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Monday, November 12, 2012

Why I can't love your new records as much as your old ones. "It's not you. It's me."

It's the challenge for any heritage act. The main competition for your new records comes from your old records. Old fans only have so much bandwidth and they'd rather ease back into the embrace of their old favourite than get used to the unfamiliar shape of the new one.

I recently played the new Donald Fagen album, Sunken Condos, alongside The Nightfly, his first solo record from thirty years ago. Some reviews have pointed out the things they have in common: high-concept covers, a song about nuclear dread, one deadpan cover version, lots of playing that sounds like it was hard to do and a certain set-em-up-Joe resignation about the delivery.

I doubt the untutored ear could detect which one was the old record and which was the new one, which says something about the last thirty years. Some reviewers think the new one could have done with a little more of one quality and a little less of another. Funny how we treat musicians like chefs, as if they could just pop their record back in the oven for a moment and make it better.

It's difficult to decide why one record works and another doesn't. Some parties are huge fun without anyone trying while others are no fun at all despite everyone trying like crazy. You can't accuse "Sunken Condos" of not making the effort. It probably took more heavy lifting than "The Nightfly". Maybe it's the absence of catchy tunes that brings its busyness to your attention. It has moments but it never flies in the way that "The Nightfly" did and still does. Only on "Weather In My Head" does the groove achieve escape velocity. Nothing get under your skin. It's cold.

"The Nightfly", on the other hand, is like a summer evening's drive. Even the songs with quite a bit of plot, "Goodbye Look", about a gangster with an appointment with the fishes, and "I.G.Y", which peers at the future through the binoculars of the year 1957, and "New Frontier", which is about getting a Tuesday Weld-lookalike alone in your dad's fallout shelter, glide by as if on castors. It's one of those cases where the session guys are doing more than the minimum. Each tiny instrumental fill at the end of a line is distinct from the one at the end of the last line. Each one is a new spring driving the watch. "The Nightfly" is one of those records where you don't just sing along with the songs. You play the arrangements with your eyebrows and the drums with your extremities.

But then you would, wouldn't you, because you've lived with it for thirty years. That record is imprinted in you because you've heard it so much. No new record by Donald Fagen or Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty or anyone else who was making records back in the mid-70s is ever going to be listened to as intently as the records that made their names. Elvis Costello still talks passionately about the day he bought Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and took it home to his dad's place in Twickenham where he listened to it so hard he almost took the shine off it. "I'll never listen to music that way again."

In his book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember Nicholas Carr argues that the human brain changes all the time and that in recent years the internet has re-routed our neural pathways. I wish he'd do something similar about what repeated exposure to the same music does to us. It must change us. Repeated listening must make us different. The people who heard the first performances of Beethoven's works expected to never hear those works again in their lives. I've heard the great records of Donald Fagen literally thousands of times. I've heard them far more than Donald Fagen will have heard them. (The reason Paul McCartney's backing band can do the Beatles so well is that they've spent thousands of hours listening to Beatle records. Paul McCartney never did.)

Whenever an old favourite releases a new album some of the reviewers want to persuade us the artist has got the old magic back. They always list the familiar ingredients: the choruses, the hooks, the sense of purpose which has apparently returned. The laundry list of qualities is the first refuge of the rock critic who can't really think of anything to say. Lists move in when love moves out. After a while they don't play it anymore, which is the only review that really counts. What he should say is what he's probably found himself saying back in the dim and distant past when other affairs came to a natural end. It's not you. It's me.