The records in question: Have One On Me, the triple-LP release from Nevada City singer and harp aficionado Joanna Newsom; Tomorrow, In A Year, the electro-opera by experimental Swedish duo The Knife; and The Golem, a two-disc silent film score by the Pixies' Black Francis. Combined, they clock in at five hours, and they sometimes feel longer. Yet I keep making time for them.
They aren't the first lengthy, demanding albums in recorded history. As a complete trio, though, their dissimilarities melt away to make a statement about the concept of the modern album.
The music industry can't stop talking about revolutions here and downloads there; viral ad campaigns here and free album giveaways there. But when we talk about the changing shape of music distribution, that chatter guts artists' intentions—or sets established artists like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead on a pedestal as unrealistic examples. So it's kind of beautiful for three albums to show up within a three-week span and assert a new world order of visual, assertive, and perhaps even indulgent long-play releases.
Black Francis' The Golem is the most accessible of this trio, though possibly because of my bias; as a teen, I had a sweet-tooth for movie soundtracks (British Invasion love-letter Rushmore in particular).
The Golem scores the silent German film of the same name, and the disc's box set comes with a DVD that syncs the film to Francis' 34 songs. The DVD may seem ideal, but I quickly grew fond of the CD's soundtrack-like sequence, dotted with recurring instrumental segues, scene-specific numbers, and utterly poppy gems that are among the best of Francis' career.
Recent Black Francis records have hinged on odd themes; his 2007 full-length Bluefinger revolved around the life of Dutch artist Herman Brood. But this release goes further. The oddity of the source film and the constraints of directly scoring it put Francis in truly fresh territory, with many of the songs revealing a new side of Francis.
Take early album highlight "Miriam and Florian." Its build to an indulgently bluesy guitar solo is almost Aerosmithian, but even that's not the most surprising part; consider the song's tasteful subcurrent of violin and clarinet, its headbanging rhythm guitar break near the song's close, and, of course, the particularly sweet on-screen love story described by Francis' time-tested growl-whimper: "She thinks of them, especially when / a lighter force, takes its course."
I miss some of the synced film moments on CD, but unlike, say, a Dark Side/Wizard of Oz mash-up, the music-to-film connection is more about setting a tone than having sounds match the action (though the frequently synced lyrics work to great effect, like when "Bad News" relates to the film's on-screen soothsayer). As such, the songs hold up without visuals, mostly because the songs prove more visual than most of Francis' poppy output for the past few decades—rendering full scenes with heartfelt storytelling and chaining the proceedings together with frequent, refrain-fueled reminders.
TOMORROW, IN A YEAR
Before Tomorrow, In A Year reaches its seventh song, "Variations of Birds," its sonic palette has laid itself bare, almost as if The Knife had written hundreds of pages of lore for the project. Electronic clicks and rustles are the only percussion. Synthesizers wash over the tracks as if hijacked violently from the entirety of '70s sci-fi cinema—and these noises are punctuated by grating explosions that sound like electromagnetic reactions of Lost. Above all this, in stark contrast, rings the commanding voice of mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin Momme.
It's a mess.
I remind myself that the music comes from a 2009 opera production, and I do what I can to imagine elaborate stages full of color and light, using all matter of electronic media to tell the story of Charles Darwin. With all this ruckus, The Knife attempts to convey his sense of wonderment, I suppose. I'll stick it out, I say.
Then I get to "Variations of Birds," and I just about give up. It's even more reductive than the strange songs that precede it. A murky synthesizer tone warbles by itself for over two minutes, broken up by circuit board knob twists that create thumping noises in some occasions, or harrowing screeches the next.
As my patience runs out, Knife member Olof Dreijer starts singing in an immature falsetto: "scissor-beak, lower mandible, flat elastic." This odd love letter to winged things is off-putting at first, but it's soon backed by a swell of operatic voices, themselves flying like Olof's subject.
The mess has evolved. The warm thrust of voices changes everything about the synth grumble I'd been doubting minutes before. Now, that noise sounds like a maniac's drum set, or maybe the heartbeat of Darwin as he skips across the Galapagos Islands. Whatever it is, it finally sounds human.
The album originally received blog praise because of lead single "Colouring of Pigeons," and rightly so; that 11-minute epic, complete with organic instrumentation and poppy vocal sections, is the best song by the duo to date. But in the weirdness of the full opera, I have found organic hooks in every song—the ocean-like undulations of noise in "Ebb Tide Explorer," the almost-dancey sounds of dripping icicles in "Seeds," the jagged footsteps of a rough beachside in "Minerals," and on and on. I close my eyes, and in the sounds of Tomorrow, In A Year, I conjure blasts of color and light.
HAVE ONE ON ME
Among this trifecta, Joanna Newsom's album has received the largest share of publicity by far—and understandably so. The Knife's electro-opera is brazenly off-putting almost out of necessity, while Black Francis' score was a limited-release project; only 500 copies of his box set were produced.
Have One On Me perhaps benefits from a perception of accessibility, at least in terms of Newsom growing as both a songwriter and arranger. Her trademark traits—a squeaky voice, a harp—can still be found among the album's two-hour runtime, but often here, so much more shows up. Standout song "Good Intentions Paving Company" is a good example of this, full of piano, vocal restraint, backing vocals, and the lively feel of a full band.
Yet this record also asks its listeners to sit as if it were a full motion picture—to be enjoyed from start to finish. More proudly than ever, Newsom debunks the assumption that a song must loop into, around, and through itself, allowing songs like "In California" and the title track to unfurl as a single piece of string. They rarely remind us of the song itself—never repeating chorus moments, never recalling earlier lyrics.
"In California" stands out for the effect of its minutes-deep surprises, whether in the lyrics' eventual resignation ("fully abandoning any thought of anywhere but home, my home") or in the swell of strings that accompanies that moment. A story doesn't have to connect to itself, and that notion is so important to Newsom's songwriting, she dedicates three CDs to it.
There, then, is the common thread among these three artists: what they dedicate their albums to. They each set a tone and accomplish a goal far beyond anything expected from an MP3 or a remix or a mashup.
For Francis, The Golem is an oversized canvas of a German silent film classic that forces him to find paint for its every corner. For The Knife, Tomorrow, In A Year is a large gallery room, and when we walk into that room and close our eyes, the white spaces between The Knife's installments grows with the plants, animals, and minerals of Darwin's legacy. For Newsom, Have One On Me is a rocking chair on a front porch, and when we set it on our record players, we take a two-hour seat in front of that chair and listen to every story.