One of the most common responses I’ve seen in my six or seven years of consistently reading music writing is the legendary, emphatic you’re so biased.
It’s also a pillar of one of the most confounding ideologies I’ve ever encountered when it comes to discussions in musical communities. What does it mean to be “biased” when reviewing an album? When talking about music? Why on earth should a writer deny in their writing the very attributes of the music that drew them to the art in the first place? Is a music writer forever doomed to be dishonest in the endless pursuit to be, ugh, objective in music reviewing and writing?
This last week, I’ve been looking a lot at the differences between the indie music created in the 1980s and the music created now. A lot of the indie music in the 80s had a way of being loosely performed—that is, the skill of the musician was not as important as the projection of authenticity. Take, for example, Beat Happening’s 1986 self-titled debut. In an objective light, the album simply shows that the members of Beat Happening had a lot of growing to do…the lyrics were simple, the vocals were flat, and the album itself sounds like it was recorded in a small cave with a hand-held tape recorder. All of this is true—but objectivity doesn’t explain why Beat Happening is a damn enjoyable record. That is explained by something more than the “art itself,” inspected in a vacuum, can ever reflect. Beat Happening is enjoyable and wonderful because it’s damn honest. A messy, poorly recorded piece of work like Beat Happening is authentic because it makes clear all that the band cared about while creating it was their commitment to the craft. Their limited funds and resources were drained in the effort to make the album, and for that reason the authenticity of the piece is clear when listening to the album. It’s fun, simple, and honest—and it became important to people because of all this. It became important because people cared about it, and because of all the changing, the growing up, the heartbreak, and the happiness that would eventually be attached to it—attributes that make it more important than any objective lens could ever reveal.
This is want I want to see when I read a piece about music. I find that, as I’ve grown older, I don’t so much like the album reviews and music pieces that aim to be “even handed” or “subjective” as much as I like the ones that openly and unabashedly display the effects that the music had on them on a personal level. That’s the most exciting thing. Did this beautifully produced, tightly performed, technically amazing record fly right by you? Or did Beat Happening change your life?
To hell with “objectivity,” I want honesty.
Here’s the honest to god truth about Jimmy Eat World’s 2004 album Futures: it changed my life. It continues to change my life every single time I turn it on. That’s what matters, that’s why music matters—because, truthfully, every album has something to make it appealing to someone. A hook, an obscurity, a little something that says buy me—no matter what genre or label or lack thereof. But, not every album has what Futures has. Every album has a reason for it to sell 500,000 copies, but very few a have the ability to become such an important part of somebody’s life. Perhaps it’s ineffable, but Futures is an album that means everything to so many people, even ten years after it first hit their ears.
Or six years, as it has now been for me. But that’s been more than long enough for me to understand that this is music that will always have a place in my life. The songs may change in meaning as I grow older, as they have since 2008, but they’ll always have that core…something to them that I’ll always cling to.
And the meanings and the memories I’ve attached to these 11 songs have changed plenty over the last six years. ‘The World You Love,” for me, embodies an experience from only eight months ago—the night I put my intoxicated friends to bed, sprawled across my living room floor in the very first hours of 2014, the first time we’d all been together in eighteen months (I fell asleep with my friends around me/only place I know I feel safe). Just days ago, while listening to “Work” as I walked through Oxford (I’m now three weeks into the term I’m spending here), I thought of the independence and the chance to create my own life that I had wanted for so long to the tune of this song. And I realized that the experience I’m having here now is the beginning of all that for me. I’ve never smiled so wide in my life.
Then again, maybe the songs don’t change as much as I think they do. “Futures” has always been that sonic step forward, that accompaniment to the very same motivation that has allowed me to take some sort of control of my life. “Polaris” has always been the midnight drive song, the recording I’ve blown my voice out to more than any other—this cathartic moment shattering the emotional glass ceiling every last time:
I’m done, there’s nothing left to show,
Try but can’t let go.
Are you happy where you’re standing still?
Do you really want the sugar pill?
I’ll wake up tomorrow and I’ll start,
Tonight it feels so hard.
As the train approaches Gare du Nord,
As I’m sure your kiss remains employed,
Am I only dreaming?
More than all of this though, I’m actually planning a future with these songs. I’ll play “23” in the hour I actually turn 23. I’ll spin my new vinyl copy of the album (by this time, wearied and scratched from consistent use) for my kids someday.
And doesn’t that mean something in itself? Putting aside the fact that Futures is an expertly produced album; that Jim Adkins’ vocal performance is one of the most emotionally charged I’ve ever heard; that these layered, intricate songs are executed with remarkable ease and proficiency—isn’t it a testament to the greatness of Futures that these songs are just so deeply ingrained into my life—into so many peoples’ lives—past, present, and future?
What’s the point of me waxing poetic about Futures over a thousand words? What’s the point of talking about me just as much as I’m talking about the album? The point is this: I can’t honestly talk about Futures without talking about myself. That’s how important it is. It’d be the same thing if I were talking about The Mother, The Mechanic, and The Path or Invented (yes, Invented) or Stay What You Are or Transatlanticism. The music is part of my life. That is the honest truth about these records, and I can’t talk about why I like them without stressing that fact. The best music is that which means something to you, and we talk about it so vehemently because, well, if it has the ability to mean something in my life, who is to say that it couldn’t mean something in yours? One of the reasons we (or, at least I) listen to new music incessantly is because of the possibility that this new album could be our next Futures or Trouble Will Find Me or The Queen Is Dead. Because it could be the next thing that changes our lives.
But more than that, even if you hate Futures or just think it’s okay and are reading this anyway, aren’t you thinking about a different record? Aren’t you thinking about that album you grew up with and will continue to grow up with? About a piece of art that had a hand in making you who you are now? About your Futures?
Aren’t you thinking of why it means anything at all to you?
Don’t it feel like sunshine after all?