Elsewhere in this zine, you’ll find my reviews of Bob Dylan’s Tempest and the Pet Shop Boys’ Elysium. Neither of them are enthusiastic, both of them are generous in spirit, but neither of them has much to say. That’s because it isn’t necessary to say much about these records: each of them conform to their respective creators’ usual sound, and both artists are familiar enough to the general public that they need little introduction. Moreover, neither of the albums have very much substance to them beyond their crafted sounds and lyrics that seem like afterthoughts attached to predictable music. They attract press and come to our attention not due to their own buzz-generating merit, but due to their attachment to established artists with reputations made legendary by the burnishing effects of history. They are curiosities, albums made here and now by artists that are present primarily in their influence on younger musicians and only secondarily by actually being alive and continuing to make music. In short, they are dinosaur albums.
I’m not hip but I like history. For this reason, all of the albums I’ve reviewed for this zine have been dinosaur albums—Ancient and Modern by the Mekons and 50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush, aside from the aforementioned. Only Bush’s record transcended the category by offering anything really new. But Tempest and Elysium are interesting because of their extreme consciousness, to the point of parody, of their dinosaur-album status. Start with the titles. “Elysium” connotes a peaceful, happy afterlife; “Tempest” refers to the final theatrical work of the second-greatest poet in the English language, after Dylan himself. Then the lyrics: Dylan sings, “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing/Blowing like she ain’t gonna blow no more,” and paeans John Lennon as the final track on his album; Pet Shop Boys sing, “After being for so many years/the life and soul of the party it’s weird/I’m invisible,” and, on “Your Early Stuff,” they sing backhanded compliments to an aging recording artist. So what do the Pet Shop Boys and Bob Dylan make of being dinosaurs and the purpose of their music now?
Both artists are known for snark, especially on the subject of pop music. The Pet Shop Boys skewered U2 back in the day with a song called “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously,” which came packaged with a cover medley of “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”. As for Bob Dylan, several of his albums have been, arguably, jokes on his own legend, starting with Nashville Skyline, a light, easy-listening country album, and Self-Portrait, full of songs where Dylan didn’t even sing. The thought that comes to mind when listening to these albums is parody—parody of technically perfect, vapid pop in the Pet Shop Boys’ case, parody of Bob Dylan in Bob Dylan’s case. Why else would artists as lyrically brilliant as these two release, respectively, songs with lyrics like: “You’re a winner/I’m a winner/this is all happening so fast,” or “You shined so bright/Roll on, John,”? And yet, there’s no juxtaposition, no snark, no give-away, and the artists seem to stand behind their work un-ironically in interviews. So what gives?
The circumstances behind crafting a dinosaur album, generally, are these: you’re a well-respected artist with a comfortable position in the industry; you have a lot of fans who have grown older and nostalgic; your sound—your personal brand, really—is recognizable as a successful and well-defined commodity; finally, you are not under pressure to grab attention or establish a legacy, but are free to do what you want as long as it sells enough to justify releasing it. What does this naturally result in? A well-played, well-produced, well-promoted product that plays it safe (in order to sell to the nostalgic, undemanding old fans who want some of the sound they know and love) and is untouched by any sense of urgency. None of these are bad things necessarily—that is, an album of good-natured songs in which the artist knows what they’re doing and is clearly having fun. There’s nothing wrong with comfort food. The problem, in this case, is that the Pet Shop Boys and Bob Dylan are artists whose meaning lies in meaning. Taking on subjects, answering the culture around them, is a habit for them, and it’s for this reason that their songs necessarily engage with things that are important (pop music in the PSBs’ case, American mythology and John fuckin’ Lennon in Dylan’s case), and if they’re just kind of playing around, those songs will be disappointments bordering on insults.
So, look—Dylan and the PSBs are just doing what they want. They’ve earned that right, surely? Why should we be offended? BECAUSE: nobody who has nothing to say, nobody who’s fine with total irrelevance should sound as good as these artists do, or get the kind of promotion that these artists will. We are talking about Tempest even though Tempest doesn’t demand that we talk about it, because it’s Dylan, and what will he do next? The Pet Shop Boys are not “invisible,” they matter, because they were really really good once, and being really really good is an important thing in pop music and stays important even after all the buzz dies. Because our history, ultimately, should be able to sustain us when the present of which we are a part of inevitably—as these guys are clearly aware—abandons us.
Song-based pop music is history—it’s done. Pop music is history—nothing ever goes away. (The Pet Shop Boys open their album: “Our love is dead—but the dead don’t go away”; Dylan sings about the goddamn Titanic.) These artists have more to give, I know it, I’m sure of it. But if they don’t want to that’s fine. But to make the claim that you ARE Bob Dylan or you ARE the Pet Shop Boys, to take advantage of BEING Bob Dylan or BEING the Pet Shop Boys, and then to come out with an album that DOES NOT FULFILL THE CULTURAL FUNCTION OF BOB DYLAN OR THAT OF THE PET SHOP BOYS doesn’t cut it. Pop music can’t afford ageism, including self-imposed ageism, anymore. There should be no such thing as a dinosaur album.
Nathan J. Campbell
Originally Published in the Fall 2012 Issue