Wednesday, January 13, 2010

monkey man

I've just taken delivery, courtesy of my local W.H. Smiths, of the most recent issue of The Word magazine. I have to admit that my heart sank slightly to find that a new issue had appeared so soon. Its interests and my own coincide to such an extent that there are very few articles which I don't feel compelled to read. So I haven't finished with the previous issue yet and my magazine reading, like a trail of iced-up vehicles on a snowbound A3, is now backing up.

In the last few days I've been picking through their lengthy review of the Noughties. It's hard to quibble with their choices as most influential personalities of the decade, even if some of them may not have made the world a tremendously happier place (step forward Messrs Beckham and Cowell). A few of them, though worthy, stand rather on the peripheries of my own musical taste (Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal) and a couple of them I can take or leave (Lily Allen, and Amy Winehouse--sorry but I think she's [whispers] "a bit overrated") but for better or worse they've all been in our faces quite a lot during the last ten years.

With one of the Word's choice personalities I'm not really sure where I stand. It's hard to deny that Damon Albarn has been prolific to an almost frantic extent in the last ten years. He's involved himself in a number of projects in which his own presence as principal driving force has been almost the only common denominator, from the tail lo-fi end of Blur, via dubby cartoonsters Gorillaz, melodica-fused collaborations with Malians and "alternative supergroup" The Good The Bad and The Queen, to his most recent forays into Chinese opera with Monkey: Journey to the West. Whatever you think of the music he's produced in the last ten years (and personally, while I've bought some of it, I'm not really that enthusiastic), you have to admit that he's constantly been pushing himself in new directions which, as the Word article points out, have in no way been in thrall to record company demands or expectations.

Of course, Albarn is by no means the only musician to have wandered from the path on which he originally set out. David Byrne has dabbled in world music, books and installation art in his extra-curricular activites, but the fact that he has ploughed a more or less consistent furrow with his recorded work probably means that he has retained most of his original audience over the years. It's doubtful however that many fans of early Elvis Costello and the Attractions albums have put their hands in their pockets for any of Mr MacManus's more recent recorded forays into string quartet music, opera and jazz. Of course no-one has changed direction as much as David Bowie and, apart from (you know what I'm going to say) the ill-advised Tin Machine years, he has managed to maintain both fanbase and critical acclaim throughout his career.

So do we prefer established artists to change styles? Is it OK to make, ahem, ch-ch-ch-changes every few years like Bowie? If Damon Albarn takes this to extremes seeming to break into new territory with every project he takes on, do we revere him for it or just find him pretentiously annoying? Should artists be content to play to their strengths, base a long career on a blueprint, stick to what they're good at? The Rolling Stones have recorded over thirty albums and if they released a new one tomorrow, we all already know what it would sound like.

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