allowed by the internet? Maybe artists were more willing to take risks when they could work on music in relative seclusion, without people tracking their every move and spewing instant opinion pollution. Maybe it was better when we couldn't preview every piece of music before making a purchase decision. What we need are more glorious failures.

4 comments:

Dan said...

I somehow managed to never really hear the Divine Comedy until last year, when "Lady of a Certain Age" blew me away. Now I also have to go back and catch up.

Bruce said...

dan,

That was pretty much my story, too. I had been aware of TDC for a long time, suspecting I might like them, but never following up. For some reason, I decided to check out the newest album and the rest is history. I was able to find his older albums via ebay and half.com.

deadkytty9 said...

When was the last time you heard an album that was absolutely horrible because the band tried something daring and failed?

Everything Les Claypool has done after Primus.

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