Well….I thought Nebraska (see battle #43) was bleak, but we hit our bleak peak with American Recordings. And not a bleak delivery that is in any way relatable to me. It feels heartless. It’s an ugly dank piece of folk art. Although I can appreciate its time capsule nostalgia towards backwoods desperation and the artistic importance of music that tries to humanize horrible people doing horrible things. I just can’t get past its shocking unpleasantness. It just doesn’t connect with me. I know this is veering (and cheating) a bit to bring in another album into the battle, but while I was trying to digest the dark and wretched mass that is American Recordings I coincidentally bought the vinyl double album masterwork The Basements Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band. As I was reading the liner notes, it clicked that what they achieved in the basement of Big Pink is exactly what Johnny and Rick Rubin were trying to capture on American Recordings. Greil Marcus wrote it better than I ever could, so here it is….
I think you can hear what Bob Dylan is talking about in the music of Basement Tapes……one can hardly avoid hearing it. It is a plain-talk mystery; it has nothing to do with mumbo-jumbo, charms or spells. The “acceptance of death” that Dylan found in “traditional music” – the ancient ballads of mountain music – is simply a singer’s insistence on mystery as inseparable from any honest understanding of what life is all about; it is the quiet terror of a man seeking salvation who stares into a void that stares back. It is awesome, impenetrable fatalism that drives the timeless ballads…..
John is a master at delivering honest plain spoken diatribes from the perspective of lost people reflecting on mistakes they have made, hoping to be forgiven. This is why this album is so well regarded. This is what American Recordings should be for me, but it isn’t.
What is for me are the charms and spells woven by the sweet, devilishly angelic voice of Marvin Gaye. What is for me is the guttural slap happy bass lines that makes me wanna bite my lower lip and say “Good God!”. What is for me are the complex chord changes and layered instrumentation specifically engineered to make that thing between my knees and my stomach start to rock back and forth. It makes me want to celebrate humanity by making sweet love to the best version of them (my wife). Marvin Gaye gave me the means to do that by filling the air in the room with Midnight Love.
WINNER: Marvin Gaye, Midnight Love (2 points)
Next week’s battle – #36: Anita Baker, Rapture (1986) vs. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)