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.


  1. Good article, but I think the "lack of catchy tunes" thing on Sunken Condos is a pretty big deal. We might not give new records the same attention or time, but also The Nightfly is just... better.

  2. What a fascinating conundrum

    I know my era is slightly different to yours (1981 and 1991 being my greatest years rather 1971) but I can remember my 1981 favourites, Echo and the Bunnymen coming back in 1997 and I couldn't listen to it

    Then some years later, relistening to the entire back catalogue, I realised the 1997 incarnation was as good as the original 1980s one.

    So it maybe you have to wait another 20 years and listen to everything in retrospect but I think psychologically you are primed to only like things fresh, after that we are bored, like yesterday's dinner.

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  4. David, excellent piece of writing. For nine years I worked as a CD reviewer for one of Belgium's biggest weeklies. Reviewing albums is a strange job and, in my opinion, a little overrated. The problem is, it's not a normal way of enjoying music.

    How did it go in my case? Every week I got a pile of CDs in my mailbox. If there were no big names that HAD to be reviewed, then a first listen decided which I would be writing about and which not (a method that works against music that needs time to grow, but you can't listen and review everything) and then - over the next few days - I listened a dozen times to the CD of my choice, often with pen and paper beside me. When I was about to write the actual review, I had heard the album so often that I never wanted to hear it again.

    The latter is something I only observed some time after I quit doing CD reviews. One day I went through the 200+ reviews I had written and while many were very positive, the vast majority of the albums had never returned to my CD player anymore after writing the review. Not even those I had praised and hailed with 5 stars... So, how great were they really?
    I took the test. I selected some of these 5-star records and listened to them again. Sure, I could still hear what I liked about them when I wrote the review, but none of them sounded as brilliant as I had written - they had all lost at least 2 of their 5 stars. The albums in my collection that I keep playing and continue to enjoy, are never records I reviewed.

    It's been four years since I quit as a CD reviewer and it feels like a relief. I returned to recording my own music - which I already did before I started writing about music - and though I like it when people give my stuff a good review, I've stopped bothering about it.

  5. Michael. In the end I think that the only thing that really matters is a catchy tune. Problem is that doesn't fill a 700-word hole on a reviews spread.

  6. A question: if you heard The Nightly for the first time now would it be as amazing to you as it is because you've lived with it for thirty years, or would it be no more notable than Sunken Condos?

    Its not just repeated listening that changes your perception on a piece of music but all the other music you hear over that period of time. Perhaps there was something about The Nightly that resonated with your younger self in a way that it couldn't if you heard it for the first time now? There was a point in my thirties when jazz suddenly just clicked with me. At a stroke all the music I listened to had as its context not just the blues, punk and rock that I love but Emily Remler, Miles Davis and Birelli Lagrene. My old favourites remain my favourites because the bond between us is so strong but I can't help wonder if PiL and The Fall, early U2 and The Clash might not seem just a little less brilliant had I discovered jazz at 13, not 33.

    Nice, thought-provoking article.

  7. Well, House Seller, we'll never know. I can no more wish away the last forty years of listening than I can any other aspect of my life. I suspect, however, that anyone who only encountered Donald Fagen with this new record would go back to The Nightfly and think it was better.

  8. I also think there's a lot down to the mental & emotional intensity that is particular (usually) to younger beings.

    I particularly liked your phrase;

    "Lists move in when love moves out."

    Is that from something, or did you invent it? I think it's a 'genuine truism'.

  9. Problem is, some artists who agree with you may just give up making records because they've already done The One. And that would be a shame.

  10. Hi. I think Tom Petty may be the exception to the rule. I loved the Mojo album from a couple of years ago every bit as much as I adored his debut 30 plus years ago. He still writes excellent melodic songs and if anything his sound is a bit more ballsy these days...

  11. Lemmy once truculently replied to a star struck interviewer - "the pro.blem with being a living legend is that no-one wants to buy your new record"

  12. Even David, excellent writer that he is, is entitle to one way-off-the-mark review.

    Sunken Condos is so hooky and catchy to myself and every Steely Dan fan I know. How can you say "I'm Not The Same Without You," "Miss Marlene," "The Weater In My Head," "Out of The Ghetto"...well I could on and on aren't catcht? They are stuck in my head. Maybe "Planet D'Rhonda" took a couple of listens. Actually, if anything, I think it's flaw might be that's more catchy than Nightfly--and I have like 25 copies of that album. Maybe "Sunken Condos" is a little too hooky.

    Moreover, your essay suggests the question, if Sunken Condos was Donald's first album ever (solo or otherwise) would you become a fan. YES! Definitely! Huge Van Morrison fan, but can't say I'd be a fan if his first album was his current album, "Born To Sing, No Plan B."

    Here's hoping you get a new sound system, David. That's the only reason I can come up with that you didn't think the songs were catchy.