Fabricating Authenticity, or Faking It

I’ve been reading a book about Elliott Smith’s XO, one of my favorite albums ever, and the author spends a good deal of time discussing what makes an artist authentic.

Authenticity is a complex, strange idea. The author, Matthew LeMay, argues that Smith’s use of drug imagery and tales of depression and self-doubt are not exactly autobiographical, or at least not intended to be taken that way. Just because Smith himself had a history of drug use, LeMay says, does not mean the songs that make drug references are about him. But we assume they are, because cultural authorities have pegged Smith as the “drugged-up singer/songwriter” type.

Part of the reason for that, LeMay posits, is that listeners want to believe that Elliott Smith’s songs are somehow more “authentic” than someone else’s, that he has authenticity because he’s writing about things he himself has experienced. It raises the question, though: if Smith’s songs were not purely autobiographical (and LaMay makes a fairly compelling argument for why they’re not), are they somehow less authentic?

What even makes a song (or a musician) authentic? What makes a Bob Dylan song more authentic than, say, a Lady Gaga song? There are few who would argue Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” for instance, is less authentic than Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” But what makes that the case? The very act of creating a song, of putting emotional and mental concepts into a formal structure, of setting it to a melody, is inauthentic: there is nothing “real” about singing about your feelings rather than, say, any other form of expression. Expression itself is an artificial construct, an effort to put into words or pictures or sound or whatever something that cannot be truly defined. The act of attempting to contain a concept as big as “love” or “addition” in any sort of expressive form is to put the concept in a box, but the box can never fully contain the entirety of the concept.

So, why then do we consider some musicians more authentic than others? Why does an Elliott Smith or a Bob Dylan come across as more authentic than a Lady Gaga or a Celine Dione? Does it have to do with the nature of their music, with Smith and Dylan writing songs that are more direct and often more literary than their poppier counterparts? Is it that they often write the songs themselves? Or that singers like Dione and Lady Gaga have an army of producers and engineers crafting their music, whereas a guy like Elliott Smith did it almost entirely by himself?

It’s difficult to say. I think it has a lot to do with verisimilitude. An Elliott Smith song feels real, feels lived in, and that lends it its air of authenticity. The songs feel believable, whereas Celine Dione’s “I Will Always Love You” just feels like it’s all soaring high notes and doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight of truth to it (or truthiness, even). Promising to always love some unnamed figure up on a pedestal feels artificial to us, even if you happen to love the song, while a stark ballad like Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” feels very human. It seems like something that could happen, and that is what gives the song the authenticity.

All music is artifice. When I was younger, I dismissed music from the ’80s as being “style over substance,” and felt pretty smug in my assessment. While I still don’t particularly care for ’80s music today, I can see how false the dichotomy I’d created was: there’s no song that hasn’t taken style into consideration, even if the decision is a lo-fi Mountain Goats “single voice and guitar recorded straight into a boombox” style. “Substance” is a pretty ephemeral thing, really, and it’s absolutely possible to craft a catchy, poppy song that has tremendous substance.

Ultimately, authenticity is a tricky concept. I think a lot of it has to do with how an artist carries his or herself. While a guy like Elliott Smith was always very concerned with the style of his songs and their arrangement, his meticulous approach to the sound and the lyrics carried a great deal of conceptual weight that granted him an air of authenticity, even when standing onstage next to Celine Dione at the Oscars. But authenticity isn’t about being a confessional singer/songwriter, it’s about holding true to your inner self, writing and performing what you want to, the way you want to, regardless of its style or substance.

Delayed Reaction: Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill and the Posthumous Album Curse

I came to Elliott Smith a little late in the game: after his success had already led to major label records, before his untimely death. Like so many others, my introduction to his work was Either/Or, still one of the single best records ever (admittedly, I would also say the same about XO and probably Figure 8). I was upset when I learned about Smith’s death, because it meant we wouldn’t be getting anymore albums from him.

Then they announced From a Basement on the Hill, and I was both excited and very, very nervous.

See, I think there’s something definitely dangerous about the posthumous album. Releasing an unfinished record after the artist’s death is, at best, a gamble, and at worst a crass cash grab. Hell, Tupac’s released more albums since he died than he did when he was still alive. Unfinished work either ends up sounding like exactly that (unfinished, skeletal demos) or some sort of elegiac, overproduced thing that tries to cover up the fact that there wasn’t more than a verse and a half and most of a chorus put together before the guy died.

So I was worried about Basement, and I’ll admit that for the longest time, I did not care for the record. I ranked it down at the bottom of Smith’s catalog. Compared to any other album in his oeuvre (yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ out the French), it just didn’t fit. Bits of it were rough and ramshackle, while other parts felt overproduced, and the whole thing felt completely unlike any other Elliott Smith album. It didn’t feel like it was his. The fact that there was a fair amount of controversy over the production and mastering of the album when it came out only served to confirm my fears.

But today, I decided to give it a second chance. It was, after all, a collection of songs written by Elliott Smith, so there had to be something worthwhile in there. And I was surprised to discover that, in fact, while there are a couple of odd missteps, this is actually an album that fits in with his catalog and manages to almost synthesize all the different stages of his career.

The album opens with the atypical rocker “Coast to Coast,” a song that doesn’t have a comparison in the rest of his solo work. With the heavily distorted drums and grungy guitar, it sounds more like an outtake from his previous band, Heatmiser. However, it quickly bounces to more familiar territory, with the softly-plucked acoustic and multi-tracked vocals of “Let’s Get Lost” and the fuller sound of “Pretty (Ugly Before),” which would have felt of a piece with Figure 8.

What’s particularly interesting about the album is that it feels rather like Smith’s attempt to synthesize the Beatles’ Revolver into his own work. Not that this record sounds anything like Revolver, just that the guitars in several places bear a striking resemblance in tone and style to the guitar work on Revolver. It does feel like Smith is also attempting to push the boundaries of his style the way the Beatles did on Revolver.

I do think that this album is still the weakest of Elliott Smith’s career. The songs just don’t feel as complete or as tightly-plotted as on his other records. The lyrics aren’t as sharp, and feel too much like retreads of topics and themes he’s already addressed in other songs to better effect. It is by no means a bad record, just not as great as his other stuff. I’ve reconciled myself to this being the final Elliott Smith album (even if not the final collection of Elliott Smith recordings, as the wonderful 2006 collection of odds and sods, New Moon, proved). While not the best album of his all-too-short career, it’s still worth a listen.

Top 25 Most-Played Songs for 2011

Every year, I reset the playcount on all the songs on my iPod. But before I do that, I count down what the top 25 most-played songs on the iPod were for the year.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for that once again. Here they are, in descending order:

25. Elliott Smith, “Baby Britain,” from XO (13 plays): I love me some Elliott Smith, as does my wife. He’s one of the few artists we completely agree on, and makes a great compromise when we’re in the car and want something to listen to. The man had a way with words and a deftness and nimbleness in his guitar playing that I absolutely loved.

24. Amanda Palmer, “Oasis,” from Who Killed Amanda Palmer (13 plays): This is quite possibly the best song about date rape and a trip to the abortion clinic you’ll ever hear, though that’s probably a pretty short list of songs to begin with, I’d imagine. Palmer offsets the seriousness of the situation with one of the brightest, poppiest melodies you could imagine (with Ben Folds on backing vocals, no less!), and the bouncy rhythm really makes you think there is something seriously wrong with Amanda Palmer in the best possible way.

23. Moxy Fruvous, “The Present Tense Tureen,” from Wood (15 plays): There was a time in college – probably about six to nine months – when I listened to nothing but this Canadian band, and it may have broken me. I mean, how many songs do you know about a guy walking along a creek, encountering an elf, and getting relationship advice while waiting for a stew to boil that isn’t actually in the tureen? Just this one, I assure you. Plus, it features the line, “Then he giggled in French/That’s what he did,” and that is possibly the best line in anything ever.

22. Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones,” from August and Everything After (15 plays): Several of the songs that pop up on this list (including this one) are songs on the playlist I designed specifically for my wife, because the alternative was she would always have to listen to Bob Dylan (or we’d be divorced; I imagine it’s a one thing or the other sort of situation) in the car. Anyway, we both enjoy this song, and it features a Bob Dylan reference, so I’m happy.

21. The Arcade Fire, “Intervention,” from Neon Bible (15 plays): Another song off the playlist for the wife. She identifies it as her favorite Arcade Fire song, while I love the prominent use of church organ.

20. Harlem Shakes, “Sunlight,” From Technicolor Health (17 plays): This band’s place in my music collection seemed like a bit of an anomaly, though I’ve never been able to really articulate why. They don’t really sound much like any other band I listen to much, and I don’t really care for any other bands that play their particular style of indie-guitar rock, and yet…I really love this album, and this song in particular. Dunno why.

19. The Gaslight Anthem, “Stay Lucky,” from American Slang (18 plays): Okay, these guys, I know exactly why I like. Anyone doing straight-ahead Bruce Springsteen-inspired rock is okay in my book, and these guys have finally grown beyond just aping their influences (the aforementioned Bruce Springsteen). This is a great song for driving to, though I do have to pay attention not to drive too fast when it’s on. Also, way too much fun to sing along with at the top of your lungs.

18. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” from Pendulum (19 plays): Let’s speak plainly: Pendulum is not a good CCR album. Hell, it’s not a particularly good album, full stop. It’s bland and does not have a clear identity, something CCR albums usually never suffer from (Mardis Gras is pretty mediocre, too). However! However, it does feature this particular song, which is a slice of redemption so powerful, so beautiful, so perfect, that I am willing to forgive the existence of the album based solely on the presence of this single song. Also, “Hey Tonight” is pretty good.

17. The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, “The Golden Age,” from The Golden Age – EP (19 plays): Yeah, it’s that song from the Hieneken commercial. I am highly susceptible to the music used in advertisement, if not the product (I don’t really care for Hieneken, for instance). Plus, it’s fun.

16. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Kings Road,” from Hard Promises (20 plays): Tom Petty has been one of my favorite musicians since I was a young, young man (one of the first concerts I ever went to, in fact, was a Tom Petty concert). He’s one of the best songwriters in rock and roll, and Mike Campbell is one of the most criminally overlooked and underappreciated lead guitarists in music. Campbell’s guitar parts always fit the song perfectly, and he doesn’t solo to show off his skills, he solos to meet the needs of the song. I think it’s safe to say I’ll buy any album these guys put out.

15. Cream, “Badge,” From Goodbye (20 plays): Between this and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” I think it’s safe to say that the Eric Clapton/George Harrison songwriting partnership is one that should have been much more fruitful. These guys did some of their best work together, but never really got around to doing many songs with each other. I call it a tragedy.

14. 8in8, “One Tiny Thing,” from NightyNight (21 plays): Take three musicians and one Neil Gaiman, sit them in a recording studio for a night, and see what they come up with. It’s a beautifully simple concept, and one that created several of my favorite songs this year. This particular tune, “One Tiny Thing,” is an excellent example of what they accomplished: simple, direct, but perfectly captured, a little slice of four friends working together to create music that is both fun and emotionally engaging.

13. The National, “Think You Can Wait,” from the Film “Win Win” (21 plays): I will listen to pretty much anything the National puts out. Seriously, it could just be Matt Berninger reading the phone book over Bryan Devendorf’s drums, and I would listen to it and declare it wonderful.

12. The Avett Brothers, “Will You Return?,” from Emotionalism (21 plays): Harmonies and banjos? Yes, please.

11. The Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man,” from Doolittle (23 plays): I never really listened to contemporary music when I was in high school, so I completely missed out on bands like the Pixies in the ’90s. My wife, on the other hand, was a bit of a Pixies devotee, so I’ve since been indoctrinated into their holy communion. This is probably my favorite song of theirs; I just love the harmonies in the chorus.

10. Josh Ritter, “Golden Age of Radio,” from Golden Age of Radio (23 plays): I think the record will show I love me some Josh Ritter (even if his last record was a little bland). This song is just fantastic: thumping percussion, a great chord progression, and a spirited vocal delivery from Ritter. Plus, it name drops Patsy Cline and Townes Van Zandt.

9. Florence + the Machine, “Dog Days are Over,” from Lungs (23 plays): I really only play the guitar, but I am apparently a sucker for a stripped-down, bone-rattling drum beat. This song has that, plus Florence Welch just sings with such gusto. That woman can belt it and has no fear, which I appreciate in a vocalist (possibly why I like Dylan so much).

8. Stephen Stills, “Wooden Ships,” from Just Roll Tape (24 plays): More a demo than anything else, this rough draft version of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young AOR staple is stripped down and simple, just Stills and a guitar. But stripped of harmonies and bombast, it’s still a great song. The core of the tune – the chord progression, the melody – is strong enough to make this just as great as the version everyone knows.

7. Dan Auerbach, “My Last Mistake,” from Keep it Hid (24 plays): While it may just be a simple song about screwing up a relationship, there’s something universal about the concept that musicians keep coming back to for a reason. And hell, this is just a great tune. The chord progression is catchy, the bluesy lead is pitch-perfect, and Auerbach’s vocals really deliver the emotional punch the song needs. It’s a simple song, but it’s a simple pleasure that really satisfies.

6. The Beatles, “Chains,” From Please Please Me (25 plays): Is this the best Beatles song? No, not by a long shot. Is it even the best song on this album? Heck no (I mean, there’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” For crying out loud). However, it’s a perfect distillation of what’s great about early Beatles: a great beat, excellent melody, and some of the best upper-register vocals you’ll ever hear. Plus, it’s got George on the lead vocals, and he didn’t ever get the love he deserved in that group, man.

5. Colin Hay, “Beautiful Word,” from Scrubs (Original Television Soundtrack) (27 plays): This song was used to great effect in the TV show Scrubs, but even standing on it’s own, it’s beautiful. The melody is gorgeous, and the simplicity of Hay’s delivery (and the stripped-down arrangement of just his voice and acoustic guitar) makes it all the more affecting. It’s one of those sad, sweet tunes I could just listen to over and over, and obviously did this year.

4. Drive-By Truckers, “Everybody Needs Love,” from Go-Go Boots (29 plays): Again, a pretty universal theme (people want to be loved) that’s been tackled hundreds, even thousands, of times in popular music, but this is just the sort of anthematic song you can’t help but sing along to at the top of your lungs when it comes on.

3. The Decemberists, “Don’t Carry it All,” from The King is Dead (29 plays): I have a pretty solid music crush on the Decemberists. I will listen to any album they put out, though I’ve always been a little disappointed they went the prog-rock concept album route instead of focusing on smaller, single-song stories. Well, The King is Dead was something of an answer to my prayers, and “Don’t Carry it All” was the hallelujah. It’s the loosest and most joyful I’ve ever heard them be, and it’s just fun to listen to (I know, not a word I’d really associate with the band, either). Honestly, The King is Dead is a strong contender for my favorite album this year, and it’s mostly on the strength of this one song.

2. The Hollies, “Just One Look,” from The Air That I Breathe: The Very Best of the Hollies (33 plays): A great little unrequited love song full of harmonies and a great bridge. If you can listen to this song and not want to sing along, I think you might actually be dead inside.

1. Deer Tick, “Easy,” from Born on Flag Day (35 plays): This song has consumed me in the past few months. Everything about it is amazing, from the feedback that opens the track to the use of the vibra-slap, the deep throb of the bass line under those riffs in the intro, to the Telecaster twang of the guitar and the growl in the singer’s voice. This is a song full of despair, gloom, doom, and a sense of overwhelming frustration and anger. It’s brilliant: in under 4 minutes, Deer Tick deliver one of the most affecting songs I’ve heard in a long time. As soon as the song is over, I want to hit the back button and hear it again. And the harmony in the second verse? Gets me every time. It’s perfect, and it’s the song I’ve listened to the most times this year.