Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan, I really didn’t want to do this. There’s so much negativity floating around the world right now; we should be posting nothing but shiny happy posts. But, y’know, one morning I was enjoying my office tupperware full of Barbara’s Cinnamon Puffins (buy a box, save a puffin!) and was scanning the reviews on our old friend Pitchfork’s home page, as is the routine for many a morning net-skimmer. Oh hey! It’s a review of the new Mutual Benefit record! I like his breezy easy music; this should bring in a solidly unimpressed but uncontroversial 6.2 or so. But, as I read it, cinnamony milk began to stream out of my eyes. Mutual Benefit’s Jordon Lee isn’t doing enough to combat climate change?!
So that’s who dropped the ball on saving the world…
I had to take a quick gander at who broke this unlikely story, and I see that this particular reviewer, Arielle Gordon, only has two Pitchfork credits: a feature on Vampire Weekend playing a weed-fumed set at a Bernie Sanders rally and this review. Believe it or not, we in the Review Reviewing Department of The Niche are not here to discourage writers, certainly not newer writers who are just popping their first sets of clippings into a binder. This is a situation that sucks, internally and externally. Why couldn’t this be an Ian Cohen review? EVERYONE loves to take a swing at Ian Cohen!
C’est la guerre. So, overall, this one goes out to all of you in the Pitchfork Staff. You all need some relaxation. Maybe partake in some of that Bernie rally ganga, or take a fun road trip vacation with Grayson Haver Currin! Rent a bus! Get some fresh air, out there where your cell phones won’t have reception and your Twitter feeds will stall. The world’s still alive, for now. Go! See!
When reading this review of Mutual Benefit’s Thunder Follows The Light, one would assume that there IS no Out There to go visit. All hope is lost. The Earth is dead, and all music should be a series of dirges lamenting and gnashing their musical teeth. The first sentence sets the tone: “Climate change can feel like an ambient crisis—slowly, sea levels rise, at first in micrometers and then in centimeters, and then in feet. Incrementally, summers feel hotter, and storms seem to rear their heads more often and more violently.” It’s an odd start about a band that the Fork previously reviewed as “loving, patient, warmhearted, unfailingly hopeful” a mere five years ago. Given, they’ve been pretty shitty years, but does this set the expectation that an artist’s whole game has to change to fit the national mood?
After establishing somewhat falsely that the album is directly related to climate change (Only one song specifically addresses the subject), the thesis statement lays it down: “But writing from within can only go so far when the subjects at hand are, quite literally, matters of life or death. And rather than rise to the challenge, Lee seems content to sing broad platitudes. Despite his best intentions to reflect a necessary sea change in the way we treat our terrestrial home, the resulting ten tracks put forth distinctly quotidian coping mechanisms for waiting out the “thunder.””
Whew. “Quotidian coping mechanisms.” Harsh. I suppose that includes the lyric: “Waking early / Moving quickly / Just in time to see morning glories / They’re in bloom now / A neighbor told me / That it helps to notice the small things,” which almost comes as a revelation during these days of trying to get your bad news fix as quickly and repeatedly as possible. Are we birthing entire generations of negativity junkies? Can we only find joy now in the confirmation of our miseries? That would certainly help to explain the popularity of dystopian novels, and the bookshelves devoid of utopian novels.
Master Gordon calls out another line from that same song to take issue with the Mutual Benefit mindset of just-take-in-the-small-things-to-get-through-the-day: “On “Storm Cellar Heart,” Lee romanticizes taking shelter from a storm with a lover by his side: “When you hold me, it’s so much better; it’s enough to drown out the thunder.” This doe-eyed optimism is easily digestible, and that is perhaps the biggest issue: the realities Lee purports to write about are not easy.”
The implication here is that Lee’s music, and indeed his entire soul, should be darker to fit in with the review author’s feelings on the matter. A suggested revision to that lyric, perhaps: “When you hold me / we’ll all still die / The world is ending and so am I.” Maybe? I’m just spit-balling here. But this is an artist that goes by the name Mutual Benefit. The name, and his past work, doesn’t exactly scream out “The void stares back at you.” Gordon’s throwaway burn of referring to Lee as having embedded “himself into the farmer’s market crowd” because of his somewhat hippy tendency to believe that love still has some amount of power, even in a world gone off its axis, probably says more about the writer than about the music we’re meant to be assessing.
So is an author/musician spiritual clash the reason for this jarring review? It would almost be a relief if it were that simple…
But once again, it’s not too difficult to get to the bottom of the discrepancy between the album, standing alone as a piece of music, and the review, which pulls a lot of things seemingly out of thin air (Anyone else listening for references to Octavia Butler and Naomi Klein in the lyrics?): It’s there, in the marketing copy written to grab the attention of inundated reviewers by shouting ‘THIS ALBUM IS RELEVANT TO WHAT YOU’RE CURRENTLY THINKING ABOUT!’
“It’s pretty easy these days to imagine the end times; it’s harder to imagine something different. For spiritual guidance, the songwriter turned to those who have done that work, like journalist Naomi Klein and sci-fi author Octavia Butler—thinkers with the apocalyptic imagination to see where things could go horribly wrong, but the compassion and diligence to outline routes towards justice.” Ah, that’s where Butler and Klein came from! But, by no means is this an apocalyptic-feeling album, quite the opposite actually. Did the marketing people listen to it? To the album that has these lyrics?:
In the twilight
Underneath the ground
There is life still
It is singing loud
And even when the saplings bend
Their roots will still expand
And peace is more than just a season
Coming ’round again
“There is existential sadness in these moments of the Earth’s beauty juxtaposed with lines about human reluctance to hear the melting planet’s pleas for help.” Ah-ha. Can’t blame any reader for expecting an elevation of The Message in Lee’s lyrics and music after reading some text like that. You’d expect each song to have a NRDC Donate Now button embedded in it.
It’s tough to fault any reviewer for taking this marketing text, dissecting it, and making that the bedrock of the review. Once you have that starting point, you might only have to listen to the actual music, what? Four? Five times? Starting from scratch, taking the album on its own without any pre-digested context from a label’s marketing team — now, that’s hard work. That takes many, many listens, analysis of the lyrics on their own terms, using empathy to reach into a songwriter’s heart not based on what they’ve said but on what they’ve created. That kind of review is labor intensive and time intensive, two things that are anathema to the necessities of the freelancing gig economy. And, if your publication is big enough, you could even get a note from the artist that you’ve misinterpreted their work, i.e. you’ve gone off-book. Embarrassing…
Before we can get honest reviews, though, we’re going to have to halt this endless flow of forced context. It’s up to the reviewers to say, “No. You don’t get to tell me what this album is about. I’ll listen, and it will either speak to me or it won’t speak to me, but I will not be manipulated.” Until that time, let’s just cut out the middleman. Pitchfork Presents: Reviews of Ad Copy! At least we won’t have to question why the opinions and the albums never seem to match up directly…
Then again, Reviewer Gordon didn’t buy into all of the marketing speak from Mutual Benefit’s website, particularly the line: “Luckily, Lee’s impassioned pursuit of art-making for himself is also empathetic and outward-facing, looking both to the past and the future with warmth and hopefulness.” The P4K review concludes in a different way, as Gordon writes, “But when those demons become too large for charming poetics, beatific melodies and jangling orchestral compositions fail to rise to the occasion.” It seems that hopefulness is simply not a desirable trait these days.
Overall, a quote from Lee himself best sums it up: ““But I guess the moral is don’t make art for kings, make it for yourself.”” Here’s to us peasants, sticking together to remember what hope feels like in the darkness…
Rating: :’-( / 100
David C. Casey