Is it possible to really appreciate a record after only hearing it once or a few times?
I can’t help but feel that you should only be allowed to put together a top ten records for any given year several years after the fact, otherwise it’s a fairly shallow exercise in trend spotting, identifying what you think were the most interesting records of the year rather than those with some depth and durability, those records that somehow stay with you. Personally I would say that a good 90 percent of the records that form a part of my own personal canon have lacked immediacy. Most of them have grown on me: had something intriguing but uncertain enough to make me return to them until they started to take on shape. In fact it takes a while, a certain amount of exposure, often quite prolonged, before I can hear them properly.
There seems to be two ways in which a particular record gets to me, first of all there’s a track on an album which I like and which then leads me on to listen to the whole thing repeatedly enough for me to begin to appreciate the rest of it: you need to inhabit a record for a while. A good recent example would be Donovan’s The Hurdy Gurdy Man: I knew the title track (primarily because it was covered by the Buttholes) the rest of the album seemed a lot less interesting, but I left it on as I was writing and hey presto it’s slowly revealed itself, a kind of grafting process that has happened , in a way, while my back has been turned. I’m surprised that after a week or two of having it on almost constantly I can’t get over how good it is. Again, the same with the latest 31 Knots album. First listen had me thinking, as usual, aha, bit lumpen , not as good as the last one. Now a few weeks later it feels like I can pick up on its subtleties and variations, hear the hooks and shifts in tone, the drama and comedy, the flourishes, it has somehow emerged from the fog, taken on a particularity and a clarity. This used to be the case with Shudder to Think records. I’d buy the latest thinking, Well, I wonder how many times I’ll have to listen to this before I like it? It often seems to be those records which you have to endure to some degree that are the ones that finally do endure.
This is not, I think, just a structure of expectation or a habit of an older pre-internet generation of listeners but a necessary component of musical appreciation: sufficient repetition. It’s not a necessity in terms of “critical” skills, but it’s often the case that music gets around those critical faculties/filters anyway. I question the degree to which musical appreciation, on the deep, (im) personal level, is determined by factors that have anything to do with “taste”. Here’s something else which happens to me fairly frequently: Ping’s listening to something, or the I-tunes is running away in the background and I suddenly find myself saying “what’s this, it’s brilliant” invariably discovering that it’s something I’ve professed to hate/have no interest in a few months previously, but which suddenly, detached from its place in what I consider to be my attitude, my approach , catching me in a defenceless moment, somehow has got to me. This has now become a running joke, what do you think of this? This is rubbish for the next six months until it’s suddenly the best record I’ve ever heard.
What interests me in this is the degree to which what you like is seemingly rather arbitrary: I’m sure you have your arguments, your approach, your well reasoned rationales but my actual brain, predictably, has no interest in what I think: it has its own agenda (I should doubtless say process) and I tail along behind it slightly irritated and mystified by its attachments. This is annoying and disruptive as I want to own my own taste, assert myself, have an opinion and an attitude, I want to like what I like for coherent reasons and not simply find that it’s all a rather mysterious process that goes on at a level beyond my own conscious permission. I want to have an argument about it, a coherent, grounded position, but what I want and what it’s doing are often two very different things.
I equate this in several ways to the process of language learning. There was a point when I lived in Barcelona, and still couldn’t speak the language, at which the Spanish around me shifted from being just “noise” to something structured, the noise had differentiated somehow, become a series of units arranged in a particular ways and according to a set of underlying principles (this affects how you subsequently hear all other languages.) I still didn’t understand it, but suddenly I felt a stage closer, my brain had, through sheer force of exposure somehow begun to recognize a pattern in it, to identify it as a language and not just noise. It’s also true that for example at a relatively early stage of language learning it’s hard to understand what people are saying if you’re outside, in a pub etc as the brain has yet to sufficiently differentiate the second language from noise and will filter it out, background it, along with all the other ambient blare as non-essential, non-signifying. No amount of immediate concentration or effort will surmount this problem, it’s more a question of repetition and exposure. Ping just had a similar problem in work: she has to use headphones and is given instructions over them. In the first week she couldn’t understand much and was stressed out by it, it hasn’t been an issue since the second week.
Language learning will of course fundamentally remind you that your brain is much smarter than you are, and that by and large you should just try to keep out of its way. There’s also a distinction between learning and acquisition that’s relevant here too, I’m pretty good at “learning” Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji: I can fly through exercises on them as my short term visual memory ( plus my memorization strategies) are pretty good. If I leave it for two or three days I struggle to recall anything yet I also know my brain will be going about the longer, deeper level process of assimilating them, even if I don’t do any more work perhaps. I’m just in the gap between learning and assimilation.
The perfect example of this would be the word “hembra” in Spanish (it means “bitch” here actually, but in a non-derogatory way i.e. female dog/animal). I asked if a dog was a boy or a girl, not knowing the right term, and was told it was una hembra. About three months later I was standing on Lewisham station and the word popped, unbidden, into my mind with a little ker-ching! and disappeared again. You know that word now my brain told me. The brain does this with music too, I think. If it doesn’t follow a familiar pattern then the brain needs time to assimilate it, there’s a pleasure gap between listening and assimilation, a point when you don’t really know what you think of the record, or at least, when you haven’t had time enough to like it yet.
Just to qualify that and also drawing on the language analogy, there are also occasions ( which regrettably, but due to perfectly natural disinclination, we all avoid) when the pressure of the moment means, through panic/survival you instantly assimilate a word. I now know and will never forget the words “shiranai” “warimashtaka” and “tarimashtaka” in Japanese because they were all accompanied by moments of stress and embarrassed incomprehension that immediately drove them home and I imagine that encountering the truly radical and strange in art does this too, it opens up some faintly traumatised fight or flight response that somehow boosts your perception of immediacy, that shuts down all other mental functions and throws everything directly at the object in an effort to understand/deal with it, renders it luminous, auratic.
I wonder if on some level this isn’t the “Real” of listening, a kind of alien, mechanical pleasure process that constantly disrupts the symbolic-critical, ego and persona related field forcing it into all kinds of realignments in order to maintain its integrity. There can be very few critics, amateur or otherwise who haven’t experienced the near continuous vertigo of responding to and enjoying stuff you’re not supposed to like or used not to like: we conveniently label this guilty pleasures, or maturing tastes, but it’s probably something more interesting and less amenable to the discursive practices on which conventional criticism is founded.
Actually when I started writing this post it was supposed to be about what a fine, fine record Mordant Music’s Symptoms is. Clearly I had other things to say, though no conscious idea that I was going to say them. See what I mean!