By Andrew Barker, of course.
Liz Phair recently announced a brief summer tour, in which she'll be playing her masterful debut l.p., "Exile in Guyville," in its entirety. Some of those dates may overlap with Public Enemy doing likewise with their masterpiece, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." This comes shortly after Roger Waters played "Dark Side of the Moon" in its entirety at Coachella, not to mention several times last summer -- a summer that also saw tours from GZA doing "Liquid Swords," Sonic Youth revisiting "Daydream Nation," and Lucinda Williams replaying her entire discography on successive nights (a clever scheme pulled off several years back by Cheap Trick). To this list we can also add Built to Spill, Deep Purple, Echo & the Bunnymen, Ash, Jay-Z (who at least showed some initiative by playing his "Reasonable Doubt" in reverse order), the Lemonheads, Mission of Burma, Alanis Morisette, Slayer, Queensryche, the Black Crowes, Metallica, Dio*, Elton John, the Zombies, and Lord knows how many others.
There are several things about this trend that make me uncomfortable -- the premature reversion to nostalgia, the transparency of the intention to boost ticket sales, the mere presence of the Black Crowes and Roger Waters on the list above -- but in this particular case, it's the fact that Phair's tour amounts to an admission that her later work hasn't been up to snuff. Liz has, of course, spent the last decade endeavoring to piss off her indie fan base and attract mainstream pop radio attention, succeeding most brilliantly at the former. I despise her music from this period, personally, but I had to admire her cojones for extending such an unambiguous "fuck you" to her fans' need to pigeonhole her. Now she's come crawling back, and it's not entirely pleasant to see. The same goes for the once mighty P.E. -- formerly known as "dangerous, revolutionary agents of social upheaval," now known as "the band with that skeezy old guy from VH1."
It must take a substantial toll on a performer's ego to go through with this, to go from artist to pure entertainer, to shuck off all illusions of autonomy and just give the people what they want. As ably demonstrated by BTO on the Simpsons, heeding Homer's heckling and preceding straight to the "workin' overtime" part, there's a fine line between showing fans respect and simply indulging their every whim. At a Mountain Goats show I saw in March, this dilemma raised its head rather awkwardly, as frontman John Darnielle seemed unsure how to respond to the cheers that greeted his announcement: "This is an old song."
(He recovered brilliantly, however, mentioning that "a lot of my old songs were really bad. Wouldn't it be funny if I played one of those?")
On the other hand, there's also something strangely subversive about the "in its entirety" movement, considering that The Kids These Days don't listen to (or buy) whole albums anymore. In that way, forcing audiences to swallow records whole is something of a throwback -- "hey, you little punk, you're supposed to listen to this shit all the way through. Now sit back down and back back away from the skip button."
One could argue that some records do have that sprawling, cinematic scope, and to cut them up and shuffle bits around would be like watching a Martin Scorsese highlight reel instead of "Raging Bull" -- you'd get the point that he's a good director, but you wouldn't quite understand why. That was definitely how I felt after seeing Sonic Youth do "Daydream Nation" at the Greek last year. It wasn't just a great concert, it was something of an epiphany -- taking an album that I already loved and deepening my connection to it, expanding its parameters in all different directions. I probably listened to that record a good dozen times the week after the show, continually rediscovering it.
But that was a special case.
Generally speaking, what is so sacrosanct about the album, anyway? It's become something a truism to say that a great album must be experienced exactly in the way its creator intended, and there are certain records that absolutely should be**.
But most records? Nah. Not even the great ones.
Case in point, my single favorite album of all time, "Sandinista." Not only does it stand up brilliantly to reorganization, it pretty much demands it with its Tolstoian length. Since high school, I've probably made well over a dozen "personal abridgements" of the triple-album (on both cassette and CD), and the track listing on every one is radically different from the one preceding and following. I'm always amazed by how many different records can be made from the songs on "Sandinista" -- the angry punk record, the coked-up dance record, the ambient dub record, the children's songs novelty record...
It can be an instructive exercise -- try taking your favorite record and scrambling the order, whether randomly or schematically. Put your favorite song first, put two wildly dissimilar tracks next to each other, take out your least favorite track, etc. The new version might be better, might be worse, but your understanding of the material will change. (More often than not, I think, you'll realize that there was nothing particularly definitive about the record at all, and that there are any number of ways it could be improved. That may be heretical to say, but it's true.)
Fundamental to the joy of going to see an act you love play is the suspense of the unknown setlist. A great live show can play with your emotions exactly like a great mixtape -- forcing you to hear old songs in new contexts, skipping over your favorites and pissing you off, framing a tune you'd never really paid attention in such a way that it becomes your new favorite. What better feeling is there than the roar of recognition from the crowd when the first few notes of a beloved tune trickle out? Or the hysterical fanboy next to you screaming to his friend, "omigod, omigod, they never play this!"