When Beck won Album of the Year for Morning Phases at this year’s Grammy Awards, Kanye West, and I suspect much of America, was not thrilled. As you may recall, West began to walk onstage, as Beck was about to address the audience, before returning to his seat. At the time this seemed self-aware and charming but nothing is ever as it seems with Mr. West. Over the next few days we heard his thoughts on who the real winner should have been (hint: it starts with a “B” and ends with “eyonce”) and then we heard everyone else’s thoughts on Kanye’s thoughts and Beck’s thoughts on Kanye’s thoughts and everyone else’s thoughts on Beck’s thoughts on Kanye’s thoughts. There was lot of “thinking” going on.
At first, I didn’t think much of it (ha!). While West’s music may continue to surprise me, his behavior never will. I wasn’t offended. I like that he spoke his mind and criticized the Grammys. I agree that Beyonce should have won.
But what of Beck’s place in all of this? He isn’t just the object of another artist’s frustration. He’s also his punching bag. Say what you will about Kanye West but his voice matters. The strange irony is that maybe he did Beck a favor here. Maybe now more people will buy Beck’s album.
I know that Beck probably doesn’t care. After all, he didn’t ask to win. But I was unnerved by how comfortable he was in conceding to another artist’s point of view. He didn’t stand up for his album or his artistry. He didn’t challenge West to a deeper conversation about what makes one album better than another. His response to this controversy was a lot like his album: timid and humble, simple and gracious. It represented what rock music has become and the antithesis of what it should be.
I think Kanye West understands this reality more clearly than the Grammys do. Perhaps his new working relationship with Paul McCartney has made him look out at the broader landscape of contemporary rock. Perhaps he doesn’t like what he sees.
Whatever the reason is, I suspect his comments run deeper than petulance or stubbornness. They’re a challenge to both the audience and the industry. In essence, he’s forcing us to ask ourselves the question we’ve been avoiding for the last few years: does rock and roll matter anymore (should we drop the roll? Yeah, let’s drop the roll)?
The problem is two-fold. On the one hand you have record sales, which, while not nearly as critical as they used to be, are a good snapshot of cultural relevance. On Billboard’s Top 200 list for 2014, no American rock bands or solo artists are in the top ten. Only Imagine Dragons sit in the top twenty for their subpar debut album Night Visions. Otherwise you have a mix of pop, country, soundtracks, and the Duck Dynasty family. The Black Keys, both productive and critically admired, had their Turn Blue land at number 38. Jack White’s bizarrely angry Lazaretto placed at number 55. And Beck’s Grammy winner finished at number 60, behind three Now That’s What I Call Music volumes, two Lana Del Rey records, and something called Five Finger Death Punch (not to mention Beyonce’s self-titled triumph, which finished at a robust number 2 on Billboard’s list).
The other issue is less tangible but of equal concern. More and more rock music is becoming a cultural artifact, too reliant on history and the continuing quest to iconize some of our greatest artists to the point of redundancy. Paul McCartney, still vital at 72, has settled into the role of a glorified backup singer for Kanye, Rihanna and even Taylor Swift. Surprise albums from Beyonce and Drake have been well received, but when U2 does it, it’s a nuisance (editor’s note: to be fair… U2 kinda sorta… I mean… ah fuck it, it’s a great point, proceed). Like McCartney, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are still testing their endurance, but are slowly drifting into the twilight of their careers. God willing, Prince will live forever, but there’s something unsettling about there being only one major black rock star we’re ever talking about. Ditto for Florence + the Machine. Where’s the next great female rock band?
The past overwhelms some of our most talented modern acts, who can’t hold court on their own without stepping back to let a more senior performer take the reigns. What the Grammys taught us is that Hozier merely exists as a warmup for Annie Lennox and John Mayer, one of the greatest guitarists alive and a commercial heavyweight (and, yeah, a jackass), who in turn is only required to back up Ed Sheeran, who then backs up Electric Light Orchestra. Beck can’t play solo on one of his own songs. If he truly had the best album, why does he need to share the stage with Chris Martin? To make him seem relevant?
The historical weight of rock music has suffocated audiences to the point where young artists are facing an uphill battle to find their place in a conversation centered largely around hip-hop, pop, country, and the Frozen soundtrack. Are there new rock stars out there who can energize the culture in the way that Kendrick Lamar has for hip-hop? Who can push the boundaries of their artistry the way Beyonce has? Where’s someone who isn’t going to take Kanye West’s shit?
Two weeks ago, Joshua Tillman, former drummer of the Fleet Foxes, released I Love You, Honeybear under his alias Father John Misty. A concept album, it’s narrative is a journey through the ecstasy and torture of love. Caustically self-aware, brash and unrelenting, it’s maddening in it’s complexity and, at times, rather difficult to get through. It’s also brilliant and, so far, the best album of 2015.
With a swelling anger in the timbre of his versatile voice, you can hear influences ranging from John Lennon’s trademark screams to Elton John’s signature bravado, but that would discredit the originality of Misty’s place in today’s landscape. His first studio outing, 2012’s Fear Fun, introduced Misty as a true outsider, sarcastically decrying Hollywood and fame with cocksure lyrics and a classic rock aggression.
Honeybear is clearly a more personal and refined effort. The aggressive, confusing poetry is matched with the soaring versatility of Misty’s stunning melodies. This puzzling contradiction works, creating a world that is hard to understand but easy to get lost in. On “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Cow,” the song begins as a whining, standard country ballad, slow and sure. “She blackens pages like a Russian romantic, gets down more often than a blow-up doll” Misty croons, idealizing his lover with sensual conviction. The perspective shifts in the next verse, as he now agonizes over the idea of other men flirting with her while he’s away on tour. The final lines are a firm instruction “If you try that cat-and-mouse shit, you’ll get bitten, keep moving” as the string section takes over and the guitar warbles in sad syncopation, hypnotic and bitter in it’s psychedelic state.
“The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.” is a brutally cruel, extremely funny look at a failed romantic prospect – “She says, ‘like literally’ music is the air she breathes … I wonder if she even knows what that word means. Well it’s ‘literally’ not that” – while the tune is reminiscent of a slow, 60’s springtime love song. It’s Roy Orbison with a dash of venom.
The most divisive song on the album is “Bored In The USA,” which, depending on how you interpret it, is a manifesto of the fragile psyche of the common man, a referendum on capitalism, or just one long joke. It sounds like a downbeat, Randy Newman piano anthem, with soaring emotion in Misty’s voice. When he reaches the bridge, however, his various complaints about the education system and prescription drugs are suddenly echoed by canned laughter. This continues until the final notes and it slowly diffuses our understanding of the song. Who is laughing at Misty? Is he laughing at himself? Is he laughing at us? I’ve listened to “Bored In The USA” dozens of times and I couldn’t tell you what I really think of it. I’m not quite sure it works. But I can’t stop thinking about it and trying to decode it. It’s hard not to admire this kind of audacity.
Listening to Misty calls to mind a younger Loudon Wainwright, another singer with a bizarre, combusting onstage personality. His sensibilities tilt from the simplicity of classic folk tunes to weary, post-modern observations on history, fatherhood, and depression. His lyrics are deeply personal, affecting, and somewhat uncomfortable. But like Misty, Wainwright’s gorgeous voice covers the darkness. He knows how to make strange and sad music sound beautiful.
A more generous comparison would be David Bowie, who 40 years ago stretched the limits of artistic identity and defied convention with the sheer force of his talent and imagination. His Ziggy Stardust was as much an escape as it was a representation for what rock music could be: bold and promiscuous, with swagger and substance, fearless and full of love. Misty has the chance to reintroduce that kind of engaging eccentricity into contemporary rock. His attractive weirdness can serve his unique and provocative songwriting, much like it did for Paul Simon and even Beck, once upon a time.
If Misty is as good as he thinks he is (and I think he is), there will be missteps along the way. He could end up like Wainwright, enduring a consistent yet frustrating career. He may never end up on the Billboard 200 list or perform at the Grammys. But I don’t think anyone has a better chance of offering us new possibilities for the way we listen to and enjoy rock music.