July 22: The Context of Elliott Smith, Future, and HEALTH

Welcome to The Sligo Punch. As always, the origin story can be found here.

Curated by Tim Nelson

So much of my experience with music is shaped by context. Once I understand the factors that inspire a song or album’s creation, I can grasp its personal and/or historical significance in a way that allows me to appreciate it that much more. I first noticed this when I delved into the history of punk rock’s roots, as The Ramones suddenly transformed from sloppy and simplistic to downright transgressive. It’s moments like that which first inspired me to start blogging a little over two years ago, and the way that our understanding of certain artists can evolve over time is something we’ll be exploring in a few different capacities this week. Though we’re sticking with the usual watch, listen and read format of The Sligo Punch, each of these three items is meant to enrich your appreciation of a particular artist representing the past, Future and present of music.

Watch This Heaven Adores You, directed by Nickolas Rossi

Given that so many of the retrospective narratives about Elliott Smith paint him as some sad-sack singer-songwriter, it’s easy to forget just how prolific and talented he truly was. Nickolas Rossi’s documentary- comprised mostly of archival concert footage, radio appearances and interviews with his close friends and creative partners- doesn’t really reference Smith’s depression or drug use until almost two thirds of the way into the film, and it’s far from a central theme.

The focus here is on understanding his creative journey from writing songs on guitar at age 13 in Dallas through his well-deserved Oscar nomination for Miss Misery and beyond. It serves as a humanizing portrait for anyone who wants to understand what made this singer-songwriter so brilliant. Elliott loyalists will enjoy tracing the evolution of songs like “Coast to Coast” and the close-up look of his time in the vastly underappreciated Heatmiser goes a long way towards shedding Smith’s reputation as a softie with a guitar.

Listen to This: “I Serve the Base” by Future

I could pick any number of lines to represent Future’s DS2, but none do a better job of pinpointing where Nayvadius Wilburn’s life and career are at in 2015. Since music isn’t created in a vacuum, any personal struggles or changes of circumstance either elevate an artist’s work to new heights or drags them down. Future’s more or less admitted that splitting from Ciara kicked him into a higher creative gear, blessing us with Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights and now DS2 in the span of nine months. The way that his his inner turmoil plays out is as opaque as the Dirty Sprite that Future Hendrix speaks of so fondly.

What makes I Serve The Base so emblematic of what DS2 has to offer is the way that Future balances typical lyrical bravado with the self-awareness that eludes lesser rappers who have yet to grasp that there’s a downside to turning up. Over a Metro Boomin’ beat that could have been picked up from the cutting room floor of Trent Reznor’s (Nine Inch Nails) The Downward Spiral sessions, Future offers us a look into the relationship between his mental state and his habits: “I’m posted with my niggas, let the champagne flow// A nigga was depressed now my mind back healthy// A product of them roaches in ’em ashtrays// I inhale the love on a bad day//Baptized inside purple Actavis”.

Here and elsewhere on the album, it’s hard to tell exactly if he’s feeling empowered or crying out for help. In this age of Rap Genius annotations, what makes Future such an interesting commodity is that he defies easy categorization. Ultimately, though, an understanding of his circumstances at least encourages us to find the depth that many of his mainstream contemporaries lack.

Read This:

I had never heard of HEALTH until I saw them open for the Black Lips at a free show in Williamsburg six years ago. I was overwhelmed by their abrasive set. I felt almost offended by John Famiglietti’s unwillingness to use his bass for its intended purpose, and I was completely unable to grasp how anyone could legitimately claim to enjoy their ‘music’. Through exposure therapy, I’ve managed to change my tune in the intervening years to the point that I was thrilled to finally catch them for a second time last month as they started to build some momentum towards the release of Death Magic, their first batch of songs they’ve written for something other than a video game in six years. From what we’ve heard so far, it promises to be their most accessible record yet.

But is the current state of affairs a product of HEALTH changing their tune to reflect current sensibilities, or is it that the rest of the music world finally caught up to them? Hua Hsu’s piece about the band in The New Yorker makes the case that it might be a bit of both. It’s true that HEALTH wants to integrate some pop sensibilities into their work, as Hsu mentions their conscious efforts to deconstruct hit songs and reduce them to their individual components. But it’s just as true that pop music itself has become louder and bolder, thanks to structural changes in how we listen to music as well as groundbreaking works like Yeezus that have gotten at least some mainstream music fans to think differently about what they’re hearing. Either way, this change that Hsu discusses certainly suits a band that invents its own terminology to describe its bizarre guitar effects, and I think we should all be excited to see how the world of pop and the art of HEALTH continue to interact.