Back in the old days the rock press used to take itself very seriously. This was probably rooted in a time when rock press still meant the alternative press which in turn still meant the counterculture. But it reached its apotheosis in the NME of the late 70s and early 80s when punk rock correctness ruled supreme and every record was searched and scanned for its “cultural signifiers”.
ABC’s “the Look Of Love” (arguably one of the brightest, boldest, biggest POP albums ever) became an idealogical battleground as Martin Fry’s motives were examined and put through filters based on half comprehended thoughts of Lacan, Marcuse and Wittgenstein. Was this the birth of poptimism? Luckily they passed and we were allowed to like it.
The Human League's Dare was doubly difficult as the band were clearly “knowing” and shed the awkward art pop of early work like 'Empire State Human' (which had clear political messages like “I want to be tall tall tall, as tall as a wall” apparently) in favour of glistening pop which had to be refracted as a devastating critique of consumer society.
These artists were producing some of the most excellent pop records of their time but in order to like these records, critics felt they had to be critically explained and justified. The public didn’t care and just liked them. Pop music was as “art” as Pop art, and critiqued as such by the likes of Morley, Fadele, Penman and Burchill. It was (to borrow inappropriately from Val Wilmer’s amazing jazz book) “as serious as your life”.
Whole swathes of music were condemned as “not worthwhile” and dismissed (well done PWL and your entire catalogue), whilst the quandary posed by black music (and the views of some of its perpetrators) became a huge source of difficulty and mirth as serious left wingers explained away Fela Kuti’s 13 wives and penchant for performing in budgie smugglers as “cultural confusion”.
On the whole, the end of this phase, which was bought crashing down by dance music (despite bold efforts at explaining “the politics of dancing”), was a good thing. We rarely have to put up with reviewers using this style these days, or their half baked Marxist critiques with most contemporary reviewers following the more pragmatic “at least 3 stars, they're paying for the ads” model of criticism. Only Ed Sheeran regularly gets lambasted for not being “significant” enough (though his buddy Taylor gets a free pass on account of her dazzling ability to critique the Barbie doll). We don’t really miss it, except for having something to read weekly (and argue about) in our student houses.
But this weekend, “serious man music” is back. In force. Now the good thing about serious man music is it can be emphasised in three different ways, as follows:
SERIOUS man music (that is, exceptionally serious music – usually atonal and unlistenable and long – made by and for men)
Serious MAN music (that is, the music is manly and shuts out casual listeners ie females who like fripperies like tunes)
Serious man MUSIC (that is, music about the lives and existences and concerns of serious postmodern men)
All three are equally good and self important. And serious men (1) can shut themselves away with other serious men (who are either young and broadly unable to find a girlfriend or older and broadly regretting having found a girlfriend who has replaced their vinyl collection with some ornaments) to discuss the merits of the serious music (2) which is about how hard it is for them to be unloved and unwanted in the 21st century and how Marx (3) had a point about alienation (well it was Engel's, really) but that Lukacs, Habermass and Weber stated it more appropriately for our time. Talk about an existential crisis – if music by normal people like Kylie has a price, what should we pay when invited to put our own price on The Master’s Voice? They auctioned Wu-Tang one-offs, isn’t that a better model for Yorke & Co than giving it away for free but what fan could pay nothing for greatness like In Shadows. Actually, most of them … and they don’t care about using torrents either because the music is sonically akin to bit torrent anyway.
It is also a common factor for Serious Mens Music that it acts and behaves seriously. Welcome the masterstrokes.
1. Take down all your social media. Wow, something of great import must be happening. Let's only do it for a day, but that’ll show the fuckers what time it is. Because who could possibly live without social media. Or Radiohead's face-insta-twitter etc. Mind you a radiohead snapchat would be fun?!
2. Use your database to send very serious press releases with title and date. Real paper is serious stuff. And if you leave the name off – well that’s not commercial is it?
3. Use your manager – shock horror an ex-Accountant - to bring into play what you will or won't do with Spotify. Like, who cares? Especially Spotify, since you don’t have hits now. The manager/accountant is begging for them but remember; this is serious man music time. But just in case, also release an absurdly high priced super-deluxe vinyl set that your fan's wives wont allow them to keep on their reamaining IKEA Expedits.
4. Allow your video to reference “significant” but pop-culture work like Trumpton and the Wicker Man. Allow the pun TRUMP-town (geddit?) to resonate in the cultural ether. Allow your videographer to make statements for you that the video dwells on “major” themes like Islamphobia but remain silent on this at all times. Your art is much to serious to be attributed a singular meaning.
AND BEST OF ALL
Release on a Sunday because this shows utter commercial disdain for boring things like charts which everyone knows run Friday to Friday everywhere. But in a dazzling subtext remember that on the 7th day the Lord rested and westerners (even if, like another Serious Music Man mister Damon Albarn, you’d like to move to Mali and dismiss all elements of that despised cultural value chain) are all very used to Acts of Worship on Sundays and that’s a great day to send out your new broadcast from the Mountain.
All this says serious so well. And leads to the greatest of all fan comments: “Listened once, it seems like a return to form”. Which means … I wrote this this time, and after one listen to all three previous albums, as an act of wish fulfilment. And then listened again and decided they weren’t as good as The Bends. So I went back to listening to that and now and again had a quick play of Creep. Listen guys, liking ABBA is a normal Guilty Pleasure. Liking the one song your favourite “important band” don’t like of their own, isn’t. And if you want to justify that (because we serious fans like to justify) then remember – they are only the creators of the work – its form and language live on without them and twist and turn according to socio-economic (and historical) forces beyond their control. So it's alright you can admit it's a tune – life hasn't gone exactly as you'd planned but you are a pawn of greater forces too and can admit you aren’t “fucking special” (unlike Thom). And anyway, when the next album comes (hey who hasn’t got a divorce to pay off at our age so there may well be one) you can write … guess what, “seems like a return to form” AGAIN.
When deciding how to close off this new mangum opus, this completely modern work of utter futurism, what do they do? They recycle some old shit they had lying about. If Elton or Phil Collins did it we’d say “creatively dead” and snigger, but here it’s an act of hallowed genius and a wonderful excuse to go back to tunes that had tunes (like 'True Love Waits'). Sorry, I'll rephrase that, a great chance for those serious people who have bootlegs of every Radiohead (and some by Atoms for Peace, god help them) show ever to dissect these works and comment on how they have changed and evolved and become influenced by Thom’s love of glitch-electro or Jonny’s fascination with strange string-led horror soundtracks (but not, god help us, classical music). Now that’s seriously worthwhile. Serious knowledge the wife would sweep out of your brain if she could.
It is perfect that on the same weekend James Blake, leader of the new school of Serious Man Music should release as well. Blake has yet to make millions and therefore can't give the world the finger with a gesture like Sunday release, but he is very serious because just listen to that record. There's not a hint of levity in its cold, blue grip.
For Blake – and good pals like Four Tet, Caribou and Floating Points who worship at the temple of WARP Records – serious music comes from taking music itself very seriously. And making it pretty hard to listen to. And releasing works in progress because who cares about legacy. Why not put your out takes out now instead of waiting for that career defining box set retrospective. (random thought: imagine a skrillex box set. Now that'd be fun). And talking about digging deeper, finding more and best of all boys toys – liking analogue synth sounds and something called 'plug ins'.
This speaks to why we probably all like Jamie XX better than them because although fairly guilty of being serious and being in a serious group called The xx (a true statement of image dismissal, like twice as much as Malcolm X – or a great marketing tag, you decide) he seems to get that fun is ok, and so are singles. Not for him, 17 tracks of angelically warbled nothingness. He has samples of real humans talking about raving. Fuck, he's half way to being Mark Ronson. Stop it! (but we do like that image of Jamie xx as a serious man’s Mark Ronson). Blake makes music he feels that we need – music that represents what social media would sound like if it had a sound. There may be a watercolour of a winter scene on the cover (and hey which serious man doesn’t like the image of dark skies above?) but this is a record that bakes the feeling of life into the glow of a computer monitor. Only Blake’s voice is organic and he distorts that everywhere; twisting, tuning and turning, chopping, fragmenting and sampling until it's what man makes of nature that you get. If this is SOUL (as Blake often says) then its thin white (man’s) soul – without any homage to Bowie – soul that belongs to a time that has no God to add any downhome fun(k) to it. The soul of alienation that Kanye established so well on 808 & Heartaches (much copied, never improved).
This record isn’t cold, its arctic and not much happens through it. And that makes it perfect as Serious Man Music. If you listen hard, on headphones, you can get nuances that normal people (ie women who have better things to do) can't and realise his debt to other enigmatic producers. Only that way can you realise James has over 200 vocal takes layered on a single track, but none are perfect. Now that’s perfect. And bond over how Fly Lo is really jazz. (Even though he clearly isn’t and his music has nothing jazz about it apart from the fact that Alice Coltrane is his aunt).
Because jazz is serious mens music par excellence.
And jazz defies categorisation. Right?
And everyone knows that Radiohead once wrote a song as a tribute to Charles Mingus.
And James Blake used to cover Joni Mitchell (acoustically but no ones perfect!) and she made an album about Charlie Mingus.
And even though Charlie Mingus wasn’t particularly serious.
And once punched out a poorly performing trumpeter on stage.
We have made a perfect circle.
And that’s as it should be.
If we are to take music very, very seriously.