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.
Pop music can’t survive without artists who are willing to risk getting into trouble. And yet the collective hunger for someone, anyone, to transcend the norm goes unfulfilled because there’s an equally strong desire to dunk on someone, anyone, who dares to be honest, vulgar, brash, or just flat-out different in ways just seem … unacceptable.
Look at what we did to poor, old Quincy Jones — he was made to apologize for one of the most gloriously entertaining interviews in recent memory! If only celebrities became the target of aggregators and thinkpiece-writers when they failed to utter anything remotely quotable in an interview. Shawn Mendes once again profiled by a major magazine in spite of never saying anything interesting! At least then we’d be punishing the right things. As it stands, we’ve disincentivized revolutionaries at a time when we’re all dying for a revolution.
So, I have a weakness for records that swing big and wind up deep in an 0-2 count with several foul tips. Give me albums that reach for something different and potentially great over more consistent, easy-to-like but ultimately bland records that never aimed higher than “pretty good.” And I’ll do my part to encourage more music like it in the future.
This is a pretty grandiose preamble to a discussion about Virtue, the ridiculous second album by The Voidz, a band that resembles the cast of a Mike Judge comedy that satirizes the foibles of aging Brooklyn hipsters. The leader of The Voidz, Julian Casablancas, recently gave a interview to New York magazine in which he came off like a weed-addled character from A Scanner Darkly. “Can you make complex truth sexy?” he asks at the start of the profile. He then answers his own question by referring offhandedly to Martin Luther King Jr. as “my favorite philosopher.” The truth might in fact be too complex even for sexy Julian.
As a life-long lover of The Strokes, I am cursed to follow every single project to its unnatural end. But Casablancas tries the patience of even the most generous listener. The previous Voidz record, 2014’s Tyranny, is, ahem, highlighted by “Human Sadness,” a mock-operatic slog that sounds like a tape deck eating Queen II for 11 interminable minutes. Later, on the self-explanatory “Business Dog,” Casablancas wails “I love being weird/ it’s so weird,” summing up the album’s limited thematic range. Even for a lover of beautiful messes, Tyranny continues to be elusive.
On Virtue, Casablancas takes tentative steps back to a more familiar sound. At least two songs, “Leave It In My Dreams” and “Permanent High School,” could’ve been on Comedown Machine. Another track, “Lazy Boy,” elaborates on the Motown-inspired sound that Casablancas abandoned after one of my favorite Room On Fire deep cuts, “Under Control.” You could argue that several other tunes resemble the tolerable “experimental” filler that takes up much of First Impressions Of Earth.
And then there’s the stuff that can only be classified as “wacky Voidz sh*t”: The Saharan Desert disco of “QYURRYUS,” the dirge-y political punditry of “Think Before You Drink,” the goofy shower-balladry of “Pointlessness.” Some of it isn’t bad, like the one that sounds like Beck trying to rip off Dr. Dre (“ALieNNatioN”), or the other one that sounds like Yes attempting to cover Toxicity after ingesting trucker speed (“Pyramid Of Bones”). But I’d be lying if I said I had any clue what the hell Casablancas is trying to accomplish here.
And yet … I feel weirdly stimulated by trying to figure out Julian Casablancas’ “Mars Volta” period. The wave of early ’00s nostalgia sparked by Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me In The Bathroom threatened to make Casablancas an establishment figure again. But he remains utterly disinterested in his own mystique. If anything, sticking a few Strokes-like gems on an otherwise bizarre Voidz record will likely only annoy Casablancas’ more casual fans, who would rather hear Albert Hammond Jr. playing those songs.
Again, I don’t get it, but I have newfound appreciation for artists who don’t care if I get it. I don’t think Virtue is very good, but I enjoy thinking about it more than most recent records that are technically “better.” Will this album ever make sense to me? What if I play it just one more time? Julian Casablancas is a colorful beast who I don’t understand, and I’m glad that he’s still roaming the tundra.