A recent social media meme asked a question about which music you would miss least if marooned on a desert island. The answer from me is easy: The music I would miss least is any album released this week or last.
On April 10, New York post-punk band The Strokes issued The New Abnormal, its sixth studio album and first in seven years. The lean, jittery grooves are great, with producer Rick Rubin boldly aiming for what some might characterize as a “Strokesian" sound. The verses to Not The Same Anymore lounge like the morphine jazz of Chet Baker. And the group’s insouciance is high in the mix.
But here’s the thing: Despite a title that seems appropriate for the times, the album was instantly irrelevant (except to its core fans) upon its release. In today’s locked-down world, where other musical artists are livestreaming from their kitchens or dropping topical singles, immediacy is the trend (even if it’s happening as a last resort).
In contrast, recent blockbuster albums from the Strokes and Pearl Jams of the business are cumbersome packages preordered for curbside pickup.
On The New Abnormal’s tautly jangling opening track The Adults Are Talking, Julian Casablancas sings, “We are trying hard to get your attention.” But releasing an album in the middle of a quarantining pandemic and economic downturn is not the way to do it.
In 1932, the song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? achieved a rare feat: It was a chart-topper separately for two crooners, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. The Depression-era ditty resonated. It reflected the times. They didn’t release albums back then, and maybe they shouldn’t bother now.
Indeed, many major artists are pushing back their spring releases. A-listers including Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Haim, Rufus Wainwright, The 1975, Sam Smith, The Pretenders and Margo Price are among them. Even Willie Nelson, who has shown he’ll put out an album at the drop of a 10-gallon hat, has delayed his latest. That First Rose of Spring won’t be blooming this month as scheduled is a metaphor for the times.
The reasons for the delays have to do with promotion, not logistics. It’s easy enough to upload an album to streaming services. What’s difficult is to promote a record in a world otherwise on pause.
Singles are another matter, their nimbleness and focus being the keys. Bob Dylan wakes up one morning, gets up out of his brass bed and decides to release Murder Most Foul, an epic mediation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The piano ballad drew immediate media attention upon its March 27 release. In the week that followed, the track was downloaded for sale some 10,000 times and drew nearly two million on-demand U.S. streams.
Did you hear Neil Young’s song Shut it Down when he released it on his Crazy Horse album Colorado last year? Most did not. But last week what was originally a grunge-drone screed on climate change was released anew in a different reality. A video repurposes the song as a stomping statement on physical distancing; “Have to shut the whole system down” is now being heard.
Though the music business has not shut down, it certainly has changed (at least for the moment, and maybe longer). Albums today seem like extravagances – out of fashion and inessential. The Strokes sound as fine as ever. But what is abnormal or normal is, as always, a relative term.
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