In defense of albums

First of all welcome to the new Verlaines page. I'll be ranting weekly or thereabouts. Forgive me if I'm overly long, I'm new to blog culture.


In defense of albums (genuine ones)
    Genuine I take to mean a body of songs from a period in a songwriters life that is consistently high in quality and which hangs together because they are a product of that time, the accumulation of experience, skill and the ability to articulate etc. Look, far be it of me to dictate other people?s listening habits. Anyone is free to download any individual songs from any album, ours included, throw them randomly into any listening device and experience the bona fide listening pleasure of what is essentially an endless compilation album. But that is a different listening experience to that of a genuine album. For all its thrill of ongoing novelty from track to track, I find compilations lack accumulation of emotional weight. A diet of compilations seems to me not too dissimilar to a diet of foreplay only, that never experiences anything further than that. I have no authority to assert that music and sex are lodged in the same part of the brain but in good sex and good albums it seems to me one event builds on what precedes it and thereby accumulates emotional weight and momentum.

    The working title for Corporate Moronic was Beautiful Cruelty. ?Beautiful cruelty? was a description of Dostoevsky?s art made by German novelist Herman Hesse. As this was constantly in the back of my mind when writing these songs I thought I?d start by teasing it out what this phrase means to me and then explore how one song can comment on another, add weight to it, even contradict it and in that contradiction make things more problematic.

    It seems to me that the human condition might broadly be categorised into two polar forces, the will to nurture and the will to exploit, hence the beautiful cruelty of existence. Of the former we experience it in parenting, friendship, teaching etc. and of the latter in enslavement, sweat shops, Ponzi schemes and the like. As humans we have no choice but to labour in this arena and paradoxically one informs the other (our desire to nurture our family, friends or indeed countrymen can, historically, move us to exploit others outside those groups without mercy and of course exploit our environment). Within these poles we try to strike a balance of fairness. It is fair to exploit an opponent?s weakness on the sports field but not their financial gullibility and ignorance, or so it would seem from the 150-year sentence handed down to Bernie Madoff last week. And as for the environment we have resource management acts and environmental laws to supposedly balance need (to exploit in order to live) and sustainability (nurturing generations unborn). Of course the West simply exports the exploitative jobs to parts of the world that don?t have those protections so the net damage (both human and environmental) is a constant in spite of any local ?green? initiatives.

    The poles of nurture and exploitation make existence inherently problematic (as the last sentence in the previous paragraph suggests we are hypocritical, hypocrisy being the apotheosis of problematic) and art responds to this problem either by exploring it (humanistic) or pretending it doesn?t exist (escapist). Naturally I choose to explore it. I claim no moral high ground over those that don?t in this, it is simply because it makes me feel better to do so and I know there will be a limited audience that will be grateful for my efforts to do so on their behalf.

    Exploitation is a major theme of this album. The first three songs deal with economic pillage, environmental degradation and the pursuit of Lebensraum (?living space?, Hitler?s justification for eastward expansion in World War 2 and what at a corporate level the Iraq war seems to have been about), though I hope I have placed nurture at the centre of it as well (?how can you stop a man with hungry mouths, who simply needs more fields?). ?The way I love you? is positioned after them as a deliberate shock. On its own it is innocuous and in a previous life functioned as a commemorative single for a fan?s wedding in the US. In the company of the three songs that precede it, it takes on a depth that, so it seems to me, it doesn?t in isolation. Willingness to exploit others might land you a lavish residence in Paratai Drive, refusal to do so brings with it more modest financial and even romantic prospects (I?m here indebted to Anthony Tonnon?s EP Love and Economics, which explores similar territory). The modesty and limitation this song celebrates comments on the vulgarity of extreme wealth created by dubious means. A conversation is struck that a compilation is incapable of.

    Similarly the last pairing is deliberate. ?The Chosen People? documents everyday events in Gaza and the West Bank from my limited experience through (among other sources) the late poet Mahmoud Darwish to whom it is dedicated. ?Rootless Cosmopolitan? exposes my own hypocrisy, that while I may rant and rave about exploitation it is nevertheless the bedrock of my existence, inherited from my collective forefathers/mothers. As the last 5 minutes of a 47-minute listening experience it has a torrential, deflating aspect to it, it seems to me (we can?t rid ourselves of exploitation), one that simply cannot be accessed by simply playing it on its own. It is the accumulated weight of the twelve songs that have preceded it that rams it home.

    Technology enables cherry picking and endless compilations and if that spins your wheels then far be it from me to deter you, though I hope I have made a case for the experience missed on account of it.

    I am currently reviewing recently released CDs of Shostakovich?s Tenth Symphony. It too accumulates weight such that by the end I can scarcely stay seated. The experience is total, like one?s soul has been flushed because the music emotionally accesses so many parts of it in its course. I try to emulate that kind of experience in an album of songs and feel that I can scarcely do better than Corporate Moronic (unless the next one can top it). I refuse to believe the album is dead simply because technology enables cherry picking. For the last four centuries people have found the immersion in long listening experiences indispensable to their emotional wellbeing. I count myself amongst them and assume I am not alone even though the world is changing.

    Please yourself. My wife has been playing country compilations all morning, which has provided a tolerable, background babble (relieved by the singular achievement of ?Ruby don?t take your love to town? just now). A different kind of experience to Blood on the Tracks yesterday, it has to be said. One type of experience does not have to be at the expense of another, though yesterday?s experience nurtured me in a way that today?s didn?t. If you are likely to come to the same conclusion then buy Corporate Moronic in its entirety and set aside an hour for it (or several over a fortnight?it might take some getting to know). Life is too short to clutter it up with solely 3-minute experiences, but it is long enough to accommodate more nourishing, weightier ones.

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