Friday, April 3, 2015

The New CD Ritual

When a CD comes out that I have been anticipating for sometime, especially if I am expecting it to be great, then I follow a basic ritual that involves not listening to it the second I have it, but waiting, denying until there is a time when I can give it my full attention.

I mention it now because Sufjan Steven's Carrie and Lowell came out this week and I have been waiting for it, waiting for the return to the early Sufjan CDs after recent forays into electronica and neo-Simon and Garfunkel.  (I don't say that critically;  there are a number of songs from Stevens' recent CDs and EPs that I really enjoyed--but there is always excitement when someone's work is described as returning to some kind of roots.  But there is almost always disappointment as well.  Human beings can't be expected to resume what they once were, years later, much as we think we want that.)

My ritual goes something like this:

1. Wait until night.
2. Wait until I am alone.
3. Wait until I can play it at a reasonable volume.
4.  Wait until I can fully focus on it.

In a way, and I've thought of this often, my listening is like the Springsteen song, "Something In The Night":

I'm riding down Kingsley, 
figuring I'll get a drink 
Turn the radio up loud, 
so I don't have to think, 
I take her to the floor, 
looking for a moment when the world seems right, 
And I tear into the guts, 
of something in the night. 

The idea of getting to be alone in the dark and turn it up loud enough that there is nothing else to think about is one of the greatest pleasures of new music, especially if it is music with which I have some base familiarity, so that when the songs begin, I know what has come before and can begin to expand on that understanding, well, that is "a moment when the world seems right."

What I can't ever know, and I have been doing this for at least 39 years, is whether the experience will justify the ritual.  Albums that I came to love, like Steely Dan's The Royal Scam and Led Zeppelin's Presence, threw me off balance on first listening and left me wondering past midnight what had happened.

And so Sufjan.  Carrie and Lowell is an almost fully acoustic CD.  It has the homemade, intimate feel of his Christmas CDs, which can be both a compliment and a criticism.  There are no drums, no bass, so the songs had better different enough from each other to justify the sonic similarity.  At the same time, the songs are close in the room with you,  private, personal, and sometimes without context.  

So a man who seems to share his world with you through song had better make the songs stand out.  Often, this happens.  "Death With Dignity," "Fourth Of July," "John, My Beloved" and others successfully straddle that Sufjan line between accessibility and what the hell is he talking about?  Others seem too personal, too cringeworthy, too how-long-ago-did-your-mother-die, to funereal to mesh with an uninformed listener.  Kind of like Lou Reed's Magic And Loss.

As I texted a friend today. "It's good, not great. Kind of one note, but very listenable."  I'm on my 5th listen, and I stand by that.  Sometimes Sufjan is too personal, too precious in his vocals.  We know that.  We forgive that; sometimes we even enjoy it.

But it's also true that by the 5th listen, the songs begin to work themselves inside you, like everything else that is Sufjan, and I find myself wanting to be on his side, not railing against it. Even if I don't know what his side is.

Back to that first listen, several nights ago, when each song came at me new.  What captures me first with Sufjan, well, there are several things.  There is the unfettered honesty.  There is the underlying, sometimes direct, spirituality.  There are the hummable melodies.  There are the things that he can get away with saying that no one else can.  There are the very simple lines ("you'll never see us again" or ""she left us at that video store" that seem to say much more).  All of those serve as the foundation for later, richer listenings.  He creates a kind of groove, and keeps digging it deeper each time I return.

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