Kyle Ryan: To begin with, a scene from Trainspotting:
Sick Boy:Well, at one time, you've got it, and then you lose it, and it's gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example, had it and lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed—
Renton:Some of his solo stuff's not bad.
Sick Boy:No, it's not bad, but it's not great either, is it? And in your heart, you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it's actually just shite.
Renton:So who else?
Sick Boy:Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley—
Renton:Okay, okay, so what's the point you're trying to make?
Sick Boy:All I'm trying to do is help you understand that The Name Of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise-uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Renton:What about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy:I don't rate that at all.
Renton:Despite the Academy Award?
Sick Boy:That means fuck-all. The sympathy vote.
Renton:Right. So we all get old and then we can't hack it any more. Is that it?
Renton:That's your theory?
Sick Boy:Yeah, beautifully fucking illustrated.
You have it, then you don't.It doesn't get simpler—or truer—than that. Although Sick Boy is mostly talking about Sean Connery here, his assessment clearly applies to musicians as well. One day you're making White Light, White Heat, the next you're making Metal Machine Music.
Granted, life is never that black and white, but the assertion still makes sense. When The Rolling Stones released A Bigger Banglast year, scoring massive kudos from Rolling Stonemagazine, I had to wonder: Did the magazine overcompensate because the album wasn't terrible? Was it a matter of "Hey, this doesn't suck, so it must be a come-from-nowhere return to form!" I still have my doubts about the critical accolades gleefully heaped upon Bob Dylan's new Modern Times.
We all wantour musical heroes to keep making great music. When Bob Mould released his techno-rock album Modulatein 2002, I was one of the few saying, "It's not that bad!" Although I still argue that the outrage was overblown, I knew the album had some real clunkers. And when Mould made a more guitar-rock-focused album last year, people acted like he was making Zen Arcade Part II. He wasn't, but fans want to believe in the possibility.
I'm sad to say it, but I think Sick Boy has it right, to some degree. You have it, then you lose it. I'd argue some artists find it again (to a certain degree), but I don't believe you can hold onto "it"—whatever that means—for decades. To quote Abe Simpson:"I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, whatI'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me."
Josh Modell: I mostly have to agree, even though it feels painfully hipsterish to do so. It's just the way of the world, apparently, that bands tend to peak early. Maybe it's the novelty that does it—things can only be new once—but it does seem terribly often that I say, dejectedly, "It's not as good as their first album."
Whether you allow it to color your later opinions matters, though. I listened to the new Decemberists record several times and didn't really feel it, because it wasn't (and isn't!) as good as their first two. But I listened to it closely over the weekend, and found plenty to love. But I always go back to this: I have a ton of records. When it comes time, in a year or two, to pull out a Decemberists disc, will it be this one? Probably not.
But back to the question of forgiveness: Oh, yes. We're all guilty of it. We all want someone whose past work touched us—hello, Morrissey!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!—to stay that great forever, and we're willing to look past some terrible (or, worse yet, just mediocre) shit in hopes of finding that feeling again. It rarely happens, no matter how hard we wish for it. That's right. We're sitting around here wishing.
Which leads us to The Evens, the band that inspired this discussion. Take it away, Kyle.
Kyle Ryan: When the new album by The Evens, Get Evens, showed up at the office about a month ago, I wish I could say I was excited. I wasn't apathetic, either. My reaction lurked somewhere in the middle of those two extremes: interested, but not terribly eager. I think I liked the band's 2005 debut more in my mind than I actuallyliked it. I probably just wantedto like it.
Why? Because The Evens is the latest project of Ian MacKaye, the punk-rock icon and man behind similarly iconic bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. It's hard to overstate how much MacKaye has influenced me personally and my musical tastes. (Not to mention the vast influence he's had on punk rock.) In high school, I had "MINOR THREAT" written in Liquid Paper on my backpack. Like nearly all punk teens, I dallied in straight-edge—the no-drinking/no-drugs lifestyle captured in the Minor Threat song "Straight Edge." When I heard 13 Songs, Fugazi's debut album, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. And I kept up my enthusiasm, especially for their 2001 record, The Argument, which I thought was a tour de force, to use a cliché.
With Fugazi in hibernation indefinitely, all we MacKaye fans have is The Evens. While I've enjoyed MacKaye's extracurricular projects—Embrace, Pailhead, Egghunt—all those bore a strong resemblance to MacKaye's signature sound: i.e., aggressive guitar rock. The Evens trade exclusively in quiet, poppy songs constructed solely with guitar, drums, and vocals (MacKaye's and partner Amy Farina's). If you read MacKaye's interview with Punk Planetlast year, you'll know The Evens are part of his new war on volume. His argument: The extreme volume of rock music drastically limits it—where it can be performed, how it can be performed, who hears it, etc. The Evens use only a tiny PA, and they keep their voices down.
I should note that I'm not a style Nazi. Actually, I tend to like it when artists aggressively test their musical limits. Intellectually, I like the ideabehind The Evens (and also Fugazi bassist Joe Lally's new, nearly unlistenable solo album), but the music simply doesn't grab me. To be honest, it bores me. The songs mostly lack any kind of hook, but they aren't interestingly experimental, either: They're just kind of there. In the past, I've admired MacKaye for a personal style that no one could duplicate. Yet the songs on The Evens' past two albums mostly lack that fingerprint.
When The Evens played here, I wanted to go, but mostly out of obligation. (I ended up being unable to go to their two shows.) MacKaye has certainly earned the right to do whatever the hellhe wants, and I'll give it more than a fair listen simply because it's him.
Josh Modell: Well, I went to the Evens show, though I wasn't exactly excited. Like you, I think I have the tendency to forgive art—music, movies, whatever—based on the artist's track record. The first Evens record was decent; MacKaye still sings like MacKaye, though softer, and some of the songs were good, but it's not even in the same area code as In On The Kill Taker. Which is fine. Let the man move on, since he clearly doesn't expect the masses to follow.
Which reminds me: The Chicago shows were in a fieldhouse in Pulaski Park, which was quite cool (though the sound kinda sucked). The first time I saw Fugazi (which, I was shocked to realize, was more than half my life ago, in 1989), they played in a similarly non-traditional venue that later became a Buddhist temple or something. With this Evens show, and the Evens' idea in general, he's bringing the music back to that level, taking some of the bullshit out. If he has to make less interesting music to get where he's comfortable, that's fine.
Plus, the assemblage for the second show, probably 200-300 people, seemed genuinely excited and ready to connect. MacKaye was cheery, too, getting people to sing and whistle along and giving little speeches about the purity of music. He's an interesting, smart, talented guy, and seeing him perform a song like "Mount Pleasant," which comes across clumsy on record, makes something click.
Kyle Ryan: That's a whole other debate, though. There are plenty of bands and albums that die in the studio, but succeed in a live setting. Maybe the context of being out of context—i.e., in a random fieldhouse—is key for The Evens. Maybe this style suits a VH1 Storytellers format, which is how your description sounded to me. That would make sense, considering MacKaye's age and place in his career.
What would Sick Boy think? I have a feeling the word "shite" would be involved. But I honestly don't believe MacKaye has lost it. Just five years ago, he and his Fugazi bandmates released one of their finest albums, 11 years after 13 Songs came out. I believe MacKaye (and Farina) have the ability to make a fantastic album, so I'm not ready to give up on The Evens yet. Bowie? Reed? Well, that's a different story.
Josh Modell: Indeed. Let's say Sick Boy is mostly right, though, shall we? Fugazi is the exception that proves the rule: They made great records from start to finish, and apparently had the good sense to hang it up when they felt like it was finished. They could come back and do a huge tour (maybe with $7 tickets instead of $5!) but they won't.
Maybe MacKaye, being the sharp fella that he is, knows that you can't go home again, and that you shouldn't try. Even a guy like Bob Dylan, who's released pretty solid albums in recent years, knows that people want to hear the old stuff: His recent Chicago show featured four songs from the new album, and a whole lot more old classics. Not deep cuts, either: "Maggie's Farm," "Highway 61," "Like A Rolling Stone."
Maybe the problem is simply that rock 'n' roll, with some notable exceptions, is a young man's game. Abe Simpson proves unwittingly wise yet again.