Friday, August 24, 2007

The Expectation Machine

I've been obsessing about it all week: how one's expectations affects the way an album is experienced. As if hearing my complaints echoing in the depths of the interweb, Jason Crock of decides to address the subject at hand with much aplomb. Unfortunately he doesn't really conclude anything. So much for all of that aplomb.

One thing about Pitchfork: the first thing I noticed about the site was their overwhelming support and almost deranged love of the Dismemberment Plan. Let me direct you to their "Best Albums of 1998" list.

At least I wish I could, as they seem to have taken it off of their website. I found that they gave "Emergency & I," the band's breakthrough the number 1 album of the year in 1998. Even though it came out in 1999. They even admitted to it.

When listing why an album that only they, the staff of Pitchfork had heard(the album hadn't been officially released), they just said they were excited. This is an embarrassing example of a band and an entire music publication holding hands, looking dreamily into each others eyes, and saying,"I'll help you if you help me." I'm sure there are better examples of this mutual handjob, but that's for another post.

Anywho, time for some endless postulations. This involves Crock's review of former-Dismemberment Plan leader Travis Morrison's new record All Y'all.

Is it them, or is it me? Or is it all of us? Do we as music fans hold our heroes in too-high regard, forcing them to live up to arbitrary standards that we decided they've met and can never really accomplish again?

One could say it is all of us, really. And yes, part of growing up and finding music you love is the hero worship. I was younger man when my younger brother received Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dreams, one of those albums that kill you with awesome fun. Radio-friendly weirdery like "Today" coupled with the prog-metal-drone of "Silverfuck" really moved the group into a world of hero worship. My expectations were admittedly high when Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was released, and boy howdy did that record kick MORE ass than Siamese. Not many times have bands been able to meet ridiculous expectations. For every The Bends/OK Computer there are hundreds of Doolittle/Bossanova's.*

The standards couldn't be more arbitrary. But this is where critics come in. They need to temper their own expectations and review these albums with a clear mind. Pure expectations are a good basis for a fan's opinion of an album. Expectations should not be the defining element in a review, and that's where critics fall short. I'm not saying critics should completely ignore expectations, but they shouldn't use it as the back-bone of a bad review. Whew.

Is it fair to beat up on Travis Morrison for breaking up his former band and then daring to try something different?

No, it's not fair. We good? Cool.

His self-admitted heroes, often worshipped via the D-Plan's website...were Neil Young and Prince-- two musicians who mangle the expectations of their numerous fans almost yearly.

Yeah, and those guys suck. No, scratch that. Those guys are popular and legendary because they took those chances, Neil more so than Prince in my opinion (although big shout-out to The Black Album). Critics hated a lot of Neil Young stuff when it came out, especially after Harvest. Neil was expected to make quiet acoustic singer-songwriter material for the soft-rocking 70's. This he did not do, over and over again. He played with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and then he broke off. Then he played with Crazy Horse, and then left them in the dust. The guy built his career on constant change and abrupt departures.

At one point he was expected to release Homegrown, a Harvest-like down-home collection of tunes. After getting high with Rick Danko and playing him some raw tracks from an abandoned project, Rick convinced Neil to can Homegrown (much to the chagrin of his record company) and release the derisive Tonight's the Night. I've heard the Homegrown bootlegs, the thing would've sold millions.

Just to make sure, Jason Crock is holding Travis Morrison up to the same standards as Neil Young and Prince. Therefore, should he not judge the album knowing well in advance that the record may not sound the way he thinks it should.

It shouldn't have been a surprise when Morrison, free of the checks and balances of his old band, followed his muse to wherever it would go, even when those ideas were embarrassingly toothless or undercooked on his first solo record.

You're right, it shouldn't have been a surprise. It seems to me that you were surprised and a little offended at what your Holy Travis Morrison created. But you've spent all this time talking about the effects of expectation...

Is it any different than before, really, or have I changed as a listener? The D-Plan were a near-constant soundtrack to my years around the turn of the century-- would anything Morrison ever does afterward hold up?

Where to start? Notice the reference to D-Plan? Notice that fact that he's not reviewing a D-Plan album? I beg the critic to stop living in the past and fast-forward a bit.

Secondly, yes, you've changed as a listener. Everyone knows it, but no one wants to face the reality. You grow older. You're sitting there listening to Merzbow, Skip Spence and Pere Ubu. Suddenly it's 5 years later and you're loving softer tones, lighter tracks, even the 10,000 Maniacs are fine for your tender ears. What once exhilarated you is now gathering dust on your shelves. Fast forward 20 years and your ear and brain have aged quite a bit. You can't hear tones in the high frequencies, you find yourself turning down the bass and pumping the treble. And then you realize that you're listening to this guy:

You get the picture. To wish this record sounded like D-Plan is to ignore the process of aging.

Crock goes on to slam every element of this album. Nothing is safe, the arrangements, lyrics, sequencing and mixing are all not only called into question but outright slammed on. And then we're left with this ultimate paragraph.

It's a bleeding-heart fan's paradox: We keep giving favorite artists more chances because their music meant so much to us at one point in time, even though it gets increasingly less likely it ever will again.

This makes me angry. He's a die-hard D-Plan fan. How could his review not be stained by ruined expectations? Notice this: "...because their music MEANT so much..." You like an artist because their music MEANS so much to you, present tense. Crock obviously cares not for anything his beloved ex-D-Plan members try, so why have him review this album? Oh yeah, Pitchfork is based on solid support and the deranged obsession with Dismemberment Plan.

If we could listen to this record in a total vacuum, maybe we'd see All Y'all shows a lot of promising ideas with sometimes hoary execution, which is miles of improvement over the inadvisable Travistan.

As a critic, you should be able to listen to a record in a vacuum of some sort. Least of all, you should be able to measure a record fairly against past output, not just cling to past glories and frown upon any deviation from the assigned expected path you set in your head.

It's not that hard. If you don't like an album, you're allowed to talk about the past, but you can't use "in the good old days" rhetoric as the foundation of your criticism. Unless you're an old, old man, Crock. And I will assume that you are. You'll probably need these:


Mattie-O said...

I hope that asterisk next to Bossanova was meant to lead to a footnote explaining that Bossanova is a fucking awesome record.

J. Temperance said...

* - Bossanova was a fine wine of an album. Once the initial disappointment of failed expectations wore off, everyone realized it was a great record.

The same could be said of Trompe le Monde. "Planet of Sound" makes me shit my pants.