The (Over-Polished) Sound Of Music
Missing the days of recording fuck-ups and real instrumentation.
Header photo: The Crystal Moth at Jack Rabbit Slim's by OKMG.
In a world where we demand total an utter perfection, we have steered our music to reflect this ideology, an ideology that is damaging the integrity of the industry. Our music is washed, squeaky clean and left beyond recognition of ourselves. When does it stop being a reflection of us?
I’m at a party and the sound is awful. It’s cut. It's chopped. It’s whatever is popular this week. I feel nothing. How can I? Our music reflects the over-obsessive, filtered perfectionism that smears our own personal image in the 21st century. Our TVs scream at us that we are perfect. Our kids are no longer given an F for their sub-par efforts, they are given a purple sad face rainy-cloud sticker, then they are patted on the back and told they can be anything.
We are human. And humans make mistakes. We have forgotten than it is the human element in music that gives us the most joy. The truth. And that is what is gone. The truth in music. It is all fabricated. The industry is a lie. Every vocal line. Every drum beat. It has all been run through the ringer. Smashed by compression. Altered by pitch shifters. Beyond recognition from what was put in.
Truth is liberating, but you won't find truth on Instagram, and you won’t find truth on the radio.
It is even difficult to find truth at a big gig nowadays. A lot of the time there is someone on a laptop controlling 90% to 100% of the sounds coming from the front of house towers. What kind of truth is that? Perhaps it is a truth about our society beyond what I want to acknowledge: a truth that there is no separation of reality from our digital projection, from curated photos online portraying a lifestyle to our actual life, and from the sound of strings and human’s vocal chords to a quantized auto-tuned recording.
Our ears are used to the sound. Just as our eyes are used to the screen.
I hate it. It has made me resent music, and the music industry. I put on The Dark Side of the Moon and am filled with light. The drums sound real. They sound like the kit was played as a whole. The record gives me a hug. The cymbals bleed into kick drum mic. It sounds amazing and I miss it. I miss the sound of drums. I miss the gentle sway of tempo by a beat or two per minute. I miss the authenticity.
What happened? When did we start demanding false reality from our music? When did perfect, tempo-snapped, computer-generated drums pasted over the real thing become an absolute necessity to get anywhere near the charts? Does this level of perfectionism make music better?
Everything, of course, has balance, and I write with the awareness that many bands lament the old ways and honour them. But they are the vast minority, and most are not very good. I hate the new Tame Impala record. It is uninspiring, it just regurgitates what the masses wanted to hear. The sounds are entirely as expected, clipped to a click, frozen to a set BPM, and devoid of any human emotion. I’m sure I’m nearly entirely alone on this, a quick Google will tell me how ‘insanely incredible’ that record is. Every major outlet, every bit of music journalism, they all have the same view. You’ll be completely hard pressed to find a review that would say it is not a fantastic record. But why then, do I just feel empty when it is on? Why then, is all life sucked out of the room?
The sound on a Death Cab For Cutie album of the bassist accidentally kicking a real spring unit on the reverb, the sound of the tape echo going out of time and pitch on an Aphex Twin classic, to me, these are the things that make a great record. They are sounds that define our existence: this crazy ride we call life. They are genuine and unplanned. They are what make music great, they are the moments that cannot simply be planned. The moments that we all never forget, because we know they cannot be repeated.
Maybe I am just another mid- to late-20s aging asshole critic, unable to understand what is going on at a grassroots level. I am acutely aware of this too. But I’ve listened to a few records in my time, and I've made a few too, and to be frank, I know what I want to hear: not the songs, or the content - I always want to hear something new - but when I say ‘I know what I want to hear,’ what I mean is, I want to hear some damn reality. Some damn truth.
The first Bon Iver album is amazing. A true gem. Congratulations, the sophomore MGMT album is one of the best albums of the decade. When I put on a Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós on I simply cannot do anything else, it takes over completely. These are the records that make music worth it, but they are too few and too far between. And in a world where anyone can put anything on Youtube or Soundcloud, they are becoming too hard to find, lost in a sea of noise.
When a generation of listeners are brought up with pitch perfect vocals, how can anyone show any strand of humanity on a record? It would be labelled weakness. The band would never get off the ground. One imperfection would be one imperfection too many.
Not one bit of mainstream music has been left unaltered by a computer, and that to me isn't good enough: it is a status quo instilled by an industry left desperate to get the next hit out now, driven only by profits at the cost of integrity. It echoes the instant gratification society we live in, where nothing is worth waiting for, and everything must be consumable now.
I challenge you all to go back and listen to the masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon. It is an album from a different era, and it sounds different. The drums have room. The vocals are tastefully pointed gently to a warm reverb. The guitars crack, and the bass growls. The Dark Side of the Moon has a timeless message that has been lost in our contemporary music: we are not perfect, and that is ok.