A Good Ass Question: What Makes an Album a ‘Grower’?

April 21, 2012 4 comments

The first quarter of 2012 has posed a peculiar dilemma for me, pertaining to the albums released. As the resident critic, my process for analyzing the quality of a body of music is based on an undetermined gestation period of listening… Then re-listening… Then changing my surroundings (the “car test” is often essential)… And, most likely, re-re-listening. I call it my “Grower Rule” because, typically, I’m able to determine how I feel about a record after a single listen. But, there’s a small fraction of records that can’t fit that mold. Albums that can’t be comprehended within the first few spins; whether it be due to conceptual depth, understated counter melodies, elusive shifts in tone, or just simply catching the listener off guard. I’ve personally encountered a confounding bevy of growers within the past few weeks. Along with it being severely frustrating, it got me thinking: In regards to what most people define as an album that has to “grow on you”, what exactly is the nature of this growth?

By “nature” I mean, is it the album that grows on us, or is it us that grows with the album?

Nearly two weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me what albums I’m “into nowadays”. It’s an inquiry that’s usually a dime-a-dozen personally, but scrolling trough my mental ‘recently played’ list, I couldn’t find anything I was excited about enough to garner any immediate praise. An internal tug of war gave way to a sequence of thoughts that went something like:

“Ooh, tell him about the Willis Earl Beal debut!”
“Nah, he’s gonna take that as a cry for help”

“Oh yeah, he’d probably love the new Rusko album!”
“Meh… Too dub-y”

“Of course! Who can’t love BADBADNOTGOOD???”
“Ehh, I don’t know if he’ll appreciate the James Blake/Odd Future re-works beyond what they are.”

I ended up suggesting Chromatics‘ latest album Kill for Love (pictured above). And, in retrospect, I could’ve easily recommended any of those albums without much hesitation today, but, at the time, I wasn’t well acclimated with the aforementioned records further than a general feeling of gratification. Kill for Love was just the first to come to mind. It’s interesting how an album simply being “fresh” in ones psyche can alter its referential connotation. Anyway, before I ramble as usual, my point is: Each and every one of these albums has grown on me in fairly a short period of time. That fact, relatively, has stifled some choice reviews but, historically, it’s raised more issiues than you can imagine.

Above is Bjork’s Homogenic from ’97. And, honestly, I can’t think of a record that’s grown on me more than this one, and I attribute that to the fact that I first heard it when I was 15 years old. Whether it was the abstract layers of instruments, the references to Icelandic nomenclature, or the way Bjork says the word “love” (I still wince a bit when I hear “All is Full of Love”). So, for lack of a better phrase, this album BLEW MY FUCKING MIND! So much so, that I rejected it for a good part of the most developmental musical-discovery periods of my life. I think the same goes for albums like Madvillain’s Madvillainy, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and even Kanye’s Late Registration (at least to the extent that I adore it now). All albums that I had discovered, or were released, in my teens.

I’m somewhat condemning my younger self’s taste in music here, but I feel as though, in terms of labeling a piece of music a “grower”, one has to take into account time and setting. As easily as I’ve grown into the sound and structure of a record, I’ve also grown out of plenty. I think that’s when age and maturity comes into play. We all have our “phases”, for instance, I had a heavy, HEAVY Death Cab for Cutie phase. But, then again, who didn’t Google “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” tabs, with hopes of sloppily swooning their crush with a clangorous acoustic cover? Regardless, I haven’t listened to Death Cab with a straight face for years now, but I don’t consider that a dismissal of their catalog simply because the music doesn’t affect me the same way. Those songs are exactly the same as they were 10 years ago, but I’m not. So, as much as I used to be into, say, Immortal Technique or Bassnectar or Coldplay, I can’t see myself purposefully revisiting any of those respective artists’ earlier albums. And, this isn’t because of a change in quality (although Motions of Mutation sounds positively ancient nowadays), it’s more of a recognition of my own musical progression.

Gizzly Bear's Veckatimest, a perennial 'grower' for me.

As pretentious and/or elitist as that realization may seem, that impetus is what makes us who we are as music enthusiasts — and, unflatteringly, tends to separate “us” from the “casual listener”. It’s about moving beyond what we thought held the standard for excellence and, more importantly, being challenged to advance into areas of music that we may not have known we’d ever enjoy. So, in that vein, what albums have you outgrown? What albums have grown on you? And, given the several variables that dictate personal interest, do you even believe that albums grow at all?

Now, that’s a good ass question.