Lately I’ve noticed a recurring weakness in my critical faculties. (I’m sure there are other weak spots, I’m merely referring to a specific weak spot.) I am inclined to 1) praise albums that have been widely dismissed by other critics because 2) they happen to be borderline disasters.
That is the unsympathetic take, anyway. I believe the albums in question are beautiful, fascinating messes — rather than dismiss them out of hand, I feel compelled to defend them as noble experiments that aren’t wholly successful, even if it seems like I’m praising dumpster fires for the warmth they provide.
Regarding Taylor Swift’s Reputation, I conceded that the superstar’s latest effort is “a cold, convoluted, often surly record, heavily weighted with overly complicated prog-R&B arrangements, awkward attempts at rapping, and lyrics that underline every reference to Swift’s casual hook-ups and late-night binge-drinking.” But I also appreciated those flaws as signs of humanity from an artist whose meticulously curated public image seemed impenetrable at the height of 1989-mania. “For the first time in years, Swift seems like a rather ordinary human being,” I concluded, “with all the unattractive flaws and nagging hang-ups that suggests.”
For Justin Timberlake’s Man Of The Woods, an album that was prepped to be burned in effigy by critics weeks before it was released, I pointed out the record’s numerous flaws: “The lyrics are dumb, the ballads are corny, it’s about 20 minutes too long, and I don’t know that a top 10 list of Timberlake songs would include anything from this record.” But, again, I found that the weaknesses of Man Of The Woods helped to make Timberlake seem more vulnerable. Coming after the swaggering genius moves of his bloated 20/20 Experience albums, Man Of The Woods was appealingly “intimate and modest” in comparison.
A tic becomes a trend once it happens three times: In my recent review of Jack White’s bonkers Boarding House Reach, I stood up for the polarizing LP on the grounds that its oddball eccentricity is a welcome development after the sourness of White’s previous record, Lazaretto. One more time, I was willing to overlook a record’s bum notes — the haphazard rapping, the zany arrangements, the decision to sequence two spoken-word pieces in consecutive order — because they added to a beautifully enthralling disorder that had disrupted an otherwise tidy persona.
So, what’s my problem? Am I a pushover? A contrarian? Did I slip and fall in the fall of 2017, causing minor brain damage? (The answers are: No, possibly, and “apple sauce.”)
Kidding aside, I think I’m wary of how quickly albums disappear now, particularly records that might take a little time to love or simply comprehend. The feedback loop created by music websites, social media, and streaming services can be brutal for artists who dare to step outside of their lanes by making music that is too loud, too fast, too experimental, or simply too batty. Consensus opinion slouches toward homogeneity, rewarding safe, formulaic songs that don’t inspire snarky tweets or scathing reviews, and won’t disrupt the flow of a well-planned playlist. Too often now, not satisfying expectations or not conforming to established norms are capital crimes for which albums are swiftly executed without benefit of a fair, patient hearing.
This isn’t just true for pop music — you can see it in every corner of the internet, which is stymied by conflicting, ultimately self-defeating impulses. On one hand, there’s a palpable sense of boredom with how well-mannered artists and celebrities are now. The “proper” ways to act in interviews and even how to create art are unwritten and yet commonly known. It’s pretty clear what will get you in trouble now and what won’t — and getting trouble rarely seems worth it.