Sunday, December 27, 2009

"I used to think it was a bad thing to be prolific..." Thoughts on listeners reception of "prolific" artists versus "sporadic" artists

"Continue...and continue..." -a conversation with Josh Malerman

“Don’t you stress out about missing some golden moment?”

Don’t we all.

It’s a random Monday night, pocketed into a quiet indeterminate time of the year, before the snow falls but the air still tinged with that dagger chill. Josh Malerman and I are at the bar, still bundled, taking sips the same way we’re subconsciously ticking down what few remaining days there are in the year. I tell him how I’m getting deep into those year-end list assignments that some of the various culture screeds I write for require annually, top albums, top songs, and he starts asking me questions.

“How do you start a review? How do you listen? Volume levels? Headphones?”

It bounces back and forth. He is intrigued because my confessions will give him insight into his attackers and admirers, as he sings and plays guitar for a rock n roll band (The High Strung) and has written numerous albums. Combine that with his dozen books that he’s written – and one can understand that, as a creator, he is curious as to the approach critics and listeners take, when they are unpacking his, or any artist’s work.

I tell him that, looking back, there were quite a few decent albums that came out this year – I just hadn’t realized it until now, since, in the heat of it, while I was writing two, three, sometimes four reviews every week, some got lost in the shuffle – and, frankly, needed more of my time.

“I’d be worried that I would miss something…” Josh admits, and I acknowledge that that is always the risk. A lot of these magazine writers, bloggers, what-have-yous are often just whisking through albums these days, rushing through to post it on Web sites with a few MP3’s attached and a few barbed or beloved sentences delivered in what they perceive to be hybrid demeanors of snarky and charming.

“It’s so easy to just gloss over it, simplify it, prematurely wrap it up and label it,” I tell him, giving whatever crumbs of wisdom I could offer from some years of writing music reviews and knowing full well what I and many are guilty of – sometimes out of deadline pressure, but sometimes out of laziness.

But good, useful criticism is far from dead.

Because, while those bloggers who criminally casted off Malerman’s band’s most recent effort as a neo-hippie Grateful Dead-esque lovey pop thing is eating at him, - just as my consciousness of so many of my fellow critics reading things so differently than I would, or my own admitted mis-reads are eating away at me, - we still know, Josh and I, that many writers out there not only get it right, but are able to sufficiently dive into a work and qualify it perceptively.

Stressed by all the exasperating work of re-writes and phone calls he’s had to whirl through in the run-up to the publishing of one of his books, (his first official publication out of ten or so other manuscripts), he sips his whisky and sets it down before declaring, that if it’s this much of a headache’s worth of work to get a book ready, then all I can think of when looking at all the other things I have written is all the re-writing I’ll have to do…

And he wonders aloud, in not so many words, is being prolific a curse or a blessing?

“I used to think it was a bad thing…” he says, “to be prolific. But, now I’m not so sure. Now, I think it’s a good thing.”

“Maybe it is,” I offer. “But, then again…I’ve purposely been not writing as much as I was six months ago. And, ya know, that’s…mostly just because I wanted a bit of a break. But then again, I was worried, sometimes, that writing so many articles each week was straining my writing.”

“Maybe. There is that risk…maybe,” he says.

“But then,” I say, finishing the gin, “I just read something I wrote from six months ago, in the heat of all that blurring ballyhoo, and, I gotta say, unabashedly, it must be one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written. Not that I usually like my own stuff, but yeah, it was actually not bad.”

“See! That’s it, I think…working so much, so steadily, it strains the exercise of the writing, but not the writing itself.”

“Yeah, you just feel tired, mostly.”

“But that doesn’t mean the writing becomes tired…”

“But it can, there’s no way you could go through all that and not put out something halfhearted, at least once or twice. I mean, here we are, the fifth or sixth record review of the week…you start saying, ah well – it sounds like new wave revival, or it sounds like post-punk…”

He references Isaac Asimov and how he wrote or edited upwards to 500 books.

But how many of them were masterpieces? Honestly? Out of 500 shots, do his “masterpieces” also reach the double digits, I mean, are even 100 of those 500 so harrowing and inspiring? No? Yes? C’mon, is he even good enough for 1 out of 5? And, how many of them are revered by his fans – and, for that matter, perhaps most germane to our rant, how many of his fans have read everything he’s ever touched?

How many fans of prolific artists keep up with all their prolific-ness?

The conversation drifts towards Bob Pollard, singer/songwriter from Dayton Ohio, founder/leader of lo-fi-indie-rock godfathers Guided By Voices, of whom I consider myself a great fan (even though I don’t own everything he’s ever done) and whom Josh, also, considers himself a fan, but, can, unlike me, provide special insight into the man as an artist, having toured with him a couple times in the last few years.

In the last 15 years, Pollard has released more than fifteen solo recordings and three EP’s, as well as, if we count that latter part of the 90’s and early 00’s, seven other whole albums with Guided By Voices. (This is not counting the late 80’s and early 90’s…)

“And, I feel like people knock him down for that, or just completely disregard him,” Josh says, shaking his head. “Like, ‘Oh, here’s another one from this guy…’ And next year, it’s just, ‘Here’s another…’

"But he continues making great, I would probably enjoy whatever the 2nd record that (Pollard) released in the second half of 2007, or whatever, -more than the latest Fleet Foxes record...which is hailed as a masterpiece."

“You’re right…” I offer, “often when Pollard pops up on indie-mags or blog radars, he is given the usual pap and press-release rigmarole and hailed as the creator of the most highly beloved or acclaimed GBV records, like Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand, but the new, latest, of-the-moment-works are often glossed over with this air of, ‘Yeah, this guy was great, or, I mean, still is great, yeah, wasn’t Bee Thousand just so great? Um, this new one is good, some songs sound like Guided By Voices songs, and those songs are good, or those songs fell flat, or…’ And on and on…”

“So, why should being prolific automatically mean you’re disregarded?”

The effect is curious – the implication that if a creator is creating consistently – be it a writer, or a musician, in our case – like, say, one major work a year, that it is too much or too fast for most critics to give themselves over to the work. One year’s output is glossed over with comparisons to last year’s output or shrugged off based on the assumption that the artist will likely have something out the next year, and the year after that, so why waste so much breath exploring all the rooms and detailing all the intricacies of this momentary statement.

Whereas another artist, and many are offered up in our conversation, who only debuts a new work every three or even four years, has the effect, deserved or not, of momentousness. This can, deceptively, create the air of a toiling genius; but one has to wonder how much toiling is actually going on – whilst I can talk to Josh or Josh can tell me about Pollard, about their insane, nigh-regimented approaches to daily writing.

But, to play off of that – listeners and critics easily delude themselves into thinking that it’s just the batting of the eyes for these prolific artists to just sit down and spit something out – thus, the risk of disregard. Like, it’s not a struggle for you, prolific artist, so why should we struggle in dissecting your work…?

We speak about missing something, anything, a moment, or even a whole song, when the critic blurs through album reviews. But what about for listeners trying to tackle the prolifics? We’re going to miss tons just because they continue…and continue.

But is that a bad thing? Well…that’s when the “Auteur theory” comes into play and we start pitting the strengths and weaknesses of a Woody Allen against a Quentin Tarantino

The idea behind the auteur theory, (as I quasi-haughtily whip out my scribbled notes sponged from my college minor in film studies) is that a director’s work, his whole body of work, or, if you’ll excuse the continued snoot, his “oeuvre,” will maintain their signature style, a continued reflection, or further evolution of their creative vision. To put it bluntly, you know what a Quentin Tarantino film, or Woody Allen film, or Wes Anderson film, or Alfred Hitchcock film will feel like, what characteristics it will have, certain camera angles, long takes, zooms, slo-mos, certain emphases upon soundtrack or point-of-view shots, certain dialogue traits, etc etc… You know because, through their work, you’ve gotten to feel like you know these men, you know their personalities – because their work maintains their signature.

For film and for music – it starts to reveal strange psychological quirks of the listener, as fan, as homebound critic, as digester of culture, to want to consume the artist whole, to obtain a full 360-degree vision of the artist, to compartmentalize them, set up walls for them, define them, know all their works and say – this is it, this is he and this is what he has done and these are his traits and that summarizes my appreciation.

This is much more obtainable when the artist only creates sporadically – like Quentin Tarantino, like Radiohead, like Fleet Foxes – thus that the listener is able to, essentially, “keep up,” and is given time to digest and define. Granted, the works of those named, and many others are often considerably staggering in artistic value and are not without equally staggering fanfare and various other trumpeting from blogs or culture rags or whatever…When they debut their work, veritable red carpets of excitement roll out, the work debuts, people devour it and it is then boxed and defined.

The flipside, for the prolifics, like Woody Allen, who, still past age 70, releases about one film a year, are still able to be defined by their “signature” style, but it is not given the proper fanfare, nor is it properly acknowledged when they do venture out of comfort zones – (for Allen, most recently with the considerably dark “Match Point,” low-key, character study, free of neurotic-themed comedy of past works, and free of the director’s almost traditional self-placed acting role – and with a shocking, flat-out haunting, unsettling, but above-all-provocative, ending.)

A movie like this risks being disregarded because it is “just another” movie from Woody Allen. Well, technically, “In Rainbows” is just another album from Radiohead – but would it have made it so high on a recent NME decade reflective list had it not been for it’s over-built stunt of being offered at a name-your-own-price digital download? “Inglorious Basterds” is just another movie from Quentin Tarantino, but the box office successes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill guarantee a media machine to glitz-ify any produced trailer for the film to make it into an exciting action-packed blood-stained WWII epic thus that it, supernaturally, speaks to that weird organ in our guts that drives us to engulf the works of “hip” artists so that we can, in a weird way, conquer them.

I conquered In Rainbows and Inglorious Basterds so that I could feel hip, and then spread this hipness through conversation – as it is that most of our chats at bars or coffee shops or when we catch up with old friends, revolve around, ‘So, seen any good movies lately?’ Or, ‘So, whatchya been listenin to?’

The more obscure you're answer, like, say, the 2nd album Pollard released somewhere in the 2nd half of 2007...doesn't quite further conversation and, in fact, probably makes you look like either some militant lover of avant-garde, or as some adversarial evader of mainstream culture, or makes you look like some loser who spends too much time on his lab top reading Wikipedia, or downloading mp3's from equally obscure blogs who love other weird things just because no one's ever heard of it...

Oh, it’s a mess…

But the real tragedy always goes back to – yes, we will miss something, some golden moment, we will miss a lot.

With the prolifics, we will miss even more. And that bothers us.

Shouldn’t we, in some way, rejoice, that there is simply so much, so much out there, to take in; that you could spend a whole year listening to nothing but Pollard’s works during the day and watching Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchock movies at night (and maybe filtering in a few of Josh’s albums and manuscripts) and you’d always have art to take in…Or do you drown in the prolifics if you start swimming too deep?

It’s not far from a butterfly collection, or even baseball cards…A smaller collection of butterflies (the insects being the works of the artist) is made to seem more valuable when it is more flamboyant, flashy, overly dramatic and strategically formed from a hybrid replication of past styles…but a larger collection of random Pollards or Neil Youngs becomes deluded. There’s another: take Neil Young, for example…his most renowned albums still include his earliest works – and yet the man is still a living legend and wherever he goes he receives his due regard; yet newer works are often shrugged or given undue reflection.

Do artists wear out their welcome and suddenly become like houseguests – still hanging around, where you still feel an obligation to them but you just don’t pour as much love or effort upon each new reentrance into the living room of your mind?

I don’t know. You tell me…

We’ll miss something from many, but somehow we chose not to miss anything from some…

That plays upon the other psychological quirk of listeners/fans/critics needing something to revere, a god-like figure like a Beatles, a Dylan or a Hendrix to point to as, what?, proof?, that genius still exists in this post-everything generation…? Why are we always looking for the next Beatles? What’s the use? Do we just want to recreate Beatle-mania? Do we just want another album to make us feel like Sgt. Peppers made us feel?

Josh and Pollard and Young and Allen and Jarmusch and Vonnegut and many more, will not make you feel like Sgt. Pepper made you feel, and you’ll be out of place to scream at them like schoolgirls when they step off the plane from their own Liverpools, but they will make you feel more, if just given the chance.

And while it will either be exasperating to take in all their works, or, just plain impossible, they should still be given the chance.

It might be worthwhile to ponder that old saying, that an artist’s work is never finished, merely abandoned.

Should artist’s be strategic, and aim for spectacle? Try to spur spectacle? Or should they merely create, free from showy agenda, merely create…and continue…and continue again?

(thanks for reading)

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Great stuff, Jeff. I love the thought you put into things - that sounds like a great converstation!