For many of 2010’s albums, Newton’s third law applied hard: If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the magnitude of the action-reaction, i.e. musical love-hate, is on the scale of galaxies in their intensity. In other words, whatever an equality of dissent lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in sheer hate quotient. Being contrary is our right, after all – especially on the Internet.
Despite racking up moderate-to-high placements in many best of 2010 lists, Titus Andronicus’ sophomore release, The Monitor, has also racked up some serious third law. Released in March, months before Arcade Fire’s theme-album sonic boom, The Monitor’s Civil War-cum-modern anxiety epic had “split the emotional atom,” according to Pitchfork’s 8.7 rating. In crossing the war between the States with frontman Patrick Stickles’ own tale of leaving his home in New Jersey for Boston over a girl, they had created, according to Robert Christgau’s A- review, an “emo-Springsteen hybrid” – high praise for a bunch of Jersey kids. If nothing else, it was an album of exquisitely deep vision that, given the time to mature and find a place in the world, could eventually be something like this generation’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.
But the band, and Stickles in particular, came under fire in various corners of the ever-opinionated Internet with posters complaining loudly about the laziness of the many references (or outright lyric cribbing, to some, most notably grabbing Billy Bragg and the Boss in the same line with, “No, I never wanted to change the world but I’m lookin’ for a new New Jersey / Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die”), the copious Civil War-era quotations ranging from Jefferson Davis to Walt Whitman and both young and old Lincoln, or the unsteady vocals throughout the album. “This sounds like [an] angrier Conor Oberst,” said one web post of Stickles’ voice. “Icky.”
Beyond the clangy, off-key singing, there is a second level to the dislike, or basic refusal to accept The Monitor as even something worth listening to. Upon seeing the link, I sent a friend to “The Battle of Hampton Roads” – a 14-minute mini-epic parallel between the first submarine battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in 1862 and Stickles’ own long, labored decision to move back to New Jersey. The friend said, simply and without any indication of whether he liked the song or not, “Why is it 14 minutes long?”
The Springsteen reference rears its head again in “Hampton Roads”: “I’m destroying everything that wouldn’t make me more like Bruce Springsteen / So, I’m going back to New Jersey / I do believe they’ve had enough of me.” But to be a musician from New Jersey, especially as close to the Freehold Borough as they are, is to live under the cloud of the Boss. “This one seems to collapse under the weight of its own self-importance,” another poster posited, adding that it “could easily do without those spoken word bits and with cutting most of the songs in half.” Indeed, the album’s shortest song, the just-shy-of-two-minutes “Titus Andronicus Forever” is little more than an extended chorus done up in anthem style, and the only other song under five minutes, “ ... And Ever,” is essentially a reprise of “Forever,” with much of the track’s two-and-a-half-minute running time actually taken up by a Lincoln quote, not music.
Music is appreciated by feeling and emotion, not necessarily by the brain, so it’s a notoriously difficult thing to explain when you don’t like it. Thus, the quality of dissent is usually little more than “because they suck,” which is something that fits Sleigh Bells’ Treats to a T. The Brooklyn-based duo, whose shouted lyrics and big, booming drums play like a pep rally from hell, is a perfect melding of songwriter Derek Miller’s hardcore roots from Poison the Well, and singer Alexis Krauss’ teenage girl-band roots. As such, they bowled over many critics and blew out just as many eardrums this year – even spawning the inevitable Jay-Z mash up, appropriately titled Jay Bells.
After their demo began to spread through music forums and blogs in 2009, they played CMJ and opened for Yeasayer, becoming one of the new ubiquitous “hype” bands before their album was officially released. The arrival of “Infinity Guitars,” with its fire-and-explosions video that was an almost perfect array of absurd clichés – the cheerleaders, the catholic school uniform and unaffected faces hidden behind sunglasses – announced them as a genuine force. But not everyone bought into it.
“This is hands down the absolute worst music I’ve heard in years. I am amazed that people are listening to this and enjoying it,” and “this album is absolutely predictable and a complete flash in the pan [but] the kids will come out in droves for this garbage” were common amongst the dissent posts. “I liked these guys better when they were called the Go! Team,” was less common, but delivered the hate just as effectively. “People who hate this band are totally justified,” added a poster in the same thread who actually liked the band. “[T]his is some of the most obnoxious, ridiculous music I’ve ever heard.”
With lines like “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks of your braces? / What about them? I’m all about them” and “Wait, did I forget my sunglasses / No? Lala,” Sleigh Bells are unabashedly fun, good for dancing and not much else.
So where exactly does the line between “frivolous but fun” and “frivolous crap” lie? Is there even one left, or was it all but obliterated from the consciousness of all but the most ardent haters by Vampire Weekend two years ago? Is “Here we are now / Entertain us” that much different? Maybe the New York Dolls wiped out that divide 30 years ago. Or was it 40 years ago by the Guess Who?
Anyway, isn’t rock & roll supposed to be dumb and fun?
Which brings us to Weezer. There is always Weezer, the most simultaneously loved and despised band possibly ever. To be a Weezer fan over the age of 25 is to be a Weezer hater as well, and every thread about every new Weezer album seems to spiral out of control into rabid disappointment that the new album is nothing like Blue or Pinkerton. Had they only released Hurley in 2010, they might have fared well. It’s surely the best thing they’ve done since Green, or at least somewhat better than Maladroit.
In “Memories,” the first single, Rivers Cuomo’s lyrics take us on a nostalgic journey through the history of the band that many of us miss and eventually, it seemed, explained the currently woeful quality of albums. (“Now I got so many people that I got to look out for.”) When the album finally came out, it was still laden down with tracks like “Where is My Sex?” and “Smart Girls,” but it made a nice EP if you did a little self-editing. The deluxe edition reissue of Pinkerton just over a week prior to Hurley’s release did the latter no favors, however. Pinkerton remains a perfect record, and the rough demos of this period are better writing than any of the polished writing Cuomo has done since. (If it did Hurley a disservice, it openly mocked Death to False Metal, Weezer’s collection of album cast-offs throughout the years.)
“United we stand” always seemed like a false phrase – a table with one leg doesn’t stand. We need our split opinions to thrive, whether it be politics, attitudes, religion, film or music; divisiveness is how we avoid the dreaded Orwellian fate and the boredom of being the same. And at least proper hating on an album still requires listening to it first.