Let Down and Hanging Around
Four Albums, Four Shades of Disappointment

I am disappointed all the time.

It’s the nature of my life. I always have the next few months mapped out – I know what CDs will ship when, often half a year in advance, which gives me plenty of time to raise my expectations beyond sane levels. I’m always looking forward to things, and as is the way of the world, most of those things fall short of what I hope they will mean to me.

Music is tough to pin down anyway. What works for one person won’t work at all for another, and just as I find that most of the highly touted and massively hyped bands these days leave me cold, many of my favorite albums are greeted with a shrug and a yawn by most everyone else. No one’s right or wrong in this scenario – what’s disappointing to me could very well make your year.

So take the following reviews for what they’re worth. The albums below all come from alumni of my top 10 list, one of the determining factors behind my ever-ratcheting excitement. A new record from any artist that has previously made my list gets top priority with me, even though the odds of any artist catching lightning twice are slim. Following up a masterpiece is apparently damn difficult, if the relatively tiny number of winning streaks is any indication, but even the most disappointing album is fascinating to me – I love digging into seemingly godawful works and trying to hear where things went wrong.

None of this week’s contestants are that bad (well, one is), they’re just little letdowns. But in a year already filled with them (Guster, Tool, Beth Orton), it’s a shame to have to add a few more. And here they are:

* * * * *

I have never heard a bad Bruce Cockburn album.

Cockburn (pronounced COE-burn) is a legend in his native Canada, perhaps that country’s best and most literate songwriter, but a virtual unknown here, despite having recorded more than two dozen terrific records since 1970. Part of the reason is his all-encompassing worldview, an international conscience that refuses to be edited down for radio consumption. He’s had a few minor hits, but not many, preferring to focus on an expansive catalog of fully satisfying albums.

So yeah, Cockburn records come in two varieties – good and amazing. And his last three times out, Bruce has given us amazing, beginning with The Charity of Night in 1996. His last proper album, 2003’s You’ve Never Seen Everything, is a front-to-back stunner, and made #2 on my list that year. It’s a fathoms-deep meditation on greed and anger, with perfectly placed glimmers of light, and stands as one of the most complete statements of his long career.

So it’s little surprise that the follow-up isn’t quite as superb, although it offers its own pleasures and wonders, to be sure. For instance, there’s the fabulous title, Life Short Call Now, the perfect name for a record that discusses the insanity of the modern world. The title song opens with a typically wry observation (“Billboards promise paradise, and tattoos ‘done while you wait’…”) that sets the tone for an album about trying to find beauty amidst the chaos.

Unfortunately, he’s explored that theme to greater effect on other albums, and Life Short, for all its virtues, is merely an average Cockburn disc, weighed down with instrumentals and repetitive tunes. For every inspired moment (“See You Tomorrow”) there’s a middling chunk of blah, like “Mystery,” an overly long folk lullaby that never really grabs my attention.

Additionally, while You’ve Never Seen Everything offered a sense of consistent vision from beginning to end, Life Short feels cobbled together, bouncing from a grand political epic like “This is Baghdad” to an acoustic instrumental like “Jerusalem Poker” and then into a brief pop song like “Different When it Comes To You.” As I will no doubt mention later on in this column, it is the gulf between a collection of songs and a unified statement that often means the difference between a good album and a great one to me.

And Life Short Call Now is a good album, no question. It’s a gentler work than Cockburn has given us recently, and he stretches out with the addition of a 27-piece orchestra on several tracks. He verges into Duncan Sheik territory on the sublime “Beautiful Creatures,” straining his falsetto to deliver a haunting melody over the strings, but brings it home with the excellent “To Fit In My Heart,” the last proper song here. As the violins weep, Cockburn offers hope and spirituality: “God’s too big to fit in a book, but nothing’s too big to fit in my heart.” (If only he’d ended the album there, instead of tacking on the cheesy bossa nova instrumental “Nude Descending a Staircase.”)

By far the most successful track here is the one you’d least expect – “Slow Down Fast” is a wrist-breaking acoustic half-rap, the only tune here that brings the rage: “Oil wars, water wars, TV propaganda whores, fire alarm met with snores, no one gets what’s gone before, slow down fast…” It even contains a killer trumpet solo. This is the kind of thing I’d like to hear more of from Cockburn, although the languid tones of most of Life Short are enjoyable in their own right.

It’s odd to call an album with more than half a dozen great songs disappointing, but Cockburn has thrown off his own curve with album after excellent album over the last three decades. This new one is very good, like a B minus at worst, but when you’re used to astonishing, the merely very good is kind of a comedown. But don’t let that stop you from checking out Cockburn’s work, if you haven’t already. He’s one of the best you’ve never heard.

* * * * *

When “Supermassive Black Hole” hit the internet last month, I thought it was a joke.

There’s no way, I thought, that this groovy, sexed-up ditty could possibly be the new Muse single. It’s practically a dance track, with “ooh baby” lyrics that lead visionary Matt Bellamy croons in a Prince-like falsetto over a thumping electronic beat. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, something this self-serious band has never really been before. Could they be taking the piss? Would this song really be on the new album?

Well, here’s Black Holes and Revelations, the fourth Muse platter, and there it is, “Supermassive Black Hole,” at track three. And amazingly, it’s one of the least surprising things on this epic hodgepodge of an album, a headscratcher of gargantuan proportions. This record is either a mess or a masterpiece, and even after hearing it a dozen times or so, I’m still not sure which one I think it is. While this British trio’s last album, the crushing Absolution, left me with my jaw on the floor, this one elicits a befuddled head-shake and a couple minutes of silent pondering each time through.

Let me try to explain. Muse is the kind of band that aims for otherworldly drama, and achieves it nearly every time. They’re on a mission to make the biggest, boldest sounds they can, with endless reserves of earnestness and instrumental prowess. Bellamy sounds like Jeff Buckley’s more emotive brother, shooting his powerhouse voice to ever more dramatic heights – there is no amount of bombast the band can lay down that Bellamy cannot top with his force-of-nature vocal acrobatics.

In short, this is exactly the kind of music that ambition-hating indie-lovers can’t stand. Muse are huge and heavy and intricate and massive, and yet they are capable of quiet beauty. They are the standard bearers for OK Computer Radiohead – while Yorke and his boys have been wandering the electro-ambient wilderness, Bellamy and his have picked up the multi-layered prog rock baton and run with it. But despite the tricky riffs and elaborate soundscapes here, there’s no hiding for Muse – you can tell they throw their hearts and souls into this stuff. Absolution was a metallic powerhouse, but also a highly emotional work.

So what to make of this new one? Muse have decided to make a Queen album this time out, in which no two songs sound alike, and each song tries to go further over the top than the last. The production is suitably operatic, with thick guitars and dancing synth lines and swarms of backing vocals and trumpets and string sections and smatterings of electronic beats as garnishes. It’s enormous, and this go-for-broke philosophy has accentuated the strengths of the band, but also magnified their weaknesses.

The main one is Muse’s over-reliance on their arpeggiator, which makes the synths do all those quick runs up and down the scale. They use this thing like it’s a way of life here, and while it was a neat touch on Absolution, it’s reached its saturation point on this one. “Take a Bow,” the typically epic opening track, is almost entirely arpeggiated synths, and if they were going to do that, they should have left it alone instead of slathering the same sound over the whole album. It’s nitpicking, I know – I don’t complain about them using guitars all the time – but it became kind of a joke for me after a while, like, spot the arpeggio.

But that’s not what has me scratching my head this time. It’s the songs. Bellamy and company obviously felt the need to stretch out here, and they concentrated on making each song a stand-alone monster. But the album as a whole suffers from that – these 11 songs do not belong together, and there’s virtually nothing (except the arpeggiator) that connects them. “Starlight” is breathtaking melodic pop, but “Map of the Problematique” is clubby techno, “Soldier’s Poem” is a Freddie Mercury-style waltz, and “Assassin” is thunderous metal.

The quality goes back and forth, too, depending on the experiment. While the aforementioned “Starlight” may be one of Bellamy’s most indelible melodies, “Invincible” is pretty much the worst song the band has ever written, a droning there-there ballad that inspires little more than snores. When Muse sticks to what they know best, as on “Exo-Politics,” they surprisingly turn in the most rote, flat-sounding stuff, whereas a massive excursion like the spaghetti western closer “Knights of Cydonia” is amazing, moving from surf rock with trumpets to Queen-style vocals to a great Rush-like riff-o-rama finale.

All in all, Black Holes and Revelations sounds transitional, like a band searching for a place to go next. After an across-the-board success like Absolution, that’s no surprise – Muse are restlessly creative, as you can hear in every spit-shined note of this new record, and all they need is direction. Black Holes suffers because it tries to go 11 different places at once, and while individual songs rank with the biggest and best work they have done, the record as a whole sounds oddly scattered and unsure. Hopefully they are on their way somewhere, though, and their report from their next destination should be worth checking out.

* * * * *

The packaging for Thom Yorke’s first solo album, The Eraser, is unique and nifty. It’s a cardboard fold-out poster that extends to about two feet long, and printed on both sides is a four-foot drawing by Stanley Donwood that depicts a storm devastating a city. To the left (and on the front cover, when it’s all folded up) is a man in a fedora and a trenchcoat, arm extended – he is either causing the storm or trying to hold it at bay. The CD itself is nestled in a removable slipcase, which means you don’t need to take the poster-thing with you in the car, either. It’s practical and kind of beautiful.

I’m mentioning the artwork right up front because that’s pretty much the best thing about this record, a jittery waste of time and talent that continues Yorke’s downward slide into pretentious annoyance. It’s hard to say I’m disappointed by anything Radiohead-related anymore, because I haven’t been thrilled by anything they’ve done in nearly 10 years. I had no expectations for The Eraser, and it still dashed them.

I’m so off the Radiohead train at this point that fans of the band can safely ignore and dismiss my opinion. I haven’t been swept away by their chilly atmospheres and meandering songs for some time, and the new ones I’ve heard (they’re playing them on the North American tour right now) are just as pointless and boring as anything on Amnesiac. If anything, The Eraser shows just where this formlessness is coming from – Yorke’s album is all blippy beats and repetition, with the main man’s caterwauling on top.

Yorke’s voice is actually the best thing about this album – he’s not as annoying as he can sometimes get when he has no melody to work with. The album starts strong with the title track, which contains an actual chorus and a few chord shifts. But don’t get used to that – the only other song with a memorable melody is “Harrowdown Hill,” at track eight. In between, you get icy grooves that are interesting for a few seconds, but each one repeats with little variation for the length of the song, Yorke gobbling up the space on top with directionless wailing.

I really can’t see any reason why I would listen to this again. I’ve heard it three times, trying to find the hidden virtues, and they remain elusive. I’m sure I will get a number of emails telling me I’m missing the boat on what is, no doubt, the most brilliant release of the year, if not the century, but I’m not hearing anything here that’s worth hearing again.

* * * * *

Which brings us to Sufjan Stevens, and seriously, who does this guy think he is?

Okay, no question, Illinois was brilliant through and through, one of the finest records I have heard in years. For once, the big-name critics and I agreed on something, too – Illinois was last year’s best-reviewed album, with many calling Stevens a genius, and hailing his 50 States project as one of the most fascinating undertakings in the music world. I joined the chorus, calling the album a masterpiece, and naming it the best album of 2005.

But honestly, as good as it was, who wants to hear a 76-minute collection of outtakes and extras from the Illinois sessions? That’s what The Avalanche, Stevens’ new record, purports to be – a bunch of tracks that didn’t make the cut on Illinois, which reportedly was supposed to be a double before Stevens reined in his plans. But the question remains: if the songs weren’t good enough to be released last year, why would I want to hear them this year?

How about because most of them are awesome?

The Avalanche is a big ol’ mess of music, assembled with little rhyme or reason, but it cements Stevens’ reputation as a wunderkind. Roughly half of these 21 tracks are outstanding – the title song is a lovely acoustic-and-woodwinds lament, “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” makes the oboes rock out, “Adlai Stevenson” has a great melody, as does “Saul Bellow,” and songs like “No Man’s Land” and the astounding “Pittsfield” could have fit on their parent album with ease. These songs are in the same style as Illinois – kind of a mix of chamber-folk and community theater, but much better and grander than that makes it sound.

So what’s the problem with The Avalanche? Well, the other half. Despite all of Stevens’ arrangement skill, this record still plays like a collection of outtakes, and it’s overloaded with instrumental interludes and half-baked ideas. On Illinois, those interludes made perfect sense, adding to the immaculate flow of that album, but here, they just weigh it down, especially overly long trifles like “For Clyde Tombaugh.” Additionally, there are three embryonic versions of “Chicago” here, and while it’s a great song, and I enjoyed the glimpse into Stevens’ process, the repetition sinks The Avalanche’s replay value.

Which is a shame, because had Stevens just released a regular-length album of the best songs here, he’d have another slam dunk. What made Illinois such an amazing work was its flow, the sense that it was all one huge song presented in several movements, and Stevens could have worked similar magic with the 12 or so best numbers here. Instead, we get a dumping ground, which isn’t bad in and of itself – for process junkies like me, it’s great, because I can hear why many of these tracks didn’t make Illinois. But it isn’t something you’re going to want to play over and over, and in fact, it will probably just make you want to listen to Illinois again.

Still, songs like “The Pick-Up” and “Carlyle Lake” are more than worth owning, and “Pittsfield” all by itself makes The Avalanche worth buying. Expecting an outtakes album to be as good as Stevens’ best work is a fool’s game anyway – this is highly intelligent and wonderful pop music that’s better than most anything else you’ll find at the record store, and for a collection of also-rans, it’s pretty great.

* * * * *

That should do it for me this week. I know this column has been too short and very late recently, so hopefully this one should make up for at least the first of those complaints. I love writing this thing, I just have to work harder at finding the time. Thanks for your patience and indulgence.

Next week, a bit about ambition with the Early November and Pure Reason Revolution.

See you in line Tuesday morning.