Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #63 XO

One of my pet peeves in the 33 1/3 series of books is when author's writing with interesting angles suddenly break off their discussions to offer a linear song-by-song explication of the album. Typically, these song-by-song sections are boring and uninspired. They convey information that isn't particularly new, or interesting, or even necessary (which we see when the song-by-song sections devolve, bafflingly, into awkward, clunky descriptions of how songs sound--the music book equivalent of stopping to write a forty page summary of a novel for a piece of literary criticism). But just because these song-by-song sections are usually lazy and unnecessary, that doesn't mean they can't have any place in a work of music criticism. Enter Matthew LeMay's mostly interesting and well-written counter-analysis of Elliott Smith's XO. LeMay starts his book with a fairly straight-forward and inspired mission--to re-examine Smith's work outside of the cultural fetishes of mental illness, drug abuse, and suicide. LeMay argues that Smith has been taken too literally, and his work done a disservice by critics and fans who elevate the "singer-songwriter's" work because of the narratives surrounding him, not because of the exceptional quality of that work. In order to achieve this, LeMay approaches Smith's work on the level of craft--by providing both literary readings of the song's lyrics, and illustrating how Smith's songs evolved over time, it becomes clear that much of what fans believe to be autobiographical is not, and those songs about a tortured soul always on the verge of suicide maybe shouldn't be read quite so literally.

This is why LeMay's use of the song-by-song analysis is so effective. It isn't filler or fluff--the song-by-song is the book. LeMay treats his analyses as archaeological, in a way. We see how, as lyrics change and bend, their meanings and narratives changing with them, in effect exonerating Smith's music from being sentenced to the songwriter's past. While LeMay is in this analytical mode, his reading of XO is phenomenal.

Where LeMay begins to falter, if only a little, is when he begins dealing more explicitly with other writers' treatments of Smith. In a way, LeMay takes these bits too personally, and fails to recognize the broader context of the most-main-of-mainstream popular culture from which many of these critics were writing. LeMay takes issue with USA Today and Yahoo! Launch articles that describe Smith's sudden rise from "obscurity" to performing at the Oscars. I understand why this seems troubling to LeMay. We've all felt this way, when a buddy says "Hey, I just got this album called Good News For People Who Love Bad News by this new band called Modest Mouse." Just because a band or artist is "new" to the listener/writer/reporter doesn't mean it's new to everyone. But LeMay seems to expect that the primary audiences of USA Today and Yahoo! Launch--the people for whom their writers are writing--would be at all interested in Elliott Smith's past. In a way, LeMay's one failure with this book is his inability to separate the mainstream press from indie culture, and taking that mainstream press to task for trying to present an artist who defied narrativization to a fickle, and largely uninterested mainstream audience. At one point, LeMay is critical of a critic for referring to a particular club in L.A. as small when, in fact, it's a nice-sized club for nice-sized touring acts. Here's the problem--the majority of the audience for which the initial article was written would probably list their most recent concert experience as U2 or Celine Dion or Garth Brooks at Big-Ass-Fucking-Arena-United in 1996.

To this end, some of LeMay's argument feels a bit disingenuous because he doesn't account for the the real mainstream popular culture in the late nineties and early aughts when Smith was getting press. This does not, however, take anything away from LeMay's exceptional work tracing the evolution of Smith's songs, and the argument that he makes in separating Smith's music from the tragic narrative of the artist, himself.

No comments:

Post a Comment