I had three albums to consider writing about last month: My Bloody Valentine’s “mbv,” Jim James “Regions of Light and Sound of God,” and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Push The Sky Away.” I decided to forgo the customary “hear it fast, review it now” formula as I’d wanted to channel Lester Bangs for a minute, minus the drug abuse, and give all three albums a chance to really sink in before categorizing any thoughts I had about them.
The first, “mbv,” I’ll admit is purely an exercise in nostalgia for me. The second is more familiar territory than the last, but I probably have more in common with Nick Cave’s lack of religiosity than I do with Jim James’ middle of the road spirituality. The funny thing I noticed with each is that they have exactly nine songs, so like Goldilocks my goal was simple: figure out which of these is the best match.
Alright, I would write more about “mbv,” considering I already have sort of, but running contrary to popular opinion I’m not saying it’s my favorite of the three. Here’s why: Kevin Shields marginally evolved upon My Bloody Valentine’s sound and he took two decades to do it. Admittedly there were some upsets along the way to producing it, but in listening to it, I felt like I was opening a time capsule. Mind you, none of this I hated, and I even have a handful of favorite tracks too. But what I heard was not enough to keep my focus for more than three to four listening sessions, mostly because the new album felt a lot like listening to “Loveless: the Extended Edition.”
Enter Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, a group I am faintly familiar with, and when I read they had a new album release streaming on the Gaurdian’s website, I decided why the hell not. And for the time spent listening I genuinely liked what I heard. This led me to research their output to get an overview of their sound. Seems like long time listeners can expect a change of pace from Cave’s previous efforts. But, honestly, the instrumentation is not what initially drew me to “Push The Sky Away.” Rather, it was Cave’s stream of conscious sing-song speak and dark lyrical content. So I’ve played this album around three to four times for that reason.
Ultimately I decided that if I want to change how I write about music, then what really matters is the ability of a body of work and its artist to inspire me to create. And also how many times I listen to the album when compared to others. Enter Jim James with “Regions of Light and Sound of God.”
A lot of music criticism, and a lot of criticism in general, has the following formula: get your hands on the material, go over quickly in your bid to be timely, form an opinion about what makes it special or not special, maybe make a painstakingly detailed list about all the factors that played into its creation, and then tell everyone why it is good or bad. Finally, rank it with numbers and stars if you’re extra fancy, then move onto the next new thing.
At the end of 2012 I decided reject this formula by rejecting the concept of “Best of Lists.” Music has always been such a personal affair for me, I find it hard to take a “Best of List” seriously. In fact of the three albums listed, “Regions of Light and Sound of God” seems to be legitimately underrated on Metacritic. It is here that I should note that Guestroom Records seems to be moving more vinyl copies than they anticipated as they’ve had to order more stock just to keep up with demand. Did I buy one of those copies? Yes, I did. Another key question I’m asking myself more and more these days: am I buying albums for sentimental reasons (for instance I once made an impulsive choice to purchase Weezer’s Red Album, found in the bargain bin, not because I enjoyed the music, but because I was being ridiculously sentimental that day) or is the content truly compelling that I have to own a physical copy complete with album art?
Personally, I find “Regions of Light and Sound of God” very evocative in sound and lyrical content, plus it has a great thematic resonance. The instrumentation is clever, for instance in “New Life” as Jim James strums the opening lines, I think I’m hearing his guitar playing mimicking ever-so-lightly the sound of a knock on the door. That or something else is going on in the background to produce that sound. Later there is a kind of muffled brushing in the background that sounds an awful like a snicker, as if he’s having a private laugh at himself. It’s both relatable and approachable, and I’ve been listening to it more times than I care to own up to, I mean, let’s just say while some songs have 48 play counts, I’ve easily listened to “Regions of Light and Sound of God” over 20 times from start to finish. It also helps that it clocks in at under an hour.
What draws me back to this album is the first song “State of the Art A. E. I. O. U.” Wherein Jim James examines his relationship with technology and makes it clear that it isn’t using him, he’s using it. I can gel with that sentiment and I’ve seen this idea expressed many times in regards to music; especially when musicians rely on technology to gloss over the fact they’re not skilled in playing their instruments. But one more step removed, this is what his song conjures up for me: over the years as technology and social media have evolved, I’ve often wondered if I’m just repeating or “reblogging” soundbites that serve special interests instead of creating something worthwhile and unique. Other times I wonder if I am involved in creating something for the real world or if what I am producing can only be experienced virtually. All said, I find that first song a very reflective one.
It also helps to keep in mind that James wrote this solo album after an injury he suffered on tour with his band My Morning Jacket. James told Rolling Stone that he likes to walk out onto the sub woofers to get closer to the audience, but he misjudged a step and ended up being hurt to the point where My Morning Jacket had to cancel the rest of their 2008 tour. During this period of infirmary, Gary Burden, who designed the artwork for My Morning Jacket’s album “Evil Urges,” gave James a graphic novel written in 1929 by Lynd Ward titled “God’s Man.” It is here that I would like to interject that James is not an overtly “religious” musician and lyricist, so Christian Alternative Rock this is not.
James told Spin.com that he is somewhere in the middle when it comes to the “God” question, because he does feel spiritual but he doesn’t like the extremes found in organized religion nor does he completely discount the quality in having a kind of faith, when asked about the conversation getting heavy all of a sudden because of this topic, this was his response:
“We’re in the zone! I like to think about the zone. I like to think God is that point where you are gone, like when you’re making love or listening to a great record or reading a great book. These things suck us into this space where you’re not thinking about your taxes or your job or all this chatter that goes on in your mind. When you escape, that’s what I think makes us connected to God. But I’m always thinking about moving forward with this stuff.”
After reading about the kind of connection James had with book, and ultimately how he felt the story not only reflected what was happening in his life at the time, but how it inspired him to create music, it’s easy to see how he essentially ended up scoring the graphic novel. This got me thinking. Mind you, I am an Atheist to my very core, but I don’t discount the twin qualities of intuition and instinct. I think perception has evolved to the point where even the mundane becomes unique experience, so while there is overlap in the realm of the experiential and people can share meaning and create connections, I do feel the way this is processed in our brains is dependent on the way the individual feels and then perceives “reality.” Or in other words, you can’t divorce the head from the heart and vice versa.
For James, according to that Spin.com interview, it is about learning to follow his heart to make better choices in life; to stop repeating the same kinds of mistakes he feels to be wrong. For me, I’m struck by something David Bowie said about Scott Walker’s music in the documentary “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.” Essentially Bowie said that understanding the minutia of Walker’s music and creative process is unnecessary, instead he finds inspiration in the elements that resonate most with him. This is a sentiment I think Jim James would appreciate since he’s been quoted as having said he investigates all faiths and creates his own tapestry of what he likes from each to help him be a better person.
To that end, “Regions of Light and Sound of God” inspired me to create something outside of the Internet. I spend so much of my time online or tethered to some phone or tablet, that it’s almost a luxury to record a thought or vision with a pen set to actual paper. This experimental approach I’m taking in writing about the creative qualities of an album also reminded me that music has the ability to shake-up memories, so I let the fusion of styles that is “Regions of Light and Sound of God” remind me of a simpler time. And this is what happened.
It’s clear that I connected with the whole album. And there was a point during this period of review when I woke up one morning and had the bass line for “Actress” stuck in my head and it reminded me of an essay written by Susan Sontag. It’s in her book “Against Interpretation and Other Essays,” the thought that resonated with me most in regards to that essay and this song: “What one takes to be an attachment to another person is unmasked as one more dance of the solitary ego.” She also writes about how love is an essential fiction, which is what Jim James is singing about in “Actress”: “Whether or not it’s true/ I believe in the concept of you/ With personality/Destruct my reality.” So, “Regions of Light and Sound of God” helped me gather my thoughts and put them into motion, which doesn’t make the other albums listed bad by comparison, it just means they don’t have the same kind of creative push and pull for me.
But to wrap this up, I’ll leave off on “God’s Love to Deliver.” Why? Because I hit repeat on it several times as I was doodling. I’ve no doubt the next time I sit down to review music that doodles will probably appear. It will be interesting see what the backlog of albums I have to write about will further inspire. And if anything, I hope if you haven’t thought about what your listening to as a way to create and reflect, that this kind of off-beat music review shakes something up for you too.