Endurance Like the Liberty Bell

Robert Pollard

The last post I wrote was about Crack-Up, a Fleet Foxes album that came out six years after the one before it. I mentioned that I applauded lead singer Robin Pecknold for making a decision to quit music for a while and returning with a renewed sense of himself. That approach allowed him to create what I think is his best album.

Looking for the opposite approach to a six-year hiatus? Check out Robert Pollard.

Robert Pollard is the lead singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter of a band called Guided By Voices. Pollard releases a lot of music. That’s actually a gross understatement. Guided By Voices’ debut album was released in 1987. Since that time, the band has released about 45 albums, and each album averages about 15-20 songs. So let’s say Guided By Voices has released over 800 songs on studio albums since 1987. But that’s not all! Pollard also releases music under his own name. Robert Pollard the solo act has released roughly 25 albums since the mid-1990s. Those albums average around 15-20 songs, as well. So let’s say Robert Pollard has released about 400 songs as Robert Pollard and about 800 as Guided By Voices. That’s 1,200 songs just on the studio albums alone. Then there’s all the EPs, the non-album singles, and the endless list of bands with which Pollard plays on a regular basis. It’s staggering to think about.

Unsurprisingly, Pollard isn’t really a meticulous guy. A lot of his songs are under 2 minutes long. On the most famous Guided By Voices album, Bee Thousand, six of the songs are under a minute-and-a-half. It’s probably more accurate to call Pollard’s songs ideas. They’re just musical ideas, and he presents them to his audience for as long as he feels like they’re interesting.

And he doesn’t necessarily seem to care how well he presents his ideas. On the first Bee Thousand song, “Hardcore UFO’s,” the guitarist stops playing for about 10 seconds, and it’s definitely an accident. Maybe he dropped his pick or something, but there are ten seconds where there should be guitar and instead you just hear drums and tape hiss, until the guitarist resumes playing and the band pushes on to the end of the song. I don’t know many bands that would release a take like that, but for Pollard it was good enough.

It’s hard not to respect a musician who places such little importance on presentation. I hope it doesn’t sound like I think Pollard is a lazy songwriter, because the fact is I think the opposite. I think Pollard is so confident in his songwriting skills, and so passionate about the idea of making music, that he simply doesn’t care about the imperfections in song structure and musicianship that most other people care about. The ideas are what he wants to present to people.

One of the coolest things about music is that both Pecknold and Pollard entertain me to no end. Two guys with seemingly opposite approaches to songwriting achieve essentially the same result. Their songs stick in my head and make me happy that I have the ability to hear.

Both these guys clearly love making music. Pollard clearly loves making music or else he wouldn’t write 1,200 songs. Pecknold clearly loves making music or else he wouldn’t put so much effort and time into each one of his slightly fewer than 1,200 songs.

I think the takeaway from Pollard and Pecknold is just that: the only pre-requisite for making good music, or good anything really, is to truly like doing it.

Process be damned.

Biding Your Time

Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes, 2017

When I first became a Fleet Foxes fan around 2013 or 2014 or whenever it was, I assumed I would never get to listen to a new Fleet Foxes album ever again. Lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold had left the music scene to study at Columbia University, and drummer Josh Tillman had left the band anyway to make music under his new moniker Father John Misty. Maybe other people felt differently, but I had no expectation of ever listening to a new Fleet Foxes album. It was a revelation to me, then, when I heard the single “Third of May/Odaigahara” in 2017, six years after the last Fleet Foxes release. Nevermind that “Third of May” is now one of my favorite songs; that I was hearing a new Fleet Foxes song at all was amazing.

That’s sort of the bar with a so-called “comeback” single, though, isn’t it? I won’t speak badly about other bands specifically, but plenty of artists have taken long hiatuses and then returned with singles that are received warmly primarily because everyone is happy to have them back. The real challenge is to successfully put out the comeback album. The comeback album is subject to much more scrutiny than the comeback single. The single is one thing, but the album is what people have been waiting for. There’s an unfair amount of pressure associated with a band releasing new music after a lengthy break. But the pressure is there nonetheless, and often the disappointment amongst an artist’s fanbase is palpable in the aftermath of a comeback.

I guess there are two options with the comeback album: a band could stick to their previous style, or they could pivot and explore different styles from their old material. Each option carries its own risk. The first option, The Continuation, runs the risk of sounding stale. Thanks for the new tunes, but you did this better eight years ago. The second option, The Deviation, runs the risk of seriously alienating a fanbase that has been waiting years to hear music they love from musicians they love. This band used to rock, man. What happened in the last eight years?

Which route did Fleet Foxes take with Crack-Up? Did Robin Pecknold get the gang back together and conjure up the Crosby, Stills, and Nash melodies of his youth or did he abandon the folk scene completely in favor of some uncharted territory? For the benefit of us all, he picked the lesser-known third option: Make Your Best Album By Combining Options 1 and 2.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me that Crack-Up was my favorite Fleet Foxes album. What attracted me to the band in the first place was the impeccable harmonies of course, but also what the songs themselves evoked: the breeziness of their self-titled and the baroqueness of Helplessness Blues called to mind the ’60s folk explosion, but more specifically the poppier side of the ’60s folk explosion. It’s quite easy to sing along to most songs on those first two albums.

Crack-Up doesn’t offer that immediacy; in a word, it is enormous. Most of the songs are comprised of multiple sections–a cryptic piano melody explodes into a sunny outro, or muttering turns to shouting and then back to muttering, or a massive epic concludes with an ambient soundscape. But for maybe one song, what you see is not what you get on Crack-Up. It took some getting used to as a fan of the hook-laden Fleet Foxes of the late 2000s and early 2010s. But the more I listen to Crack-Up, the better it gets.

It turns out there are tons of hooks on Crack-Up. It’s just a matter of finding them. That’s what I mean when I say Pecknold was able to combine Comeback Album Options 1 and 2: everything I loved about Fleet Foxes remained, but it was also very clear that six years had passed since Pecknold wrote music. And shouldn’t that be clear?

Comeback Album Option 3 is on full display right from the jump. Track 1, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar,” opens with a whisper. It’s actually difficult to hear Pecknold at all. No hooks to be found. The I Am All That I Need section transitions to the next section, which offers the incredible harmonized vocals Fleet Foxes is known for, but the hooks still aren’t there. The melody is too dense to stick in my head, at least. The harmonized vocals are interrupted several times by a muttering Robin, and then the song transitions again to a very quiet passage delivered over hushed acoustic guitar. Finally, four-and-a-half minutes in, Robin’s voice emerges in its recognizable form, and a hook arrives that could get stuck in anyone’s head. It only lasts about twenty seconds though–then the song goes back to the theme heard in Part 2, and closes on a sample of a high school choir singing Fleet Foxes’ biggest hit, “White Winter Hymnal.” Pecknold knows he’s been gone a while; his music has resonated enough to be sung in high schools. This is for sure a comeback, and Pecknold makes sure his listeners know it.

That was just Track 1. Dense doesn’t even begin to describe Crack-Up. If you think it sounds too dense, I don’t really blame you. It’s not a problem for me, though, for two reasons. First of all, despite all the interlocking passages, nothing feels unnecessary. Never does it feel like I’m waiting for the a passage to be over so I can listen to the good stuff. “On Another Ocean (January/June)” is a prime example. The second section, June, is one of my favorite moments on the album. Robin’s vocal lines are outrageous and play really well off the guitar lines that begin the section. The first section, January, is mysterious and piano driven, and there’s really not much to latch on to melody-wise. By writing lyrics that deal with winter vs. summer, though, Pecknold makes the January section essential. June’s hook would not be as appealing to me if it wasn’t introduced after the darkness of the January section.

The second reason the density doesn’t bother me is because Pecknold’s voice is inhumanly good. I have no problem saying he’s my favorite singer of the 21st Century, and that might actually understate how much I like his voice. The more cryptic passages make his voice sound that much better when it’s time for him to belt something out. On “Cassius,-,” the first section alternates between a verse and chorus that create a bunch of tension. When the song transforms into the second verse, Pecknold’s voice takes control, and the payoff (I walked home/no words to say/Cassius one month gone on his way) is one of the best parts of the album.

Pecknold’s vocals take control of the entirety of “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me,” and it’s no coincidence it’s the most popular song on the album. It’s a welcome departure from the rest of the record–most of these songs are designed to be as big as possible, but “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” was small enough to be the only Crack-Up song included in Pecknold’s solo acoustic live show A Very Lonely Solstice.

Here’s Pecknold himself talking about Crack-Up before its release: “I don’t want to change genres necessarily–I feel like there was a period from 2012-2016 where it would have been very culturally exhausting to release a ‘folk’ sounding album…I didn’t want to be working from a place of reaction but from a place of action and that was just impossible to do in those years considering what Fleet Foxes had come to mean and what had happened after.”

Pecknold’s otherworldly voice certainly helped him achieve Comeback Album Option 3, but it’s his self-reflection that I think pushed him over the edge on Crack-Up. Comeback albums aren’t any good when the artist is making music just because they haven’t in a while. Pecknold finally felt he had something to say in 2017. And ultimately, I would rather wait six years between incredible albums than one year between lackluster ones.

Being There at the Right Time

All Things Must Pass, George Harrison, 1970

I just finished watching Get Back, the new Beatles documentary. It’s everything I hoped it would be, and it serves to undercut the 50-year myth that The Beatles ended their association as band members with ugliness and hatred. It ain’t all flowers, but overall Get Back is a celebration of The Beatles and their endless talent and charm.

Most of the tension of the film relates to George Harrison and his frustration with his role in the band. The first installment shows Harrison quitting the band for about five days and then returning after airing some of his grievances with the lads. The five-day absence was taken seriously by everyone, and George eventually returned to a much more group-oriented and relaxed atmosphere.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, Harrison should have been even more upset than he actual claimed to be at the time. The upshot of The Beatles’ breakup a year after the Get Back sessions was that Harrison put out All Things Must Pass in 1970, which contains 22 songs (not counting the Apple Jam that appears at the back-end of the record). For reference, Harrison wrote 22 songs that ended up on Beatles albums from 1963-1970.

This is more than just an interesting factoid–every song on All Things Must Pass would have been not only a worthy song on a Beatles album, but one of the standout tracks on the album. That’s not an exaggeration, either. The brilliance of All Things Must Pass is comical when you consider the only songs he penned on Let it Be, which was released the same year as All Things Must Pass, were “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue.” If there was something disappointing about Lennon and McCartney in 1969 in 1970, it wasn’t their relationship with each other–it was their inability to recognize that Harrison was their songwriting equal, and perhaps their songwriting superior at that time.

And it’s not as though Harrison suddenly found a burst of inspiration after The Beatles broke up for good. Several of the songs on All Things Must Pass were written, pitched to, and ultimately disregarded by McCartney and Lennon during the Get Back sessions. Get Back was an incredible documentary, but I think it could have used a little more footage of McCartney and Lennon’s dismissal of Harrison’s work, if only to gain some more context for how they could have tossed aside incredible songs when they were seemingly desperate for material to meet their fast-approaching deadline to complete their newest album.

I’d imagine one reason Harrison’s material didn’t get its due with The Beatles is that Harrison was simply operating on a religious level that the rest of the group wasn’t interested in. The Beatles were OK with being spiritual–Lennon makes use of the Hindu mantra “jai guru deva om” in “Across the Universe,” and even though the Mother Mary sung about in “Let it Be” was McCartney’s mother and not the Virgin Mary, the band was still seemingly comfortable allowing people to make the incorrect association. But the Harrisongs on All Things Must Pass are Religious with a capital “R.” Harrison begs and pleads with higher powers all over the album. He expresses his desire to see and know the Lord on “My Sweet Lord,” he asks the Lord to forgive him and listen to him on “Hear Me Lord,” and he even encourages others to chant the names of the Lord on “Awaiting on You All.” The guy really liked the Lord.

The songs that are not explicitly about the Lord may as well be, too. On “I’d Have You Anytime,” which Harrison co-wrote with Bob Dylan, Harrison sings “let me in there/I know I’ve been here/let me into your heart.” On “Beware of Darkness,” Harrison warns the listener to “beware of Maya,” which is a Hindu term for things that obscure spiritual reality. On “The Art of Dying,” Harrison opens by proclaiming there will come a time when “there’s nothing Sister Mary can do” to keep him on the Earth. Heavy stuff, that. I can see why McCartney and Lennon would maybe not have wanted all those intense sentiments flooding a Beatles album, but in another sense I have no clue why those sentiments wouldn’t have been any more valid than whatever personal sentiments they had to offer lyrically.

A huge benefit of Harrison releasing all these songs under his own moniker was that he got to collaborate with people who realistically were never going to show up on a Beatles album. A short list of people who showed up to work on the album: Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Derek and the Dominoes members Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon, Rolling Stones saxophone player Bobby Keys, Badfinger founder Pete Ham, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, Yes drummer Alan White. Pretty good musicians.

It’s amazing to me that Harrison wanted his first foray into solo music to be so collaborative, actually, because Lennon and McCartney took the opposite approach. Lennon’s first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, features a pretty sparse outfit of accompaniment, and McCartney’s first two solo projects, McCartney and Ram, feature almost no one except for the McCartneys Paul and Linda. It seems that Lennon and McCartney had grown tired of extensive collaboration, but Harrison, after all those years of being relegated to collaboration duty, still wanted his first solo album to be a group effort.

And the songs really benefit from all the camaraderie that went into constructing them. “Wah-Wah” is a song about Harrison getting a headache from dealing with his Beatles frustration, and features him extolling the benefits of staying away from all that drama. Sounds like it’s fit to be a quiet number, but the horns and layered guitars and pianos turn the song instead into a symphony so loud that Harrison has to literally scream over top of them to be heard in the mix. Same goes for “Art of Dying,” which Harrison wrote in 1966, most likely only with an acoustic guitar part in mind. The session musicians, however, turn Harrison’s lyrics about reincarnation into a proto-disco jam.

There’s a fascinating part of the Get Back documentary when the four fellas are working out how they’re going to play the bridge of Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” McCartney is trying to construct these harmonies behind Lennon’s lead vocals, and Harrison says very curtly in the middle of the whole process that he thinks the harmonies are terrible. He says something to the effect of “if these were played back to you right now on a tape recorder, you’d throw them out right away.” It’s telling that the final version of “Don’t Let Me Down” that is recorded as the B-side to “Get Back” and then played live on the rooftop at Savile Row doesn’t feature any harmonies in the bridge at all. Harrison was absolutely right that the harmonies sucked. He wasn’t wrong about that, and I don’t think his musical instincts were wrong again for a very long time. It’s a shame McCartney and Lennon didn’t know that at the time. I love “Let it Be,” but I don’t think it’s heresy to say the album would have been greatly improved by some more George. What couldn’t, now that I think about it?

Because I want to talk about All Things Must Pass some more, here’s a bit about each song on the album and my favorite moment from every one.

“I’d Have You Anytime”

Apparently Harrison wrote the lyrics to the verses, and Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics to the chorus. It’s a perfect intro to the album, as it provides a gradual lead-in into the heavier lyrical content/more involved musicality to come.

Favorite moment: The ascending basslines in the verses that precede the “let me into your heart” and “let me roll it to you” lyrics play so well off the lead guitar licks.

“My Sweet Lord”

Probably the most famous song on the album, and for good reason. The Hare Krishna is kind of addicting, as it turns out.

Favorite moment: The key change around 1:45, and then the introduction of the drums right in time with that.

“Wah-Wah”

Crazy guitars in this one. I talked about the lyrics above, but they deserve another mention, because they’re so victorious. “You don’t see me crying/you don’t hear me sighing.” He knew he had a hit with this album.

Favorite moment: It hooks you right from the jump. The two guitars play a similar line over each other, the bass comes in, and then it’s just off to the races.

“Isn’t it a Pity”

Definitely another one about the breakup of The Beatles. The lyrics are awesome: they don’t offer any solution or declaration beyond “it’s a shame.” I like songs like that.

Favorite moment: It’s gotta be the last two minutes or so, with Harrison proclaiming “what a pity” over and over while the slide guitar, drums, and strings all play steadily behind him.

“What is Life”

Not only is it great and fun and joyous, but it was in Goodfellas and This is 40.

Favorite moment: At the three-minute mark, Harrison adds slide guitar into the mix behind the verse, and he plays a couple cool lines that never show up again. I’m always waiting for those when I listen to the song.

“If Not For You”

Another Dylan song. Harrison’s version is way better in my opinion. In Dylan’s an organ plays the descending hook. I like it more in this one where the guitar plays the hook.

Favorite moment: The last time Harrison says “the winter would hold no spring.”

“Behind that Locked Door”

Think this one was written for Dylan, not by Dylan, because he was nervous about performing live for the first time in a while. Harrison tells him “the love you are blessed with/the world’s waiting for.” Nice guy.

Favorite moment: The repetition of “please” in the choruses. Makes the song nicer somehow that he says it twice.

“Let it Down”

This was written in 1968 while Harrison was still a Beatle. They really missed out on this one. I think McCartney would have had a field day on bass. Oh well.

Favorite moment: Every time the song goes quiet after the loud choruses. Such cool dynamics.

“Run of the Mill”

Potentially my personal favorite song on the album. Incredible vocal performance. And the drums are so tight and interesting.

Favorite moment: “No one around you will carry the blame for you.”

“Beware of Darkness”

Really good lyrics here. “Watch out now, take care/beware of soft shoe shufflers/dancing down the sidewalks/as each unconscious sufferer/wanders aimlessly/beware of Maya.” Not entirely sure what it means, but it sounds perfect.

Favorite moment: Whatever clean, echoey effect is on the intro guitar should be on more songs.

“Apple Scruffs”

Don’t listen to “Apple Scruffs” very often, but it’s a funny song about the weird girls that would hang obsessively outside The Beatles’ studio all the time.

Favorite moment: The triple-tracked vocals in the choruses.

“Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)”

Used masterfully in How I Met Your Mother. Also used masterfully on All Things Must Pass. Awesome piano hook.

Favorite moment: The key change at :30. Not actually sure that’s a key change but I love it.

“Awaiting on You All”

This chorus gets stuck in my head so often that I think it’s going to actually get me to chant the names of the Lord some day.

Favorite moment: “The Pope owns 51% of General Motors.”

“All Things Must Pass”

Best lyrics on the album. There’s a cool part in the Get Back documentary where Lennon suggests George change “a wind can blow those clouds away” to “a mind can blow those clouds away.” George ends up taking the advice.

Favorite moment: The bridge is an all-timer.

“I Dig Love”

Weird lyrics, but I like the strange piano ascents and descents.

Favorite moment: The syncopated piano in the verses.

“Art of Dying”

This song is years ahead of its time. Seriously crazy that it came out in 1970. As catchy as catchy gets.

Favorite moment: A tie between the horns and the bassline. Both are so active and full of tension and energy.

“Hear Me Lord”

Very interesting choice to put the final plea to the Lord as the last track on the album. Killer song, too, if you’ve made it this far.

Favorite moment: The background vocals seal the deal on this one. Particularly on “above and below us.”

The Special Relationship

A Dumb Comparison

In April of 1989, Pixies released their second LP Doolittle. In May of 1989, The Stone Roses released their self-titled album The Stone Roses. Some would say the similarities between the two end there. Their sounds are extremely different, which I suppose makes sense. The Stone Roses are from the UK, and their influences are pretty clearly based in the UK, as well. Most people would probably hear The Beatles, The Smiths, Primal Scream, and The Jesus and Mary Chain in The Stone Roses. Pixies formed in Boston, and their influences were naturally all American–The Cars, surf rock like The Ventures, and then American hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag.

So, The Stone Roses and Doolittle sound nothing like each other, the bands in general take their influences from entirely different sources, and they formed on different continents. And yet, whenever I listen to The Stone Roses, I think about Doolittle, and whenever I listen to Doolittle, I think about The Stone Roses.

Leaving aside the fact that the albums came out a month apart from each other, I think I make the comparison because both albums sum up what I love about each country’s indie rock tendencies in under an hour. That’s probably a dumb and simplified way to look at the two albums, but I’m pretty sure being dumb and simple is only a bad idea if you’re being negative. And I could never find a reason to be negative about Doolittle or The Stone Roses.

The Stone Roses

Might as well start with the album that came out second. My favorite part about British indie is how big it all sounds. The Smiths, The Cure, The Chameleons, etc., all drenched everything in reverb, and each instrument sounded like it was jumping out of the speakers. The Stone Roses took that idea and sprinted with it. It’s easy to hear in the opening of “She Bangs the Drums.” The cymbals and bass immediately start driving the song, and then the guitar comes in like a wave. It seems impossible that anything could sound bigger after that, but the chorus adds double-tracked vocals and a guitar line that completely seal the deal.

The next song, “Waterfall,” begins with just an echoey guitar line. The drums don’t come in until beyond the :30 mark, but again the sound is so huge that you barely even notice there aren’t drums. “Waterfall” is an apt name for the song, because the whole thing–particularly the rave-up outro–drowns the speakers in bright-sounding guitars and drums. This album is so bright that even when lead singer Ian Brown gets dark lyrically, there’s still a pop hit going on in the background. The 8th track, “Made of Stone,” starts out much moodier than the rest of the album. The band can’t help themselves, though, and the chorus breaks the tension and provides one of the catchier moments on the album. And when I say they can’t help themselves, I really think that’s true. Allegedly, “Made of Stone” is about a car crash, and the cover of the single is in black and white to indicate the song is dark. But the chorus is a legitimate sing-along.

Ultimately, The Stone Roses is a completely over-the-top, hook-filled marvel that took the best of so much British music and mixed it all together to create a sound as bright as its album cover. “She Bangs the Drums” notes that “the past was yours/but the future’s mine.” I’d say Ian Brown was spot on about that; his band set the formula for British indie rock for the next decade plus.

Doolittle

If the defining element of British indie was its expansiveness, then the defining element of American indie was its aggression. The Replacements, Minutemen, Minor Threat, etc., played music that was purposely confrontational. Pixies took that sound to its logical conclusion a lot like The Stone Roses did with their country’s sound, but while The Stone Roses accomplished that by adding layers, Pixies accomplished it by carefully stripping layers away. Doolittle is famous for its “soft-loud-soft” sound, where the verses are pretty quiet, and then the choruses are laughably loud. Minor Threat, an American indie band pre-Pixies, were extremely loud right away, didn’t let up for about a minute, and then moved on to the next song. Pixies were content to let their aggression simmer for a while, which made their outbursts even more shocking by comparison.

A good example would be the second track, “Tame.” Lead singer Black Francis literally whispers the first verse, and legendary bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering play a steady rhythm. At around :20, chaos strikes, and Black Francis screams at the top of his lungs for a good ten seconds while a guitar comes in that sounds like factory equipment. By the :35 mark, the guitar falls out and Black Francis is back to whispering.

“Gouge Away” closes the album, and follows pretty much the exact same formula as “Tame.” I think “Gouge Away” works even better, though, because if you’ve listened to the album all the way through, you’re not tricked by the opening quiet verse. You know the explosion of the chorus is coming, which somehow makes the verse more exciting. Every song on Doolittle seems like a game: how will the band wind up at a point where they all sound like they’re participating in an exorcism?

What I like most about Doolittle is that it sounds menacing and angry, but the lyrics don’t reflect that at all. American indie in the ’80s involved a lot of screaming about the government and drug abuse and alienation. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of topics Pixies yell about on Doolittle: a Spanish movie from the 1920s, Samson and Delilah, Hebrew Numerology, College Roommates. There’s plenty of politics on the album, too, but you have to look hard to find it. Pixies were way more oblique than most American indie at the time, and helped usher in more surreal bands like Pavement into the scene.

Doolittle completely changed the landscape of American indie rock. Essentially every indie band in the 1980s started as a pure hardcore punk band, and that style was reflected even if they ultimately abandoned that style. Just like The Stone Roses, Pixies were a primary influence for nearly every other indie band in their country for over a decade.

Wrapping It Up

I wouldn’t say that The Stone Roses and Doolittle are necessarily my favorite British/American indie albums. I don’t really like ranking music in that way. But I’m willing to say that the two albums defined the sounds I associate with indie rock, and a lot of my favorite guitar-based music that came out in the 1990s and 2000s are indebted to them in a huge way. Again, this is way too simple of a statement, but to me, The Stone Roses are the British indie band and Pixies are the American indie band. How crazy is it that they both released their best albums within a month of each other? Music’s cool.

Let Him Have My Seat

Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan, 1969

Without looking it up, I’d guess that Bob Dylan is the most written about rock musician who ever lived. There’s nothing at all that I can add to the conversation about Bob Dylan–50,000,000 people smarter and more informed than I am have already shaped the consensus around Dylan’s life’s work.

Dylan is my favorite musician of all-time, though, and I think the consensus’ reaction to Nashville Skyline–and album I like a whole lot–is very, very wrong. And I think it’s wrong for the same reason I think consensus on a lot of other albums is wrong.

The Consensus

The consensus is that Dylan was at the peak of his artistic creativity from around 1964-1966, then changed styles in 1967 with John Wesley Harding, and by 1969, with Nashville Skyline’s release, he had lost the magic.

What’s the main issue with Nashville Skyline, according to critics? Too happy. The albums is full of short country tunes about quiet life, and the critics weren’t having it. I was looking at the album’s Wikipedia page a couple days ago and saw two quotes which captures the consensus pretty well. The first is from a guy named Tim Souster from the BBC, who said “one can’t help feeling something is missing. Isn’t this idyllic country landscape too good to be true?” The second is from Ed Ochs at Billboard, who said “the satisfied man speaks in cliches, and blushes as if every day were Valentine’s Day.”

The bizarre thing is that, from what I can tell, people had no issue with how the album actually sounded. It was just too optimistic for someone like the sarcastic, energetic, confrontational Dylan to write. I think Nashville Skyline sums up one of my least favorite parts about rock criticism: rock critics absolutely love it when supposed “ambitious” musicians are miserable, and they don’t know what to do with themselves when the artist presents them with something that isn’t miserable.

The Tunes

It’s a shame, too, because if people just took Dylan at face value, they’d have a way better time. The songs sound really good! Dylan’s slow duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” is way better than the faster, finger-picked version Dylan recorded six years earlier. The way the piano and guitar play off each other on “To Be Alone With You” is really fun, and the organ in the background of “I Threw It All Away” is a genius production move. “Lay, Lady, Lay” is one of Dylan’s more famous songs, and it definitely deserves to be. It’s one of his best vocal performances, and whatever kind of percussion is going on during the verses is so strange and cool. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” has a catchy organ riff that leads most of the song, and then ends with a descending piano riff that’s completely addicting. Every time I listen to the song, I listen to the last 20 seconds three or four times at least.

The last song on the album is the most obvious statement on Dylan’s happiness. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” has lyrics like “throw my troubles out the door/I don’t need them anymore” and “if there’s a poor boy on the street/then let him have my seat/’cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.” I’m sure this is the kind of song Souster had in mind when he assumed the “idyllic country landscape” Dylan had created was “too good to be true.” It was 1969. There was a lot of horrible shit going on! Dylan can’t possibly be happy about the state of the world! I’m willing to accept the premise that Dylan actually wasn’t happy around this period of his life, because how the fuck am I supposed to know what he actually feels inside? So, sure, assume the whole album is a facade for Dylan’s crippling sadness and anger. How does that make the music any different? Why should I be dissatisfied with the album because Dylan is lying? He’s the most notorious liar in the history of modern music. It’s like 40 percent of the reason I like listening to his music so much. The obvious conclusion is critics didn’t like the happy Dylan, whether it was the real thing or not.

But Who Cares?

I think expecting “high art” to be miserable is a horrible way to listen to music, and unfortunately that type of thinking has survived to this day. Take Rob Mitchum’s notoriously terrible review for the album Sky Blue Sky by another one of my favorite bands, Wilco. Sky Blue Sky came out after two of Wilco’s most experimental albums, and its sound was much more straightforward than the older stuff. It’s also far less dark than the previous two Wilco albums–Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy had gone to rehab and become more invested in his family life at the time of the album, and the lyrics reflected that. I think Sky Blue Sky is great. Mitchum called it “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise–the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.” The message is pretty clear. Dark and experimental, at any cost, is better and more important when it comes to art.

Sky Blue Sky by Wilco, 2007

I think the easiest way for critics to stop being so baffled by stylistic choices like Nashville Skyline or Sky Blue Sky is to stop having such ridiculous expectations for the way musicians feel at any given moment. Critics went into a panic when Dylan put out three albums worth of Christian-inspired music in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then panic turned into even more confusion when by 1983 Dylan was hanging out with Chasidic rabbis. Critics’ attempts to decipher Dylan’s life based on what was being said in his lyrics and in his interviews distracted them from four years of really good music. Dylan put it pretty plainly in 1997, in an interview with Newsweek. “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing…this is the flat out truth. I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.”

Dylan is history’s most indecipherable musician. Ultimately, I think people would be better served if they just stopped trying to decipher him. You are not his friend. You will never know him. But you can do the same thing Dylan does really easily. You can find the religiosity and the philosophy in his music, and you can find it there and only there.