September 23, 2008

Fables of the Deconstruction

The Wicked Messenger


If you have been paying attention to the LEO letters page over the last couple months, you may have become aware of a kerfuffle regarding a LEO critic who panned an album by Alejandro Escovedo. One reader advised that he might have agreed with the reviewer, but the review lacked any basis for knowing; the writer never referenced the music.

I missed that review, but I caught the crazy little storm of responses, and it encouraged me that LEO readers were so engaged in the publication’s presentation of music criticism. Unfortunately, the readers seemed to have a better sense of the critic’s function than the reviewer did.

Somewhere in the midst of the “controversy,” the same writer panned another album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea by the Silver Jews, in a similar fashion, in part begging poet/singer David Berman to stop making music entirely. But again, he never described a note, a sound or a lyrical concept from the record. This time, the writer got my attention. I had heard this record, had bought it with my own money, and I thought it deserved a rounder perspective.

It was about this time that I received an unsolicited e-mail from the writer, celebrating that fact that the Forecastle Festival was upset by the “positive” coverage he gave their musical line-up in (another local paper). Full disclosure: The writer and I had been friendly acquaintances for a number of years. I had been enthusiastic of a curiously compiled article he had written about Bonny “Prince” Billy/Will Oldham last year.

So I engaged a brief e-mail correspondence with him, but we were unable to see eye to eye on a number of ideas. I was bothered by the fact that he refused to see why the Forecastle people were offended by his needlessly snarky comments, and I tried to take him to school a bit regarding the objectives of criticism, but he ultimately broke it off with a note saying, “It would probably be more fun and worthwhile if we didn’t misunderstand each other’s jokes and/or ideas.” Uh, huh?

While the traditional view of criticism is based on education and objectivity, popular music criticism practically requires subjectivity; readers need to know more about a writer’s personal preferences when we trade in absolute recommendations. The challenge is for writers to help readers recognize, in very short order, whether they will agree with the writer’s perspective. Fail at that, and you might as well go sell shoes.

Meanwhile, that Silver Jews album is a challenging collection of unconventional (even wrong-headed) ideas. The production smashes together schmaltz and bare bones classic Nashville studio workmanship in a way that might rankle even the most open-minded of pop and/or alt-country music fans. The singer’s deep nasal drone is partnered with some of the most obnoxiously cherubic female background vocals ever committed to a digital hard drive. And Berman’s lyrics, which have always been acerbic, droll, cynical, have suddenly become bright, optimistic, upbeat! What is he trying to do, alienate even his most enthusiastic fans?

In short, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is a dreadfully unique effort. I found it fascinating. I loved that it was so arch to my expectations and I would recommend the experience to anybody who’s been bored by the last 10 or 50 records they’ve heard. And, please forgive me my “valley girl” enthusiasm, but I would totally go see him play if he came to town. 

Full disclosure: Berman used to live in Louisville, and we used to be pleasantly acquainted. One night at the Mag Bar, he shared with me his enthusiasm for the movie “8mm,” basically arguing that it defied the standard structure that we as entertainment consumers have been programmed to expect from mainstream cinema. That conversation remains one of the most important revelations of my “career” as a critic. It also puts his work in a necessary perspective.

During a subsequent encounter, Berman, apparently bothered by something I wrote about him elsewhere, dismissed my friendship utterly, shouting, “You are my enemy!” You gotta love the passion in that. Since then, it has been reported to me via Berman’s wife, Cassie (also a former Louisvillian), that David’s attitude has mellowed, that he has turned his back on his notorious drug years (which may explain the change in his writing) and that he might even be happy to see me at one of his shows. I wonder if I’ll be on the guest list.  


For further listening: Stephen Prina’s masterpiece Push Comes to Love and Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine.