Squeaky Clean

In one of my sporadic blogscursions, I happened to stop by The Rest Is Noise, the web presence of New Yorker critic Alex Ross. Recounting a road trip through the South, Ross mentions that he listened to the most recent Wilco album three times while driving through Kentucky. I recently picked that record up, and, like Ross, I found its simplicity and transparency surprising. Critical response to the album, entitled Sky Blue Sky, has been mixed; for our purposes, however, all you need to know is that Wilco’s previous efforts have articulated a trend toward noise, experimentation, and abstraction—and that the new release represents either a welcome clarification or a huge step backwards. Personally, I’m in the latter camp.

I’m curious, however, about how Sky Blue Sky might have been received if it had been written and recorded by another band. It’s likely that the peanut gallery would have appreciated a collection of solid, nostalgic, FM-friendly guitar-driven tunes by an unknown band more than a bowl of reactionary country-rock soup by a once-proud indie blue chip. On the other hand, I think it’s also possible that Sky Blue Sky is so likable because we’re on guard as soon as we hear it: Its simplicity seems too simple, and it must be concealing something, something maybe even weirder than the band’s earlier albums, in whose context we have to evaluate this new one. What is it about Sky Blue Sky, in other words, that continues the Wilco project? How does this new clause fit into the Wilco mission statement? The infuriating thing, of course, is that it might not.

This phenomenon is not unique to pop music. When I first heard Boulez’s Sur Incises, I wondered where the fire went: The piece is beautiful, no question, but it doesn’t move like his old ones used to. It doesn’t seem to have the same tension against the possible that makes Le Marteau and Éclat. But is it possible that Sur Incises is a clarification of something that Le Marteau had wanted to become, but wasn’t ready to be yet, and we just haven’t learned to listen to it correctly? Is Sky Blue Sky an experimental record that happens to sound just like a traditional one, as if the collected scaffolding and masking tape that gave Wilco’s back catalogue its interesting shape have been cleared away to reveal something that’s both the same and different, and is the burden of understanding it on us?

I doubt it. But I could be convinced.

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14 thoughts on “Squeaky Clean

  1. jchang4

    A couple years ago, Peter Garland wrote a piece “Henry Cowell: Giving Us Permission.” It’s a meandering piece, so much so that I find the title misleading. In it, he suggests the possibility of it being radical to “shift backwards” (my quotes) in one’s compositional “trajectory” (again, my quotes); that such a shift could be as radical as any of the experimentalist approaches, and, come to think of it, many of the composers of the experimentalist tradition have undergone such a “backwards” shift—perhaps in the spirit of “experimentalism,” or whatever. Anywho, I think that dismissing this sort of music is unfortunate. I myself am still and constantly trying to find my own definitions for the whole new music mess, so, unfortunately, am unable to properly articulate my jumbled thoughts at the moment, so I paraphrase Garland. Now I pass the buck.

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  2. bcantor

    People’s appeals tend to change as they get older or gain different experiences. I believe that the subject matter of the Le marteau is fairly clear just by looking at its movement titles. People go through different trajectories in life, though, so not everything stays interesting to them forever, even if others might find it more appealing.

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  3. Philedwardelphia

    I’ve always unfairly discredited Wilco. A step back towards accessibility doesn’t surprise when every album has been filled with insipid hits like “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

    Perhaps with the self-contained catalog of Wilco’s work, there has been a movement towards experimentalism, but within THE WORLD, their music is mostly not. Their experimentalism is a well-worn path in the world of songwriting groups.

    They always seemed like composers who couldn’t help but write the music that they write. They’re a band with a sound. When on A Ghost Is Born they attempt a motorik beat on a song, one can’t help but imagine someone in the band simply wanting to put a Krautrock song on the next record (I mean, who doesn’t?).

    So maybe we can attempt to interpret these steps towards earlier moments in careers as predetermined artistic statements, but it seems to me that Wilco is a band whose sound is rooted in Country and Pop. We’ve just found that their record collections make brief aesthetic appearances.

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  4. Colin Holter

    A very special proxy-posted comment from Judith Lang Zaimont:

    Twice in my life I’ve stripped my music down to its most tonal basics, both times for good reason:
    First, just after graduate school when I acted on the disconnect I’d noticed between the music at the ISCM concerts I’d attended (which didn’t really grab me), and the music underpinning all those New York Ballet evenings I’d loved so very much.
    Second, some 16 years later the hearing in one ear suddenly dropped to only 58%. After not writing for about 5 months, I built back my internal sonic and it was a fair bit more basic.

    But I’ve found my music does tend to evolve over time towards high chromaticism and great intensity. IMO, the ultimate
    ‘right fit’ is to be true to one’s own personality.

    Judith L. Zaimont

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  5. tbriggs

    we just haven’t learned to listen to it correctly

    Colin, I really want to get more from you about how one listens to a piece correctly, and moreover, how we know that we have found the “correct” way to listen to a piece. Perhaps we can only understand some music by listening to it so many times that we come to realize that the possible ways of listening are endless, and that’s what makes it meaningful. Perhaps not. But I must say that I find this concept of listening to a piece correctly in order to understand it confusing.

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  6. pgblu

    Clarification
    …[Sur Incises] is beautiful, no question, but it doesn’t move like his old ones used to.

    I won’t be my usual crabby self and ask what you mean by ‘move’ — because I know exactly what you mean! I wouldn’t want to put it into more precise words, either.

    The sound world of Sur Incises is definitely a clarified one, as if Boulez has sort of “found” an agreeable language and gives it a good hour to unfold and spread out like a landscape. However, he already found this language long ago, when he produced the explosante/fixe concept. Since then, much of his music has sounded this way.

    It seems to me that the Wilco example is a very different animal matter indeed.

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  7. Colin Holter

    pgblu:

    I’m glad you know what I mean – I’ll sleep a little better at night knowing that at least one other person can make sense of my eccentric descriptive short-hand.

    Maybe I didn’t sum up the Wilco situation well enough: Sky Blue Sky‘s relationship to 1996′s Being There, the group’s good but only-somewhat-unusual second release, could be summarized just as well by calling it a “shift of focus from country to early-70s rock” as by calling it a “downhill tumble back to convention after several increasingly wild records.” If the matter interests you (or any uninitiated reader) enough to investigate more closely, a good first step would be to listen to some Wilco, if you haven’t, and draw your own conclusions. By the way, I’m not implying that Sur Incises is the beginning of clarified Boulez – only that I first began to think of his output in this way after hearing that piece (shortly after it won the Grawemeyer).

    tbriggs2:

    The “correct” way to listen to a piece (which is, by the way, only one way among many that may yield a valuable musical experience) is the way the composer wants you to listen to it. We can listen to any piece in an infinitude of ways, certainly, some more meaningful than others – but at the center of this solar system of possibilities is the “right” way, the way (we think) the composer anticipated we’d hear it. For instance: You can listen to a Mozart quartet from a whole lot of different angles, but if you can’t grasp the piece from a “hierarchy of tonal relationships” angle, you’re liable to miss out on a lot of the meat. The nice thing about living in 2007, of course, is that we have a whole bunch of additional angles that may also be fruitful, and I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that the ONLY way to listen to Mozart is the 1790 way (or our best guess thereat). You are right to call me out on my essentialist terminology.

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  8. Colin Holter

    Oh, by the way: Taken alone, “Heavy Metal Drummer” seems trivial, but the place it occupies in the album – i.e. immediately after “Ashes of American Flags” – shadows it in a contextuality that I find compelling.

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  9. tbriggs

    who wants what
    If the correct way to listen to a piece is the way that the composer wants me to listen to it, then why doesn’t he or she just come right out and say, “I want you to listen to this piece this way”, more often? In Mozart’s time, the conventions of tonality were sufficiently developed as to encompass compositional activity as well as listening activity within that particular cultural sphere in which he worked. I would argue that, back then, most of the people attending Mozart concerts couldn’t help but listen to his music “in the right way.” It must have been far easier for a composer to anticipate how the audience would listen to a new work in 1790 than it is now in 2007, given the respective differences in musical cultures (especially on a local scale, for example). In other words, Mozart didn’t need to say then what needs to be said now if a work is to be listened to correctly. If I’m not mistaken, composers today can’t take anything for granted about their audience and if they are concerned about that audience listening to their piece in the correct way, then they had better somehow make that correct way explicit. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it just doesn’t seem to me like correctness of listening is all that important to contemporary composers as long as people are still listening at all. What I think really matters – and this finally gets back to the original matter of Wilco’s new album – is not whether you are listening correctly, but how listening differently to the same thing can change its meaning for the listener. Ultimately, it seems totally plausible to say that your opinion of Sky Blue Sky, what it means to you as a Wilco album, could change every time you listen to it if you give it the chance. And that is exactly the thing that keeps people listening to the same pieces and the same albums over and over again; their potential for meaning to evolve and grow in the listener with each new listening. First impressions are almost always misleading, right?

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  10. jonrussell20

    Colin writes: “The “correct” way to listen to a piece (which is, by the way, only one way among many that may yield a valuable musical experience) is the way the composer wants you to listen to it.”
    This assumes that (a) it is possible to know how the composer wants us to listen (b) the composer even knows how he/she wants us to listen (and there is only one way) (c) it is better to listen to it in this (probably nonexistent) way than in other ways (yes, Colin says it is fine to listen to it in other ways but the word “correct” does certainly carry a certain value judgment, does it not?) Anyone care to argue on behalf of any of these? They strike me as pretty inane assumptions. It would be a pretty one-dimensional piece and a shallow composer that allowed for a single correct way of listening.

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  11. pgblu

    Almost
    I don’t think it assumes (a) — just because something is unrecoverable doesn’t mean it can’t be held up as an ideal. Otherwise I do agree with jonrussell, though I think inane is too strong a word.

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  12. pgblu

    n c dentally
    I don’t think this mini-discussion would have come up if correct had been in “scare quotes” from the start. Colin?

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  13. Colin Holter

    Actually, I was hoping that the scare quotes would indicate that I’m using the word [correct] in a conditional and subjective way (thereby hopefully forestalling the present mini-debate). So much for that.

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  14. JKG

    Please, educate us….
    Yes Colin, please enlighten us concerning what you were taught was the correct way to listen to any music *huge snarky grin*.

    Reply

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