My Year in Lists: Volume II
"Jazz in Silhouette stands as an overlooked masterpiece, a work that shows Ra not as a mere curiosity or backwater galaxy, but as a major creative force in the jazz universe, a center of gravity around which many of jazz's major developments have orbited."-Matthew Weuthrich
"Nashville Skyline achieves the artistically impossible: a deep, humane, and interesting statement about being happy. It could well be ... his best album."-Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone
On some level, all art is about the artist creating it. That isn't to say, of course, that all art is autobiographical. That isn't strictly speaking the case. However, all art has at least something of its creator embedded in it, and can tell us something about that person. This is perhaps why I have always been more interested in the auteur theory of cinema than in genre studies. To me, genre is a slippery beast, an attempt at drawing broad categories and forcing things that are often distinctly dissimilar into one box. Its trying to archive all of art in ways that limit that art, and what it can say to us, by telling us how we're supposed to think about it.
In some ways, this is the central problem of My Year in Lists: Volume II. It's a feature designed around approaching art in a way I am reasonably certain is not the best way to do it, an attempt to erase stereotypical views of particular modes of art by engaging with them in a stereotyped nature. If I am trying to alleviate my stereotyped aversion to hip hop, country, and jazz, is the best way to do so by asking people in my life to throw a lot of things they consider a part of that group at me? Essentially, I asked my friends to stereotype (even if only broadly) to help me get over my stereotypes. That sounds, on its face, like a ludicrous request, but I'm not sure it is, really. Fifty two weeks is a long time, and fifty two albums from each list gives us a reasonable confidence that we will see various permutations of these genres, that we will delve deep enough and explore widely enough to come across some of the oddities tucked in each and to laugh, as we must, at the idea that some of these things should be grouped together. This week, we will be looking at some oddities, to be sure, but more importantly, we will be looking at three artists who are strongly present in their work, whose art grants us a view into their headspace in the way only true artists can. I hate one of the albums we will discuss this week (we'll get to which), but I can't say its because it lacks an authorial touch. It just happens to be touched by an author who is problematic to me for a variety of reasons.
Before we get there, however, its time to discuss Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount, Sun Ra (who legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra) was a cosmic philosopher, controversial both for his eclectic compositions and his eccentric lifestyle. He claimed he was from the "Angel Race," born not on earth, but on Saturn, and preached increased awareness and peace above any and all else. When asked about Herman Poole Blount, he would demure, "That's an imaginary person, never existed"¦Any name I use other than Ra is a pseudonym."
From the 1950's through his death in 1993, Sun Ra led "The Arkestra," an ensemble that frequently altered both its line-up and its full name (being known, variously, as "His Cosmo Discipline Arkestra," "Blue Universe Arkestra," "The Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra," and "The Soul Myth Arkestra," among others). The ever changing name, Sun Ra reasoned, reflected the ever-changing nature of music. He claimed, throughout his life, that he had been transported to Saturn while he was attending school, and that the beings he met there told him to leave school because the world was going to devolve into chaos and he would only be able to reach the world at large with his music. Interestingly, this supposedly happened to him around 1937, a full decade before the idea of flying saucers entered the public consciousness and between 15 and 20 years before abduction myths began to become more commonplace. Also interesting is the fact that his vision wasn't necessarily wrong. The world did devolve into a kind of chaos just two years after his supposed abduction (with the beginnings of World War II), and his music does provide a way to process that chaos and a forceful argument for peace, even if it is rarely recognized for either of these reasons.
The beliefs and philosophy of Sun Ra are in themselves incredibly fascinating, but his music is no less captivating. His 1959 album, Jazz in Silhouette (which was released, by the way, by the label Saturn) opens with "Enlightenment." The song begins with the sound of a gong, before developing into a mysterious mood piece, a relaxed melody with a shadowy feel that draws you in. "Saturn" is comparatively quick and upbeat, nearly frenzied at times, but always tightly constructed and fluidly performed.
Ra's power is revealed more fully in the album's longer pieces, though. "Ancient Aiethopia," builds its themes and variations over its nine minutes, letting melodic discursions develop to become near subplots in a larger sonic narrative. This is more than a song; it's a journey with a focused master at the helm. Similarly, the album's final track (as it is currently packaged, anyway. The original album began with what has since become side two), "Blues at Midnight," is made more powerful and resonant in its nearly 12 minute runtime. These pieces require listeners to put in some work, but reveal subtle complexities and rewarding flourishes on multiple listens. These are compositions that feel alive in the way much of jazz strives to be; if all of the experimentation and innovation is aiming at adding a vibrant vitality to the work, then Sun Ra is doubtlessly among the best jazz artists I have yet encountered.
Jazz in Silhouette feels like a monumental accomplishment in the art form to me, even if it doesn't seem to have developed the stature in the jazz world I think it deserves. It feels like jazz carved on the walls of the universe in stone. Which, considering its author, is probably exactly what was intended.
I don't have a whole lot of nice things to say about Slick Rick, to be honest, and so I don't want to spend too much time on his debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. The album is filled, nearly wall-to-wall, with misogynistic screeds against women, and dabbled throughout with large quantities of racism as well. Rick is known as "hip hop's greatest storyteller" for some of the dramatic flourishes he sprinkles through his songs (he uses voices to denote different characters and often creates sound effects as well), but the stories he's telling are mostly distasteful and occasionally infuriating.
It all starts with the opening track, the charmingly titled "Treat Her Like a Prostitute." The song basically operates from the premise that all women are evil, duplicitous, and adulterous, and thus should be treated like a prostitute, used for sex and not much else. This brings me to a point I have been thinking about a lot in the past several weeks: hip hop's treatment of adultery. The treatment of women in a lot of the hip hop we have covered of yet is downright deplorable, but the way adultery is approached is fascinating if only because it seems to be constructed whole cloth from an alternate universe. In the realm of hip hop, all women are cheaters, schemers, and gold-diggers, showing loyalty to nothing but the almighty dollar and breaking the hearts of our poor heroes.
This is ludicrous not because women never cheat (they do), but because men cheat more often than women (this trend is actually on its way to evening out, according to the cursory research I conducted before making this assertion, as women become more financially independent and sex discrimination becomes even slightly less rampant), rendering this fictional form of adultery as less a reflection of reality (especially in the "˜80s, when all of the albums we have yet discussed were released, and when infidelity was even more likely to have been perpetrated by a man than a woman) and more a narrative intended to demean women and empower men. If all women are cheaters, the reasoning goes, they are unworthy of respect, unworthy of agency, and easier to use and discard. This is, in essence, the kind of thinking behind "Treat Her Like a Prostitute," and behind more subtle and cavalier misogyny we've encountered elsewhere. Its not just discomfiting because its untrue, its problematic because of the reasons its untrue. This "infidelity myth," as I'm going to call it, doesn't seem to exist simply to heal a scorned man's broken heart, but to justify an entire gender's dismissal and oppression. It isn't there to make one guy feel better after being burned (not that I would find it any easier to stomach if it was), its there to remove the agency of women everywhere. And it's a problem.
Sadly, "Treat Her Like a Prostitute," isn't the worst offender on the album. That honor would go to "Indian Girl (An Adult Story)" which is basically (read: entirely) about Rick having sex with a Native American woman. The song manages to be both terribly sexist and horribly racist within less than 3 minutes. It not only includes the line "From what he believes and from what he guess, if a girl says no, he really thinks she means yes," (trust me, that's bad, but not the worst line I could have quoted) but ends with Rick discovering (I wish I was kidding) that her vagina is full of "Crabs with spears and Indian drums." I think we can probably leave our examination of Slick Rick right there, folks. This is an album that, sonic flourishes aside, is at best a complete waste of my time and critical faculties, and at worst, is a sexist, racist screed that balances these vices with virtues far too modest to be redemptive.
There may be no better example of an artist's effect on their art than Bob Dylan, who decided in 1969 that he was going to release a country album. The result, Nashville Skyline is an exceptional country album that wears its artist's predilections, both lyrical and musical, on its sleeve.Nashville Skyline manages to be both 100% country album and 100% Dylan album, and the result is a fascinating and rewarding listen.
Dylan kicks off the experiment by displaying how serious he is about taking on country music. The album's opening track is a cover of his own "Girl From the North Country," transformed into a duet with none other than Johnny Cash. The two had been friends for five years by the time the track was recorded, so it isn't at all strange that Dylan would ask Cash to guest on his country album, but the duet is transformative. The original version is early Dylan to the hilt"”lilting vocals, strumming guitar, and a dollop of harmonica. The cover transforms the song into a country ballad, and arguably becomes more powerful as a result. The stark power of the original remains, but the way Dylan croons on the Nashville Skyline version captures the song's tragic power. Slowing down the melody and the tempo gives Dylan and Cash room to draw every last emotion out of the lyrics, and it's a tactic that pays off. Dylan is more introspective here, and his croon lacks the abrasiveness that characterizes much of his earlier work. And having one of the most emotive vocalists in country music at his side certainly doesn't hurt.
The song is followed up by "Nashville Skyline Rag," an instrumental riff that focuses on the performance more than the actual music. It feels like an ode to the power of the country melody, an upbeat, uptempo number that just revels in the joy of music itself. Similarly, "Peggy Day," and "Country Pie" are less concerned with Dylan's general focus, lyrics, and more interested in playing around with the country sound. The former is a simple riff on the day/night dichotomy wrapped in a straightforward story about wanting to have sex; the latter is even thinner, mostly focused on the twang of the guitar and having a little fun with lyrics. There isn't a whole lot of substance to these three tracks, but then, that's not the point. If anything, Dylan's country discursion was about having some fun, and that is never clearer than on these three tracks.
Perhaps my favorite original song on the album, "Lay Lady Lay," was originally written for the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy but was completed too late to actually be included in the film. The song is a subtle seduction, a quiet plea for Dylan's lover to spend the night. In some ways, it isn't far off what Dylan was doing elsewhere at the time, but it translates easy into a country mode, and as Dylan sings it here, it feels of a piece with the album as a whole.
When I went into this feature, I expected that I would enjoy Nashville Skyline"”it is, after all a Bob Dylan album. What surprises me is how much I enjoy it as a country album. Dylan suffuses every track with the genre, whether he is changing the tempo and feel of one of his earlier songs or adding flourishes to a new one to keep it tonally in line with the album as a whole. This is a great Bob Dylan album, but there are a lot of those. What sets Nashville Skyline apart is that it happens to also be a great country album. And that's quite an accomplishment.
Each of these artists stamps their work thoroughly with their own style, persona, and opinions. Sun Ra transformed his cosmic philosophy into a stellar jazz album that could spread his message of peace, if not across galaxies, then at least to all of his listeners. Slick Rick created an album that reflects the dark side of his personality, and while I find much of what he had to offer distasteful, it would be disingenuous to say the album isn't in some sense personal. And Bob Dylan? Well, he can't help but be himself, even when he flees to a different genre in his attempts to shirk off the responsibilities of being the "voice of a generation." Each of these albums puts us in the headspace of the artist behind it, and like it or not, communicates with us more purely, allowing us to see the world, even if only briefly, as they do.
Next Week on My Year in Lists: Volume II:
We look in on the storied career of Jelly Roll Morton, discover that Loretta Lynn is a Coal Miner's Daughter, hear A Tribe Called Quest espouse The Low End Theory and find out that De La Soul is Dead.
Read more My Year in Lists here