Take a good album apart? Don’t be ridiculous

Our listening experience is dictated by technology, which is bad news for the album.

The Beatles' Abbey Road Cover

The Beatles’ Abbey Road Cover Photo: Apple Corps Ltd 2009/PA Wire
By Neil McCormick 1/19/11  UK Telegraph

Since the Beatles signed up with iTunes, you can download individual tracks from their albums. You may start to question the band’s reputation for creative genius, however, should you download the Abbey Road classic, She Came In Through The Bathroom Window. It starts mid-beat with the guitar outro from Polythene Pam and ends with clumsy abruptness before the sublime segue into Golden Slumbers.

It sounds horrible and ridiculous, because it has been artificially extracted from side two’s (now there’s a quaint notion) seamless medley that weaves together ten songs, building with operatic grandeur to the band’s gorgeous, emotional farewell to their public, The End (also available to download as a 2 minute 20 snippet). The medley really needs to be heard in full, in order, just as its creators intended. Out of context, the climax is robbed of all emotional impact. But this is just an extreme example of how we listen to most music these days, as individual tracks selected by computer algorithm. In the process we turn classic albums into a random jumble of arbitrary fragments.

Our listening experience is dictated by technology, and just as the album was itself the product of one technological breakthrough (the long playing vinyl record) it is now threatened by the digital cherry picking and the rise of the iPod shuffle. The idea of an album listening club might seem pedantic and trainspotterish but it is really an attempt to pause amidst the babble of modern musical sound bites, and remind ourselves that some albums, even in the instant gratification world of pop, really are works of art that deserve to be heard in their entirety, from beginning to end.

Album sales in the UK fell 7 per cent last year, while single tracks were up nearly 6 per cent. So be it. A lot of pop music neither tries nor deserves to hold our attention beyond three sweet minutes, and too many albums have been puffed up with sub standard filler material. But for the greatest and most ambitious musical artists of our times, long playing albums represented an expanded canvas on which to explore their musical vision to its fullest potential. Great albums are more than just collections of songs, they take listeners on a journey, not necessarily in a narrative sense, but in the way they conjure moods and explore themes and bounce around ideas and musical motifs. When you listen to David Bowie’s masterful Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, you are carried through the scene setting of Five Years via a series of pop vignettes offering spins on obsession, fame and alienation, culminating in the devastating come down of Rock N Roll Suicide.

Each of the songs on that great album stands up in its own right but collected together, in the proper running order, the effect is cumulative and ultimately transcendent. Its not just a question of whether we have the technology to take the album apart and extract a few favourite highlights.


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