Music Comment: What happened to the album?
Originally published in The Boar online: http://theboar.org/music/2012/may/20/what-happened-album/
Quick question: when was the last time you listened to an album in its entirety?
That’s not a question where I would expect for one answer to clearly dominate over another. It’s genuinely difficult to predict: some people might have played one just a few hours ago; for others, it could be a matter of weeks, maybe even months since they last sat through an LP. I just hope that nobody would answer with “it’s been a few years…”
To be honest, it’s no big issue. With downloading, streaming, file-sharing and playlist-compiling now so integrated into the average music aficionado’s lifestyle, it should be no surprise that we have less and less time to listen to entire albums with all the endlessly exciting new music just waiting to be discovered. Most listeners nowadays will merely sample music: giving one song a quick listen and then deciding if this artist is worth their time (and maybe even their money). But with the music industry becoming increasingly competitive as millions of wannabes flounder for attention and recognition, it takes a lot to really inspire a listener into going out on a limb and downloading / buying an entire album. Then, of course, there is the process of listening to it in full.
Even simply being at university poses a problem, or it does for me at least. Back in the homeland, on an average day I’ll normally be able to listen to two or three albums. At university, it’s another matter. For one thing, all I have with me here at Warwick are digital copies of my music collection, and frankly, listening to an entire album through my laptop’s tinny speakers isn’t nearly as satisfying as turning up the stereo system back at home. But even beyond the off-putting nature of deficient sound quality, finding time is nigh-on impossible with the hectic schedule of deadlines, revision and gatherings in the pub.
In fact, the only times that I can regularly listen to music are when I’m either out for a run, or walking to a lecture. In the case of the former, listening to an album all the way through while trying to keep up a steady pace is possible, but not exactly easy. As with most people, it’s normally a case of pick-and-mix to keep the most rhythmic tracks in circulation. There are a couple of albums which will work in that scenario, but you’re not always in the mood for their particular flavour when struggling up Gibbet Hill.
As for making my way from A to B on campus, I’ll normally just pop on the headphones for a quick few songs to capture the mood as I take the most direct route. And even with most of my classes situated in Millburn House (essentially a stone’s throw from Westwood), that still means the longest route I will regularly take when on campus takes me about fifteen minutes to make, which is naturally nowhere near enough for a proper album playback. Instead, I could always go for an EP, but nine times out of ten, I’ll just cherry-pick a few individual songs and then it’ll be time to unplug the iPod and unpack the lecture notebook.
It’s a shame, really, because even though there’s nothing at all wrong with having favourite individual songs, I always feel like I really should be devoting time to listening to them in the context of the album. This may be a little pretentious, and I realise that they are three disparate mediums, but personally, I always approach albums, films and novels in the same way. Each one is a comprehensive whole, split into a number of chapters. Granted, these parts can be set in different scenes, or carry different messages, and some are complete non-sequiturs, but ultimately, they’re all part of a larger product.
Seldom does one read a novel and think that an entire chapter could quite easily have been left out entirely without hampering the rest of the plot, or the overall effect of the book. With films it’s a little harder to judge, but you’d like to imagine that after the editing process, anything throwaway has been left on the cutting room floor. Of course, when watching a film, you’re going to have some favourite moments, and you can re-watch those moments in isolation afterwards if you want to. But more often than not, it won’t have the same effect it first had once it has been separated from the sequence it was placed into. I suppose this is truer with films than albums, given the emphasis on narrative structure and any use of cinematic tension-and-release, but still, I find skipping a song is like skipping a scene from a film, even if nothing overly substantial takes place. I just feel like I’m missing something from the whole experience as it was packaged.
My friend Josh sums it up perfectly. One of our favourite past-times is spending an evening in the university local, the Dirty Duck, discussing our favourite music releases over a pint or two. A few months ago, I admitted that I’d neglected listening to Radiohead’s indispensable OK Computer for a good few months, and he enthused: “it’s just a magic album. The way it just fits together is perfect: Airbag straight into Paranoid Android…”
And this really got me thinking about the importance of sequencing. It may sound like pretentious babble, but that urban legend is true: songs really can complement each other. A well-sequenced album can take multiple songs – which are individually brilliant in their own right – and transform them into a powerful, single unit (as corny as that sounds). There are countless examples of songs which sound inseparable. Wild Beasts’ Bed Of Nails just sounds so much more impressive straight off the back of Lion’s Share. Spiritualized’s Cop Shoot Cop… can only really do the damage if it’s blasted at the end of the seventy-minute odyssey that is the spectacular Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. And once you’ve started playing Intro by The xx, you can’t pull yourself away until after the final, glassy moments of Stars. And albums don’t need to have a cohesive thread or concept for this to work: sometimes the songs are dissimilar (in subject or in sound) but just flow brilliantly, keeping the pace and mood perfectly controlled.
Admittedly, some of my favourite albums are just collections of pop songs bundled together with no real thread, and I can happily dip in and out of those at any given time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a well-performed cluster of self-contained three-minute pop bursts. But the albums that really stick out for me are ones which I have to set aside time for: ones which I’ll have to sit with from beginning to end for forty minutes or an hour in order to maximise the effect. And in a sense, now that I have less time to spend on the pleasure of music discovery, university has made me appreciate the idea of an album as an experience even more.