Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Classic Album I Can't Stand

Writer’s block is a frustrating thing, even for someone like me who manages to produce approximately one piece of writing every two months, give or a take a few weeks. So, in an attempt to defog my brain, I spent that last six months listening to every album in my collection.

The results of this often-harrowing, sometimes-rewarding, and borderline-psychotic undertaking? A deeper understanding of the threads that connect all music from one era to the next? An epiphany of epic proportions that revealed a universal truth that could unite humankind through music?

Not quite.

The one discovery I made is this: There is one classic album that I really, really cannot stand. Now before I explain my reasons and infuriate at least a few readers, several disclaimers:
• What is considered a “classic” album was left entirely to my choosing. It’s my mediocre article, dammit.
• I only listened to albums when I was in either in a good mood (best case) or neutral mood (usual case). My opinions of these albums were not framed by me being pissed off, angry, or pop-a-pill depressed.
• Anything Dylan-related was excluded from consideration, not because I think everything Dylan did was great (Empire Burlesque dispels that belief), but because I am not willing to subject myself to email floods from Dylanphiles across the globe telling me to do things to myself that are physically impossible. Like real floods, email floods from Dylanphiles often contain garbage, filth, dead animals, and a fair amount of smelly shit.
• “Untouchable” classic albums were also excluded, as I am not willing to argue that London Calling sucks just to be a bastard. What are “untouchable” albums? Basically they are albums that I consider to be as nearly perfect as possible. This means that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Marquee Moon, This Year’s Model, Murmur, Swordfishtrombones, The Modern Dance, and Born Sandy Devotional were excluded, among others.
• Any classic album that has historically either been greatly loved or adamantly despised was taken out of consideration. Those albums have already been both praised and condemned enough. This essentially means anything by 1970s Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, or King Crimson.
• Recent albums that are highly praised right now (like The Arcade Fire’s Funeral) or that critics and fans are currently busy jizzing themselves over (like The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls In America) were excluded. Not because these albums are not classic albums (I love both of them), but because not enough time has passed to give such albums a fair (or brutal) assessment.
• I’ve assigned an arbitrary cutoff date of 1999 for this article. Why 1999? Because I’m keeping open the possibility of writing another article about the classic album from this century that I can’t stand.

So without further invective, here are the finalists:
• The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds. Just kidding. Let’s move on.
• The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s generally considered the first concept album (which isn’t correct, but anyway), a sub-genre that has given the world the good (Berlin), the bad (parts of The Wall), and the abysmal (the remaining parts of The Wall). For that reason alone, it merits inclusion in this list.
• Black Flag, Damaged. What seemed like righteous adolescent anger and frustration years ago now seems like whining, petty adolescent anger and frustration. Or maybe Henry Rollins’ descent into the spoken word circuit has soured me on this album.
• David Bowie, Low. Despite pitchforkmedia.com’s gushing praise of this album (it even topped that website’s list of the best 100 albums of the 1970s), too much of this album’s synth tones sound dated to me.
• The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace. I am told that I cannot like Slanted and Enchanted if I don’t like this album. Well, I have listened to this album a dozen times, and I still think it sucks. And I still think Pavement ruled.
• MC5, Kick Out The Jams. Bombastic crotch-rock and simplistic, na├»ve political statements. I still do not understand why this group has been canonized as crucial precursors of punk.
• T Rex, Electric Warrior. I know the album’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but I can’t listen to this album without getting bored or most definitely wanting to avoid banging a gong (and getting it on, unfortunately).
• XTC, Skylarking. Maybe the album is too British for me. Or maybe the album sounds too much like a bunch of mediocre Talking Heads’ outtakes.

And the winner is: T Rex, Electric Warrior.

I listened to this album once. Then twice. Complete indifference. I waited a couple weeks and listened to it a few more times. I listened to it with my full attention, listened to it as background music, listened to it at the gym, listened to it in the car, and I still could not get on board with it. Maybe it’s because I’m not an androgynous, horny, British pixie. Maybe it’s because I missed the entire Glam Rock era. Maybe it’s the ridiculous album title (an Electric Warrior….look out for that searing guitar!). Or maybe it’s because it’s impossible not to think of Spinal Tap when looking at the album cover.

Whatever the reason, I cannot convince myself to like this album. And it’s not that I just don’t like this album; the more I listen to it, the more and more I truly despise it. The lyrics seem meaningless, a sleazy vacuum of empty words, and the instrumentation sounds dated to a specific, short-lived, and – Ziggy Stardust excepted – forgotten era in music history. And I’m told that lyrics and instrumentation are approximately 100% of a song.

One of my coworkers, a fellow unrepentant sick music junkie, tells me that Electric Warrior is one of the boldest, most creative albums of the 1970s, and that I’m missing the point. According to him, the album challenged gender roles in the early 1970s, questioned standards of both male and female sexual expression, and served as an important link to such gender-bending groups as the New York Dolls.

Of course, he and his wife occasionally wear feather boas and platform shoes to concerts. Me, I’m shelving my Marc Bolan wardrobe until my opinion of Electric Warrior changes.