Belatedly picking up where last Monday’s post left off, my list dwindles significantly when trying to think of albums that changed my life, as opposed to those that were the soundtrack to my life. First of all, what does it even mean to have an album “change your life”? It's not like a person, who can encourage or influence you. It's not a change of location, which can present you with new opportunities. It's not even like a book, which can articulate ideas or philosophies in profound ways. The more I think about it, “life-changing” might be a phrase too hyperbolic for music.
But an album can profoundly change your relation to music, and in effect set a new course for all those “albums of your life” that are so much easier to rattle off. That’s no small thing, and in some sense that could be considered life-changing if your world (like mine) revolves so heavily around music. It’s the albums that taught you to hear music in new ways, and shaped your overall taste.
No surprise, then, that the biggest life-changing albums for me came during high school. Probably the same can be said for you. For me, the holy trinity of life-changing albums, all bought within a year of each other, were Slint’s Spiderland, Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime, and Low’s I Could Live in Hope (actually, I often think of both of Jehu’s albums and everything by Low through Secret Name as of a piece, but for this post’s purposes I’ll stick to the first albums I heard by each.)
I heard all of these albums at a time when I was actively looking for a new musical trajectory, as I mentioned in last week’s post. I had no real guidance, no roadmap to indie rock. I was hungry for something new but really had no idea what that meant. Each of these albums were unique epiphanies. Not just in the way that I said “yes, this!” to something vaguely called “indie rock”—though that did happen; not just in the way that I said no to “heavy” and said yes to “quiet” or “dramatic” or “dirty” or however you want to describe these bands. I wasn’t merely trading adjectives: I was discovering nouns: tension, nuance, adrenaline. Each album showed me how to articulate feelings, ideas, and emotions through sound—and in turn how to hear all other music at this level, and determine whether a band (to my ears) was successful at what they were attempting. This week I’m going to try to dig into each of these albums and try to explore this in more depth. We’ll begin with Slint.
None of these albums were lightning bolts to my brain. I owned Spiderland for months, simply liking the album, before one night in my bedroom when “Washer” came on and I quietly stopped what I was doing and listened, from the first note to the last. Though I’d heard the song numerous times already, this was the first time it had become exhilarating. Never had a song’s dynamic shifts seemed to resonate so perfectly with its emotional content. The genius of “Washer” is that it attempts, three times, to reach some sort of sonic release. But it doesn’t hit: just as it feels that it’s about to climax, it gets quieter instead. The lyric “I’m too tired now” seems to apply directly to the song’s ability to reach its payoff. Finally at the end it blows its lid, huge chords and squealing guitars—but it only lasts a few seconds. It was all the energy the song could muster after building for six or seven minutes.
So many of Slint’s imitators got it wrong, and listening to “Washer” you can see where they erred. It’s not about the juxtaposition of loud/quiet. Mogwai’s Young Team, for example, is a good album but not nearly so great as Slint’s modest effort. Young Team takes the polarity of loud/quiet to a dramatic but elementary extreme: things get really, really, really quiet, to the point that you need to turn your stereo up just to hear it, and at the drop of a hat the band becomes ear-splittingly loud. Dramatic, sure, but it doesn’t earn its drama the way “Washer” does.
And don’t even get me started on downstrokes. Spiderland nearly ruined indie rock by encouraging people to abandon upstrokes altogether. “Don, a Man” is the only song on Spiderland that employs this guitar style, yet for most of the late 90s it seemed to become the template for hundreds of forgettable bands trying to get more facile ideas across. But again, the bands that applied this technique to their guitar playing missed the point of a song like “Don”: tension. “Don” had a palpable sense of foreboding and anxiety, both lyrically and musically. It’s the subtle difference between a tense song and a song concerned with tension.
Slint weren’t the first or last band to understand the kind of thought that must go into the details of songwriting, but they were the band that opened my eyes to nuance in song craft. Hence Spiderland may well be the most life-changing of any album I’ve ever owned. This goes back to what I was saying the other day about the song vs. the sound. Spiderland taught me that more needs to go into one’s music beyond “that sounds cool,” and that, beyond lyrics or vocal delivery, a song can explore feelings more subtle than love or anger purely through how the instruments are played.
This only scratches the surface of my feelings for this record—I could post all week about it, at least. Nevertheless, next up: Drive Like Jehu.