This week’s question is one we get a lot in various forms. We just picked one representative e-mail from the dozens of similar ones:
I’m curious about art you didn’t like the first time you consumed it (despite the fact that you felt you “should” like it), but then upon returning to said art after some period of time, something clicked and you just “got it.” Somehow, this happens to me with every single Hold Steady album. Thanks, and great work! —Tom Geaghan
This has happened to me with almost every new release by They Might Be Giants since the Flood era. I never love them on first listen; I never even hear the hooks, let alone find anything appealing about the songs. They always sound strangely samey and undistinguished to me. It usually isn’t until about the third time through that I start hearing personalities in the songs, and pick up one or two out of a given album that I really like and keep coming back to. And then going back for those songs usually gets me into the rest of the album. How long this process takes varies a lot by album—for some reason I loved Apollo 18 right away, The Else and John Henry took three or four listens, and The Spine and Factory Showroom didn’t do anything for me for years, but I recently rediscovered them and loved a lot of their songs that just hadn’t stuck with me before. Which makes me think that my antipathy toward Mink Car is just temporary. Ten years from now, I’ll probably adore it. More recently, I went through the same experience with The Decemberists’ The Hazards Of Love. The first time I heard it, it was just cacophonous, overblown, proggy noise, particularly compared to the stripped-down Colin Meloy live album I’d been listening to over and over. But after a couple more listens, once I started hearing the album for itself instead of by comparison with previous Decemberists albums, I wound up falling in love with it, and I didn’t listen to anything else for at least a week.
This one’s a lock for me: It’s Prince. I first became aware of him around Controversy, when I was just a kid and not listening to much pop music; my pre-adolescent brain registered that he was a pretty good guitar player, and sounded pretty “different” (or to put it another way, “black”) from most of what I had heard up to that point. By the time 1999 and Purple Rain rolled around, the guy was pretty much inescapable, and the fact that my circle of high-school friends played his stuff nonstop turned me off. Also, I wasn’t really listening to much in 1984 except heavy metal and hardcore punk, neither of which was in Prince’s arsenal. So like a lot of shithead teenagers, I wrote him off as popular, mainstream, blah blah blah. I didn’t pay him any mind until around the time Batman came out, which kindled my interest in him enough that I went back and revisited 1999 and Purple Rain. My reaction, of course, was “Holy shit, this is fucking great.” Teenagers: they know nothing.
Man, I still don’t get Prince. I feel bad about it, but… there you go. As for artists that took me a couple tries to get into, I remember having a hard time with Joy Division. I moved back home to Maine a year after I got out of college, and I had it in my head that everything was going to be different. I was going to be cool and hip, and I was going to take chances. So I went to the ultra-edgy video store, and then I went to this coffee shop/independent bookstore, and I pretended I was reading my copy of Ulysses for a good 20 minutes before I got bored and went to the comics shop next door. (Ulysses took me about six tries before I finally finished it, so I guess it sort of counts too.) Luckily there was a CD store in the basement where I could salvage what little remained of my cred; I bought the first Joy Division album, Unknown Pleasures, because the name was cool, and I was pretty sure I’d heard of it before. When I got in my car, I stayed in the parking lot long enough to listen to “Disorder,” and I thought I was going to throw up. It wasn’t moral outrage or a value judgment on my part, there was just something about the weird, jangly chords and drums and the voice that sounded like it was reminding you to die that made me nauseous. (The three coffees and bran muffin I’d had while reading didn’t help.) I didn’t think I’d ever listen to it again, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to something like that. But it stuck in my head for some reason. A few weeks later, I got through the whole album, and it just clicked. One of my favorite bands now; it’s like getting the bad feelings off a night terror in cathartic, melodic form.
I feel this way about every Wilco album I listen to—including the not-even-released one I’m listening to as I type this. (It’s streaming at this website.) The band came onto my radar in high school, when I was working at the local Borders in their music section; my coworkers were obsessed with Summerteeth, but I remember listening and thinking, “Meh. It’s kinda boring, and ‘Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway (Again)’ is a stupid name for a song; punctuate correctly!” I felt Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was slow, Being There was too uneven, A Ghost Is Born was fuckin’ weird, Sky Blue Sky was extremely passive. (It should be noted that I actually didn’t listen to A.M. until much later, for whatever reason, and I thought it was different enough to not really count in this discussion.) But Jeff Tweedy has a habit of inviting familiarity, and it does him a very big service: Once the songs get under my skin, I find I let my guard down and can enjoy them more for what they are, instead of as the odd collection of notes Tweedy often creates. So basically, I’m looking forward to listening to this new one off the streaming site, so I can really get into it.
I remember hearing Nick Drake for the first time in a friend’s car, not long after I had first heard of him: There was a surge of interest in the ’90s, probably the third such surge since his death in 1974. This wave could probably be credited to people like Elliott Smith and Badly Drawn Boy, who were clearly influenced by Drake, and never shy about naming him. Anyway, I was curious, and I think the first song I heard was “Which Will,” from Pink Moon. I seem to remember thinking it sounded really affected and dated and far too folky for my tastes. Flash forward a few years, and I can’t imagine thinking “Which Will” is anything but damn near perfect—pretty and sad in all the right ways.
After throwing out all my teenybopper and hair-metal cassettes during my first month of high school (I ended up buying them again on CD many years later), I started watching 120 Minutes religiously and became obsessed with what we used to call “college rock.” In the late ’80s, the Pixies were on the top of that heap, and my love of the band led me to explore the 4AD catalog, which seemed impeccable—that is, until I was sitting in a friend’s car a few years later and he played me Red House Painters’ first (mini) album, Down Colorful Hill. Like my parents with the JFK assassination, I remember exactly where we were on the 101 in Santa Barbara when I announced, “This is the first 4AD album I don’t like.” Friends and those familiar with my writing know how funny that comment now sounds, considering my undying love of everything Mark Kozelek, who is easily my favorite songwriter. As for what I originally didn’t like about Down Colorful Hill, I honestly can’t remember—somehow, that same friend got me to listen to the first self-titled RHP album that came out the following year, and I quickly returned to Down Colorful Hill to give it a second chance. It now stands as one of my favorite discs of all time (just barely behind the roller-coaster record), especially since it contains one of Kozelek’s funniest songs (“Lord Kill The Pain,” featuring darkly humorous lines like “Don’t want to ask you again / kill my girlfriend / and kill my best friend Sam / ’cause I saw them making eyes again”) as well as perhaps his most poignant (“Michael,” his real-life tale of losing touch with a best friend).
It took me a disconcertingly long time to get in tune with J-Dilla. My earliest impressions of him were as the guy who ruined A Tribe Called Quest by pulling them away from the jazzy, iconic sound of their early albums toward what I thought was soulless, robotic, dance-oriented funk. I also hated the fuck out of Q-Tip’s Dilla-produced solo debut, Amplified. I even wrote something in my review of Slum Village’s “Fantastic Part 2” about the production being “surprisingly” good. I also wasn’t taken with Dilla as a rapper. That all changed with J-Dilla’s “Welcome 2 Detroit” entry in the Beat Generation series, and then his mind-boggling work on Jaylib’s Champion Sound album. Madlib was my favorite producer, and J-Dilla wiped the floor with him, production-wise. Suddenly it clicked into place. The dirty grooves, the blunted, head-nodding boom-bap, the samples twisted and contorted beyond recognition: It suddenly all seemed awesome. I came to love Dilla’s production. I went back and listened to all the stuff I’d dismissed earlier, and appreciated it with new ears. Seeing Dilla perform live at the Logan Square auditorium with Madlib for what I believe was the only Jaylib tour, I even came to dig him as an MC. Again, I was looking at Dilla the wrong way: It wasn’t about complex rhyme patterns, sophisticated metaphors, or intricate social commentary, it was all about visceral get-your-ass-on-the-floor back-to-basics simplicity. Since then, I’ve sought out every piece of Dilla I can get my hands on, but I probably won’t be listening to Q-Tip’s Amplified any time soon.
My early encounters with Federico Fellini weren’t exactly happy ones. I watched 8 1/2 when I was a college freshman—the first time I had access to a lot of the movies I’d been reading about in the film-history books—and I found it pretentious, confounding, and joyless. When I later read Pauline Kael’s takedowns of several ’60s art-cinema sacred cows—including 8 1/2—I felt vindicated, and in the contrarian cockiness of youth, I half-convinced myself that Fellini-backers were delusional. Then, about six or seven years ago, I was buying DVDs at some big-box three-for-$10 sale, and needing one more to make the money come out even, I bought a copy of Fellini’s Roma. It isn’t one of Fellini’s most critically adored films, but something about the intimate views of the director’s home city and his satirical perspective on sex and religion really clicked for me, and put the few earlier Fellini films I’d seen in a different context. In short order, I watched I Vitelloni and La Dolce Vita, and took another pass through 8 1/2. Suddenly I saw the joy and wit I’d thought was missing before, as well as the essential Italian-ness of Fellini’s films. I’m now fully on board with the Fellini sensibility: the connection to classical culture, the familiarity with corrupt institutions, the combination of self-flagellation and self-aggrandizement… all of it.
It wasn’t until this year’s Merriweather Post Pavilion that I was able to stop worrying and love Animal Collective. I liked parts of Feels and Strawberry Jam, but I couldn’t listen for more than 10 minutes without getting a headache. But after Merriweather—which I’m certain will be my favorite album of ’09, unless this year ends up being a real humdinger—I could suddenly take in all the chanting, banging, and gurgling that takes place in a typical AC track and make sense of it as music. At first, I thought this was because Merriweather was more song-oriented than past records. I still think that’s true, but the deeper I dig into the band’s back catalog, the more I find that Merriweather is less a departure than a refinement of ideas I simply didn’t get the first time around. As hard as it was for me to get into Animal Collective, it’s now equally difficult for me to comprehend how I could have possibly missed out on the jaw-dropping beauty of “Winter’s Love” (from 2004’s Sung Tongs) for so long.
Everyone’s stealing my thunder, from Wilco (whose Sky Blue Sky is a favorite… now) to Italian directors (for me, Michelangelo Antonioni, whom I don’t think I really got until seeing The Passenger). So how about this? I had a childhood aversion to The Beach Boys that took years to shake. Songs about the beach? Cars? Those choruses? It all seemed so dumb to me. Not deep like, you know, The Doors’ “The End.” (When he says, “Father. Yes son? I want to kill you?”, it’s, like, totally Freudian. I get it.) That changed, big time, when I finally broke down and listened to Pet Sounds. Not only did I fall under its melancholy spell, it made me appreciate what came before it all the more in a couple different ways. I paid attention to the intricate music and really listened for the first time. And lyrically, I found a lot more of the Pet Sounds melancholy than I ever thought was there before, both in songs like “The Girls On The Beach” and even in the good-times hits, crystallized wishes from a time and a place that those doing the celebrating rarely had a chance to enjoy.
There was a time when I embraced the critical line against Stanley Kubrick, the one that held him as a cold, clinical, anti-humanist technician who hated actors, had no insight into the way real people thought or lived, and programmed his movies with pre-chewed themes that left no room for spontaneity in the filmmaking process or interpretation on the part of the viewer. While this point of view never altered my opinion of diamond-cut masterpieces like Paths Of Glory, The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it gave me license to poke holes in pricklier Kubrick efforts like A Clockwork Orange or Full Metal Jacket while maintaining a haughty sense of moral superiority. Oddly enough, I haven’t spurned the critical line over time so much as adjusted my thinking: Yes, Kubrick was a cerebral, programmatic director who could never be mistaken for a humanist. But so what? When so much of his work concerned the loss of humanity, isn’t that apropos? Few directors in film history have had the talent and vision to exert that much control over every aspect of production. I’m not inclined to spurn the ones who do.
Tom, I’m with you on The Hold Steady. Stay Positive took several listens to grow on me, just like Boys And Girls In America. It also applies to Radiohead, whose work I seemingly can’t enjoy until a couple of years have passed after its release. I’m not a huge fan of the band, but I enjoy them well enough… eventually. Oddly, it wasn’t until “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box”—the lead track from 2001’s Amnesiac, the Kid A postscript—that I found a Radiohead song I really liked, and that was the key. I think that’s what these experiences come down to: finding a toehold that gives you a starting point to ascend the mountain, so to speak.