Today, I am taking a stand. After reading Nitsuh Abebe of New York’s article “Indie Grown Ups,” an editorial declaring 21st century culture monuments like Radiohead, Wilco, Neko Case, Feist and Bon Iver founders of “the new adult contemporary”, I couldn’t help but feel protective of the bands he unfairly maligns.
On the surface, Abebe’s article seems inoffensive, ceding that these bands’ most recent works are respectable and retain artistic value. But then he calls them dull and lumps them in with the much-maligned “Adult Contemporary” genre; the mere mention of which has triggered Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” to repeat in my head ad nauseam. Quite honestly, I am offended. I think he is completely wrong. And a pretentious asshole. So, here is my position. It’s not just in the name of dispelling bad journalism, but mostly in defense to the great bands Abebe (subtly) trashes.
These were the bands that ultimately transformed me into an obsessive music nerd. I couldn’t tell you how many times I played OK Computer on my Walkman walking home from high school. Or how many times I gushed over A Ghost Is Born way back in 2004. Or how earth-shattering the first time “Almost Crimes” (by Feist’s original band Broken Social Scene) blared out of my car speakers during the Indie hour on the local alternative station (a welcome respite from the grating post grunge acts like Shinedown or Seether that the station normally played). And try living in Milwaukee for a couple of years and not hold Bon Iver as a dear symbol of Wisconsin pride on par with a wedge of cheese and a can of Miller Lite.
First things first: the new works of all of these bands are in no way my favorites. I think a lot of fans of these groups would also agree that none of these albums are these bands’ best (with the possible exception of Bon Iver, depending on your feelings.) But all of these works are worthy of accolade; at least more than Abebe’s “Meh” assessment. But adult contemporary they are not.
Abebe asserts that these albums represent “classic” and “safe” approaches to indie rock such that allow for crossover appeal into the adult contemporary world. I argue that these albums are far from “safe.” The King of Limbs sounds like Radiohead’s attempt to reconcile the rising trend of IDM with actual instruments. Wilco’s “Art of Almost” manages to distinguish itself from, say, a Matchbox 20 song by incorporating a pulsating Kraftwerk-esque beat and a cacophonous string section, all the while still finding room for a now-trademark face melting solo by Nels Cline.
Wilco – Art of Almost
And then there’s the newest Bon Iver full-length. The reason For Emma, Forever Ago catapulted Vernon from a lonely songwriter to indie fame (whatever that means), is the album’s emotive insularity and simplicity. One man isolates himself with an acoustic guitar in a cabin and writes songs about a breakup. So how does he follow this album up? By making an album that is the complete opposite. The songs are expansive. The lyrics are cryptic. He employs synthesizers for Christ’s sake, cheesy ones at that. And to seemingly further alienate the hipster kids who so adore him, he starts citing Bonnie Raitt as an influence.
You have to give credit to any band with the guts to embrace influences that are not the typical Indie touchstones. I may be alone on this one, but I am sick of the endless factory line of Brian Wilson-worshipping indie pop bands. Being dads themselves, Wilco has every right to embrace their dad rock side. And if any Abebe-acolytes scoff, kindly remind them that James Blake is on record covering a Joni Mitchell song, and, surprise surprise, a Feist song!
This is where I have to temper my defense of these bands. As I said before, these albums are not any of these artists’ best works. But the problem with every great band is they get old. Groups like Neko Case and Feist are eventually going to sound tired because they have very signature sounds. Even Radiohead, who seem to regularly redefine alternative music, have begun to sound an awful lot like Radiohead. The mountains of new music at our fingertips spoil us to the point we start to question the bands we loved since before the Spotify Age. Instead of being bogged down in the constant discovery of new music, I, for one, pledge loyalty. And there is no need to bring “adult contemporary” into this.
Tim Myers is the only student of The Ohio State we can stand to have around.