The recent discussion about Wilco’s creative trajectory has moved me to devote another column to vernacular music. Just bear with me, and I promise I’ll get back to quarter-tones and dissonant form next week.
A number of my favorite defunct bands are now or will soon be preparing to release new records. The Police have reunited (with intent to commit extortion); I imagine that a new album can’t be far behind. Australasian songcraftspeople Crowded House, whose onetime drummer Paul Hester very sadly passed away a few years ago, is getting back together, too. Most shocking, however, is the news that after twenty years of inexplicable wardrobe decisions and poor PR, frontman Kevin Rowland has reassembled Dexys Midnight Runners, who will be dropping a fourth LP in the near future.
It goes without saying that comeback albums aren’t usually among the strongest in a group’s catalog. However, there’s a bigger issue at work here: Last week, I considered Wilco’s output in toto as if it were a piece, so to speak—as if “Wilco” is not the composer of the Wilco releases but instead the piece itself, a piece comprising six (and counting) installments, composed by the individuals who themselves compose the band. It’s a rough-edged analogy at best, but it works much more cleanly when applied to a group like Dexys Midnight Runners.
Dexys were a band whose stylistic changes were matched by even more pronounced shifts in image, yet who transformed themselves along a very concise and poetic teleology. Their three “period” records, made between 1980 and 1983, represent one lengthy cycle (in three parts) which exhaustively explores the tiny crevice in human behavior between communication and expression. The level of conceptual focus throughout the Dexys discography is exceptional. And indeed, the “piece” in question—that is, Dexys themselves—was more than just the music: Even offstage, they were the thing, living their band’s philosophy of soul-music earnestness and monastic self-discipline to such a degree that the hedonistic Adam Ant, their chart rival, devoted his scathing hit “Goody Two Shoes” (check it out on YouTube) to Rowland. Plus, they were just a killer band. So why aren’t I happy to hear that they’ll be touring again?
It’s not even that the Dexys “piece” will necessarily be worse for this new addition: It’s just that it won’t be the same beast after the new record that it was before. The possibility of a new Dexys album means that something I’d previously held to be finite is in fact infinite: They could do a new record every year for the next twenty years for all I know, and even if they’re all five-star releases, they’ll irreversibly change the “piece” that I’ve come to appreciate so well.
To bring it all full-circle: Pierre Boulez maintains that many of his pieces are in actuality “works in progress,” even those that have been performed by major symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles in the world’s cultural centers. I won’t speak definitively, but I’d bet there’s at least one listener out there who would be genuinely disappointed if Boulez exercised his right to alter or expand his third piano sonata, for example. It’s never come up in practice, but one thing that upsets me in theory, at least, about Boulez’s activity is that at any moment he could invoke this clause and alter or altogether remove some of the things I like about his old pieces without hypocrisy. However, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about what might be left of Pli selon pli when I wake up. Dexys, on the other hand…