My Father’s Son
Maybe I’m trying to assuage my own guilt for writing about Lightning Bolt while still in the flush of infatuation with the record, but I’m still hung up on the relationship between critics and fans (and fan-critics, critic-fans, etc.). David Foster Wallace, in an review essay about a dictionary of modern English usage, wrote about how reviews are written to coincide with the marketing of new media–be it books, albums, movies, etc. The implicit reason-to-be for reviews is not ultimately to answer how successful a given work is (although this is what, I think, good critics strive their damndest toward), but to answer the consumer’s question: should I buy this?
As Foster Wallace pointed out (and you should all pick up every single one of his collected essay volumes–the essay in question is in Consider the Lobster), this may be crass but it’s undeniable. Record labels and book publishers (I’ve worked for both) and movie studios and everyone involved in those economic webs relies on reviews as recommendations to purchase. So, for fans of a band or author or movie franchise, get awfully invested and hung up on these reviews, which can feel as if the critics are making judgments on their own personal tastes, because of the power critics have to elevate or diminish a piece of art in the marketplace. In our corporate capitalist society, there are deep tensions between what we know to be true–which is that enjoyment of art is personal, and an album, for example, is not empirically “better” or “worse” because of its sales or lack of same in the global marketplace, and what the machine of industry and media tries to tell us every day. For instance, McDonald’s is successful because it makes the best food, and not because of aggressive marketing and franchising and other business maneuvers. It’s all chicken-and-egg and fraught and too time-consuming to think about most of the time, but on an individual level, it makes fans who do think and care about reviews feel both competitive and defensive. We want to see the things we love get loved in the marketplace, even though the marketplace is in many ways (increasingly) a house of cards. We still want our deep feelings about art validated.
But keeping in mind that the role of reviewers in sales cycles and marketing roll-outs, that simmering cauldron of conflicted feelings cools down a little bit. I’m not so much pissed off anymore when something I enjoy gets shat on by other people, as much as I am by lazy criticism. And boy howdy has the attention paid to Lightning Bolt been lazy. Even the positive or mostly positive reviews have been full of what Foster Wallace would call “boners.” It wasn’t a review, but during the World Series (soundtracked almost entirely by Pearl Jam songs old and new), Joe Buck called “Animal” a new Pearl Jam song. Probably not even Buck’s fault, I’m sure he didn’t write the copy, but whoever did: LAZY! Faced with deadlines, and writing so soon after the release of a piece of music, critics reach for classic narratives and do their best to couch what’s new into stories it thinks will help give their readership the appropriate context. But this starts to get self-fulfilling, in that the narrative of a band’s career trajectory doesn’t always hew to the reality of the music itself, but to the marketplace.
[SIDE NOTE: I SWEAR TO GOD I’M WORKING MY WAY TOWARD THE SONG IN QUESTION. PATIENCE, GRASSHOPPERS]
Take for instance, when No Code dropped in 1996. I think it’s legitimate to say that the choice of “Who You Are” as the lead single, and lot of the sounds and textures of that album probably shed a lot of the bros from the fanbase who tend to recoil at the first hint of experimentalism. But once the shrinking audience meme entered the criticsphere, it became self-perpetuating, and everything the band did thereafter became part of a story about whether or not the band was trying to recapture its initial huge fanbase. And just because of the way capitalism works on our brains collectively, the underlying assumption is that of course bands are always concerned about this stuff first and foremost. And so on and so forth. Almost every Pearl Jam review post ’96 has made some mention of dwindling sales, hopeful returns to glory, and what-the-fuck. Every Pearl Jam song became a satellite of “Jeremy” or “Alive” or “Daughter” hoping to catch some of its reflected light because the band was getting older, so what else could they do (memes of being “happier” now as mostly married with children adults, and how that affects the music, have also started in, which make me puke for related but different reasons).
This has really come to a head with Lightning Bolt, and the assertions by even the more positive reviews that the album doesn’t really offer anything new to the band’s legacy, and that the album lacks the energy of the band’s youth. One review talked about how the band had written “Yellow Moon” before, and better–without naming what song or why. I’m sorry, but I overthink this shit as good as anyone, and I think I can safely say that the band has never released a song like “Yellow Moon.” The same goes for “My Father’s Son.” This is a different question than whether or not the song is reflective of its author’s (in this case, Jeff Ament) musical trademarks, or has predecessors within the canon. I think it is, and does. Obviously Jeff Ament is going to write music like Jeff Ament writes music, and not like, I don’t know, Macklemore (thank Christ). But the point is, and I think Ament would agree, that the reason he keeps writing is to develop and grow as a writer, and incorporate new ideas into the old, and evolve. And “My Father’s Son,” to me, is a clear example of this. The verses sound gloriously ugly to me, with their half-note progressions, overstuffed with Eddie’s frantic vocals. This sounds like an extremely difficult song for the band to play, and it’s a testament to the rhythm section of Ament and Cameron that they pull it off without sounding like they’re laboring too hard or trying to play catch up. Then the song explodes into an almost comically lovely, bucolic bridge (though with no less energy or busy-ness of production palette). If you’ve seriously listened to the band’s entire catalog, I don’t know where there’s a single other song that does what this song does on a musical level. It may have some ancestors (I’ll say “Evacuation” and “Help Help” for starters), but this is also fresh, and new. It’s a reptile that has sprouted wings.
Whether or not that appeals to everyone or not is beside the point to me, and I frankly don’t care. It’s perfectly acceptable to me if someone is turned off by this, or any, song. But to not acknowledge it for what it is, or to lazily categorize it as something it is not drives me nuts. But of course I shouldn’t expect critics under deadline, and who aren’t so obsessed, and who have to listen to a shit ton of music and communicate to vast audiences of people who may not know or care about everything the band has done, to you know, spend time on actually analyzing a song on its own merits. That’s just not the nature of the beast.
***Side/Endnote–I just want to add, re: the band’s energy level on this album. It’s an easy thing to imagine that a band of almost 50-somethings would be “tired” or “complacent” on their tenth album. But seriously, play Riot Act immediately after Lightning Bolt and tell me that it doesn’t sound like it’s been slowed down.