04 February 2007

Fred Was Right

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Whatever the history of the phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” the cliché certainly applies to our relationship to art as much as to anything else. There are countless instances in which my first experience of a work of art has defined my relationship to the work – and sometimes the artist – from that point forward. For example, in my mind, I still see Rembrandt’s painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments as it hung in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem – before that city, and its art collections, were reunited and rehung elsewhere – even though I have seen it since, in its new gallery; I still marvel at the painting’s power, but it feels slightly out of place. Similarly, when I think of Miles Davis, I think Kind of Blue; that album is a jazz masterwork, sure, but it also defines Miles Davis for me because it is the first one of his that I set out to hear consciously, intentionally. Long term, Kind of Blue has affected (one might say infected) my ear for every recording Davis subsequently made.

The issue of first impressions has been much on my mind since listening to The Shins’ new album Wincing the Night Away, the band’s third. For those of us devoted to art and artists of any kind, what we usually want is to see the right kind of evolution take place over a spectrum of works: too much of the same thing gets boring; too radical a departure and the artist may lose the audience’s interest. Sometimes, this is intentional: Wilco’s 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, with its long semi-silences, certainly managed to alienate me, a fan since the band’s brilliant 1996 double-disc Being There. At other times, it feels like there isn’t enough evolution (e.g., Neko Case, whose songs I enjoy, but which all start to sound alike after a while). And then there is evolution that borders on revolution, combining artistic brilliance, alienation, and (what else to call it?) destiny: think of Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” concert, in which he finishes the first set as an acoustic, slightly-folksy hero, and begins the second half of the concert by redefining himself as a fully-electrified rock star.

For me, The Shins present an interesting case study for this whole nexus of audience experience and artistic evolution because (like many people) I know the context in which I first heard them (the movie Garden State) and I know the songs I had a chance to learn in more detail from that film’s soundtrack (“Caring Is Creepy” and “New Slang”). Shortly thereafter, I bought two Shins albums simultaneously – 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow – thus re-blending in my mind that whole set of first impressions. It helps that both of these albums are great.

Indeed, the band as a whole is terrific, and now, several years later, we have Wincing the Night Away. The disc represents the listener ideal, the right combination of evolution and consistency. There are a few new directions, with some songs more pop-sounding, lush and light (like “Sea Legs”), others that play with recording overlays that get your attention in the middle of a song (“Split Needles”), and then the odd-ball 56 seconds of subdued-but-driving guitar over a soft voice (“Pam Berry”). Consistency is there, too, in James Mercer’s vocals, and in an overall tonality that says “We are The Shins”; the day the album was released, but before I’d gotten my hands on it, I heard a song in a coffee shop – and just knew. Then there are the lyrics which, like past Shins albums, take time to digest (for those willing to invest) and, here too, Wincing the Night Away does not disappoint.

Still, in an era of digital music, the whole concept of the “album” – of listening to an album in its entirety – can seem quaint, when mixing and remixing and remixing again one’s sonic world can be done at the click of a mouse. This ever-shuffling, digital world changes the aural experience, not only affecting first impressions but also the mental barriers they can establish. So, why was Fred right? After I overcame my too-big-for-her-pop-diva-britches resistance, I was a fan of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. Ten years later, she released Jagged Little Pill Acoustic and Fred (who knows who he is) lent it to me for a listen. Where I was a fan of the original, Fred had no such attachments, and we were both surprised by my reaction to the acoustic version: I hated it. I couldn’t get over the missing power and oomph compared to the original, and the disc just seemed like a marketing ploy for an ailing career.

Enter the iPod. Morissette’s acoustic remakes eventually joined my “All Rock” playlist – the indiscriminate and undiscriminating approach to aurally exploring every nook and cranny of my collection – and began to pop-up occasionally. More interestingly, I realized I liked them. Freed from their placeholding album flow, and from the demands of my own memory, the songs emerged as independent works, worthy of a listen, and then another. Fred was right; the album is pretty good.

I have never felt particularly constrained by the idea of focusing on one artist at a time, and listening to an album song by song, in order, seemed normal. After all, that was how the artists themselves assembled it, much as classical composers created symphonies with finely-structured movements. What all this says to me is that while we cannot always control our first experience of new works of art, since we often encounter them accidentally, we can – and should – seek out opportunities to challenge those memories and impressions, to make sure that our interaction with art is multi-dimensional, and not always just nostalgic. Memories, first impressions, are invaluable, but at least with art they may not be the final word.


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