Monday, November 15, 2010

Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights

Much of what I learned about writing I learned as a young music journalist. I think I was sixteen when I started out with Splendid Magazine, the now-dead semi-pro online music publication operated on the sheer will and moxie of George Zahora. I owe George a tremendous debt of gratitude for his patience and confidence, for everything he taught me, for the opportunities he gave me when I needed them most.

The difficulty of writing about music when you don't actually know much about music is not in itself insurmountable. Most music journalists don't know shit. They get by (I got by) largely by way of ignorance of their (our) ignorance. The challenge is that you're regularly presented with objects and experiences of such shocking beauty that writing about what you've heard feels worse than obscene: it feels like missing the point.

Splendid was so good because we had an official policy of reviewing literally anything anyone sent us. I mean anything. This meant I listened to a lot of shit and I wrote a fair number of negative reviews, though George was good at reminding us to be fair and rigorous in our criticism even when the artists had been lazy in their art. It also meant I regularly ran into beautiful, amazing things I never would have otherwise heard of. Once every month or so I would get a big box full of albums, press releases, and the occasional Spanish-language comic book. These packages enriched my life more than most of what was going on back then. I was not a very happy person.

Once I got a CD-R with the words "FUCK YOU" carved into its underside with, I have to think, a razor. It was actually really good. The disc's scar tissue was part of the music; it produced a kind of chugging skipping in the audio that was actually beneficial to the affected song. More than anything else I did as a kid or in college, writing for Splendid expanded my understanding of the possibilities for beauty in the world. In a very real and direct way, it made me a better person. I miss writing for Splendid. There was supposed to be another site afterward, but that never happened. I would probably write for George again in a second.

I've tried to keep the chaotic influence of writing for Splendid in my life a number of ways. Reading slush for Puerto and now for Uncanny Valley has been a part of that plan. And but so has my subscription to eMusic. I used to get 90 songs a month for $20. Now it's 50, which is still pretty good. It's enough music for a small enough sum that I can take silly risks. I downloaded K'naan's album, for instance, because I liked a couple tracks. Much of it isn't really for me, but the ones that are for me are great, and I have time to learn to love the rest. This was how I discovered the band Little Teeth, whose bizarre and initially inscrutable Child Bearing Man has been one of my favorite albums of the last five years.

And then sometimes you discover something that you already knew.

Which is to say that Antony and the Johnsons get plenty of press. They get good press because their first album was a bit of a shock to listeners everywhere, and because their second (I Am a Bird Now) started with "Hope There's Someone," one of the most gorgeous, overpowering songs recorded in decades, the sort of song that will last.

However attention from the press does not guarantee the quality of that attention. The last couple of things put out by Antony and the Johnsons were not as good as the things that came before them. They were quieter, and a little dull. They were very well composed and arranged but I didn't feel strongly about them, for them, through them. I think that people listened to Swanlights and they thought, "Well, he's settled in. This is the sort of album he makes now." They didn't notice that Antony had achieved in this album what he was attempting in the previous albums. Which is too bad, because noticing is their job.

Or it may be the difficulty of writing about the album. What you do as a music journalist, if you don't really know much about music, which again the majority most certainly do not, is you try to refract through your prose the beauty and the particular pungency of whatever it is you're reviewing. You take on a little of the voice, a little of the music in your writing. But how do you do that with a song like this?

I do not know how to do that with a song like that one. Or this one:

What could they say? The compositions are gorgeous in that each piece is subtle in that it does not announce itself excessively or preen, and yet their relationships to each other are obvious, one might say iconic, and the emotional tenor of every element is immediately clear and urgent in itself, in addition to its relationship to the other elements. There are songs that drift or lilt but the drift or the lilt is not listlessness, it is the feeling, it is the beauty. And then they build and bloom. You feel them. What people wanted that they weren't getting was to be commanded by the music. Now the music is commanding without manipulation. It is itself, naked and easy, and if we do feel compelled then we feel compelled.

I remember lying on my borrowed dormitory bed, the nicest one I'd slept on in years, the first summer I lived alone, on a grant from Butler University. I had just discovered Antony and the Johnsons' first two albums. I would turn the volume up and let it happen.

I have a similar feeling listening to Swanlights, an experience of rediscovery. I turn the volume up and I am made a better person. Alphabetically speaking the next album in my iTunes playlist is Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. It feels crass by comparison. I rewind and listen again.

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