Friday, February 19, 2010

Jahnke's Record Collection: In Search Of The Perfect Album

Over at his MusicTAP website, my friend Matt Rowe regularly posits intriguing discussion topics and music-related surveys. I don’t participate in each and every one, although I do end up spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about all of them. For example, he recently concluded a poll of underrated guitarists. Sure, there are plenty of guitarists whose work I love. John Fahey is way up there, as is David Gilmour. But I don’t really know enough about the subject to know if these guys are generally considered underrated or overrated. Still, I had a good time thinking about guitar players for a day or two.

Every so often, Rowe, magnificent bastard that he is, will casually toss out a question that gnaws at me for days on end. In his innocence, I’m sure he simply thinks it’s an interesting little poser that will illicit several immediate gut reactions. For the likes of me, it becomes an unsolvable mystery not unlike the Riddle of the Sphinx. It starts an internal debate that rages on long after Matt has moved on to other worthy subjects. About a week or so ago, he asked one such deceptively simple question.

What do you consider to be a perfect album?

Now if he’d asked what are your “favorite” albums, there would be no problem. I can rattle a list of those off without blinking. But it’s that word “perfect” that makes things so difficult. “Perfect” means that there isn’t a false note or a mediocre song to be found. I quickly realized that very few of my favorite albums are in fact perfect. Maybe part of the reason that I love them so much is that they are imperfect.

Born To Run is a phenomenal album, one that I return to again and again. It’s the source of many of my favorite Springsteen songs, including “Meeting Across The River”, “She’s The One” and the more famous tracks like “Thunder Road” and the title tune. I wonder if I would love those songs quite as much if the album didn’t have “Night” stuck right in the middle of it. I’ve always thought “Night” was a terribly boring, generic song and whenever it comes on, I either can’t wait for it to be over or I skip it entirely, depending on how charitable I feel. But maybe all those other great songs seem even better in contrast to it. I hate that song but I can’t imagine the record without it.

I suppose I would consider Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to be perfect, although it’s not my favorite Beatles album. It was, however, the first Beatles album I ever heard and I listened to my mom’s original vinyl LP obsessively when I was a kid. The record even had the Sgt. Pepper cut-out figures still intact. I suspect Mom watched me playing with those with a mixture of panic and delight, though to her credit, she never yelled that those toys weren’t for playing with. It was probably the first album I knew by heart. Even the much-maligned “Within You, Without You” expanded my horizons and struck me as a mystical, transcendent musical journey, which is probably what George Harrison intended in the first place. He just didn’t realize that his ideal audience would be eight-year-old boys growing up in small-town Minnesota in the mid-70s.

Most of my favorite artists, folks like Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, The Pogues, and Nick Cave, don’t have any albums I’d consider to be absolutely perfect. Cave comes closest with Murder Ballads, which is pretty close to an absolutely pure distillation of everything that makes him and the Bad Seeds so compelling. From Mr. Waits, I love Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, Mule Variations and Swordfishtrombones but I’ve never felt the urge to listen to any of them exclusively for any length of time. Zevon’s last album, The Wind, is made perfect by its imperfections. They are constant reminders of the ticking clock Warren was working against to complete the record before his death. As for The Pogues, part of what I love about the band is how one second they can be completely in control of their sound and the next, they sound exactly like the bunch of unruly drunken Irishmen they appear to be.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t care much for perfection in music. Music is both universal and deeply personal. If you can record one song that means something to people, you’ve done something to be proud of. If you can put five or six of them together, it’s downright remarkable. But an entire album where every song hits you in just the right way?That may be nothing short of miraculous. And that’s when I realized that there was one album like that for me. One album that still grabs me from start to finish, sounds constantly fresh but can also transport me back to when I first heard it. The first time I heard it, it was like nothing else I’d been exposed to before, and its arrival in my life did strike me as something of a miracle.

I came late to London Calling. When the album was first released, I was all of ten years old, so the British punk scene wasn’t exactly high on my radar. If I had to guess, I’d wager my first exposure to the band came somewhere around 1983, most likely by seeing a video for “Rock The Casbah” or “This Is Radio Clash” on Night Flight. Even then, it would be another couple years before someone specifically steered me toward London Calling. The first song hooked me, filling my head with apocalyptic visions. But it was the way the album built on that foundation that really grabbed me. I’d never before heard an album that felt so electric and spontaneous, but also so perfectly controlled. Every song leads into the next with laser-sharp precision. Even today, if I hear one song off this album, I immediately want to listen to the whole thing so I can place it in its proper context. Hearing “The Card Cheat” by itself without “Koka Kola” leading in to it seems somehow wrong.

London Calling was a revelation for me and a gateway album to countless other bands. I’d never heard a voice like Joe Strummer’s before. I’d never heard a band use instruments this way before. After this, everything I’d been listening to sounded too slick, too professional, too controlled. It led me to explore punk music more in-depth and while I liked much of what I heard, it often sounded too chaotic, like a lot of these bands honestly had no idea what they were doing and if they recorded something great, it was kind of by accident. There was nothing accidental about London Calling. It’s a passionate, sprawling record full of songs I’m always tempted to listen to again as soon as they end, but before I have the chance, the band has already grabbed my attention with something even better. It’s an album I can’t listen to just once and I can’t listen to in pieces. It’s all or nothing. Death or glory. And that, to my ears anyway, is perfection.

1 comment:

  1. Good call on Bruce. I saw one of those shows he did where he played the whole album. It made sense in a way it hadn't before.

    How about WHO'S NEXT? That was good.