Now that it’s almost time to pick the best-of of the year, let’s revisit one of last year’s best. Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger has been on my playlist since it came out in the summer of 2016, and it still makes me think “Wow, how does this guy manage to be better than ever?” In fact, I haven’t listened to this much Paul Simon since my days of identifying way too much with I Am a Rock back in high school. Now I hope that I have so much creativity and vitality when I’m freaking 76 years old. Maybe the best years are still ahead, for all of us.
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.
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.
You’ll be hard pressed to find any trace of Nick Cave’s signature wit and mordant humor on Skeleton Tree. The album was recorded in the fallout of family tragedy, and necessarily, the music is stripped down to a funereal bleakness hitherto undelved. The business of show business, however, must go on, and the wheels of the machine that sells records must keep turning. There’s something particularly grotesque, a testament about our time and celebrity culture, in watching a man whose child has just died make the rounds of late night talk show stages to promote a set of songs about deepest tragedy. Nick Cave is, of course, uniquely qualified to face being in this position; the tragic and the grotesque have always been his stomping grounds. He has to, on some level, appreciate the irony. Hence, I suppose, the garish carnival backdrop of his Late Show performance, a gallows joke nonpareil. There’s that sense of humor after all.
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.