OUT OF THE BLUE
Music releases can no longer be qualified by fair weather modifiers—the speed and suddenness of new music only seems accurately described in saturations and floods, in deluges, streams (and torrents).
People are calling it the Season of the Surprise Album.
- - Beyoncé’s Lemonade dropped, in all its visual splendour, from nowhere.
- - Kendrick’s Untitled Unmastered dropped after a couple of tantalising live performances
- - Drake gave us about 2 weeks notice for Views
- - Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool was released just days after an intriguing digital white-out
- - Chance the Rapper’s ‘Chance 3’ mixtape (now Coloring Book) was announced during his performance on Tonight with Jimmy Fallon
- - James Blake’s official album announcement was made on Annie Mac’s BBC1 radio show, the day of his album’s release.
- - Okay so not exactly high profile, but basically every Death Grips album including this month’s Bottomless Pit. Dropped out of nowhere and with stems free for download
Yet despite the Surprise Album Season’s definition as a flurry of high profile abrupt (or straight up unannounced) releases, it’s a situation that has been gathering on the musical horizon for some time. As was discussed on NPR’s All Songs Considered earlier this month, there’s as many new albums for a music journalist to listen to in a single morning as there were major releases in a whole year a few decades ago. There’s so much to listen to. So it seems like that to truly make an event out of an album in the modern day, only a kind of considered silence can part the noise. People have to be shocked. And if the furore surrounding these albums is anything to go by…it works.
Wired for Surprise
It may seem counterintuitive in a digital environment typified by noise, but sometimes withholding information is the best way to get attention. In his talk for TEDx, Soren Kaplan explains how we’re wired for surprise, how surprise lights up pleasure centres in the human brain and primes us for unravelling the mystery, grappling with the pervasive assumption that predictability and control inexorably lead to personal and business success. For a working example of surprise can be utilised to formidable effect, just check your phone.
$ilence is Golden
For Apple, the coyness (and subsequent billowing mystique) surrounding it’s major technological unveilings is a full-scale business strategy—and what has continued to fuel the voracious market frenzy that has followed it for decades and into the billions of dollars. Those queues you shake your head at, those ones that wrap around buildings and twist down urban streets on every iphone release date. These are the reliable, slow-snaking proof of how people willingly fill a carefully placed void with lifestyle allure and their own imagination. And all Apple have to do is say “wish we could say more”—it’s blindingly effective.
Fall Like A Thunderbolt
Sun Tzu writes in his ancient military treatise The Art of War: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
But it’s well documented that surprise as technique for maximisation of influence has its dark side. It all begun with a legend about a wooden at the gates of Troy, its insides comprised of Greek soldiers. Virgil’s epic poem, though a legend, has long been suspected as being pulled together with a thread of truth. And whether it’s the Visigoth’s sudden siege of Rome in 410 AD or the devastating bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, surprise in combat is something that has been consistently and terribly effective.
Everybody Loves a Good Surprise
The effectiveness of surprise in today's music industry is undeniable, but thankfully, not terrible. Long, cynical PR cycles have become a tiresomebackdrop to a music lover's exploration so album's that invite the audience into a kind of controlled spontaneity, however contrived they may be, is refreshing. It's a kind of temporary parting of the clamouring seas. Of course, like anything, it can be used to death, but I truly hope it continues... Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good surprise, but it feels good to be flooded with genuine excitement.
Simile is a weekly series by Cool Accidents fave/regular Paul Cumming aka Wax Volcanic that unravels current moments in music and follows the threads to some strange and strangely familiar places.