In Defense of the Album

I’m a week late on Alyssa’s comments on the potential decline of the album, but I’ve spent that week listening to the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday (which the above song opens) on loop. There was a time when I was a fierce defender of the claim that Boys and Girls in America was their strongest overall album, and it’s true that the latter still dominates when it comes to perfectly crafted singles–but when it comes to sprawling, epic rock, Sunday is pretty much peerless.

And it also pretty well demonstrates, I think, why it would be a sad thing to lose the album altogether. I’ll freely admit that the economics of releasing tracks individually make a lot of sense for artists just starting out, and that a sizable majority of the LPs that get released these days–even by really good artists–have their fair share of filler. But I also think that an album, as an artistic statement, is still a big deal. A single song doesn’t convey the same message an album does, which is: this is us. This is our sound. This is where we are at this point in time.

That’s because the album puts a demand on the artist/band to develop some sort of cohesive sound or texture while still providing enough room for variety. The result is you get this new context to watch the stages of development they go through; think of how amazing it is to watch Radiohead’s progression from the mediocre Pablo Honey through The Bends, OK Computer, and finally the deeply weird Kid A.

Plus, there’s the way in which a good album rises and falls. Let’s go back to Separation Sunday, and its final two songs (ignore the visuals if you like):

On its own, that first song–“Crucifixion Cruise”–isn’t all that hot. But as a lead-in to “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” it’s damn near perfect. And I’d argue that it strengthens the latter quite a bit to have the former precede it.

More broadly, I feel like in any medium, from music to film to literature, both the artist and the audience can benefit from these sort of lengthier, time-intensive projects. They demand more work from the artist and more attention from the audience, but, if done correctly, the payoffs expand proportionately.

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2 Responses

  1. […] a couple days ago when I was defending the album? (Evidently this blog is now mostly given over to providing aggressive pushback against claims […]

  2. Alyssa says: “Without the pressure to accumulate enough tracks to fill up an album, artists can release material whenever they’ve got good songs, without waiting for it to accumulate or releasing uneven records that taint their legacies.”

    I agree with you, Ned, about what message an album can convey, and I’d like to add that it be better for recording artists to just release good albums? How about “having enough talent to accumulate enough tracks to fill up a good album”? Which is to say: if Your Favorite Singer should stop releasing albums because he or she can’t produce enough decent songs to fill an album’s length, then Your Favorite Singer should maybe not be your favorite singer anymore. Does that make sense? And by “decent,” I mean “decent to the listener,” not “decent to every critic ever.”

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