Reviews of the new Sunset Rubdown album (e.g. here and here) are relatively adulatory. But even while both Pitchfork and Coke Machine Glow praise it, they bear this implication that the earlier Sunset Rubdown albums were somehow purer in their ‘experimentalism’ (I can’t believe we’re still in this pure/unpure dichotomy that is so unproductive) and that, by making their work more ‘pop,’ they were somehow compromising, even if the reviews end up praising this as a successful compromise.
This crystallises something I’ve thought about for a while, and it afflicts most web music writing, and that is an absolute refusal to think systematically about aesthetics.
All varieties of pop music (as in, music that can draw its origins, in however tangled and a diluted way, back to ‘folk’ forms as opposed to what we can — somewhat uselessly — call concert music), just as in any other art form, are engaged with the question, whether they know it or not, of ‘what is great art?’ And great works always respond with ‘this is’.
The only way, in pop music, for that statement to be expressed is in ‘the song’. Most widely regarded artists have started with simpler structures and expanded out into art: Dylan, Radiohead, etc. The previous (third) Sunset Rubdown album sounded like ideas about songs rather than songs. This was not some ‘purer,’ more ‘experimental’ incarnation, but an artistic failure. They couldn’t embody what they wanted to do — they could only tell us what they wanted to do.
The new album may not be great, or I may not be one to judge that, but it is a significant improvement on the previous album, so I’m perplexed when I read bizarrely phrased paragraphs like this:
But, that’s the way we’re used to Sunset Rubdown sounding: fussy, untouchable, otherwordly. Let’s not associate difficulty with quality though. RSL had a greater chance for escape and awe; Dragonslayer was built for performance, and it sounds good live because the songs sound comfortable and straightforward. Sunset Rubdown are best when they are unfettered by those concerns, when they are fully soaked in their own set of thematic and sonic touchstones and could give a shit if they’re understood or not.
That’s the final paragraph of the Pitchfork review. The review reminds us, firstly, ‘let’s not associate difficulty with quality though’, then that the previous album ‘had a greater chance for escape and awe’, then that Dragonslayer ‘sounds good live because the songs sound comfortable and straightforward’, then the non-sequitur of a final sentence.
What are these ‘concerns’ that Sunset Rubdown are best when avoiding? Why finish with this facile comparison anyway? The compromise is not in the artist who works to refine an aesthetic, but in the critic who’d prefer to cheerlead failure than celebrate success.
Posted By: Rory