Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Am I Supposed to Understand This?

"Beneath his surface of corruscating omniscience beats a kindly heart. He seems to want you to be in on his jokes, to share the joyous agility of his conceptual and linguistic leaps, the abundance of his cornucopiously stocked memory, and not to sit gazing at him from the cheap seats in resentful admiration."

The above quote is taken from David Gates' introduction to Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, a book that I just started reading. Now, I've read some Barthelme before, and his stories are bonkers - they mess tirelessly with structure and language whilst constantly teetering on the edge of nonsense. Much of Forty Stories (the Barthelme collection I've already read) seemed designed to baffle; Gates' introduction was reassuring, in a way, because it suggested that Barthelme's writing actually does make sense if you read around it. Apparently, Barthelme was always happy to explain himself when questioned in interviews and the like. It's just that he draws from a very diverse reference pool, one that no normal human could hope to comprehend.

All of which got me wondering about albums. Do bands and artists do enough to help us fully understand their work? And how often do they actually want us to understand it in the first place?

Songs and albums are like frogs - it's hard to dissect them using only your ears. If my Silver Gymnasium blogs taught me anything, it's that hearing something is rarely enough to form an idea of its meaning, no matter how hard you listen. I mean, my guesses about that album were all over the place until I glanced at the liner notes - I thought it was about a hiking trip gone awry, when really it's Will Sheff taking a good, long look at his smalltown childhood.

That's one important distinction between books and albums: the liner notes, which give the artist a platform to flesh things out and reveal a little more about the songs on the CD. The Okkervil River album came wrapped in all kinds of supplementary material, and while none of the answers it provided were especially straightforward, it certainly helped to bring the album to life.

And that's before you discover the interactive map.

Of course, some artists squander this platform and opt to waste the inlay on band photos and artist credits. Do they do this because they don't want us to over-analyse their music when we should be enjoying it? Or because they think the meanings are self-evident? Or because they want us to listen for ourselves and draw our own conclusions, instead of being spoon-fed the 'true' meaning?

There's a whole 'death of the author' argument that I could get into here, but instead, I'm going to show you a conversation I had on Twitter recently. For reference, Fbb is a rather good song from Quiet Marauder's MEN (a.k.a the best album of 2013):

So this is an example of a guess theory I came up with when I didn't have any actual facts to hand. And, as it turns out, my guess theory was actually more interesting than the golden nugget of truth at the heart of it all. In fact, Simon from Quiet Marauder said it himself:

So perhaps this is why artists don't spell it out on the back of the sleeve. Not so much because they name their songs by slapping the keyboard and hoping that someone will read too much into it, but because song meanings are more interesting when the listener chisels 'em out on his or her own. Even if your guess theory is wrong, it's still valid and it ensures that the song will always mean that little bit more to you.

One plea, though, to songwriters. I don't care if you hide your song's meaning behind oblique poetry and obscure pop culture references that only Google will be able to explain to me. I don't care if you get all coy and evasive whenever an interviewer asks what the hell it all means (this, incidentally, is a crime of which Quiet Marauder certainly cannot be accused). I don't care if you take those secrets to your grave, leaving your fans to piece together whatever small meanings they can, forever frustrated by the knowledge that they're probably incorrect.

Just promise me that there's a meaning in there somewhere. It's no fun cooking up theories about, say, Monkey Gone to Heaven by the Pixies...

"See what I'm saying?" God, shut UP fourteen-year-old me.

...only to read in an earlier comment that the tantalising numerology of that song only came about because 'seven' rhymes with 'heaven'.

Why are you ruining my fun, Frank Black and cor_heaven?

No comments:

Post a Comment