The Pleasures of Indulgence
oulseeking is a regular column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.
I'm fortunate that Nick's “The Perfect Listener” diptych has recently been the focus of Soulseeking, as he brings up an issue that I want to use this space to be totally perverse about. To paraphrase social scientist Barry Schwartz unlimited choice can produce genuine suffering. In the past a person could have, with varying degrees of difficulty and obsession, kept up with every (for example) rock record being released in a given year. Then, for a while, you could at least make a credible claim for keeping up with all the “important” releases (by whatever metric you'd like to employ), but you'd be hard pressed to argue that those days persisted into the 80's, let alone more recently.
We're all drowning in music. Part of this sensation may be the result of personal history; in my case, I came into my purchasing power seemingly just as the amount of available music exploded into infinity (and not just thanks to Napster). There are whole other columns to be written on how you could or should react to this, but I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about really big albums. Not just double, not even triple, but massive albums, chock full of songs, hours of them.
It started with receiving Joy Division’s Heart and Soul box set for my birthday. All four discs went onto my iPod for airing at work and for about a week I found it difficult to listen to anything else. It was an almost embarrassingly luxuriant experience, immersing myself in just one band, multiple versions of songs, poring over every last scrap. I was able to just let the discs play—I was going to listen to them repeatedly, so I didn't always have to be paying full attention. But I realize now I was still treating those four discs as discrete albums, as thing to be experienced in one chunk; I hadn't gone far enough.
Next I dug out my copy of the Caretaker's Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia. Those who remember the justly enthusiastic review of the album here at Stylus may be wondering how, or why, I own a copy; wasn't the whole thing free to download? It was, and is, but James at V/Vm took the risky step of releasing a special edition of the whole shebang; 6 CDs (ranging from 37 to 44 minutes long) in a jumbo DVD case, complete with liner notes and artwork. It's the sort of project that only breaks even, and there's plenty to say about why I care so much about possessing the absolutely lovely music as an object as well as just on my computer, but the basic point is: It's too long. Not only is it too long, such is the hauntingly blurred nature of the music therein that it doesn't make much sense to decide you're going to haul out disc four today because that's what you're in the mood for. Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia defeats attempts to engage with it as a traditionally conceived album; really, all you can do is put the whole thing on, hit the “shuffle” button, and see what happens.
This, even more so than Heart and Soul, was tremendously freeing. Nothing relaxes the album-obsessed mind quite so much as loading up three hours of music with no lyrics or much other audibly human activity to focus on, and just soaking it up for as long as you can bear. Functionally, even if I wanted to queue up all of the “Memories” on the Caretaker discs in the “proper” order, the experience would be close to listening to it on random. The sheer impossibility of judging the music is part of the appeal—either you like and understand the sound, or you don't, and in the former case with the shuffle and repeat buttons the experience can last as long as you want.
Once again I felt irresponsible, but as good as the Caretaker is I hadn't reached the limit of my newfound appreciation of albums too big to grapple with in traditional fashion. Luckily a while back I was sent a rather unique item going by the name of Open Book: The Collected Thunderegg 1995-2004. It's not really an album so much as a succession of them, eight records and 213 songs crammed onto one data CD. All of that music is primarily the work of one Will Georgantas. Thunderegg was and is now a band, but much of Open Book are demos record by Georgantas, not to mention the band's similarly interesting project to post a free song a week during 2005. The music is very different than the Caretaker, of course; fairly standard bedroom indie pop/rock, with the sheer scope of the project allowing Georgantas to go in as many directions as he'd like to, from whimsy to grandiosity and back again.
It's still pretty easy to tell tracks from the more polished The Envelope Pushes Back from the more fragmentary likes of Powder to the People or New England Music. But it's also clearly the same group of guys, and given the rather drastic range of each album it's not hard to think of any random play-through of Open Book as its own album. I haven't assimilated the bulk of the compilation yet, and maybe I never will, but the great benefit of dipping into Open Book is that this no longer bugs me. There's some beautiful, raucous, funny, touching stuff in there, and the more obsessive compulsive/fannish parts of me wants to atomize the whole collection until I can discern which bits I like the best. But that part is slowly loosening up when faced with the blunt fact of 523 minutes of music.
And happily, that effect seems to be trickling down, part of the great slow thaw of my listening habits. When you consider that we can no longer be on top of things, you can retreat into creating what Nick called a “retirement fund of cultural artifacts,” you can make yourself miserable striving to keep up, or you can start to let go and care more about whether you like what you're listening to than if your listening is somehow “complete.” The latter is the happiest and healthiest option; it's not as if I suddenly hate albums, I was raised rockist and I'll probably always use them as my primary unit of listening, but I feel less and less as if I have to “keep up” with the overwhelming number of them that get produced.
The likes of Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia and Open Book are wonderful listens in themselves, yes, but the freedom engendered by music's existence as a digital thing which allows these kinds of sprawling assemblies to be put together perversely enough also allows them to be freeing to the listener. If a fair bit of loving music enough to read about it as well as listen to it is stepping back occasionally to just appreciate it, these sorts of albums are the mountains we climb to appreciate our sea level lives, the fasts we take to whet our appetites, the long strange trips we take to come back home. Both immersive aesthetic affairs and palate cleansers, they're not the sort of thing the 10-CD-a-year person wants or needs, but to those of us toiling in the trenches out of love, I cannot recommend the experience highly enough.