A Rational Conversation: Rob Harvilla on D'Angelo, My Bloody Valentine, and the Phenomenon of the Long-Overdue Album...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
With the recent release of My Bloody Valentine’s new album m b v and D’Angelo’s upcoming LP supposedly being 99% done, we could see at least two of contemporary music’s most long awaited, highly anticipated albums come out in 2013. (Hopefully this news got to you before you passed out from holding your breath.) But even if a seriously delayed follow-up full-length does eventually come out, how does putting off a release date for a decade or two shape the perception of an artist’s career and the music itself? Can being the punchline to endless Chinese Democracy jokes ever be transcended? Ducker spoke to Rob Harvilla, Senior Managing Editor at Rhapsody, Contributing Editor at SPIN and former Music Editor at The Village Voice to get his thoughts on the phenomenon of the long-in-hibernation major musical statement.
Eric Ducker: Since it’s been 22 years since Loveless, there’s been plenty of time for people to discover it, even if you didn’t catch the first wave. At what point did you start anticipating, or hoping, for a follow-up?
Rob Harvilla: I can’t claim to be a superfan, and I guess I can admit I figured it was never gonna happen. After, say, 20 years, it all gets a bit absurd. And after Chinese Democracy, I figured records like this are probably better off as nonexistent myths.
ED: Let’s take it back a few steps. Now that you’ve worked in the music-related industry in some capacity for over a decade, do you still anticipate follow-ups? Or are you just like, “I’ll evaluate them when my ears are actually hearing them,” and skip the whole fanboy mode of getting excited between releases?
RH: I find I usually get burned by fan mode, unfortunately. The last record I was actively mega-psyched about months in advance was the new Titus Andronicus. The Monitor is my favorite record in forever, and even though I suspected it was insurmountable, I still got a little too emotionally invested. And it’s not like Local Business was terrible, but it wasn’t anywhere near the same thing. So, yeah, I try to maintain a clinical, “professional” air. A lot of times I don’t even listen to singles prior to an album’s release. I don’t know why; sometimes it’s just to be obstinate. With My Bloody Valentine, for superfans, I don’t think anyone was like, “This is obviously going to be awesome.” There were, to put it mildly, low expectations given the laboriousness of it all.
ED: Do you think there has been overcompensation in the positive response, given the fact that it’s not outright awful as some feared it might be?
RH: Probably initially, sure. I felt bad almost, the way everyone had to insta-review that record. No record benefits from that approach, but m b v particularly is hilariously ill suited for it. They took 20 years to make it; you took 20 minutes to review it. But of course, I understand why that was necessary, and some folks – Michael Robbins for SPIN was the one I worked on, and Mark Richardson’s for Pitchfork was great too – did that well. But yeah most of the insta-reaction was: This Doesn’t Suck! Whew! And two weeks later, y’know, it’s actually pretty great, and doesn’t feel nearly as belabored and cursed as you’d expect.
ED: Do you think that, in the long run, My Bloody Valentine will be remembered more for the influence of Loveless, or the fact that they took 22 years to release a follow-up?
RH: I think Loveless will always overshadow everything, including their spending 20+ years being overshadowed by Loveless. But I do think they did it – they made a record, if not superior, then certainly worthy of that lineage. I’d love to read alternate-universe reviews of m b v if it had come out in 1995, like any old follow-up.
ED: It’s interesting how much context comes to define our understandings of music. Is there anything about m b v that makes it so it couldn’t have come out in 1995?
RH: No, and thank god. Imagine if they’d thrown dubstep wobbles in there, or whatever.
ED: It would be awesome if Kevin Shields basically recorded this exact album in 1995, and for the past two decades or so he’s been adding on timely things like Akon verses, or DJ Shadow-esque samples – but last month he was like, “Fuck it,” deleted all the files and just put out the original version
RH: Exactly. Ringtone-rap choruses, dance-punk cowbells, Dipset cameos, ska breakdowns… I almost said “chillwave fugues,” but, well
ED: Do you think over time Guns & Roses will be remembered for what they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, or the fact that they waited two decades, and spent millions of dollars, to put out Chinese Democracy – which, I think it’s safe to say, was not well liked.
RH: Nah, I mean, Appetite for Destruction is forever. Certainly the waste and acrimony and dissolution – no one will completely forget that, either; but even the few artists with bigger highs and lower lows – Michael Jackson, say – the highs still win out. If m b v had been awful, it wouldn’t have “tainted” the legacy of Loveless or anything – it just would’ve generated a week or so of Twitter jokes and then everyone would move on. It’s a quietly triumphant coda, as opposed to a loudly inept coda, but it’s still just a coda.
ED: So you think this is it for a long time? The gates aren’t open, and we won’t get a new album in two or three years?
RH: That’s certainly possible – a second coming resurgence like, say, Mission of Burma’s. But I’d politely advise you not to get your hopes up. We might want to quit while we’re ahead. Though I guess they could’ve done that long ago.
ED: Do you think there will be a new D’Angelo album by the end of the year?
RH: Yeesh. I mean I guess that’s the next “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up” white whale. That and Detox. I would not bet on that happening, but that’s absent any insider info one way or the other.
ED: I think we’ll get a D’Angelo album. Detox, I don’t think that will ever happen.
RH: D’Angelo is weirder – pre-reunion MBV/Kevin Shields had more or less disappeared. Theoretically, Shields was off somewhere being perfectly happy and well-adjusted and fulfilled, but just outta the public eye to a large extent. Whereas D’Angelo got arrested and gained too much weight and did other sorts of Internet ridicule-triggering things. So I’m not sure why this year is more likely than last year after him appearing at Bonnaroo and such. But trying to project normal internal logic on a record like that is way beyond naive at this point.
ED: I’m more aware of the music world chatter when Voodoo came out than Loveless, but my understanding is that Loveless was pretty critically beloved when it first came out, and other than “Untitled” and its video, reaction was kind of mixed for Voodoo. Over time it seems like people decided Voodoo is a classic soul record, rather than that it being an instantaneous thing. I’m not sure how or if that changes the expectations for its follow-up.
RH: That’s true, and a lot of that I’d put down to Loveless being, shall we say, more immediately familiar to the Average Rock Critic Pantheon Decider’s ears than Voodoo. I can’t decide if it helps or hurts the follow-up in the last year or so of critic-driven R&B Wars. Probably helps. The enormity of Loveless’ influence was more immediately obvious. Not to say Voodoo is the lesser album, but it did take longer to permeate. But now I’m curious: Voodoo was #6 Pazz & Jop in 2000, and Loveless was #14 in 1991 with only a month or so to absorb. So clearly critics dug both records immediately, but I’d still say Loveless was upgraded to mythic status faster.
ED: Another interesting example of this long awaited/ highly anticipated album phenomenon is Neutral Milk Hotel. People would flip out if Jeff Mangum released a new album, but unlike the other artists we’ve discussed, I don’t think he’s ever actually given a public indication that there will be a follow-up.
RD: Record-wise, that’s one even superfans are content to let alone. Mangum was way more of a “Will Anyone Ever See This Dude’s Face Again?” situation. I saw a Mangum show in Oakland a full year or so after that resurgence had started, with a packed theater full of super-amped people. It was a nice moment. I don’t think anyone there either expected or cared to hear anything new, necessarily. It’s weirdly perfect the way it is. That moment doesn’t feel duplicatable.
ED: With people talking about the album format being phased out – which I don’t think will ever totally happen – do you think we’ll still have this idea of the long-awaited album in, say, ten years?
RH: I don’t think the album is ever completely going to die, no. If D’Angelo put out one great song a month for the next two years, we’d still find a way to vote for the accumulated playlist the next time there’s a Pitchfork “People’s List” sorta thing.
ED: What if Frank Ocean doesn’t put out another album for ten years? Will people who are 19 years old now care?
RH: I think so. All the critical noise leaves me with an incomplete sense of what young people think of that album, but there is the threat of a recluse thing with him. His Grammys appearances were cool but odd, like he was waving both hello and goodbye. He’d be a really good gnomic/mythic figure – one inscrutable Tumblr post every three months or so.
ED: When do you indulge your fan mode side? Are there any overdue albums you’re interested in hearing?
RH: In terms of reunions/reformations, the Holy Grail for me has always been Talking Heads, which is almost convenient in the finality of it never happening. There’s no room for hope there, which is a weird sort of blessing. I can’t think of an actively long-threatened record that I’m sitting around waiting for.
ED: They’re not nearly on the level of Talking Heads, but I’m curious to hear what an Avalanches record would sound like now.
RH: There’s one that hasn’t quite lapsed into punchline status yet. I’m not actively following that. I figure the Internet will inform me if I ever need to thaw out my actual excitement. But the excitement is definitely there.
ED: You think?
RH: Sure. The funny thing about My Bloody Valentine is that for Loveless to have affected you in any way at the time, you are minimum early 30s now. And probably older! Whereas with D’Angelo and The Avalanches, they’re aging quickly, but it’s not quite to the point yet where it’s impossible for a young person to understand what a big deal they were at the time – The Avalanches in a way smaller sense, but still Loveless got so ingrained in “alternative rock” that it’s hard to understand now how revolutionary it was then.
ED: That might be true, but Loveless is one of those records that people keep pointing you back to. And if you keep reading about No Age or whoever name-checking My Bloody Valentine, you’re going to check it out, even if that just happened last year. And even if it doesn’t sound revolutionary, it’s still a jamming record. Two years ago I worked in an office with two young women who are well-versed in music and they had no idea who The Avalanches were. After I showed them the “Frontier Psychiatrist” video, they didn’t seem that much interested in learning more. But I think those guys are talented musicians and musical thinkers, so I’m curious to see what they can, or would, create in the current landscape.
RH: I certainly don’t think anyone picked up where Avalanches left off, but what they lose then in influence they gain in mystique. But maybe you’re right: 13 years is certainly long enough for the moment to have passed. Trying to explain that record’s charm to a 14-year-old is an amusing proposition.
ED: It’s funny to think about a 17-year-old kid who discovers Loveless two years from now, then says, “This is cool, I wonder if they have any other records?” Then they just download m b v without any of the anticipation or baggage. It becomes not just one but two cool albums with crazy sounding guitars.
RH: Exactly. I think that’s great, and maybe even ideal. I don’t think the context of m b v turned out to really affect it, or help it. Whereas Chinese Democracy sounds like 20 years’ worth of failed GNR records stacked on top of each other.