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What Makes Greatness Great?

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A musing on the nature of musical greatness, focusing specifically on the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

What Makes Greatness Great?

What makes for a Great Rock Record? Not great rock and roll, mind you, but a Great Album: The White Album, Daydream Nation, Automatic for the People, Tim. Both categories are obviously subjective, and everyone would have their own list, but nonetheless, there exists the phenomenon of the Great Album, and it is something worth examining. Some albums, like Nirvanaís Nevermind are great simply because they have such a radical effect on the musical landscape. Others, like Exile on Main Street, are conscious attempts at greatness from already great bands that just happen to be Great. A recent example is a combination of the two, Radioheadís OK Computer, which was not only a self-conscious stab at greatness, but a record which still exerts a strong influence on much of popular music.

Arguably, the phenomenon began with the Beatles and the Sgt. Pepper album, a record calculated to stretch the boundaries of what people expected from both pop music and the Beatles, while maintaining their status as the worldís biggest band. The gamble paid off, and since then, there has been the temptation to create a work that similarly breaks the mold while continuing a bandís run of success. This is no mean feat. However talented a group may be, the pressure to produce greatness can result in operatic blandness, overproduction, and ultimately, songs that fail to connect with the listener. Even Radioheadís Kid A, which some would argue is a modern classic, has a touch of nervousness about it, an air of self-consciousness. Its palpable need to stretch boundaries sometimes gets in the way of the songs, and fans were notably split on their appreciation of the record.

Then there are other bands, like Neutral Milk Hotel, who seem to stumble into greatness. In 1998, the band, led by singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum, released their second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which brought them critical raves and indie rock fame more or less overnight. Much like Pavement with Slanted & Enchanted or Built to Spill with Thereís Nothing Wrong With Love, Neutral Milk Hotel went from a promising young band to a band that had made a Great Record. But this greatness can come at a price. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a beautiful, noisy, throbbing delight of an album that is so beloved and influential that itís doubtful if Jeff Mangum and friends will ever put out anything again. This is understandable. After all, making a rock record that is so genuinely affecting to such a large number of people must be something of a mind-blowing experience, and the pressure to repeat this success could easily be overwhelming. R.E.M. have probably handled this kind of pressure better than any band in recent memory, producing a string of four or five classic records, but at this point they are victims of their own success. If they release an album that is merely very good, they disappoint.

Nonetheless, greatness is what rock music is all about. Nightmare visions of Eagles stadium concerts aside, rock is essentially about connecting with an audience, about creating music which is fresh but still manages to make people respond, to get up and dance at shows and wave lighters during the slow songs. For a time, Greatness almost felt ashamed of itself. During the 1990s, many bands were afraid of being ďtoo bigĒ, of losing their cred and looking like sellouts: witness Kurt Cobainís endless hand-wringing about Nevermindís commercial domination and Eddie Vedderís eventual refusal to play the game entirely. Bands, both indie and major, made great records during this era, but rarely would they cop to attempting Greatness. Now, 10 years on, things have changed, and we have returned to the same pop blandness that preceded Nirvanaís revolution, only it doesnít look like another Nirvana is coming along to topple it. Moments like that only happen once, and with ďpunkĒ bands like Blink 182 firmly rooted in the mainstream, itís difficult to imagine what kind of music could be both commercially successful and paradigm-shifting.

On the bright side, though, there is still a reasonably large audience for challenging rock music, and despite the raft of major-label mergers, there exists enough record company cash floating around to create some truly jaw-dropping music. As a result, the last few years have seen bands grabbing for the brass ring like never before, attempting to create dense, rich rock albums that use every advantage provided by advances in computer recording and editing techniques. Radioheadís Kid A is an obvious example, as is Wilcoís Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Modest Mouseís The Moon Over Antarctica, and the Flaming Lipsí Soft Bulletin.

Are the records any good? Many would say yes, that these bands (all on major labels) have taken the resources available to them and crafted complex, fascinating albums that take what the bands had previously accomplished to the next level. Others would call these albums nothing but a bunch of wanking ProTools tomfoolery, and in many ways, both are right. What is interesting about albums of this ilk is that computers have radically altered what ďrockĒ musicians are able to do, providing an almost unlimited palette from which to work. Bands with vision are able to realize their ambitions in ways that simply werenít possible twenty or even ten years ago, and slowly, we are witnessing a quiet revolution in rock music.

This is perhaps best exemplified by Radioheadís Kid A, which only intermittently resembles ďrockĒ music, but is nonetheless able to create a multi-faceted, sometimes thrillingly esoteric batch of songs that donít sound quite like anything produced before or since. Fans and critics might argue about the albumís relative merit, whether or not itís pretentious or a work of genius, but many consider it a bold, vital work that has advanced notions of what a rock album can be. On the other end of the spectrum, Wilco have produced an album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which uses innovative recording and production techniques to heighten what are essentially conventional rock songs. The effect is no less bold, however, as the albumís production twists and turns these songs inside out, revealing layers of meaning and possibility that a four-track just wouldnít allow. The pitfalls inherent in this kind of endeavor can be seen on Modest Mouseís Antarctica, the bandís major-label debut and its definitive musical statement. The album has moments of unquestionable brilliance, but it also feels over-wrought and a little distant. One of the joys of listening to Modest Mouse on previous releases was the interplay between instruments and the often jaw-dropping levels of intensity, tension, and power that they could produce. Antarctica, however, often sounds pieced together and studiofied, and it fails to, in a sense, ignite like their breakthrough album Lonesome Crowded West.

This brings us to the Lipsí Soft Bulletin, widely hailed as a modern classic by rock critics and members of the indie-rock cognoscenti. Epic in scope, scale, subject, and instrumentation, the album is everything that a Great Album aspires to be. Lyrically, it tackles big, important subjects, ranging from the meaning of life to the origins of the universe, melding these melodic musings to densely layered psychedelia and Wayne Coyneís angelic voice. Itís unquestionably an accomplished work; itís also, in my opinion, a little cold and remote. In many ways, the record encompasses both the good and the bad of albums of this sort, reaching so far for greatness that its feet leave the ground for much of the albumís duration. I like it, but I donít love it, and as much as I can appreciate its accomplishments when I listen to it, I could live without it entirely.

My opinion aside, The Soft Bulletin was regarded as a modern classic by many, raising expectations for the Lipsí next release: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. When a band makes one good album, people who buy it may or may not anticipate the next release. When a band gets on a hot streak, though, its fans expect much more. The Lips have been on such a hot streak, which culminated in Bulletin. This level of expectation is unfortunate but also somewhat unavoidable. If a band is able to consistently top itself, then anything less than that level of achievement is something of a disappointment to the listener. Iíve noticed more than a little of this sentiment in many of the reviews Iíve read of the new Flaming Lips album, where it seems that the ghost of The Soft Bulletin hangs over the reviewerís ability to appreciate the new record. This was interesting, because for me, Yoshimi is by far the superior record, in both its subject matter and its unconventional approach to creating pop songs. The Soft Bulletin was full of big, widescreen epics, songs that tried to stretch the concept of what a pop song could be. Often they achieve this, but just as often the listener is a little too aware of the attempt, and the result can be slightly wearying.

Big, complicated, works of art demand similar responses from their audience. You canít just glance at The Rape of Europa or leaf through Ulysses. Iím not putting the Lipsí album on that level of brilliance, but hefty works of art demand so much from the viewer/listener that their effect is sometimes lessened because theyíre so complex. This isnít to say that such works arenít masterpieces or that artists shouldnít attempt to create them. Thatís obviously ridiculous. But what it does mean is that art can be just as thrilling and evocative when itís on a smaller scale. Sometimes, a good short story or a brilliant sketch are more powerful, simply because they offer a directness of purpose that a larger work cannot. Itís somewhat like having a brilliant friend who constantly insists on engaging you in complex philosophical conversation. It may be incredibly fascinating and thrilling, but it can also tire you out. Sometimes youíre just not in the mood. Maybe youíd rather hear a dirty joke or a well-told anecdote by your funny stoner friend.

The point is, maybe we need to change perspective when it comes to our expectations of what certain bands are capable of. Bands like Radiohead, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips have recently stretched and transformed our expectations of what music can do, and for this they should be lauded. But we must also remember why we were so moved by these works in the first place: they offered a departure from both musical trends and our expectations of these bands. By the same token, if the band turns in a work that is more small-scale but no less inspired, should it deserve less merit? Perhaps if Radioheadís next album were stripped-down and acoustic, it would be brilliant, but I sense that the band feels way too much pressure to ever consider doing that.

The basic problem is that people (critics) often forget the whole point of this enterprise, which is simply to move people some way or another with a bunch of recorded sounds. Yoshimi does this very well, in my opinion, in many ways much better than its widely-hailed predecessor. For, while The Soft Bulletin shot for the great unanswered questions of existence, Yoshimi sticks to one subject and its many variations: death. That it does this with humor and an extended analogy of a small Japanese girl battling large, evil robots is only for the better. The lyrics on this album can be oblique, but just as often theyíre highly personal and wryly emotional.

For all its brilliance, Bulletin has never been able to feel remotely like a warm record to me, and I often prefer hearing it humming in the background. If a record like that ends up as background music, then itís not doing its job. Yoshimi, by contrast, is a wonderfully intimate album, with sweeping, aching melodies and warm acoustic guitars rubbing shoulders with weird, burbling synths. Itís probably just as cut-up as Kid A, but youíre rarely focusing on the production, since the manipulations are so well-absorbed into the songs. Like Wilcoís Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Flaming Lips have managed to make an album both sweeping and microscopically intimate, coldly electronic and sweetly human. Both bands have an ability, more so than say, Radiohead or Pink Floyd, to preserve the personal within their otherworldly soundscapes. Neither way of doing things is inherently superior, but I havenít been able to take Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots out of my stereo, and no matter how much I love listening to Radiohead, their music doesnít really hit me on quite the same level.

In the end, all of this is subjective, and while Iím not campaigning for any particular notion of what makes great music, I would suggest that if we expect bands to produce music that courts Greatness, then we should expect missteps, weird digressions, and music that doesnít fit our expectations. Good bands constantly challenge themselves, and by doing this are able to make music that is vital, music that edges forward boundaries. Itís easy to forget that only a few years ago, the Flaming Lips were known for eccentric noise-pop, and that this is what made The Soft Bulletin such a pleasant and unexpected surprise. What is even more pleasantly surprising is that they were able to follow up such an album with a collection of songs that are every bit as innovative and engaging. The Lips stuck their necks out and took more risks, even though they could have probably made The Soft Bulletin II to the squealing delight of rock critics. This, more than anything else, is what makes Yoshimi a great album, and the Lips a great band.

Jason Dungan can be reached via e-mail at dusted@dustedmagazine.com. Questions, comments, and differing opinions are welcome.

By Jason Dungan

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