How long does it take to “get” an album?

How long does it take to “get” an album?

Inside of every critic there is a regretful fan struggling against the permanence of publicly stated professional opinions. For all the differences that supposedly exist between critics and “regular people,” the only one that really matters is that critics are required by paycheck to take a snapshot of their feelings about a particular piece of art at a particular moment in time, and then pretend that this is how they will feel forever. In reality, there’s always that one review (only one if you’re lucky) you’d write differently with the benefit of hindsight. Personally speaking, I’m grateful that most of the publications I wrote for before The A.V. Club are either defunct or have bad search engines. I have opinions from my past that I’d cross the street to avoid being associated with.

One review I’m fine standing behind is my take on Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs, which was turned in three days after the record was released on Friday, Feb. 18, and posted on The A.V. Club just eight days after the album’s existence was announced to the world via the band’s website. Even with the quick turnaround, my Kings Of Limbs review lagged behind the discussion that raged online in social and professional media seemingly from the very moment download codes starting appearing in the inboxes of Radiohead fans. Coverage of The King Of Limbs played out like breaking news—by the end of the day Friday, after tens of thousands of people had already given their yays or nays on the record on Facebook and Twitter, reviews started appearing in major publications like Esquire and NME. Regardless of whether the evaluations were positive or negative, it was incredible to me that so many people had already formulated opinions they felt comfortable putting out there for public consumption. Had they really given enough time to The King Of Limbs to truly “get” the album? 

As both a music fan and a critic, I’m naturally of two minds on this question. As a fan, I have gut reactions like anybody else, and I’m just as liable to shoot my mouth off on an artist I might have only given a moment’s notice. The proliferation of social media didn’t invent this kind of casual acceptance or dismissal—it merely allowed people to broadcast it to whoever might be paying attention. So, while it might annoy me as a Radiohead fan when somebody “mehs” The King Of Limbs after only playing it once, I recognize that I do this all the time with artists plenty of other people take seriously. Likewise, I’ve enthused about an album on Twitter after only hearing a couple of songs, only to demur a week or so later after several more listens. 

Your opinions as a music fan tend to be instinctual and emotional—in contrast to the self-conscious, intellectual aesthetics of the critic—and you’re under no obligations to justify them beyond your own whims. Besides, there’s a lot of music out there; it can seem like a chore to spend extra time with something that seems unappealing at first contact when there are so many other choices. But one of the many great things about being a music fan is that you have an open invitation to revisit any artist whenever you feel like it; somebody that didn’t strike your fancy today might end up being a new obsession a year from now.

Gut reactions only become a problem when people convince themselves that a cursory listen renders any further investigation moot. This is especially fatal for an album like The King Of Limbs, a purposefully difficult listen that takes time to ingratiate itself. The rewards are considerable for patient listeners, but there are more obstacles than ever preventing listeners from engaging with the sorts of “grower” records that Radiohead has banked its career on. This includes (I fear) the echo-chamber of social media, a forum better suited for glibness than thoughtfulness, where directing a tossed-off zinger at a popular institution like Radiohead is considered fresher and funnier than singing the same old praises.

Don’t worry—I’m not about to launch into another tired screed about “the death of the album” or the short attention spans of the iTunes generation. If anybody has an audience that’s still willing to put in the time to make sense of a curveball like The King Of Limbs, it’s the band that actually put out The King Of Limbs. As New York magazine pop music critic Nitsuh Abebe wrote of Radiohead last week

No other band makes so many fans turn quite so studiously patient and open-minded. It’s as if the world has agreed that this is the one flagship group everyone will turn to for that experience—the band people will enjoy taking seriously, approaching slowly, and pondering as art rather than entertainment. The whole concept of “serious listening” has somehow become this one act’s brand. How improbable is that?

What if “serious listening” is supposed to be part of your job description? How can you do your job as a critic without coming late to the party on records like The King Of Limbs or Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, another blue-chip album that was made available to critics and the public simultaneously? In the rush to stay relevant in the discussion about “important” records, do critics sacrifice some of the perspective that they’re supposed to provide for readers? 

Those were some of the questions I posed to one of America’s best-known music critics, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune and the public radio show Sound Opinions, in a recent e-mail. Kot’s two-and-a-half-star review of The King Of Limbs appeared on the Tribune’s website Saturday night, and though I thought it was thorough and well thought-out (while disagreeing with the final verdict), I was curious about whether Kot had any misgivings about commenting on the record so quickly. Turns out he did, and not just for the Radiohead album. “I always wish I had more time to listen to a piece of music before reviewing it,” he wrote. “As one editor once told me, it’s like a jazz solo, no overdubs. Sometimes I want the overdub.”

For Kot, “A good piece of criticism should both educate and illuminate, in addition to entertain, and that’s something that can’t be done in a day, let alone a few hours. It’s exciting to see people weighing in on the Radiohead album immediately after hearing it for the first time, but that’s not really criticism—it’s more like a first impression.”

Like Kot, I come from a newspaper background, so I’m accustomed to the tight deadlines that require banging out a concert review within minutes of the final encore. At least with album reviews, writers typically have weeks or even months to ruminate before writing anything. (Promo copies for Baltimore indie-rock duo Wye Oak’s forthcoming Civilian went out in December, which I predict will help that very fine record do well with critics.) But the tricky thing about music writing—and part of what makes it the trickiest form of arts writing, in my opinion—is that a good piece of music should elicit varying responses over spans of time and in all sorts of environments. Unlike books, movies, or TV shows, songs are supposed to be experienced many, many times. It’s unlikely you’ve read any book outside of a small handful of favorites more than once, and you probably haven’t read those favorites dozens of times. It’s possible you’ve given your favorite movie 100 viewings, but that still pales in comparison to how often you’re exposed to a hit pop song or a deathless golden oldie on the radio. Music by nature is a slow burn, parsing out its charms in small increments over the course of weeks, years, even decades. Music can be the focus of your attention, but it often fades into the background, only to re-emerge when you least expect it and reveal a whole other dimension. No other art form weaves its way into the fabric of your life like music, and this inevitably shapes our feelings about it. 

Along with time, context and environment play big parts in how we appreciate music, and as a critic you have to take that into account. An album might be best experienced on headphones, or it might demand to be played at 11 on stereo speakers. Discussing music critically means understanding that music can be good in different ways. It’s like food—you might love Thai cuisine, but that doesn’t make Polish cuisine bad because it doesn’t have the same flavors. It’s up to you to figure out how the artist is attempting to be “good” in order to measure whether the music succeeds by that standard, and that takes time and consideration.

I think about this a lot when writing the monthly This Was Pop column with my colleague Genevieve Koski. When regarding something like Far East Movement’s “Like A G6,” one of the biggest dance-pop hits of 2010, it’s foolhardy to dissect the lyrics or gauge how “innovative” the music is. This is a song that’s intended to be blasted in bars and dance clubs for large groups of drunken singles, and in that context, “Like A G6” works does nearly as well as The King Of Limbs does for stationary, contemplative Radiohead fans. 

Kot was so articulate on this point I’ll just quote him at length:

For me, writing about a piece of recorded music is about listening, thinking, and listening some more, over a span of days in different contexts: over PC or laptop speakers, in the car driving around, on headphones, over a good stereo, on the kitchen boombox or iPod while washing dishes. As the context changes, you get new information, new angles into the music, and you eventually get a perspective on the album’s language. It’s a question of decoding that language for yourself, and then informing the reader about your findings. The job isn’t to have a definitive, be-all-end-all take on what a particular piece of music sounds like or what it means, but about offering an informed perspective on it. There is no one “right” opinion. But every great piece of music needs a great listener to “get it” and the better a piece of music is, the more perspectives it invites. You hope to be one of those “great” listeners, and raise the level of discussion about art/music/culture among your readers. I feel like I’m learning how to do that job—being a better listener—every time I try to distill thoughts, feelings, impressions of something as abstract as music into something as concrete as a review.

I ended up listening to The King Of Limbs about a dozen times on Friday and Saturday before I started writing my review on Sunday. That Friday morning I listened to it three times, including two listens in my car on a drive from Milwaukee to Chicago. The first listen was on my work computer at home at 8 a.m. It left me cold; The King Of Limbs played at medium volume on Mac speakers sounds like an Ethernet cable making sweet love to a modem. My opinion of the record improved considerably when I burned the files on a blank CD and listened to them in my car. Not only is my car (or any car, really) my favorite place to hear music (because you’re surrounded by speakers and you can play it louder than any place else), but taking in The King Of Limbs while hurtling forward at rapid speeds started to shift my perspective on the record. 

By the time I got to Chicago about an hour and a half later, I decided that I really liked The Kings Of Limbs, and subsequent listens would be about investigating why, exactly. In my review, I likened hearing The King Of Limbs to the sensations of “fumbling into motion” and “being in a car crash.” Would I have written that if I hadn’t been driving when I formulated my opinion of the record? Hard to say, but that’s what The King Of Limbs evoked for me during the time that I was writing about the record. Ask me how I feel about it in six months, and I might write an entirely different review.