Going to an Iron & Wine show is about as close to a religious experience as I get these days. So, you can imagine my incredulity when at my last visit to ‘church’, while sitting smack in the middle of Radio City Music Hall as he was touring Kiss Each Other Clean, a glow stick wielding bro yells out during the intro of Tree by the River:

BOY WITH A COOOOOIIIIIN!! WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO PLAY BOY WITH A COIN?!?!” 

That’s right, this beer bong with legs and a backwards baseball cap INTERRUPTED SAM BEAM like he was there to be a human jukebox for his enjoyment.  Now, I don’t have anything against Boy with a Coin; it’s a pretty fantastic song. But that was then. This is a new album that Sam was trying to sell—you know—because making music is his job. Now if it were me, I would have requested that the security guards remove this human equivalent of the dregs of a warmed over Natty Light keg from my show, but Sam wouldn’t—he’s a sweet gentle man. He simply stopped playing and asked “Do you guys like to eat the same foods everyday, too?”  before restarting his song.

This proves two things; that Sam Beam is a diplomat and that I hate frat boys who’ve imbibed one too many cranberry vodkas while wearing a Phish t-shirt to another artists’ concert. But it also raises some interesting questions.  We’ve all had the experience of when a favorite artist comes out with a new album, and after listening you just go…huh? They’ve experimented, they’ve grown musically, but we aren’t sure if we can (or even want to) understand their new direction. What makes a musician successful in changing their sound? And, what part do we play in their growth (or stunting?).  Does an artist have a responsibility to the fan, or do we, as longstanding fans, have the obligation of remaining open minded when our favorite rock band decides to add that sweet new synth line into their latest single?

I recently brought this question up while visiting some friends, most of whom happen to be musicians. We’d been playing Stump (a game involving a hammer, nails and you guessed it, a tree stump—it’s about as dangerous as it sounds) and discussing the new Ray LaMontagne album, with pretty mediocre reviews across the board.  Now considering this is a group of folk musicians, we’re pretty much in the wheelhouse of the Ray fan club, but no one who had listened could genuinely say that they loved it.  Most of us walked away thinking it just didn’t feel right. There was too much electronic noise. It sounded too hip. It didn’t sound like it was coming from a genuine place.  Thus far, none of us have had the great pleasure of actually meeting Ray, but we each had our own opinions on his relationship to his music.

In contrast, Jack White’s new album was release at nearly the same time as the Ray album.  This is an album which, if you bought the vinyl, you literally had to figure out where to place the needle (it runs backwards,) and go on a treasure hunt for things like hidden songs at different rotation speeds and a hologram on one side if you shine a bright light while it’s rotating, (and you’re standing on one foot with your tongue out, rubbing your stomach while tapping on your forehead.)  It’s an album you literally have to put effort into listening to, let alone understanding,. To put it simply: we are all losing our shit over it. Part of that can likely be attributed to the fact that the only commonality that runs through Jack White associated albums is they have an entirely new sound each time, thus never really setting a single standard to have to live up to. The other part? Maybe Jack White wears magic underpants. (I am willing to do in-depth research to find out. Just saying.)

Inevitably, every artist will put out an album that isn’t universally loved; heck, Dylan got booed for going electric at Newport, but to what degree should we really expect an artist to stay the same? I still love Ray, even if this new album isn’t a fave.  Growth and musical experimentation, while not vital for success (shit, Dave Matthews has basically put out the same record since 2005,) are certainly what propels many musicians into super-stardom. Imagine if Justin Timberlake kept the jheri curl and those backup dancers from N’SYNC. More importantly, it serves to inspire future musicians to try something new.  Where would we be if Jack White hadn’t heard a Son House record, all offbeat and gritty or if Imogen Heap hadn’t figured out that carpet tubes would make some badass sounds while she banged them together in her basement? For a musician, the only responsibility they have is to make music, in whatever way they can. As fans, we don’t have to like it. We don’t even have to get it.  But a true artist goes beyond what is simply expected of them, climbs out on a limb and tries something new because it inspires them.

Because really, who wants to eat the same thing every day anyway?

:: Currently ::

// Listening // After I figured out how to actually listen to Lazaretto, it’s been playing non stop.

// Reading // Finished Longbourn and have started on The Goldfinch.

// Watching // Short Term 12 was a movie I’d had every intention of watching last year… and never got around to it.  I finally did this week, and let me tell you, it was easily one of the best movies of the year.  Don’t miss it. (Hint: it’s on Netflix now.)

// Playing // Stump. Obviously.

// Obsessed// Brian Moylan’s Real Housewives of New York recaps on Vulture are my new favorite thing ever.  The man is hilarious.

About The Author

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Ashley Fears is a freelance writer, professional environmentalist, and part time breakdance fighter living in Springfield, MO. Online she spends an unhealthy amount of time watching baby animal videos, searching for the perfect pair of sequined gold lame shorts, and managing her personal blog, The Uniqueness of Being. Offline, she spends her time avoiding half started Pinterest-inspired craft projects, hunting for vintage housewares, instagramming photos of her dog and her shoes, and thinking up creative insults, because you never know. Ashley writes about nostalgia, popular (and unpopular) culture, social awareness, and her feelings.

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