Sound and Vision
So much of musical appeal across popular genres is predicated on a sense of authenticity and emotion. There are increasingly many acclaimed albums, like Mount Eerie’s “A Crow Looked at Me” or Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” rooted in these sensibilities. Steely Dan, however, seems to take pride in sounding as distant as possible. Fagen sings disaffected lyrics in a soulless, nasal whine, and the songs—their sophisticated chords, jazzy progressions, and seamless mixes—tend to be so utterly flawless that they almost sound passionless. Rockists have retroactively dismissed Steely Dan for having a wimpy or soft sound. Unlike Fleetwood Mac’s, another band criticized for this sound, their songs never had anything to do with Becker or Fagen themselves. Their protagonists were generally unlovable losers, like the narrator of “Peg,” who tries to convince the titular character to become a pinup girl. Moreover, in an era that glamorized sole authorship, Steely Dan had a rotating cavalcade of some of the top jazz musicians in the country that they used whenever needed. The band’s relentless work ethic and technical songwriting skill make it difficult to fault them on any objective grounds. This makes their albums frustratingly slippery for would-be critics.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Grammy win for Album of the Year last month. It did not win for any grand social statement—which the Grammys tend to ignore—or for shattering musical barriers, though little innovations like drumming on an office chair contributed to its impeccable pop-rock sound. It won for having 11 brilliant songs—some wistful, some buoyant, some haunting, and all seemingly directed at bandmates.
Verlaine’s vocal delivery elevates those lines to a near-apocalyptic significance. Surely, the marquee moon promises something great and terrible. But what? It never arrives. The third chorus instead concludes “I ain’t waitin’, uh-uh!” Throughout the album, we see Verlaine frantically roaming an impressionistic New York exploding with light, sound, and friction, seeking something that would help him transcend everything bombarding his senses. When he finds it, whether it is the titular lunar skyscape or falling “into the arms of Venus de Milo,” he runs into another problem—that experience does not deliver, either. At least, we never learn what he makes of these moments. We only hear his angst through riffs, solos, basslines, and fills.
In the 1970s, Springsteen was a star on the rise. While his first two albums weren’t hits, Springsteen’s reputation was stellar. Not only did critics embrace him, but celebrities like David Bowie did as well. More than anything else, Springsteen’s early music could be characterized by a love of New Jersey and an embrace of the downtrodden there. With his third album, the breakout hit “Born to Run,” Springsteen outgrew his hometown of Asbury Park in an instant. “Born to Run” was a masterful album that loved its subjects just as much as it pitied them. It reshaped the face of rock music, creating the heartland rock genre.