The Second Time Around
Not a single one of my favorite albums was one I immediately enjoyed. I might like one or two songs the first time through, which is what pulls me back through the journey again, but somehow the gestalt of the thing alludes me.
The first time I experienced this was Modest Mouse's Good News For People Who Like Bad News. I had just started as a shelver at the public library near my house, and a guy who was too cool and *in college* liked that band and they had a new album out. I liked the cover art. I checked it out, took it home, and put it in my parents large AIWA 3-disc player when no one was home. It was awful.
Most of the songs were so different from anything I'd ever heard, I wouldn't have even classified them as songs. They were noise to me, and not pleasant noise. I'd start to find something to grasp on to in a riff or melodic moment, and then other sounds, very specific and foreign sounds would glom onto and obscure it to where I just couldn't relate to the song anymore. I forced myself not to skip it, to try in each track to find my way, some way into what could be enjoyable about these sounds.
Two weeks later it was time to return the disc, and for some reason, I decided to listen to Float On again, the most accessible song in the bunch, and found myself halfway through the album again, actually kind of enjoying it. I renewed it and listened to it over and over and over and over.
We talk about developing a taste for harsh new foods, coffee, liquor, fermented things and umami-laden flavors. Music is the same way, the best stuff is a little new, new enough you're not going to like it the first time through.
Three weeks ago, a new album came out by one of my favorite artists, Kimbra. I loved her first album, Vows, which came out on the heels of her Grammy-award winning appearance on Somebody That You Used To Know. I didn't like any of Gotye's songs so much as I immediately loved Vows.
When her second album came out, The Golden Echo, I didn't know what to make of it. There were so many sounds layered up on top of each other, the first time through was a cacophony. I don't think I fully appreciated it until the third listen, and then I couldn't get enough of the rich, sweeping, fantastical, ornate sounds in those tracks.
Her newest album, Primal Heart, has similarly taken a few listens to truly hear. After my first time through the album, I searched for reviews of it, and found only Pitchfork's tepid verdict. I was hoping the author would have heard something in it I didn't yet. She called it "bloodless," an obvious jab for an album named after blood's epicenter. After my first listen, I was inclined to agree with her.
Now a (few handfuls) of times through, openly sobbing once at Version of Me while at home by myself trying to get things done, or commanding Alexa to play me Black Sky or Like They Do On The TV on a loop almost every morning while getting ready (she gets really confused by the song title of the later, thinking I want to watch something on TV every time. Even if she was just. playing. that. song.)
I wish I could teach Alexa an infinite repeat skill, a Niggas in Paris mode, that lets you play a song in an unbroken loop like an extended cut. (Jay and 'Ye played that song 12 times through nonstop when they performed in Paris, but I remember playing the music video back to back at least 6 times, projected on the wall of the print shop. People would cheer and run down from other departments to watch when we'd play it, spontaneous dance parties would break out. It was a singular cultural moment.) Maybe it could utilize the tech behind MIT's Infinite Jukebox website.
I'd prefer reviews that came out a week or more after an album, written by reviewers that had steeped themselves in the work for a minute. I've often thought about that when watching people look at visual art: knowing how long the artist spent with a piece, and then watching the almost waltz-like tempo of viewers in a gallery space; you cannot see a work in 4 downbeats.
At this point, I see so many movies and TV shows, I almost don't remember anything about ones I've only seen once. A friend recently wanted to watch Call Me By Your Name and discuss it; I ended up reading a print copy, listening to the book on CD, and watching the film and still feel like I could see it again to fully grasp some of it. It just takes time to turn an idea over in your head, especially these complex sets of ideas presented to us after months or years of a whole team's effort. There's no way to speed read culture. There is only total, constant immersion.
Of course, there's just so much material to consume at all times, it's easy to want to treat it like a rabbit treats your garden, taking a small first bite out of each and every tomato. I want to choose one thing and then savor, I want to remember to pause and be present for what I'm consuming and look at something long enough to see past the initial impression of it. Next time you think you know a thing, look again and be willing to see something new there. There is always something new there.