The Album is Not Dying, Despite What You May Have Heard

Categories: Reviews

Jake-Bugg-Shangri-La.jpg
From the Shangri La art
Tell this guy about the death of the album.
By Michael Corcoran
"The album is dying in front of our very eyes," Variety columnist and music business know-it-all Bob Lefsetz wrote recently based on weak LP sales, including Katy Perry's Prism, which sold only about 220,000 copies in its first week.

"If your plan is to increase your audience, spread the word and make money, suddenly the album just isn't working anymore," he continued. "We've turned into a nation of grazers. And the artist's job is to constantly be at the smorgasbord. Not to deliver one big meal that is picked at and thrown away, but to constantly provide tantalizing bites to the public."

As if Bob Lefsetz knows anything about "the artist's job."

Today I'm going to do something I haven't done in a long, long time. I'm going to put on pants before noon. I'm going to drive to the record store. And I'm going to slap my credit card on the counter as the clerk bags up my copy of Shangri La by Jake Bugg. When's the last time a 57-year-old bought an album by a 19-year-old that wasn't a gift for a 12-year-old?

But Bugg's sophomore album, produced by Rick Rubin with his arms folded and his eyes closed, is the kind of thing you want to hold, that you want to open with your fingernails, that you want to stick inside and wait a few seconds before it takes you away. This is not a Katy Perry album of filler vying to be picked as the next single, but a collection of great songs delivered with undeniable talent. It's the kind of album you first bought on vinyl, then replaced when the CD format took over in the late '80s and then bought on high quality 180 gram vinyl reissue last month for double what the CD cost.

The album is far from dead, it's just that they're not making very many great ones anymore. But just as Bugg has been cast as a retro performer, with comparisons to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the Beatles greeting his self-titled 2012 debut and its everywhere hit "Lightning Bolt," the new Shangri La, named after the Malibu studio in which it was primarily recorded, is a return to the classic album period where the process started with the songwriter playing the songs on an acoustic guitar for all the others.

Songs.

Bugg is a good-looking brooder, a serious guitarist and singer of powerful voice and Oasis-ian phrasing. But his greatest gift is as a merchant of uplifting melodies that seem to come out of nowhere on songs like "Me and You" and "Messed Up Kids." These are good songs that become great ones halfway through, with Bugg's amazing bridge work. His folk songs, most written in collaboration with older gentlemen such as Iain Archer, Matt Sweeney and Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs, shift into a whole other gear. The kid's got the majesty jones.

The new album kicks off with a trio of uptempo numbers that continue the first album's atomic skiffle, but the richest material comes later, in the "you still here?" slots of a Katy Perry record. "A Song About Love" has all the drama of a real life break-up, but the pieces are put together in Bugg's sturdily luxuriant voice. "Is that what you wanted, a song about love?" he sings so clearly, underlining sentimentality as a ruse we hold onto anyway. Like love itself.

Musicians will stop making albums when filmmakers stop making movies. It's what they grew up wanting to make, the form to strive for excellence in. More perfect creative enclosures have not been conceived. Albums, movies, are the standards, not the number of YouTube views or Spotify listens.

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11 comments
Cara Barnard
Cara Barnard

I'm saying not all artists put out an album that has 2 good songs and 10 filler songs. Not get rid of the album; get rid of the crap and put out a collection of 12 quality songs. The original post referred to Jake Bugg; that album is 14 songs and there's not a weak one in the bunch. (Confession: I once listened to that album for the entirety of an 800 mile drive. Not sick of it yet and still not over how good it is.) I have 11 songs on my phone. 3 are from Daytrotter, the rest are favorites from albums I own. I don't have any other kind of MP3 player, an iTunes account or whatever... I listen to music as an album.

Cara Barnard
Cara Barnard

I'm saying that most of the artists I like don't need fillers because they have a quality album of 10 or 12 or 15 songs....they don't have two "singles" and 10 other songs on a CD. I have 11 songs on my phone, 3 of which are from Daytrotter, and I don't own another device that plays MP3s. I don't have an iTunes account or anything of the sort. I listen to either CDs or records. An anomaly, I know!

Ryan Crader
Ryan Crader

I think what you're saying as far as getting rid of "fillers" is the result that should come from doing away with albums. Yes in many cases I am referring to having heard the entire album. I have owned many CDs in my day and don't use any now. I have bought many songs individually (for my phone/ipod/etc) that I really liked from those albums, but not the whole album. Think about it this way, how many full albums do you have on your phone/mp3 player vs. how many individual songs? There are a few, but not a lot of full albums I listen all the way through and I would bet most people don't have many (if any) full albums on their player of choice.

Cara Barnard
Cara Barnard

And are you listening to the entire album in some way prior to purchasing the "couple songs you enjoy"? If not, how do you know you're not missing the best songs on the album? Of course what is good is not always what's popular.

Cara Barnard
Cara Barnard

1. I thought for a brief moment that the photo meant Jake Bugg was coming to town. So disappointed now. :-( 2. If you listen to the right artists, there aren't "filler songs". I think one of the marks of a truly talented artist is that there aren't any throw-away tracks on the album. Just the other day, I heard an artist say he had the plan for his next album, and now he was working on the songs. So, he's meaning for it to be heard as a unit, a single entity. It all depends on what you choose to listen to; there are people who see the set of songs as a complete piece, and listeners who want to hear it that way.

Alex Rathgeb
Alex Rathgeb

Books were often serialized (and released chapter by chapter) before being published as complete novels...either by design or necessity. Music can evolve the same way, I think. Excellent points, however.

Alex Rathgeb
Alex Rathgeb

I don't Albums will disappear, but I could definitely see the serialization of the album, just as novels were "sold" via serial publications, and early movies were often broken up into serial productions...many artists may benefit from both the buzz creation, and also financially earning capital while they build an album song by song. See many sci-fi and even classic novelists (Dickens, Jules Verne, and Frank Herbert come to mind immediately) for examples of this being done successfully. Also, artists who focus on albums (like the craft a band like Daft Punk put into Random Access Memories) will make albums...but I could see why Justin Timberlake could slide away from albums...(and I like JT, so that's not meant to be a derisive statement)

Ryan Crader
Ryan Crader

No, definitely nothing like that at all. Unless each chapter were it's own short story and were for sale individually, that would be more comparable. Saying a person has to buy a whole album just to get the couple songs they like would be more like saying a person has to buy an author's collection of books instead of just one of their books. There is a reason why artists sell songs instead of albums now and why people buy them. There is not a market for a single chapter to an entire story.

James Wright
James Wright

That's like saying writers should only write one chapter at a time instead of a whole book.

Ryan Crader
Ryan Crader

I think in the near future artists will be focusing on songs instead of albums. People no longer have to buy an entire album to hear the couple songs they enjoy. Put more effort into making every song a masterpiece and stop worrying about albums IMO.

bill.streeter
bill.streeter topcommenter

"Musicians will stop making albums when filmmakers stop making movies. It's what they grew up wanting to make, the form to strive for excellence in. More perfect creative enclosures have not been conceived. Albums, movies, are the standards, not the number of YouTube views or Spotify listens." 

100 years ago there were no feature films and there were no albums. But there were musicians. There have been musicians for almost all of human history but they've only been making albums for the last --what?--fifty years or so? Musicians need albums like painters need acrylic paint. It's a nice thing to have but not essential to their craft. If it is, then maybe they should call themselves "musical albumists" instead of musicians. 

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