Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Built in Backlash Defense

Sometimes backlash is a good thing. Take a minute to consider the implications of what I'm getting at here. It can serve to deflate an artist's rapidly expanding ego, an oft important part of discourse regarding music. Just imagine how different talking or writing about Axl Rose would be if he only wrote Guns N' Roses songs and never ran his mouth back in the day. There's an old saying that goes you've got to "pay your dues" but more and more we're seeing very young artists emerge and enter the press cycle so fast that there literally isn't even time for that. A lot of this can be chalked up to the availability of technology making it easier for musicians to use tools that were never available to the previous generations to sculpt sound into whatever their imagination can dream up. These new artists can arrive fully formed and more often than not they don't get a chance to go through growing pains before their music is either dismissed entirely or exalted.

I haven't read anything on James Blake that makes me think he's got an Axl Rose sized ego. But I also haven't had the chance to seriously digest his self-titled album to the point where I've been able to form my own opinion of it. Why? I certainly have had it as long as everyone else on the internet, where it popped up as far back as December. Problem is that before we were even finished tallying our year end lists for 2010, people were already calling Blake's album the best thing to come along in 2011. Reviews slowly started trickling out and all of them have been alarmingly positive. For a record that seems to me in possession of a few serious flaws I've been a little more than nonplussed at the lack of discussion about the actual music on the album. Parts of it are severely austere and skeletal, to the point of killing the album's flow - "Lindesfarne I" for instance. I know using autotune and other vocal enhancing tactics has got to be reaching the end of its shelf life by now so why is there so much love for Blake treating his own voice on this album. It definitely isn't the revelation for me that The Knife's Silent Shout was by comparison. I can definitely see the attraction in something like "Wilhelms Scream" though even if it sort of reminds me of a dubstep James Blunt (if you could only see my face scrunch up and make a disgusting look like someone just farted and it smelled like rotten eggs). You see that's what my initial reactions to this album have been like. But sometimes an album requires more time of one person than another to really hit the sweet spot. How can I possibly come to my own conclusions when every one else wants me to think this is the greatest thing since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (a record I liked a lot but could also certainly see flaws in).

I was having trouble already when my comrades at Tiny Mix Tapes gave this thing a perfect score. Then I see Pitchfork's review by Grayson Currin. I like Currin's writing quite a bit, he tends to cover the more out there stuff and that appeals to me. I've definitely had a difference of opinion with him before (see his review of Prurient's Arrowhead versus mine and consider that we're both Prurient fans when reading them). Like a few other Pitchfork reviews I've read in the past, Currin's James Blake review preemptively addresses the oncoming backlash - putting it in the context of a young white British dude co-opting dubstep's Jamaican rooted sounds. I have a harder time thinking someone like James Blake is honestly co opting someone else's culture, since dubstep has become ubiquitous in dance music now, than I do with having another review that doesn't address the musical problems the album could interpretively be seen as having in lieu of another 9.0 score from the publication piled onto the heap of praise for Blake. Has the internet snake eating its own tail analogy come to the point where you can get backlash and have a backlash against the backlash before an album even makes it to print publication discussion? Yeah it looks that way. Maybe I'll eventually warm up to James Blake's album over the next few months, maybe it's a mediocre record with a handful of great singles, maybe it's just entirely terrible. What I know for certain is that I don't need to hear someone proactively trying to safeguard their opinion of an album from criticism or backlash. I've written some harsh words on records before and I've done my fair share of praising as well but I despise this attitude that there needs to be a final word on everything. It's okay to be wrong and also to change your mind. I would hate to think that my opinions were completely static regarding music.

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