Musical Growth

I am a huge fan of music, always have been. I grew up with music and have been developing my own musical tastes since before I can remember. I am thankful to my father for having good musical taste and imparting it on me. I listen to music nearly all the time. I would say about 75% of my waking hours have some level of music happening. (I’m listening to music as I write this)

Image by ShirtWoot

When I hear music from days past, the feeling of nostalgia strikes me like anyone else. I remember all of the good times and memories associated with the music. I can’t listen Matchbox Twenty’s Long Day without thinking about reading Dinotopia on Christmas listening to the Yourself or Someone Like You album on repeat with a Sony CD Walkman. Ah, the 90’s.

Musical nostalgia is double edged sword, though. It is good with equal parts narrow-mindedness. I often find that this pining for the music of old ends up hurting our musical appreciation in the long run. It is a subconscious struggle we may not even realize at first.

I am a huge fan of The Mars Volta and have been for many years (about a decade). They recently released a new album NoctourniquetSince I heard in late 2011 of its impending release, I marked the date and closely watched its approach. Finally it arrived and I quivered with joy as I loaded it into my music player. I was in a break between classes and had the 64 minutes required for a single playthrough, so I gave it a straight run-through. It is not often get the chance to immerse myself into an album in this way at the outset. If you have the chance to do so I would recommend it. Radio, Music Videos, and popularized music delivery (Web) often tramples on the idea of musical albums as stories to be experienced. Most albums lack innate progression, narrative, and any real impetus to listen to an album start to finish.

What I heard while listening to Nocturniquet for the first time was strangely foreign. It was distinctly Mars Volta, to be sure, their sound is unmistakable. However it had a strange energy to it. The music was more electronic and more frantic, which if you know TMV that is really saying something. It felt simply uncomfortable for me. This isn’t a feeling unknown to me; new music always takes time to break in. Still, something was off about Noctourniquet. I listened to the album a few times through over the next week and it didn’t break in, it didn’t grow on me, and I didn’t really enjoy it. Every time I tried to listen to it, I ended up turning it off and returning to the older TMV albums. I eventually let the album collect dust in my digital library.

I would only return to it a few months later, with a different perspective. I had happened across an interview by a musician who has been very influential in my life: Maynard James Keenan.  It is an older interview from Keenan, and I had seen it before. Maynard delivers an idea that has stuck with me for a very long time, but had receded to the rear of my mind. It really gets at the heart of musical performance, and art forms in general. There is a very apparent selfishness to a majority of music floating around these days, music that preaches the basest selfish emotions: greed, violence, abuse, misogyny, and hate.

However there is a different kind of selfishness, one that has an indirect but an altruistic result. Keenan’s desire to performing/recording is not to directly entertain fans: it is to learn, heal, and grow through his self-expression.

At around 1:50 Maynard responds to a question about fans bemoan Maynard’s departure from his older, much angrier, music. He explains:

“Well for those that miss that type of music, that’s why I recorded the old stuff, if you want to listen to that, go back and listen to the first albums. If I can’t heal and grow from my art, then how can you? I suppose I could repeat myself over and over and over again but what’s the point of that?”

While Maynard’s reasoning for performing may be at first self-centered, his work benefits his fans by joining them into the healing process. Through this exercise both the artist and audience can grow together.

I never thought about musical performance in that light before. People often respond negatively to new recordings by their favored bands, and I began to realize it may not be the artist’s fault but instead the listener’s musical obstinacy. Artists continue to grow, experiment, and hone their craft. Yet we refused to grow along with them, and we are left behind with only our nostalgia and dusty albums to comfort us.

Hearing this simple observation I decided to replay through Noctourniquet. What I found was that with a different mindset, one not bound by the expectation of old Mars Volta vibes, I enjoyed the album more with each listen. I can honestly say that it is a great album; it just took me some thinking to realize it. Some people may not want to ‘think’ about their music to enjoy it, that’s their choice. However I will approach my music as I always have, in a way which Maynard explains in another great interview:

“There are several ways you can go into music. You can just kind of click out and just kind of use it as a backdrop and not really think about what’s going on in your everyday life. Or you can use music as a catalyst to do some searching, to do some soul searching, to do some growing. And that’s the kind of band that we are. […] that is the kind of music that we perpetuate […] something that is going make you get involved.”

So the next time one of your bands drops an album that doesn’t exactly click with you: try to appreciate the musical growth that the artist has undergone.

Don’t forget though, there are artists who just lose touch and make shitty albums.

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