Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Universal Truths And How Records Don't Owe Me Anything

I’ve written about Mark Kozelek’s songwriting before. I have expressed my doubts over the direction his writing has taken in recent years and I have to admit that at his Union Chapel show in 2013, I was ready to write off his next album completely. But, as it turned out, “Benji” was a good record. It was in keeping with the nylon string guitar and spiel of events style of songwriting that Kozelek has insisted upon for the last few years, but in songs such as “Carrisa” some of the emotional depth that had been missing from his more recent tracks had been restored. There were feelings being expressed rather than just a long list of events. It offered me some hope that maybe Kozelek had found sturdier ground in this new song writing territory. I had hopes that this might lead to more considered lyrics or even a move towards his earlier, more traditional style of writing.

With the release of “Universal Truths” however, my confidence is again shaken. Not only is the album another string of events record, which many reviewers are comparing to pages of a diary put to words, but Kozelek seems to have given up on the performance of the songs as well. Throughout the record his vocals are near indecipherable. The opening track even has sections where double tracked vocals are out of time with each other so it sounds like there are several people trying to drown everyone else out. The fact that this record was written and produced within a year of “Benji”, a year where Kozelek has been busy making a fool of himself and arguing with anyone and everyone, shows. All in all, I’m not impressed and it seems that I’m not alone. I enjoyed “Benji”, I enjoyed the joint album he did with The Album Leaf and if he was to produce material of that quality, I would be ok with that. But what do I really want? Honestly, I want a return to the days of “Carry Me Ohio” or even the later day murder-ballad beauty of “You Missed My Heart”. That’s what I’d really like to hear. 
But that’s my problem. Because I paid nothing for this album. I haven’t stolen it from a download site, I didn’t get an advance copy. I don’t own a copy of it at all. But it’s free to listen to on the Sun Kil Moon website. So in listening to this album, I have really lost nothing except the time it took, which I gave up freely. To my mind, when I’m in a situation like this, I can’t be angry at the artist. Yes, he has made a record that does not live up to my expectations of him, but what does that matter? Ultimately if he is happy with this record and is willing to make it available to people to listen to for free ahead of release, then he has fulfilled every criteria he needs to in order to make an album and make it available for purchase. This is one of the great advantages of being a music fan in the internet age. You get to try before you buy. 

In the years before the internet, putting out an album that may or may not be what is expected was a serious risk for both band and label. There was a lot at stake. You had to invest serious money into getting physical copies pressed, distributed and marketed. Then people had to part with their hard earned money to buy them. Putting out an album like “Universal Truths” just a few decades ago would have been a big gamble. There would be a backlash, as there is now. But when people are asked to pay for a record, without hearing it first, as you were back then, does that not then mean that the artist needs to live up to at least some of the expectation? There is no denying that creative freedom and artistic control are important and an artist should be allowed to produce work they feel is truthful to their ideas. But when you are asking people to pay money to purchase that work, for all intents and purposes, on good faith, should you not take the audience into account? I think so. I also think that now that that good faith agreement has been removed from the equation, due to the changes in music consumption caused by the internet, artists have less of a responsibility to cater to the audience with their recordings. Also, because music is so readily available for nothing, smaller artists and even not so small ones are making less money from recorded music all the time. So, if we’re not going to pay people for their work, don’t we at least owe them their creative freedom? How can we demand product for free and then be upset that it’s not what we want, especially when there is so much else out there?

So does all this mean “music was better before the internet because you had to try harder”? No, I don’t think so. Music hasn’t got worse; it’s just become less valuable, because it’s more readily available and far cheaper. Music is a subjective thing. Its worth as art is fluid and all dependent on who is listening. There are still great bands and artists making great music and there always will be. But music is now much easier to produce and distribute. If you have access to the internet, you have a way in which to create and distribute your own music. Without all the risks involved, without the costs and the obstacles, making and distributing music has become an open field that artists have rightly taken advantage of.

We now live in a world where, if you don’t particularly like one album, there will probably be 2 or 3 that came out in the last week that you will love. This is why good music criticism is more important now than ever. Because there is so much out there that you need someone you trust to guide you. To tell you which albums you might like if you liked, this one. But that could be a whole conversation on it’s own. I think it’s great that pretty much every taste is catered to with such great ease now. But that ease does come with a price.

One of the paradoxes of the internet is that it gives people the freedom to express themselves in a multitude of ways but it also invites apathy through attainability. The fact that music is so easily attainable does mean that when you find a record you love, the victory is a little less sweet because you didn’t need to fight so hard. You didn’t have to know a guy who told you what obscure rock magazine to read to see what albums were coming out that month, save up for the album or even go to a record store to buy it. You just had to go on spotify and type a word or two. Or click a link. And that’s amazing. But it does mean that the onus is now on you to build that connection. You have to really pay attention to the music you love, invest your time in it. Make it mean something to you.

Of course you can have opinions on records. In fact, you should, because music doesn’t mean much if it stirs no emotions in you at all. But no artist owes you anything in this day and age where his or her music can be heard for little to nothing. I’m never going to love “Universal Truths”, but I’ll find other records this year that I love, and still don’t have to pay for. As long as Mark Kozelek is happy with the record then it’s really achieved its purpose. He’s the one that put in the work making it. All I had to do was listen for an hour, for free.

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