The Album as an Art Form

This post is fully inspired by Steven Wilson’s movie – INSURGENTES. Yes. The movie. Not just his solo album. I bought it this week for $19. You read that right. I actually spent $19 on ‘buying’ a DVD. I dont even remember buying any DVD till date. Come to think of it, I dont think I have ever bought a DVD at all. And yet I have watched so much. (All Hail DC++). But thats another story for another day.

This movie is more of a documentary directed by Lasse Hoilie and starring Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt & Blackfield’s Israeli Star Aviv Geffen also making appearances. This is NOT about how Wilson came about to form PTree or the rise of PTree or anything do much with PTree at all. Instead, this movie is a focus on the state of music, the music industry and how music as an art is listened to by the people and it is done so from the point of view of Steven Wilson. “The film looks into the issues of creating, packaging and marketing music in an era when iPods, mp3’s and download culture are changing and eroding perceptions of exactly what an album is supposed to sound and look like.”  [Link] And it is THIS issue which I am going to elaborate on now.

When I was a kid, music essentially meant searching through the dozens of recorded Meltrack Tapes of my dad’s collection and playing it on the Philips Stereo cassette player. I used to spend considerable time in keeping the cassettes in order, numbering them and meticulously cataloguing them. There used to be some pride involved in the act of just choosing a tape out of my collection and playing it. Even though it was my dad’s collection, I always thought of it as my own too. And then when I went to high school, I began to listen to a lot more English music. Though my dad had a significant collection of English music, it wasnt much. So it was only in high school that I started to buy albums.

Of course, my music taste at that time was still in the nascent stage, feasting on the BackStreet Boys, Boyzone and the like. And so I bought a bunch of those tapes, or got the entire albums recorded from someone’s original. I still remember that excitement and enthusiasm when I got to know that I would be getting a new tape. Going to the record store, searching through dozens of cassettes to make that one big decision as to what I will be listening to for the coming weeks, and that duration of time when I couldn’t wait to get back home to listen to my latest addition to the collection- there used to be some pure and unadulterated joy in the whole process.

And after I bought it, I used to listen to the album, repeatedly, over and over again until I knew every single note and sound in it. Like Steven Wilson puts it, I “used to devour” the album extracting every bit of thing it has to offer. This specially included the artwork, and more importantly for me, the pages of lyrics that would be folded and inserted as part of the cassette cover. The joy of finding a big slab of pages folded perfectly to fit into the cassette cover was unparalleled. And on those occassions when there was nothing in the cover sheet except the front cover, the credits and the track listing, I used to grow particularly disappointed. I believe I even bought a few albums just because I could see through the cassette case that it had a bundle of folded pages inside.

Perhaps the most memorable experience in this aspect for me was buying Pink Floyd’s ECHOES, opening it to find a whole bunch of sheets in both the tapes in the collection. And of course, listening to TIME with the profound lyrics in my hands. THAT was some experience.

The same experience was carried on to the time when I started buying CDs after my dad bought us a good SONY 5.1 home theater system. Sure the song skipping was easy, but I used to still listen to it inside out with the same excitement.

And then came the MP3.

This is where Steven Wilson has a few strong things to say. And this is where I believe, the way I (and the whole world) began to listen to music changed drastically. The very ‘worth’ of an album was reduced to nothingness because I never really owned anything in the first place. Shifting through the songs became a lot easier AND a lot more common. So instead of listening to a whole album, I ended up listening to a few select songs because I made a connection to them a lot faster. And I never really went about listening to the remaining songs for a long long time. The album as an entity had ceased to exist. It was just a few songs that I kept playing repeatedly.

And then came the MP3 player. Which took the degradation to a whole new level. Now it was not just listening to a few select songs of one album. It became listening to a few select songs of one ‘artist’ or ‘band’ as such. Forget the whole idea of an album. Even the identity of the artist was reduced to nothingness. The concept of the ‘playlist’ totally killed whatever image and identity the band had begun to build in your mind as soon as some other band’s song started playing. I may have heard to a whole bunch of bands in a short time through a playlist. But I wouldn’t know anything about any of those bands.

It is really unfortunate what I have become in terms of listening to music. Listening to MP3s, perceiving them as the way music should be listened to. Yes the MP3 and my Mp3 player are both inseparable parts of me. And I realize that I would WANT to listen to music whenever I want and at my convenience. But I guess the least I can do is to make sure that I listen to an album right through instead of repeatedly skipping through random tracks until I arrive at a song that I am familiar with and listen to it again. Online radio stations like Pandora, on the other hand,  should considered just to be a source of coming across new bands and NOT as your primary source of music. I have also made  myself a promise to purchase a Vinyl Player with my first salary (whenever that is). And hopefully build a big enviable collection of old Vinyl records as time goes on.

Steven Wilson talks about a whole lot of other issues in the movie and most of them have got to do with what music has become today. He goes on to talk about his early childhood, him growing up, his constant references to trains and about some of the bands which are still releasing albums the way they are supposed to be released. I only wish the movie would have been longer, providing Wilson with more time to talk about these very issues. But the DVD comes with an extra featuring a Q&A session with Steven himself which dwells further into the topics.

And after watching this, if anything at all, my respect and admiration for Steven Wilson has increased multifold. And if you are somebody who doesn’t know who he is, feel totally free to consider your life incomplete.

3 thoughts on “The Album as an Art Form

  1. Incase you want to play vinyls,you can get a player on BEL road,Bangalore.There is a guy who has been selling them lately…you can find him just before Ramaiah Hospital(coming from sadashivnagar).Not sure of the quality.Enjoyed your article.Let me know if you know any place in Bangalore where i can get vinyls.


  2. Brilliant piece of writing buddy. I too connect to the feeling of getting a song’s lyrics from the cassette case…. I learn’t to read Telugu and Tamil only to read lyrics of the songs. Thiruda Thiruda was the first most joyful experience. After that when Tamil songs came out with lyrics printed in English, I couldn’t relate to it.

    Very good blog bro. I promise to listen to songs one album at a time.

    And about the radio stations providing sound-bytes of newly formed bands. I think the idea has been around for a while but lacks commercial push.

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