Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at email@example.com.
I’m a crazy person and think that Some Loud Thunder is not only better than Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s debut — hey, remember them? — but one of my favorite albums of the ’00s. That’s for another debate, which I’d likely lose, but I’m wondering what your favorite “career-killer follow-up” albums are. And if there’s a good album title we can use to name this “career-killer better than the debut” effect. — David from Atlanta
How about Congratulations-core?
I refer to my favorite “career-killer follow-up” album, the 2010 LP by MGMT that essentially transformed them from the kings of late-aughts dorm-room indie-pop — it can’t be overstated how popular songs like “Kids” and “Electric Feel” still are — to a weird outsider psych outfit who never regained the mainstream popularity they once had. I’ve long been a bit obsessed with Congratulations, so much so that I wrote my 10th-anniversary appreciation of the record three years early. The following year, when I interviewed MGMT for an article about their (pretty good!) 2018 album Little Dark Age, I kept asking questions about the excessive “true California ’70s” lifestyle they enjoyed during the making of Congratulations. (I later put it in my top 10 favorite albums of the 2010s.)
Congratulations arrived at a moment when the indie wave of the aughts was about to crash against the critical vogue of poptimism and the commercial consolidation around massive pop stars that has defined the corporate and homogenized streaming era. What I love about Congratulations is that MGMT steered into the crash. Instead of chasing more hits, MGMT pursued an idiosyncratic (and to some degree self-destructive) muse that crippled their pop fortunes but in the long run made them a more interesting (though also significantly niche-ier) band.
While I don’t agree with you assessment of Some Loud Thunder — my main memory of that record is reviewing it and thinking my promo stream was malfunctioning and then realizing it was supposed to sound like that — I understand where you’re coming from. Congratulations-core albums need defending, which makes us defenders love them even more than we already do, because minor cultural injustices rile up tremendous passion in the hearts of us music nerds. It’s the same reason I love Soup, the second album by the ’90s jam-grunge band Blind Melon, the one they made after their self-titled debut sold millions on the strength of their one hit, “No Rain.” Like Congratulations, Soup is the act of a band determined to move in the opposite direction from alt-rock radio success, by making something stranger, less accessible, and (I would argue) deeper and more ambitious.
The relative failure of Soup was complicated by the death of Shannon Hoon, which occurred no long after the album was released. Had he lived, perhaps Soup would have done for Blind Melon what, say, The Bends did for Radiohead. Lest we all forget, Radiohead was also a one-hit-wonder for a few years after the success of “Creep” — until The Bends arrived as the stranger, less accessible but ultimately deeper and more ambitious followup that proved to be a great success and set Radiohead on the path to glory. The same could be said of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, an album that actually was a failure for a few years after it bombed commercially in the wake of Licensed To Ill, only to be later revived critically as a work of incredible invention and foresight.
But enough about that. We’re here to toast the failures. We love you Congratulations, Soup, and (why not?) Some Loud Thunder. Thanks for bombing in such lovable, endlessly defensible ways.
I know you’re a big fan of Bob Dylan’s new album, and his later work as a whole. I’ve been enjoying his new album a lot, too. His voice is rough and he sounds old, but I think it suits the music he’s making very well. He sounds like a weird, old mystic playing with a band of incredibly talented miscreants in a rundown backwoods bar in the mountains. However, my 65-year-old dad can’t get into it. He can’t get past his voice at all. He’s been a fan of Dylan since the early ’60s and has had a hard time getting into his more recent work because of his voice. He’s said that some of his friends around his age have expressed similar feelings. I’m wondering if this is something that you’ve heard from people in that same age range and/or if you think it’s a trend from people who listened to Dylan when he was in his prime? Are these people just afraid to get old and don’t like that Bob seems very comfortable embracing his age? — Eric from Cleveland
Hey Eric, I think what you’re describing is a fairly common phenomenon. When it comes to Dylan specifically, I think it’s often true that younger fans appreciate his older work more than the boomers who grew up with him. And I think that has a lot to do with when each group came in with Dylan, and how that affects perception.
In my book Twilight Of The Gods – sorry for the shameless plug here, but I swear it’s pertinent — I wrote about how Gen-Xers, millennials, and now zoomers who tune into classic-rockers tend to appreciate different things than the original audiences for those artists. I was writing specifically about lesser-regarded albums in their day that wound up benefitting from revisionism via younger critics. Examples include Paul McCartney’s early post-Beatles solo albums like McCartney and Ram, or Bob Dylan’s Christian-era records.
The reason this happens (I think) is that for younger audiences, they’re taking in the totality of the artist’s work over the course of many decades all at once, which obviously gives them a different perspective. That younger listener can hear The Beatles and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” at the exact same time, which puts that music roughly on the same level. Whereas the older listener who heard that music in real time is shaped by hearing The Beatles at one point in their life, and Ram in another. Not only has the music changed, but (more importantly) the listener has also changed. The Beatles might have had a very significant place in that person’s personal history, which will inevitably influence how they hear the later work. Meanwhile, the younger listener doesn’t experience the music like that. That person might go through a heavy McCartney binge in one week, and take in 50 years of music in a matter of days. The music changes, but that younger listener basically stays the same.
I think that might explain why your dad doesn’t like Rough And Rowdy Ways. He’s been listening to Dylan for most of his life. When he first heard Dylan, the music would have probably been much fresher and exciting for him, because he was younger. Whereas now, he’s heard so much Dylan in his life (and at some many different points in his life) that he can’t help but compare then to now. And then often has a kind of home-field advantage as you get older, because it’s what you know and have appreciated the longest. You have an idea in your head of what Dylan should sound like, and any deviation from that seems wrong.
Or … he might just hate the sound of old Bob’s voice!
Over the last ten years, I (27, male) have engaged in a musical debate with my mother (61) which has reached alarming levels of cognitive distance. The debate is this: My mom is convinced that the 1996 song “One Headlight” is a late-career highlight of The Band’s Robbie Robertson’s solo career. Most ’90s Adult Contemporary-heads will know that “One Headlight” is written and performed by The Wallflowers, featuring Jakob Dylan. Despite my efforts to show her the music video, album credits, and other formal documentation, she still insists the song is performed by Robbie Robertson, and not The Wallflowers. She claims that Robertson performed the song on a January 17, 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live (Setlist.fm lists his performances as “Go Back to Your Woods,” and “The Weight”), four years before the release of “One Headlight.” I acknowledge Jakob Dylan, the song’s true architect, is the son of Robertson’s collaborator Bob Dylan. How do I approach a musical debate that has no factual basis, other than a few loose cross- generational threads? It has become problematic for us to debate the cultural connectivity of the 1960s to the 1990s without resorting to verbal and physical violence. — Davin from Brooklyn
First of all, this is my favorite question in the history of the “Ask A Music Critic” column. Thank you for your service, Davin.
Before I answer your question, I must tell you that I have a similar story. For years, my mother-in-law has asked me to identify a song from the ’70s in which a group of female vocalists sing the words “dance, dance, dance” in the chorus. She has sung the chorus for me, and explained that it is a “disco-type” song. She’s even sung the rhythm part, which (according to her) goes like this: “do-do-do-de-do.”
Right away, I suggested that the song is probably “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” the first single and subsequent hit by the legendary disco band Chic. After all, the chorus is literally “dance, dance, dance,” it features prominent female voices, and it’s a quintessential disco song. But my mother-in-law insists it’s not this song. And then she’ll sing me the song in her head, and she’ll sound more or less like Chic’s “Dance, Dance, Dance.” And this just goes round and round. I happen to think this whole ongoing family argument is hilarious, but it so annoys my wife that she gets physically angry with me whenever I sing “dance, dance, dance” in my mother-in-law’s voice.
Back to your question: You’re wondering what you should do about a music-related argument that’s not even an argument, because you are unequivocally correct and the older loved one in your life is unequivocally mistaken. Here’s my advice: Tell your mom she’s right. Tell her that “One Headlight” is indeed by Robbie Robertson, and that it stands as one of his great late-career achievements. Apologize to her for insisting that it’s a song by The Wallflowers. And then tell this story to everybody that you know and make fun of your mom behind her back. That way, everybody wins.
What is the life of a music critic like, day to day? Do you ALWAYS have music playing? If so, does it drive your family insane? Also if so, what kind of set up are you using? Do you insist on only listening to vinyl while sitting in your most comfortable chair? Do you have speakers in every room in the house? Do you always have headphones on? Do you ever just yearn for silence? — Michael from Vancouver
I sit in a chair in my office and listen to music. Some days, I type a lot.
It depends on what I’m playing.
My “set-up” is embarrassingly basic (from an audiophile’s perspective) but relatively inexpensive.
Vinyl is overrated! CDs, however, are properly rated.
No (unless it counts that I carry headphones pretty much everywhere).
Yes but thankfully not very often. To do so would be an occupational hazard.