Friday, July 18, 2014

Can You Enjoy an Album with Friends?

While films are best enjoyed with other people - you go to the cinema with your friends, or get them 'round your house to watch a DVD - music is often characterised as the refuge of the loner. If you want to see the latest big movie, you rifle through your phonebook to see who's available; if you want to listen to that new album that everyone's talking about, you go up to your bedroom and put on your headphones. Alone.

Obviously there are environments like clubs and gig venues where music becomes a shared experience, but this is The Album Wall, not The Sticky Floor - I'm specifically talking about listening to albums in full, the way you'd watch a film in full at your local Cineworld. Can you enjoy an album when you're listening to it with other people? Can the presence of other people actually enhance one's appreciation of an album? Or is it always better when you're on your own?

Personally, I would almost always choose the 'alone' option. Music can make social events far more enjoyable (hence clubbing), but I feel like that's a one-way street - music improves the time we spend with other people, but other people rarely contribute much to the enjoyment of music. In fact, they can be rather a big distraction, and if you're really listening to an album, you don't want anybody talking over it.

Still, there are those who appreciate a little company when they listen to an album. Vinyl clubs have become quite popular of late; the idea is that everybody sits down, listens to a record in its entirety, and remains completely silent until the end of Side 2 (or Side 4 if it's a double LP). Then, presumably, they all talk about it for a bit before going their separate ways.

It sounds like a fun idea, but what does the presence of other people actually add to the experience of listening to Trout Mask Replica in obedient silence? Sure, you can chat to like-minded fans of the album after it's over, but I can do that on the internet without having to be painfully self-conscious for the preceding eighty minutes.

I mean, Jesus, imagine listening to that 'fast and bulbous' bit while surrounded by silent strangers. Even if I knew that they all loved it, I'd still feel ashamed of myself.

Even more bizarre is the concept of an album playback party. They aren't so common nowadays, but back in the Be Here Now era, music journalists would often be forced to sit quietly with a bunch of other music journalists while the latest big chartbuster played on a stereo at the other end of the room. This one listen - brief, impersonal, and probably more than a little uncomfortable - would then be the foundation for an entire feature, and frankly I've no idea how they did it. There are CDs that I bought in Year 10 that I'd still struggle to write anything meaningful about now.

(Side note: the whole daft album playback thing is brilliantly skewered in this Guardian article by Caroline Sullivan. It's well worth a read if you've still got a few minutes spare by the time you're done reading this.)

Then, of course, there's the one place in which we've all shared albums with our friends: the car. What car journey wouldn't have been improved by a CD in the stereo (or, failing that, an iPod cable in the aux hole)? Everyone loves a good sing-along from the backseat, and so it's tempting to say that, yes, the road is the one place where albums with friends actually do work.

But! Once again, I'd argue that this is a case of music improving the party, rather than the party enhancing the music. The best car CD is the one that you're already entirely familiar with - those are the songs that you can sing, and those are the recordings that you can enjoy without taking your mind off the road.

(Second side note: there's probably a dissertation to be written about the effects of known music vs. unknown music on the concentration of motorists. But I'm not writing it today.)

I'll admit that listening to music with another person is great when you're both enjoying it and you can wiggle your eyebrows at each other during the good bits, but by that same token, a great album can be completely ruined when you get the sense that your listening partner isn't really digging it.

For example, I love Loss by the Mull Historical Society, but my father put me off that album for quite a while when I put it on the car and he got annoyed at how repetitive the lyrics were.

"This is not who we were/This is not who we meant to be" x 1,000,000

So while I'll certainly concede that it's possible to enjoy an album in the company of others, I don't think I'll ever come to believe that it's preferable. Feel free to disagree, though - the comments are down there, or you can tweet me your rebuttal if you'd prefer.

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