Tuesday, May 15, 2012

COMMENTARY: Writing Album Reviews are the Hardest Reviews You Will Ever Write

Writing Album Reviews are the Hardest Reviews You Will Ever Write
                Recently, I received an email asking me if I was going to be reviewing the new Pennywise album, which was due out about a month after my receiving the email, and this simple truth hit me like a ton of bricks:  Writing album reviews are the hardest reviews you will ever write.    Here I was with about a month to truly capture and let sink in this piece of music when three months from now my opinion can completely change.
                First off, album reviews are the hardest because other media (and when I say “other media” I’m referring to movies, plays, books, comic books, video games, live music, you know anything else which is reviewed by normal people) tends to be a one-off in terms of writing.    You could go see a play on a Saturday night, write the review on Sunday and have it online by Monday.    A new movie premiering on Friday night could be reviewed by you a week in advance.   The point is, most other media only needs to be consumed one time for it to be reviewed.   Most people only read a book once and then write their review of it.   I feel this is the case will all media except for music albums.   I know that is a broad generalization to make but I think it is a fair one.
                On one hand, using movies as an example, other media tells a story which music really does not.    For movies (as well as books and most other media) you have a plot, cast of characters, etc. to write about.   For music you’re mainly writing about two things:  The lyrical content and the overall sound.   When you have a debut album by a band it’s easier because you can simply say: “This new band is great.  They sound like such and such meets such and such only with a harpsichord”.     When you get to that same band’s second or even third album all you really want to say is:  “You either like this band or you don’t, but you should at least know how they sound.  If you like them, these are twelve new songs you will also like.  If you don’t like them, then these songs will not win you over”.   Granted, there are the instances when a band makes a new album that might not live up to the expectations of its loyal fan base, but I don’t have the time here to take into account every hypothetical.
                As far as movies are concerned, it’s still very easy to say:  “This is the new Quentin Tarantino movie.  If you liked his previous movies, you’ll like this”.   And the same thing can be said of authors and the books they write.   Only, for some reason, it seems like movies and books often come out sometimes and they might leave you disappointed more than a follow up album would.   But at the very least if it’s a new movie by an established director you can still talk about the plot, effects, cast and how they acted, specific scenes that the director probably put in just so you could write about them in your review and just the overall vibe of the movie (Such as “This is Tarantino’s tribute to war movies”) 
                When it comes to music I think it’s less of the case than not that I will listen to album and either be able to instantly pass it off as something I like or don’t like and stick with that belief later on.   There are some albums out there (Which I won’t name) that I’ve listened to and said “Nope!” then never gone back to listen to again.    However, when I think of examples for this, I think of the album The Walking Wounded by Bayside, their third full length.   I got that album a few months before it came out and thought- at the time- that it was a good album, but just wasn’t up to par with their previous two which I really love.    Now, some years later, if you asked me I’d tell you that is in fact probably my favorite of all the Bayside albums and one that I’ve probably listened to more than any other.    Why does this happen?   Why is music this way?    With a movie, you can have a good movie and only have to see it once.    I recently watched the movie “Limitless” with Bradley Cooper and it kept my interest throughout the entire length and was just all around enjoyable to me.    Based on that, you could say it was a good movie and you could say that everyone should watch it at least once, but I wouldn’t be likely to watch it again.   But therein lays the problem, as an album- whether it be good or bad- can’t really catch a fair break by just one listen through.   We are trained to listen to music not only more than once, but forever so that it withstands the test of time.   Do I feel the same way now that I did as teenager about the songs of The Doors?   No, I have a new and somewhat different appreciation of the band.  
                The basic idea is that good music- not even great music, just good music- has to persevere in some way.   And you can’t tell me whether or not something will still be relevant and important to you years from now after listening to it a handful of times and writing a review.    By recording music and reviewing, we’ve kind of damned ourselves in that way.   With the internet, everyone wants everything and they want it five minutes ago.   But to truly understand that piece of music it probably needs to be reviewed after five years of listening to it (or five hundred listens) or maybe ten years and a thousand listens.    I don’t know.   But the urgency in album reviews created by society (and which in turn comes out looking like mere sentences in so-called credible magazines I won’t name by name) really makes the entire process harder on everybody.    You may not get a really get album for seven years, but by the time that you do, that band is already broken up and onto something new because at the time the music came out it didn’t get a strong review.  
                To make album reviews easier would be to make life easier—it is something that I neither know how to do nor could speculate on how to accomplish.   All I know is that it really isn’t anyone’s fault I just thought it needed to be addressed.
                (For the record, this has nothing to do with my newfound knowledge that The Star Land Vocal Band beat out Elvis Costello for a Grammy award.)

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