Knowing When it’s Time to Let the Music Die
It may be fun to relive nostalgia but it’s almost always wrong to try to recreate it
The Taste of Chaos tour came back a few months ago and a few of my now mostly 30-year-old friends talked about how sick it would be to see some of the bands we used to love, maybe as little as 6 or 7 years ago and get back some of that loving feeling. It was fun to think about but I blew it off because it was overpriced and I knew that I was already out on those bands.
One friend of mine and I like to get drinks after work every few weeks and on occasion he’ll tell me something about a band we used to like working on a new album. I’m always negative about it and that’s for a good reason, the history of bands that have fallen off actually putting out something good again is a wasteland of failed promises and cringe-y efforts. We’ll talk about it for a few hours and usually settle on the idea that it could be good — but in my heart I know it wont be.
There is always a moment when a band you love puts out that one album that you just aren’t feeling. Bands that I absolutely devoured, looking for b-sides and covers online, looking up tabs, playing the same album all the way through over and over again — even those bands have a shelf life.
I think most people can agree that there is a line that gets crossed at some point with most bands, though where that line is can be totally different person to person. A lot of times, it wasn’t even so much the band’s fault as it was me outgrowing them or the genre.
I loved emo music when I was in high school because it fit who I was at that time but at some point, Dashboard Confessional and The Early November didn’t do it for me anymore. And while those bands continued to make music for years beyond that artificial timeline of mine, I no longer really anticipated anything new they had to offer.
But the better bands tend to have much more forgiving fan bases, who still think that any bad album is more of a misstep than a sign of things to come. Or they might not think they’ve ever made a bad album.
When St. Anger came out, it was widely panned as the worst Metallica album ever. Fans complained at the lack of solos, terrible drum sounds and stupid lyrics. By contrast, Death Magnetic was lauded as a return to form of the classic heavy thrash metal albums of the 80s.
I think this is totally wrong. After Black Album, you could argue they never put out anything interesting again — some would say after And Justice For All. They managed to put out 3 God-tier metal albums and two merely great albums in a 7-year span. After that, they were done. Metal completely changed and they changed and it probably should have ended there. Instead, in the 90s we got Load and Reload which are trash. That’s why St. Anger was made. They needed to break away from what was so boring and bad about their past decade.
But people hated it and they eventually caved and made Death Magnetic. But you know what? Death Magnetic is worse and even though St. Anger is hard to listen to at least it was an honest effort. I may not listen to it very often, but I respect it more.
Death Magnetic is the equivalent of the Beach Boys song Kokomo. It sounds like old Beach Boys standards to anyone born in the past 30 years. But people who liked the creative Pet Sounds Beach Boys probably hate it more than anything on earth. That’s why I hate Death Magnetic. Some kid born in the late-90s who played Rock Band might grow up thinking that All Nightmare Long is just as good as Blackened.
I’m not against nostalgia. Just this week I made a playlist of the things I used to listen to when i was 17–19 years old. It was fun to reconnect with my tastes from that time and remember who I was back then. A lot of it was cringeworthy but a surprising amount of it still clicked with me.
I get the return of Taste of Chaos, or Warped Tour’s unending devotion to still existing. But one look at the lineups tells you all you need to know — this return of the “scene” is really not much of a return at all but a nostalgia trip. I’m sure there are younger people and new bands that are into it, but the prices and the headliner bands are aimed squarely at people my age.
I read an interview recently with Anthony Green of Circa Survive where he spoke about returning to Saosin, the mythical post-hardcore band that made a great 5 song EP before Green left the band.
I saw them play once when I was 18, but even by early 2005 Green was gone and the band we saw on stage was not the same one we listened to in the car. That’s why it was so weird to hear that he wasn’t just fronting Saosin for a one-off show but they were making music again. The interview mostly covered Green’s heroin addiction but within the Noisey article there was an embedded video of new music so I gave it a listen.
And what I heard was a band made up of people who were in Saosin, with a guy who was Anthony Green, playing music that was within the genre they used to play. But there was nothing more.
There was none of the angular sharpness that made the band stand out from the crowd in 2004 or the strangely aggressive drumming. And Green, 12 years on, no longer had that strange and desperate scream or his — apparently drug fueled — manic energy.
I knew Green wasn’t the same anymore. After Circa Survive’s first two albums his voice and creative energy waned and I stopped following the band. Occasionally I would listen to their newest stuff, but they were different and I was different and there was a disconnect that couldn’t be reconciled. But as far as Saosin is concerned, there wasn’t much of a band there to pull from in the first place. This was apparent on all of their subsequent releases except for a few songs off of the Saosin EP that came out soon after Green left.
It’s not a knock on Saosin. This happens to bands and musicians of all sizes, catalogs, and genres. I guess what i’m trying to say is that most of the time it’s better to leave the past where you left it — in the gilded portion of your mind.
I was out with that same friend I mentioned earlier last night and I told him about my idea on letting go of bands at the right time. He mostly agreed with me but we started talking about Sufjan Stevens newest album, Carrie & Lowell and how good it was.
After loving Michigan, Seven Swans and Illinois, his most recent full release, The Age of Adz, just didn’t connect with me at all. And because of the amount of time between Illinois and Adz and then the amount of time he was silent after that with only a Christmas album coming out in 5 years, I thought it was over.
Carrie & Lowell turned out to be more than a return to form from the strange electronica of his previous album, it was as good as his best. In talking with my friend I let slip, “I think it might actually be his best,” before thinking to myself if I actually believed it. But even compared to his library of songs that I absolutely love and the surface level similarities between Carrie & Lowell and his earliest albums, what he pulled off by putting out an album this good a decade after his last good album is nearly unprecedented.
Even after contemplating it a while longer, I’m still not sure if it really is his best album, that honor probably goes to Illinois, and I don’t think it’s my personal favorite album of his — Seven Swans always will be. But if somebody was a teenager in 2015 and they felt that Carrie & Lowell was the best album of Stevens’ career, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.
Letting go of a band after an album or two is a calloused way to view music. Art is subjective and so much effort goes into producing even 12 decent songs that it is hard to quantify what is a good or bad output. I think that a lot of the albums I loved growing up were probably bad to begin with but because of who I was, they were not just good, they were great. Maybe letting a band go or getting out early is a defense mechanism to protect the things that I did love from changing tastes and sensibilities or even from themselves.
I listened to Kintsugi, the newest Death Cab For Cutie album, when it came out after hearing an interview with Ben Gibbard on the Andy Greenwald podcast. I immediately knew that I hated it, almost from the first line, but after watching Gibbard speak about all the changes in his life and how they came together on this album, I thought to myself, maybe there’s a chance it could at least be interesting. After all, I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago when I was devouring Transatlantacism and learning every song on guitar. But it turned out that it just wasn’t possible anymore.
I had a DVD of Death Cab for Cutie live and I remember watching it and wanting so badly to be Ben Gibbard. He was smart, a little overweight like me, but cool. He was sad like me too and his insecurity came through in his lyrics which is why I connected with them.
Watching the interview on YouTube though, it was clear that he was not that person anymore. He was thin, almost handsome with long hair. He shed his specs and talked about his sobriety and the running clubs he was apart of where he lived. After a single listen to Kintsugi, I knew I was right to let go of his music when I did — but in some ways I wish I was wrong.