Don't 'Play the Album' Five Reasons Why Bands Should Quit Doing Classic Albums Live
Published Aug 16, 2013What started as a novelty at festivals like All Tomorrow's Parties has turned into an epidemic: established artists, many on the comeback trail, tour a classic album by playing it in order in its entirety. It's a stupid, inauthentic exercise that needs to stop and here's why:
It's A Terrible Concert Experience
Ever see Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, where everything is exactly the same but nothing feels right? Hearing and watching the performance of a record — accurate, but somehow inauthentic — is music's uncanny valley.
The Better You Are, The Worse It Gets
The stated goal of this enterprise is to "play the album" — and regardless of studio trickery, performance challenges or appropriateness, what the audience wants is to hear the album like they remember it. Yet the more successful the band are, the closer this gets to total irrelevance. The more it sounds like the album, the more reason fans have to just stay home and listen to it.
Nostalgia For Nothing
Do you think Joni Mitchell spent 1972 touring Blue by playing the whole album, in recorded order? No of course not, that's ridiculous. Neither would a new band play their entire debut album as it was made. But now, fans who are too young to have heard GZA tour Liquid Swords the first time clamour to recapture the experience — except what they're getting is a false construction, a recreation of something that never existed in the first place.
You're Not That Band
During her 2013 summer tour, Björk played "Jóga," the first single from her 1997 album Homogenic (arguably her best and most successful record, creatively and commercially). She's probably played it during every tour since — at least every one that I've seen — but she's never played it exactly as it was recorded. Like Feist, she's a deconstructionist of her own material, mining it for its rhythmic and melodic roads not taken; through reinterpretation, she turns every version of "Jóga" into an alternate universe of potential. In her hands — in the hands of any creative, forward-looking artist who's engaged by their art as an ongoing conversation — it's a living, breathing piece of work that's filtered differently by Björk in 2013 than it was by Björk in 1997. It doesn't sound the same because she's not that person any more.
The same goes for the 2013 version of a band playing an album made decades before — a huge part of the visceral thrill of watching promising young bands is feeding off their hunger, drive, ambition and fear. The "classic album" was made, almost certainly, in that context — it wasn't a "classic" the day it was released, the years have built that status. Equally transformed were the band who made that record — they're simply not the same artists, without the same hunger and ambition and view of the world as they were. Not a bad thing, but "classic albums live" isn't a time machine. It won't make you 21 again. Don't pretend it does. This is not the same as arguing bands shouldn't play older material, because again, ridiculous. What I'd like to hear is the artist you are today interpreting your material, approaching it as a contemporary artist revisiting earlier material, not some bizarre time machine that pretends the last bunch of years never happened, artistically, culturally or musically.
Fan Service is the Death of Art
Playing the album is the ultimate act of fan service, of "giving people what they want." It's also completely stagnant. Your art used to be in galleries alongside other contemporary visionaries, and now it's nothing more than a museum piece, a frozen diorama of the artist you once were.