David Byrne and Brian Eno really need to hang out more. Every time they collaborate something brilliant comes out. The last Eno and Byrne collaboration was Everything That Happens Will Happen Today in 2008. That record was innovative in a lot of ways, mainly in terms of distribution and promotion; independently produced! independently distributed! It was two old dogs learning new internet tricks, really taking advantage of this new digital age be-your-own-master music business. It was also notable in conception. Eno and Byrne set out to make an album that explored the human condition, as it exists in the digital age, and in doing so tampered down their own natural cynicism and emotional dryness. Cheerful, simple, emotionally direct songs that aren’t about making fun of people in flyover states.
This Decemberists songs isn’t referencing Greek mythology or English literature or 1970’s folk music. It isn’t referencing any cultural artifacts at all. Its inspiration is much closer to home than all that. Colin Meloy wrote the song for his son Henry, who was about five years old at the time and diagnosed with autism. Meloy is hardly the first person to write about the fears and struggles of raising a child, but the difficulty of raising one whose brain works so differently lends it added pathos. Parenting can be a source of existential angst, I’ve been told, unique from the usual day to day angst of just living. Which could also be a source of creative inspiration, if children weren’t so damn labor-intensive and distracting. That’s probably not why the pool of pop songs inspired by children is relatively small (writers of pop songs can afford childcare, usually.) It’s just that nobody wants to hear a pop song about being responsible and sleep-deprived from constant worry; those things are most people’s daily reality. We want our pop stars to be sleep-deprived from cocaine binges and consequence-free sex.
Sometimes the quiet song in the middle of the album, that you don’t really notice between all the hits, is what ends up becoming your favorite. I’ve been discovering Arctic Monkeys this year, after holding out on them for a long time, and this little song, surprisingly, is one of the ones that made me go, “Wow this is some pretty rad songwriting.” Songs with loud guitar solos and a catchy chorus are what’s designed to impress you, that’s why most people frontload their albums with bangers. But sometimes the bangers aren’t actually the most impressive material. I’ve always been a proponent of discovering deep tracks out of context. That’s something the magic of going digital has allowed us to very easily do, and it say what you will about the degradation of the album as a cohesive artistic statement, but I freaking love picking songs out of order and just hearing them on their own. You can experience a work in an entirely different way that way.
If I had to summarize Sleigh Bells’ sound in one word, I would say ‘chaotic’. Not in the sense that they don’t know what they’re doing or don’t have coherent ideas. On the contrary, their sound is expertly fashioned. It’s just that your head spins with what to make of it. The aggressive contrast between the wall-of-sound noise assault and the bright melodies that run through it, the way Alexis Krauss’s pop tart vocals are distorted, the teeny-bopper reference points, the sheer up-to-11 volume of it. It’s music designed not to be instantly boxed in with one word.
Whatever happened to Sleigh Bells, you ask. Well, they’ve been consistently working and putting out albums. They just released an EP, cleverly titled Kid Khrushchev, a couple of months ago. And they’ve been consistently good albums, too. The reason you’re not hearing hype about it is because in the past seven years, what Sleigh Bells were doing has become what everyone is doing. There are so many groups out there mixing noise pop with grunge rock with feedback with harmony vocals with bad gal attitude. In 2010, Sleigh Bells were the only noise pop grunge duo, and they – for lack of a better word – slayed us with their originality. It’s hard to overstate that. When I first heard Sleigh Bells, it was like nothing else on the radio. Treats was one of my most-played records that year; I couldn’t stop blasting it over and over. It was so fresh, so LOUD, so take it or leave it, so much fun. That’s not an impression that’s easy to make twice, and since then, Sleigh Bells have become just another cool-girl rock-pop band. They’re still good, but they’re not the frontline anymore. But they really kicked off the decade.
This is a song I’ve spend hours of my life listening to, even though I can’t say that I really enjoy it. It pushes my buttons emotionally. I can relate to its anger and love. But it’s also not something I need to hear all the time, which is why I’ve listened to Lucinda Williams much less in recent years. I don’t need emotional crutch music the way that I used to. When you’re inexperienced, young and stupid, you need something that teaches you how you should feel, a guide on how to navigate all of the feelings. Now that I’m not any longer at least two out of those three things, I don’t really care about feelings anymore. Feelings are not longer interesting. But it’s sometimes nice to revisit things that used to be massively important, and in the case of music, maybe learn to appreciate it in a new context.
Remember Bianca Jagger’s 1977 birthday party that found her riding into Studio 54 astride a white horse led by naked male dancers? You were there, yes? That was probably the single most iconic moment of the disco era. It was also, of course, the jet-setting celebrity demimonde making a not-subtle in-joke about their own lifestyle. We all know what white horses are a symbol of. These were people for whom cocaine formed the basis of a food pyramid that included not much else. That kind of flagrancy wouldn’t be possible today, because today’s glamorous stars like to pretend that they become svelte through holistic means and not by blood-money amphetamines. (Also, that poor horse!) Cocaine’s good name has been dragged by its trashy cousin crack, the next-generation cool party kids have their own cool party drugs. But the disco mystique of the 70’s lingers, for a variety of complex reasons, as the halcyon ideal of libertine living, and we can’t stop paying tribute to it for its glamour and its hedonism, and from our post-war-on-drugs post-AIDS-epidemic vantage point, its comparative optimism and innocence. Hence, neo-disco musicians like Goldfrapp, whose take may be post-modern but not entirely ironic in its admiration.