Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Bruce Springsteen, Vampire Weekend, and superlatives

The majority of the posts on this blog are lists.  I've been pretty content letting this become a sparsely used echo of Pitchfork, in a lot of ways.  People make fun of me for my excessive use of superlatives.  I don't deny that I do that all the time, and I've been trying not to declare something the "best ever" lately.

But I like to make lists.  I like to try and decide what the best thing ever is.  I like music and I like dissecting it, analyzing it, reasoning my way through it.  It's why I like to talk about what stuff I think is the best, because I can shortlist albums, for example, in my head and think of reasons why one album deserves to be called "the greatest" over another.

But the truth is, I'll never be able to decide what the greatest album of all time is.  That's because I've got reasons floating around in my head why another album is better.  Two posts ago on here is my top 30 albums of 2012.  I ended up deciding on Kendrick Lamar's brilliant good kid, m.A.A.d city as my #1 album.  But some days, I like Frank Ocean's Channel Orange better.  Some days I like Swing Lo Magellan or Christian a Tunde Adjuah better.  And there's a million reasons I could muster up as to why any one of those albums is better than any other.  Music is something that will never reach a conclusion, no matter how hard I want it to.
It's June, and that means a lot of the major music sites are releasing their "Best Albums of 2013 (So Far)" lists.  Daft Punk's perplexing Random Access Memories makes frequent appearances.  Disclosure's genre-melding Settle has been invited to most of the parties, as well.  Wheel, the honest, beautiful, and excellent third album from singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson unfortunately doesn't show up on many of these lists.

NPR's "All Songs Considered" made its list, including Vampire Weekend's third album, Modern Vampires of the City.  Bob Boilen, one of the hosts of the program, had some bold thoughts about the album:
"Modern Vampires of the City is one of the best third albums ever, along with After the GoldrushLondon Calling and Born to Run. Like all those records, it's lyrically brilliant, marked by depth and character that didn't come through fully on albums one and two."

I don't think MVOTC is anywhere close to as great an album as Born to Run or London Calling.  But I think it's Vampire Weekend's strongest album by a mile, and I think it's the best album of 2013 so far, by a mile.  I think Born to Run is undoubtedly one of the best rock albums ever.  Instead of doing my own "best of 2013 so far" list, I'm going to tell you why Boilen's comparison to Born to Run makes a lot of sense.

Bruce Springsteen's first release, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., bought in to the popularity of the singer-songwriter movement that sprung up in the early 1970s after the Beatles broke up.  But the Boss was really trying to copy Bob Dylan on his debut.  Asbury Park featured simpler musical arrangements around songs that were folk-based.  Listen to his vocal phrasing on "For You" and you'll hear Bruce channeling Dylan, although his voice is definitely huskier.  The lyrics of that song copy the same elegant ambivalence of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited:
"Don't give me my money, honey, I don't want it back / You and your pony face and your Union Jack / Well, take your local joker and teach him how to act / I swear I was never that way, even when I really cracked."

But earlier in that same verse, we get a preview of the youthful, lusty desperation that Bruce would really explore on Born to Run:
"Crawl into my ambulance, your pulse is getting weak / Reveal yourself all now to me, girl, while you've got the strength to speak."
The production on Asbury Park is startlingly intimate.  I think Bruce tried to replicate the sound of his band in a New Jersey dive bar on record.  And the record sounds like you're sitting ten feet away from everyone, as if they're crowded in the corner of a bar on a tiny stage.

Springsteen's second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle is a little bigger, a little more ambitious, and a little weaker than Asbury Park.  The arrangements are bigger right off the bat: the opening title track features a full horn section and multiple keyboards and percussion instruments.  But it also features crowd noises, as if Bruce is still trying to recreate the bar scene.  On this album, Bruce took more risks and added more instruments, but he wasn't quite sure how to use them yet.

He begins to develop his own vocal style, sounding less like the faux-protest singer he wanted to be and more like the blue-eyed soul singer he'd become on his third release.  He also began to experiment with expanded song structures.  Four of his sophomore effort's seven tracks are over seven minutes.

But this album isn't consistent.  Its shining moment is the excellent "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" which is one of Springsteen's best songs from any album.  But instead of closing on that high note, he tacks on the near-ten minute "New York City Serenade," a daunting listen after the roller coaster of the previous track.  It's an album that really leaves you left wanting more.  And the Boss would deliver, in grandiose fashion.

Similarly, Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut bought in to the indie-pop obsession that dominated the non-mainstream music crowd in 2007.  The songs are preppy and poppy, with cute melodies and tongue-in-cheek lyrics.  You had to be in on the joke, so to speak, for you to understand Vampire Weekend.  It was the type of album that the music world craved, a world that was obsessed with being hip.

Ezra Koenig's guitar on the debut borrows Pavement's clean tone and the Strokes' high voicings.  The music also borrowed heavily on the novelty of baroque sounds, most clearly evidenced on "M79."  Its lyrics were for smart people, especially college kids, with songs like the reference-ridden "Oxford Comma."

The combination of smart, self-aware in jokes and pure fun of the band's debut really mirrored the Ivy League experience, where you're likely to be surrounded by intelligence, but also go to a lot of crazy parties. As did the album's cover: the band's name typed in a stately white block, on top of an elegant chandelier, suspended over the heads of a bunch of college kids at a house show.

But several of the songs on the album really sound like they were made by experimenting college kids.  Songs like "Bryn," "Blake's Got a New Face," and "I Stand Corrected" prevent the album from being consistent.

Vampire Weekend's second album, Contra, is more ambitious then the band's debut, like Springsteen's.  The band experimented more with the sonics of the album, sampling and manipulating the album's sounds.  The songs had more elegant arrangements and productions and featured more instruments, like the marimba in opener "Horchata."

Standout "Diplomat's Son" is the obvious parallel to "Rosalita."  The penultimate track, it's longer and more experimental, featuring a sample of singer M.I.A. and weird tempo shifts.  It's also the most electronic of the songs on the album.  At times it seems that Koenig is only singing with synthesizers and drum machines.

But put all the musical experimentation aside and Contra is lyrically superficial.  The album's first line is "In December drinking horchata," and it's still very much an album about college kids having fun.  "Last night I smoked a joint," Koenig sings in "Diplomat's Son."  Like Springsteen, Vampire Weekend knew what sounds they wanted to use as a band, but couldn't really find the right ways to use them on their second album.  It's still very much the sound of a band struggling to find a sound that is truly their own.

But for both acts, everything changed with the third album.  Springsteen finds the lyrical combination of elegance and desperate hope that he's been trying to find right off the bat in Born to Run's stunning opener "Thunder Road."  This song is constantly mesmerizing for me, even after hearing it a million times.  It's without a doubt one of the greatest songs ever, and I've yet to hear a better album opener anywhere (there's a superlative, oops).  The lyrics are beautiful, brilliant, and heartbreaking.  "Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays."  That's a line F. Scott Fitzgerald would drool over if he could hear it.  I would post more of the lyrics, but just go find them and read them all.  They capture the bleak, beauteous imagery of an American summer and the paralyzing hopelessness of the album's desperate characters.  Musically, the song build and builds to its seemingly highest point, and then somehow gets bigger.  But its meticulous production never lets it get too big or bombastic, which is a perfect mix.  People talk about the "Great American Novel," and I think "Thunder Road" should be considered the "Great American Song." A true masterpiece.

Modern Vampires gets started right away, as well.  There's no album intro, and the vocals come in right on the downbeat of the first song, and you've already delved into the world from the very beginning.  Also from the very beginning there's far more lyrical depth than the first two albums.  It's a very skeptical, cynical album lyrically: "No one's gonna spare the time for you," "No one's gonna watch you as you go," "It's been 20 years and no one's told the truth."  Ezra's not having as much fun as he was on the first two records.

Even though there were shades of later sounds on the first two albums from each artist, both MVOTC and Born to Run are vastly different from a sonic standpoint.  Bruce's arrangements are massive, conjuring more images of a big studio full of musicians than an intimate barroom.  But the production mixes everything so subtly that it's hard to notice many of the layers happening upon first listen.  "Night" features an impressive myriad of instruments, with multiple guitar tracks, horns, and percussion.  But it's all melded together so that it's never overbearing, like Phil Spector's "wall of sound."  The reverb on the vocals, guitars, and organ glues it all together.

The climax of MVOTC's second track, "Unbelievers," features a huge amount of instruments, including flutes, tuba, saxophones, pianos, and more.  But it's all mixed to the back and perfectly nuanced, unlike the harpsichord and strings of "M79."  The buzzing, synth bass holds it together in a way that electric bass couldn't.  "Diane Young" features bass saxophone, which could really honk and take over the track if it weren't for the synth line that meshes with it.  The bass of "Obvious Bicycle" is powerful in the way that the kicks on Andy Stott's songs sneak up on you.  Both third albums feature the sound of an artist who has truly developed a unique sound.

And though both third albums are definitely stronger than the albums that preceded them, neither is without its missteps, either.  "Meeting Across The River" lacks the intensity of the other tracks on Born to Run and doesn't really fit into the album.  "Finger Back" and "Worship You" aren't as interesting as any of the other songs on MVOTC.  It's almost as if the artists thought we needed a break from the albums.  If "She's the One" led right into "Jungleland" it would be a rapid whirlwind almost too quick to handle.  Similarly, the seven songs before "Finger Back" flow really nicely together, and if "Everlasting Arms" went right into "Ya Hey" it would feel rushed.  It's a good idea to have a listening break in an album like that, but on both albums the "respite" songs are lazy when they should be subdued and nuanced.

Springsteen finally succeeded with the extended song form in a big way on Born to Run's massive closer "Jungleland," a multi-part suite of impeccable musical storytelling.  Vampire Weekend experimented with extended song cycles, too.  "Diane Young" segues right into "Don't Lie," and "Ya Hey" to the end makes a nice little suite, too.

Modern Vampires of the City's lasting power remains to be seen.  If people are still listening to that album with such high regard as they are now in 30 years, then maybe we can compare it to Bruce's masterpiece.  But the paths of the two artists are similar, and the two albums are more similar than they seem at first glance.  Maybe it's fate that Vampire Weekend covered Bruce's "I'm Going Down."  Boilen's statement might have been a little preemptive, but I think he's on the right track.  And I hope that Vampire Weekend's career will be as long and fruitful as the Boss's.

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