State of Music

At some point early this year I found myself sitting at one of my writing spots in Little Portugal and hearing a really good post-punk band, Ought (note: the album to hear is 2015’s Sun Coming Down). It was everything I liked, reminding me very much of one of my favourite post-punk bands, The Fall.

And I was sick of it.

I’d had enough. I’d heard too much. And so I’ve spent the year focusing intently on other types of music: ambient (which I’ve written about here), classical, Afro-funk, R&B, soul, you name it. Especially coming back from Memphis I rediscovered blues in all its forms (gospel, rockabilly, etc). What I like about blues — and there are many derivations of it so bear with me for the purposes of a blog post; let’s assume I’m talking 1950s John Lee Hooker — is its lack of pretence, its sparseness. There’s nothing wrong with pretence, don’t get me wrong, but what I’m realizing is that part of me has seen the need to get back to basics; a compelling repetitive motif communicated succinctly with next to no frills. I suppose I’d spent my life listening to so many artists inspired by early blues, gospel, soul, funk, and R&B that I needed to (re-)acquaint myself with the original source material.

There is something about the sound of John Lee Hooker pulling and snapping an E-string on a hollow-body guitar that brings music to its essence. That sound is the equivalent of Pete Townshend doing windmills, Karen O screaming with a microphone clasped between her teeth. Simple, primal, pure.

There are so many incredible developments in music production (listen to Kaytranada‘s 99.9%) and yet it’s easy to get lost in all the plug-ins and digital magic. Under no circumstances, unlike a certain Toronto jazz radio station’s tag line, am I suggesting that the lack of analog instruments denotes a lack of soul or legitimacy. As far as I’m concerned, an instrument is an instrument is an instrument. What I’m saying is that at some point I lost sight of the primacy of musical performance.

And lately I’ve realized (ironically while listening to an awesome track by the band Dry Cleaning, reminiscent of Broadcast) that post-punk is, well, dead. For now, at least. It’s spirit will always be alive but all of its chess moves have been laid bare, its finiteness made plain. This is subjective, of course. Anyone who hasn’t heard a lot of post-punk will enjoy years (if not decades) of fulfillment. But I feel that my time is up. And I’m not sure where I’m going next because I know my recent rediscovery of blues in particular can only go so long and so far.

Blues travels well as an art form, but, similar to theatre, it can be stifled in certain environments. Its strength is its fragility, but you can’t inorganically manufacture fragility, which is why most blues recordings don’t do anything for me. Like jazz, hearing blues live is best, but that’s assuming the trio or solo artist you’re seeing is in command of their art (or, say, isn’t just there for a quick paycheque). I guess what I’m saying is that I can see the end of this journey on the horizon (not that I’m not going to enjoy every highlight I can find; I’m currently learning Freddie King’s Hide Away on guitar, which is a great introduction to Texas blues).

I suppose the worst case scenario is that my playlists become even more disparately populated by genre than they currently are. To be fair, if I’ve done any mourning for my relationship with post-punk, I’ve expressed it within my next novel, Radioland, which I’m hoping will find a publisher in 2020. Sometimes writing a novel is a way to process change, and sometimes the novel itself sets me off on a fact- (or feeling-)finding mission to explore that change. Welcome to the artist’s life.