What’s Old is New

The critics you love to hate (and hate to love) at Pitchfork  have a new column called Secondhands, which “examines music of the past through a modern lens.” I love this concept because it attempts to explain a phenomenon I’ve often wondered about.

The most recent piece by Mike Powell discusses Van Morrison’s immortal debut, Astral Weeks, a record that has cemented a place near and dear to my soul, despite only first listening to it a year or two ago.


The jumping point of Powell’s article, and the premise of the greater series to come, is: How does the time and place we are exposed to a piece of music affect our experience of it? He goes on to discuss: As music listeners, how and why do our tastes change over time?

Powell begins his story at age 15, when he first heard Astral Weeks, and hated it. At the time, he said to himself,

Astral Weeks is the worst music I have ever heard in my life. Worse than Jewel, worse than the soundtrack to Cats, even worse than “Brown-Eyed Girl”, a song our local oldies station plays whenever I get into my mom’s car, where I sink into the passenger seat with shame as she sings along…”

It took Powell another 15 years until he could appreciate the album, explaining that,

“To a white suburban punk with an almost-puritanical allergy to anything you could call “expressive,” Morrison’s music is a true enemy: earnest, mysterious, and committed to revelation.”

Ironically, it is those same adjectives that he first detested that later make Astral Weeks such a powerful and important record, for both Powell and myself. While I never despised Van Morrison to the degree he seems to have, I would have felt infinitely uncool at an earlier age telling people I was a fan. My own mother reviles the guy to this day. It took until my early twenties for me to truly embrace Van the Man.

Powell’s conclusion, in so many words, is that as we get older our tastes, experiences, and sensitivities change, and our brain can come to accept something it previously rejected. Perhaps it isn’t revelatory to notice that, indeed, tastes change, but I’m fascinated as to how and why. Furthermore, it leads into my previous interest in this idea.

What I’d like to know is: How does my experience of a record produced in the ‘60s or ‘70s, but heard in 2013, differ from hearing it when it was made?

1343315770_velvetThe most palpable example I can think of is my dad. I share a lot of musical loves with my father, and he gets the lion’s share of credit for inspiring my aural obsession in the first place. We can both listen to the White Album or The Velvet Underground & Nico, and love it equally, but I’ve often wondered how it is different for him, having heard it a generation prior.

Perhaps it’s not all that different, especially given we were roughly the same ages when we first heard it respectively. Then again we grew up in very different times, culturally speaking, and everyone’s music experience is unique to a degree.

Nonetheless, both of the aforementioned records were highly influential works, to the extent that they were groundbreaking in their time, resembling little that came before them but much of what came after. When I hear those albums in the context of newer music they directly or indirectly influenced, what changes in how I receive it?

For his part, Powell writes,

“To say a record came out in 1968 is a matter of historical fact, but the reality is that records come out whenever people hear them first. Having been born in 1982, the year 1968 is an abstraction to me. At best, I can read a book about it, or talk about it with my parents. But in the context of my own experience, Astral Weeks was released around 1998, along with Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”, Brighten the Corners by Pavement, Brahms’ fourth symphony, and a mixtape from my friend Meghan Kennedy, plastered in butterfly stickers and filled end-to-end with funk songs I still don’t know the names of.”

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 3.56.38 PMThis idea becomes all the more relevant given the brand new release from Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait. This latest bootleg set was a gutsy move, collecting demos, alternate takes and mixes, and live cuts from what’s infamously understood as the most hated album Bob ever made, Self Portrait.

Despite the beating Self Portrait took when it came out, reviews of Another Self Portrait have been remarkably celebratory, even apologetic. The box set’s reverent liner notes were even written by Greil Marcus, who famously opened his Rolling Stone review of the original album, “What is this shit?”  That sounds like sorry to me.

Mark Richardson recently wrote,

“It’s a little hard for those of us who weren’t there to understand the critical reaction to…Self Portrait. First, let’s… reflect on the fact that there was a 10th album already at that point, only eight years and a few months after Dylan released his self-titled debut. It was a busy time: he wrote and performed, culture was churning ahead and changing at what was then an unprecedented pace, and some people in the music world thought of him as a sort of leader of a new consciousness. Into this world he released an album called Self Portrait. One imagines seeing that title and expecting something deeper, heavier, some kind of reckoning with what has gone before. But what the listening public got instead was a mish-mash– a few original songs, a few live cuts, lots of covers, and a generally disjointed sound. It seemed slapdash.”

Even upon careful review, I wouldn’t personally go so far to say that Self Portrait was a masterpiece, especially in comparison to his other work. But 40 years later, when we can better appreciate where Dylan was at the time and where he was going, it is a whole lot easier to not to be so pissed off at him.

If music criticism, and the critique of any art form for that matter, is concerned with achieving some semblance of truthful judgement on a work that is subjectively experienced and valued, this revelation may serve as a reason to exercise humility and open-mindedness.

Even as the art object, the album, stays the same, the time, place and method by which it is heard, understood, and remembered is perpetually variable and up for revision.


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