Living in Discworld
Where Love of Physical Media Meets Fear of Missing Out

I like shiny plastic discs.

This isn’t a new development. I’ve been buying physical media for as long as I’ve been buying music. For most of my life, I’ve had no choice – we only had vinyl records and cassettes, and then along came the shiny plastic discs, which I actually resisted for a while. But now we’re in the digital age, with downloadable music available at the click of a mouse, and for the first time last year, streaming emerged as the number-one way people experience music.

I’m saddened by this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I want artists to get paid. But I also want to experience music in the best way possible, and for me that means with the full context of packaging and with the best sound quality I can get. CDs are still the best way to do both. In this era of surprise digital releases and instant downloads, I’m happy to wait to have the best experience I can.

What that sometimes means is that I miss the excitement over a new release, and I’m finding lately that the time between a new album hitting the interwebs and the buzz dying down is getting a lot shorter. There are so many new distractions popping up all the time that the collective interest of fandom in any one of those things only lasts a couple days, or a week at most. By the time manufacturing has caught up and my shiny disc is in my hands, that buzz is all but gone.

As an example, I totally missed the excitement over the surprise release of Run the Jewels 3 on Christmas Eve. I’ve never been the biggest fan, but even I almost streamed this thing just so I could join in on the fun. I didn’t do that – I waited for the CD, and I’m glad I did. But at this point no one is asking for my thoughts on Run the Jewels 3. The moment has passed. The zeitgeist has moved on. (For the record, I like it. It’s a non-stop powerhouse of socially relevant anger with some surprising and elaborate production touches. It’s the best Run the Jewels yet.)

I also held out for Kid Cudi’s new one to arrive on CD, which turned into a more agonizing wait than I expected. The release date was pushed back a number of times, so while Cudi fans were shouting about this new record as his best in years, I was trying hard to resist the temptation to listen to the whole thing online. Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ finally hit stores last week, and I’m happy to agree with everyone who praised it. It’s prime Cudi, for the first time in a while.

I think some people are surprised that I like Kid Cudi, but he’s never quite what you expect him to be, and I appreciate that. Some of his left turns are more ill-advised than others, particularly his last one, a rap-free double album called Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven that sounded like a no-talent grunge band’s home demos from the ‘90s. (He even commissioned Mike Judge to resurrect Beavis and Butthead for several between-song interludes. Seriously, the album is almost impossible to listen to.)

Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ puts Cudi back on track with 87 minutes of hazy hip-hop reminiscent of his early Man in the Moon work. Most of these 19 songs (divided into four acts) are slow and patient things, and they feel like waking up after a weekend bender. Cudi gets cosmic as often as he gets earthy here, and there’s a renewed sense of purpose to the whole thing that suits him. Guest spots by Pharrell Williams and Andre 3000 certainly don’t hurt, but it’s Cudi’s singular vision of hip-hop that guides this album. The closing song, the six-minute “Surfin’,” is a delightful release of built-up tension, ending things on a joyous note.

I’ll also say that on CD, this feels like a true double album, with Acts I and II on the first disc and Acts III and IV on the second. There’s a hard break after Act II, an intermission of sorts, during which you have to physically get up and change the disc to hear the second half. It may just be nostalgia, but to me this enhances the experience, and also breaks up what is a very long record into manageable chunks. Thinking of Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ in four sides helps to process it.

As much as I like waiting for the CD, though, sometimes I have no choice but to pay for downloaded music. It always feels strange, like I’ve just bought air. Music without context feels unmoored to me, like it doesn’t exist in the world I inhabit. I expect that I’ll be forced to purchase context-free music a lot in the future, and maybe it will start to seem less weird over time. But I doubt it.

However, as I said, sometimes I have no choice. Case in point: Not the Actual Events, the new EP from Nine Inch Nails. I’ve been a Trent Reznor fan for a quarter-century, and I’m always interested to hear what he does next. So I had to buy this EP, but Reznor didn’t make it easy for me. It’s available in two versions – a vinyl edition, or a download with a “physical component.” I have no idea what that “physical component” is or means, but I believe Reznor when he says “the intention of this record is for it to exist in the physical world, just like you.”

So I sprung for it, and I’m interested to see what I get in the mail. What I got immediately was the most interesting 22 minutes of NIN music in ages. Not the Actual Events is an unpleasant piece of work, unsettling in ways Reznor hasn’t been since The Downward Spiral. In fact, the moment when he whispers “yes, everyone seems to be asleep” on “Dear World” provided me with my first NIN-related chill up the spine since those early, heady days.

There are more ideas in these five songs than on all of The Slip and Hesitation Marks combined, as much as I liked both of those records. Reznor and Atticus Ross (his longtime partner in crime, recently welcomed to full band member status) are intent on setting moods this time. Melodies are tricky and buried under oceans of sound, and sung through shiver-inducing filters. Reznor reaches for his baritone on the deep crawl “She’s Gone Away,” and the effect is both exciting and unnerving. And he unleashes full fury on the final track, an abrasive ball of steel wool called “Burning Bright (Field on Fire).”

Nine Inch Nails slipped into a rut so slowly that I barely noticed, and it took something like Not the Actual Events, something that hearkens back to works like Spiral and The Fragile while upending the formula with new twists, to show me just how routine Reznor’s work had become. I’m glad I heard it, even if I had to download it, and I’m now even more excited for the two projects he has on tap for 2017.

And hopefully I’ll be able to buy those on CD.

Next week, either what I was planning for this week or the first new records of the year. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

a column by andre salles