You ought to like it - but you just can't
So earlier this week I read this book of Patti Smith lyrics and photos and commentary. It's not a new work, nor is it an updated version or reissue - I just took it from the library because I hadn't checked it out before and I've read a lot of Patti Smith books - books by her (including the lovely Just Kids and her earlier memoir, Woolgathering), volumes of her poetry and bios. I'm a fan - but the amount I've read by and about Patti Smith might make me seem like more of a fan than I actually am. And then I do the reading and realise that I am in fact more of a fan that I realise.
Her career is split in two really - those first four vital albums - a great run, Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter and Wave. And then she stayed home with the kids, took time out, thought of things to say, re-energised, worked as a mother, worked at being a mother. She took that job seriously and she didn't release any music for nearly a decade.
There was Dream of Life in 1998 and then another long break. Sadness, grieving, loss and the way to work through all of that, to embrace it but rise up and work with it seems to be the series of themes across her albums since 1996's Gone Again. She's returned too to poetry on the page, recorded covers, toured and though I think people were too generous in gushing praise for last year's Banga (an album I didn't hate but couldn't get wrapped up in) I couldn't tell you that you only need to hear the first four albums. I've found lots to love about Gung Ho and Trampin' and I can even enjoy some of the covers on Twelve (some, not all).
Still, I tell you all of that and if she only made Horses that would also have been okay I think. If I could only have one Patti Smith album that would be the one - there are better songs on some of the other albums, individual tracks, but Horses is the one, the album.
So in reading those lyrics again and some commentary around them, I thought about the album. I played the album. I played the 2005 live run-through of the album (also pretty great) and I thought about the album's use as score in the film In My Father's Den (I loved that film, not sure I should watch it again; best keep the memory of it how it is). But I thought about Patti Smith a lot this week - about her music, her words, the great pride, the fierce heart attached to her art.
And then I posted a throwaway comment on Facebook about how Horses was a great album and of course there were comments in support and people 'liking' it too. But my favourite comment was from someone who referred to the album as "the ultimate I know I ought to like it, and everyone I know with good taste loves it...but I just don't get it album". Now, I'm not out to mock this person at all, I was intrigued by this comment not because I couldn't understand how someone would not like Horses, I can see how that would be the case. What was interesting to me is that this person had tried - he later qualified that he's even returned to the album, semi-regularly, as he's clearly baffled at all the high praise attached to what I reckon is one of the all-time great debut albums; certainly a great statement-as-rock-record. And so this guy has worked at it - he's given it a fair listen and he's just not finding anything in it that plenty of other people have told him he should find.
I get that.
I mean I understand that and I get that sense around certain albums too - as a reviewer you'll never convince people you listened to an album enough times if you didn't like it. I had that with the latest Arcade Fire album. I listened to that album a bunch of times, more than might have been the case with other records I'm reviewing, in fact certainly that was the case. But I still couldn't hear anything in it along the lines of what the rave reviews were saying, anything to match with fan outbursts about it being an audacious work, something to celebrate. I just kept looking for songs and they weren't there.
Now, time has already proven Horses to be a classic, it's unlikely we'll remember anything Arcade Fire has done. Really. So I'm not sure what the cut-off here should be but people talking about Radiohead albums and Arcade Fire albums and The White Stripes and The Red Hot Chili Peppers are probably missing the boat, because those are bands with albums that have been popular, but they haven't really had the chance to be hugely influential, to be held up as classics. So what I want to know is what is the one album you could think of - straight away - that you would attach that quote to: "the ultimate I know I ought to like it, and everyone I know with good taste loves it...but I just don't get it album".
This isn't really a case of classic albums you can't ever hear again - it's more about classic albums you could never get on board with even though you tried.
I get that way about certain albums when I first hear them, sometimes. And then they really grow on me. Most recently I've been thinking back on Robbie Robertson's Storyville - I love this album, but I didn't get the fuss about it at first. Couldn't hear any real magic in it, I was buying it under some obligation as a then-relatively recent convert to The Band. But the record settled in with me before too long, it never bugged me - it was never (for long) something I couldn't get.
So I'm struggling to think of an album that's been talked up, revered, influential, that I have never been able to get on board with. I usually find some way in, if there is a way in. Usually there is.
But what about you? Can you identify with the man who has worked hard over the years to understand Patti Smith's album Horses and still can't get on with it? Can you attach some other album - something perhaps that you still own, still wrestle with - to his way of thinking?
There are bands I used to read about and I would buy them up to hear later on, Tower of Power and Little Feat are the two I think of instantly. And I didn't click with them straight away, but perhaps I was just young and silly. I've settled in and found my groove with those bands, found their groove, found plenty to like.
I'm kinda hoping your comments might jog my memory a little too - I'm not desperate to have a falling out with any sort of album; though I know I'm unlikely to convince certain fans of that. But I just found this comment - the way he phrased it, particularly - to be something interesting. Something we could discuss. What do you reckon?
Postscript: My few favourite album - for right now - is Lord Echo's Curiosities. Worth a go this weekend if you haven't heard it already.
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.