2005 Year End Thoughts
Wallace (Not Sufjan)
am only too pleased to realize that irascibility and impatience are virtues I’ll acquire as I age, but an attraction to minimalism is one for which I’ll gladly pay any price. “A clear day and no memories,” Wallace Stevens once wrote, and he was right; “Human beings cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot wrote, and he was wrong. A blankness of the spirit accompanying a clear day. A book annotated and returned to its shelf. A stack of CD’s reviewed and discarded.
2005 was the year when the shadow-world of online journalism (specifically, blogs) dominated my life with an intensity I had previously reserved for criticism itself. Opportunities to hear more music multiplied. Thanks to new technology we could e-mail albums instead of relying on the U.S. Postal Service. In short, there was more good music than ever, and it was easier than ever to access it. This is to be deplored.
As the obstacles (not having money; failure to make record company contacts) receded, leaving this surfeit of aural pleasure to ponder with thousands of listeners we’ll never see, I started to balk. How much is too much? A few weeks ago the music editor of a big weekly confessed with an almost weary defiance that, at his estimation, he had listened to almost 600 albums this year alone. The mind reels.
The truth is, parsing music pales before the banalities we take for granted. Let me rephrase this: the process of absorbing art refreshes us for the banalities we take for granted. With what joy—a joy that can only be described as cathartic—did I anticipate meeting an old friend at our local dive, using a powerful new cleanser on the bathtub, or returning to the marvelous new Hold Steady album after slogging through the likes of Wolf Eyes and Sufjan Stevens, both of whose well-regarded albums suffered from the most common and debilitating of indie-rock flaws: a reluctance to court what Wallace Stevens (again) called the malady of the quotidian. In short, you don’t get a sense that these artists ever enjoy sex. Their fingernails are pared and clean. The youthful callowness of one and the megalomania nibbling at the self-absorption of the other repulses instead of fascinates. They don’t enjoy Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen.” In Sufjan Stevens’ case, he cleverly, touchingly, tried to hide the void in his songs with singing and arrangements that were overwrought if not hysterical. The mind reels. Why the hell should I give them my time when they won’t give the world time?
Had we but world enough and time…but we don’t. As summer turned to fall I started to resist buying and listening to new music. There was simply too much of it. Eschewing my responsibilities as a critic I preferred the company of the Go-Betweens and “We Belong Together”—older new music in which I found new wrinkles and surprises. This went double for my favorite films: A History of Violence, Grizzly Man, Brokeback Mountain, The Squid & The Whale. I wanted to listen over and over to these favorites. Surely we can find room for this leisureely kind of criticism. Often we critics worry more about meeting deadlines than honing a sentence of descriptive prose so that it honors the dictum to observe art with a cold, clear eye instead of bowing to the exigencies of a marketplace we profess to scorn. Sure, I’m always ready to discard my prejudices at the right moment (I dig that Antony and the Johnsons album, which on paper sounds like the most dreadful diva shit); ysi remains an invaluable ally, but let us be realistic: the daydream will vanish as soon as the next batch of promos arrives. And rightly so. I never said that yearning for impatience would be easy.