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Sharp Darts: Whither the Album?

Chuck Klosterman says Chinese Democracy is the format's last hurrah. Kanye proves him wrong.

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In its November 19 issue the Onion replaced its usual assortment of short music reviews with a rare piece of long-form criticism, giving Chuck Klosterman nearly 1,700 words to talk about Guns n' Roses'—or more truthfully Axl Rose's—long-awaited Chinese Democracy.

I agree with most of Klosterman's points, though I can't quite get behind him when he says that 7 or 8 of the album's 14 cuts are either "very good" or "astonishing." And his statement that "it's actually better that Slash is not on this album" is not only untrue in this case but would be equally false applied to pretty much every other record ever made that's rooted in blues rock. (That's not to say Buckethead doesn't have something going on, but still—apples and oranges.)

Where Klosterman really puts his foot wrong, though, is in trying to explain Chinese Democracy's mythical status, born out of the hopes and rumors that accumulated around it during its colossally long gestation period.

"Chinese Democracy," he writes, "is (pretty much) the last Old Media album we'll ever contemplate in this context—it's the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file. This is the end of that."

Klosterman delivers this pronouncement almost as an aside, then moves on—as though he realizes he won't be able to support it or explain it.

I've never been a fan of the album standard—the idea that, killer singles notwithstanding, artists can only be considered great if they make great albums. That's like saying Raymond Carver wasn't a great writer because he never produced a novel. But at the same time it's silly to claim that it's obsolete for an artist to think of a group of songs as a unit and consider the relationships they have to one another—though the a la carte nature of the digital music marketplace has eliminated many of the incentives for artists to release albums, it has yet to create any meaningful disincentives. People who'd rather put out albums can sell their songs one at a time too.

Of course consumers are going to treat most albums like buffets, picking and choosing what they like and leaving the rest, but that's because most artists are only good for a few songs at a time. Padding hip-hop records with skits and throwaway tracks is so cliched it's hardly offensive anymore, and plenty of musicians in every genre continue to see the generous capacity of a CD as an opportunity to pack in as much material as possible, apparently confusing bulk with significance. Axl Rose, ironically, is as guilty of this as anybody—a decade before the iPod, I made a mix tape by editing down GNR's 150-minute Use Your Illusion set into the album I thought it should be, and I'll probably make a similar playlist for Democracy.

Albums don't need to be epics years in the making to justify themselves, but these days they do at least need to be good enough to persuade consumers to buy them all at once. As long as people keep making albums, though—and despite the music industry's ill health, I don't see that changing soon—there are going to be some that demand to be heard as a whole. I'm surprised that Klosterman seems to believe otherwise, especially because one such record—and a hugely high-profile record at that—dropped early last week, the day after Chinese Democracy's special Sunday release date.

Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak partakes of the tradition of wild artistic reinvention that also includes Bob Dylan's country-troubadour makeover on Nashville Skyline and, somewhat less illustriously, Vanilla Ice's mid-90s grunge-gangsta turn on Mind Blowin. Kanye's transformation is more daring than Dylan's, in part because Dylan had already reinvented himself once—and it's more surprising, since as far as I know no rapper at Kanye's level of fame has ever ditched his flow for actual singing. It's also shocking to hear him step out from behind his famously overinflated ego to foreground his vulnerability. It's not like there's no way to express grief, regret, and self-doubt in hip-hop, but you don't tend to see whole albums devoted to those feelings.

On 808s Kanye is just as likely to sink into banal electro-emo bathos like "Bad News" as he is to pull off a brilliant, genre-shattering hit like "Love Lockdown." The album's a sprawling mess, and it's far from perfect—when he sings, his lyrics are often overserious and almost always less inventive than when he raps, and his robotic crooning isn't likely to sit well with fans already feeling the hangover from pop's Auto-Tune binge. But overall it's a stunning collection, and two things make it a better listen as one piece than in parts.

One is the consistency of its sound. Though the mood of 808s swings all over the place, it sticks to an austere instrumental palette—rarely more than Roland TR-808 drum machine, Kanye's Auto-Tuned singing, synth bass, faux-tribal acoustic percussion, and maybe piano or strings. Kanye leaked almost the entire album in dribs and drabs (consistent with his Web 2.0 image, he occasionally rerecorded parts or tweaked mixes in response to comments on his blog), and the weirdness of the songs when encountered one at a time like that points up the strength of the whole—the sparse arrangements don't sound like anything else in pop, but they create a sort of language of their own when you can hear ten of them at once. The manic positivity of "Robocop" is especially bizarre when it doesn't arrive as a momentary reprieve from the album's atmosphere of gray depression; its early leaked form, which downplayed the strings and put the insane robot-hydraulic noises way higher in the mix, redoubled the effect.

Second—and maybe more important—808s is a breakup record. Like the best of its kind, it follows the emotional trajectory of a breakup: it starts out grim, with only the rare glimmer of daylight, breaks into major-key uplift that sounds a little forced and overdone, like somebody trying to talk himself into feeling OK ("Robocop"), and then plunges right back into a hard-core bum-out ("Street Lights"). Nothing pulls an album together—or pulls listeners in—like heartbreak. Every serious record collection has its owner's romantic history embedded in it.

Kanye isn't saving the album format from extinction with 808s & Heartbreak, but neither is Axl Rose giving it a Viking funeral with Chinese Democracy. In the future more musicians will surely respond to track-by-track digital sales models and the decline of physical media by releasing tunes in small batches or one at a time, but as long as some artists continue producing collections of autonomous-but-connected songs—collections that overwhelm us or confuse us or simply reflect our experiences back to us—the album's going to be just fine.v

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