I read reviews at Pitchfork, even though I rarely agree with them. Pitchfork at least takes reviewing albums somewhat seriously in an age where reviews seem more like tweets than actual criticism. More and more magazines and sites seem to be mistaking a half a paragraph as enough information to base an informed purchasing decision on. I’ll at least give Pitchfork their due in that they put out an awful lot of longer form criticism. The problem, however, is that most of the opinions you encounter there are ones that you can pretty much guess in advance, especially when it comes to rock music. Their writers seem to disparage anything where actual songwriting is involved. The more an album is a collection of weird sounds, and the less it actually features well crafted songs, the better chance it has of being highly rated.
The thing is, really great songs are hard as fuck to write. We actually need more artists that are actually saying something in a way that reaches people. I love all kinds of music as long as I feel an artist is doing something that comes direct from their soul and they are not just following trends.
Their is a band called The Knife that I like. Their last album, Shaking the Habitual, was a really interesting record. It dealt in avant-garde soundscapes much more than it dealt in pop songs. If it were a painting it would be more of a Jackson Pollock than a beautiful landscape. But do you know how many times I actually listened to the entire record in one sitting? I haven’t once. It’s pushing the envelope and that’s important, but it’s not really enjoyable other than as an intellectual exercise. As a musician I really appreciate that kind of thing, but it’s a hard thing to love. Pitchfork gave it an 8.4 and called it the best new music. If you read the artwork that comes with the album you know that The Knife have a political agenda, but you would be hard pressed to really get that agenda by actually listening to the music.
Meanwhile the new Morrissey record is really subversive politically and in a way that anyone listening could get. It’s because he uses the form of the pop song as his platform. There are intelligent lyrics that tackle everything from gender politics to animal cruelty, but they are all delivered with melodies that are undeniably catchy. His new album World Peace is None of Your Business has some really interesting arrangements. The album starts with tribal percussion and a didgeridoo. I’m Not a Man, perhaps the most subversive pop song that I have heard in some time, with an incredible melody, even starts with a minute and a half of strange noises. What I’m getting at is that this isn’t simple guitar, bass, drums stuff, although I love traditional rock n roll as much as anything. But I can’t help but think that Morrissey was punished a couple points by Pitchfork because he actually dared write memorable melodies. His album was awarded a 5.9.
The new U2 album got only 4.6 points. I wouldn’t say that the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, is one of their top three albums, but it’s really good. Every song features really strong melodies and great playing from musicians that play as a true band. I personally like it more than probably any record they have put out since Pop. I think Bono as a lyricist was at his peak between The Joshua Tree and Pop. However this new album has songs that deal with IRA car bombs and the death of his mother. It’s not exactly bubblegum. But out of the three albums it is the most traditional in terms of writing and arrangements. This is a rock n roll band album by and large. But anyone that has ever written songs with things like guitars and melodies will know that what they are doing on this record is not the kind of thing that is easy. It would be much easier to get a bunch of weird instruments and make an atonal soundscape.
I want a world where I can hear both. I like that I can flick on my iPod and shuffle between The Knife and U2. Out of the three records I like the Morrissey one the best as I think it is the one that straddles the gap between the intellectual and emotional the best. But out of the other two, I can tell you flat out I am going to listen to the U2 one way more. It’s more emotionally resonant. And also, even though it seems more traditional, creating great songs is actually the harder magic trick.
I feel lucky though that as a music fan I don’t have to choose. There is different music for different occasions. Everyone has slightly different tastes and opinions. However, I can’t help but feel that Pitchfork tilts the scales too far in one direction. I feel like our mainstream culture has been dumbed down too much. If you look at the music of the 60’s you will see that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when music could be popular and important. Now Pitchfork alone isn’t responsible for this. A great deal of it has to do with other aspects of our free market culture run amuck. But sometimes I wish the writers over at Pitchfork would realize that intelligence and subversive thought don’t necessarily have to exist apart from accessibility.