Dead zones: Why we shouldn’t overlook recording artists’ worst work

Dead zones: Why we shouldn’t overlook recording artists’ worst work

Rush’s new album, Clockwork Angels, came out in June. I gave it a fairly glowing review. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised at how good it was. Rush has been on a roll lately, releasing three records over the last decade that rank among the band’s best. Call it a comeback; more or less, it is. Rush, a band known for its vision, had been lost in the weeds for a while—some say since the mid-’80s, when a reliance on slickness and synthesizers pulled the band off course, a misstep that took a decade of grungy overcorrection to fix.

Or at least that’s the general consensus.

Like many devoted music listeners, professional or otherwise, I like hearing others’ opinions about music. I like agreeing. I like disagreeing. I like how differing views make me think about what I’m hearing—and what I’m not. Starting in my teens, I pored through music magazines of all shapes, sizes, and origins. I spoke with my friends and family and my family’s friends and even those supposedly rude clerks at the indie record store, absorbing every morsel of musical opinion I could.

Those opinions served a vital purpose: They helped me form a bedrock of conventional wisdom. That bedrock helped me keep firm footing as I began wandering through the overwhelming preponderance of recorded music in existence. It helped me focus my attention on the few, oh, hundred thousand albums that might actually be worth exploring.

There’s a problem with that, though: Sometimes conventional wisdom is a big, fat liar.

While getting ready to review the new Rush disc, I decided to go back and re-listen to some of the band’s bad albums. Its lost-in-the-weeds albums. The albums that conventional wisdom had long spoken ill of. It turns out they don’t suck at all.

Remember, we’re speaking in a relative sense here. Most Rush fans will agree that even at the band’s stretch of lowest inspiration, it still can still crank out some good songs. But upon reexamination, many of albums that fall squarely in the middle of Rush’s supposed low point—I’ll call it the band’s “dead zone”—aren’t just relatively good. They’re really good. 

For example: 1987’s Hold Your Fire. When it was released amid the fading glow of Rush’s Permanent Waves/Moving Pictures heyday, Hold Your Fire must have felt like a weak echo. The thing is, even a weak echo of prime Rush is pretty fantastic. Yes, there are tons of synths, an instrument that singer-bassist Geddy Lee had gone overboard on. Yes, Alex Lifeson’s guitar is pushed to the background, to the point where it’s often little more than a textural accent. Yes, drummer-lyricist Neal Peart traffics in some of his most unabashedly on-the-nose sentimentality—that is, when he’s not wrapped up in wordplay.

These are all reasons why the album is good.

I can understand why Hold Your Fire must have frustrated Rush fans and critics alike when it came out. As widespread as the use of the synthesizer was in mainstream rock in 1987, the instrument was still seen by traditional rock fans as the crutch of no-talent, single-fingered, new-wave charlatans. When Rush started sounding suspiciously similar to, say, Duran Duran, that was a red flag—especially when it came from the band that once wrote “Working Man.”

Even in ’87, though, rock was shifting toward the bulkier sound that would epitomize grunge and alternative rock in the ’90s. Acts as diverse as Guns N’ Roses and R.E.M. were starting to push grit and distortion back to the fore. (I’d go so far as to argue that those two bands’ respective albums in ’87, Appetite For Destruction and Document, converged to form the true template for grunge—but that’s a topic for another article.) Point being: Rush sounded so far out the loop in ’87, the reaction against Hold Your Fire is understandable. 

The problem is, that context is no longer relevant—but the assessment stuck. In doing so, it cemented Rush’s dead zone: the portion of the band’s catalog that’s been roped off and marked, “Enter at own risk.”

These dead zones happen all the time, and for various reasons. Growing up, I was always led to believe that after Ronnie James Dio left Black Sabbath following 1981’s Mob Rules, there was no Sabbath album worth hearing. True, guitarist Tony Iommi mulishly kept the Sabbath name in circulation, instituting a revolving-door policy for band membership that led to some bizarre albums. It also led to some decent and unsung albums—among them 1992’s Dehumanizer, Dio’s single-album reunion with Sabbath that’s become unfairly obscured in a cloud of critical ridicule and neglect.

Hindsight has a lot to do with this. Historical revisionism cuts both ways, exalting some albums that were initially loathed, and vice versa. Today, you’ll find few music aficionados who will find fault in Michael Jackson’s artistic breakthrough, 1979’s Off The Wall. Even Thriller is hard to mess with. Pretty much anything after that, though, is considered fair game. Thriller’s follow-up, 1987’s Bad, marks the point where Jackson morphed from eccentric heartthrob to sideshow attraction.

Does that make 1991’s Dangerous any less incredible, though? It took Jackson’s death in 2009 before I finally sat down, dismissed the critical consensus, and gave a truly fair listen to Jackson’s post-Thriller output. I found predictable weaknesses—and unexpected peaks. And then there’s Jackson’s solo output before Off The Wall, a five-album dead zone that includes 1975’s silky, understated Forever, Michael.

It says something that even the King Of Pop has vast stretches of perfectly good material that are still relatively unknown to—or even shunned by—the general public. It took effort for me, a Jackson fan for as long as I could recognize music, to fully shake off the conventional wisdom regarding his catalog. I wish I could say that the musical opinions of others don’t affect me, but they do. Sometimes they affirm and strengthen what I already believe. Sometimes they open me up to the complexity of the music in question. Sometimes the make me run screaming in the opposite direction.

And sometimes, they’re right. There are a lot of bad albums rattling around in the closets of otherwise great artists. But even then, they shouldn’t be ignored on principle. Nor do they have to be listened to ironically. As subjective as taste is, it’s hard to find many who will defend, say, Metallica’s ReLoad or Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. These albums are flawed, but I don’t think you can get a full picture of what a band is about—how it’s evolved, what pressure does to it, how failure or the threat thereof shapes its music—without devoting some time to get under its skin, blemished as it is. As with individuals, you learn a lot about a band when it’s down.

There is one album from Rush’s dead zone that’s almost universally snubbed. Vapor Trails came out in 2002, and it’s hard to find much worth listening to. The production is thin and shrill; the songwriting is simultaneously timid and desperate. But knowing that it’s the first album Rush made after the band nearly broke up (following the tragic deaths of Peart’s wife and daughter in the ’90s) puts a different spin on it.

It also puts a different spin on the albums that came after. Vapor Trails may be widely considered the group’s nadir, but it also is the point after which Rush turned things around and began its comeback. As such, it’s fascinating—and in its own way, more soulful and brave than Rush’s more assured work.

The blogosphere, freer availability of music, and the reduced role of the album format in recent years should have decentralized or even dismantled things like the critical consensus. Instead, the Internet has allowed aggregators like Metacritic to reinforce it. In a way, it’s almost comforting that instant access to almost any album extant—and almost any opinion on that album—hasn’t really changed the basic relationship between music and listener. Or the pleasure of discovering gems hidden in the cracks, under the floorboards, and in the dead zones.