The soundtrack to any of life’s events is one born of fortune: songs written and performed in the past relating in some fortuitous way to the events of the present. Moods captured in recordings reflect a reality that exists for the listener but not the artist.
Remembrances of Sept. 11, 2001 inevitably will touch upon the world of pop culture and how that world changed, and music certainly played a part in finding ways to represent feelings that those of us outside the immediately affected struggled to express. Two songs immediately come to mind, and they show how our memories can compress and extend time to fit our needs. The first – Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – became associated with the tragedy for both being played and not being played. The song showed up on an advisory list created by Clear Channel as a song to avoid broadcasting on the radio. The decision made as much sense in the moment as it does now, especially when compared to some of the obvious plane crash and apocalyptic songs also on the list. This became abundantly clear on television Sept. 21, when a fundraising telethon called “America: A Tribute to Heroes” featured Paul Simon performing the 30-year-old song and giving it a new context.
The second song, “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen, arrived more than nine months after the terrorist attack. The album deals with a host of themes brought on by the events of the past year, arriving seemingly at a perfect moment of reflection and expression (be it by design or the time-related necessities inherent in the creation of major label albums). As we travel further away from those dark days of 2001, the time between inspiration and production of “The Rising” grows shorter in our memories.
So much of the rest of pop culture from that era must deal with the inevitable comparisons to the new world it entered. Critics heaped meaning – both in representation and escapism – on entertainment that just didn’t deserve the microscope. Anything that survived that vortex surely needed to stand on its own merits. Three albums scheduled for release during September 2001 did just that, and have come to be both of the time and timeless in their respective influence and appeal.
The Strokes – Is This It
Of the time: Perhaps nothing could be more telling about the music business in 2001 than to say I already had a burned copy of this album well before the September 2001 release date. Caught between the file sharing boom and the rise of music blogs, The Strokes built buzz with live shows that took them to where they made fans the fastest: the UK and Australia. In what will have to be considered a long line of music business missteps of the era, the various country-specific record labels released Is This It to coincide with live events throughout the summer. This turned out to be a great move for local fans … and anyone with file-sharing software on their hard drive. Audiogalaxy featured rips of the album by late July.
“Hard to Explain,” the first single on the album, almost seemed designed for the less-than-optimal mp3 bitrates. The production filtered the live drums to the point of sounding like a drum machine, and Julian Casablancas’ vocals welcomed any and all layers of mystery and distortion. It sounded fresher to the young ears of a music fan who didn’t grow up with the influences distilled by The Strokes than critics who could pick out the musical and affectation precedents. But compared to the competition, almost anything would do.
It’s easy to make jokes about the songs that end up topping the Billboard charts, but any mystery as to why The Strokes were seen as heralds of an alternative rock sound can be answered with this list: Lifehouse, Train, Crazy Town, matchbox twenty and Creed. All enjoyed sales success in 2001.
Sept. 11 altered this album in one significant way. The band decided to swap out the sneering “NYC Cops” (“…They ain’t too smaaaaaart”) with “When It Started” on the U.S. CD version of the album. Both sound like they belong on the album, and it would be easy to give the edge to “NYC Cops” just on its rebel merits alone. But it’s a great song, with a sinister guitar riff and bass line setting the mood from the outset. Ten years later, neither iTunes nor Amazon feature the studio version of the song for download.
Timeless: The band has struggled to live up to its debut album in the years since its release, but are still seen as the impetus for a genre alternately defined as “minimally produced,” “garage rock” and, most snidely, “‘The’ bands.” This managed to both highlight and marginalize bands over the next few years, with bands like The Vines taking The Strokes’ sneer to hilarious excess and The Hives highlighting the goofier and pop-ier aspects of the genre.
As the band struggles to meet its previous expectations, Is This It proves much easier to return to. It’s a jittery, energetic bolt of kinetic energy. One that bypasses tapping into the memories of listening to it for the first time and heads for a universal place found in both a 21 year old and a 31 year old. Avoid any theory that the music represents some kind of pre-9/11 mindset, because it reaches places that existed then and continue to exist now … even if the tracklist has changed slightly.
Beulah – The Coast is Never Clear
Of the time: My niece, to my everlasting joy, turned out to be an indie rock girl. Sure, she still owns all of the Twilight movies on DVD, but she also can write enthusiastic, poorly spelled Facebook posts about seeing Animal Collective live at the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer. This has opened an opportunity for me to be the overbearing, music-pushing uncle. “Oh, you like Panda Bear? Well, you’ll LOVE this …” Thus far, I have restrained myself, and only burned this album for her listening pleasure.
Beulah comes out of the same scene that brought the sugary stylings of Apples in Stereo and the much-lauded In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel to the pasty white masses. Their second album, When Your Heartstrings Break, honed a talent for weaving dozens of instruments into songs that alternated between pop gems and longer passes through sweetly psychedelic locales. A game of musical chairs left the followup, The Coast is Never Clear, on a new label (Velocette) and in desperate enough position to send the album out for review everywhere, including a campus newsroom in northern Illinois.
Coast takes the gains made in Heartstrings and refines them even further. The music soars with summery surges and just a tiny bit of a punk growl to avoid early-onset audio diabetes. But the lyrics speak to a very specific mindset brought on by the end of summer. Just as some songs seem designed for release in the early summer months for optimum beach play, so too does this album for a more melancholy (and less lucrative, business-wise) time of year. “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades” spells this out most clearly, shuffling to a Burt Bacharach-ian backing and allowing for direct interpretation or more symbolic aspects of what summer represents.
Timeless: I’d put this album up with Aeroplane as representative samples of this mini-ecosystem of music from the era, if only for one of the great lyrics ever written about the writing process: “I’ve been trying all the time to find a song that would make you mine/ But all I ever find, my love, are cliches that don’t rhyme.” That line, from the song “Popular Mechanics for Lovers,” surprisingly popped up on the soundtrack for the 2010 film “Youth in Revolt.”
The first hints of fall, be it a falling leaf or a falling nighttime temperature, bring out a longing for the season that never registered with me. Obviously, Big Pumpkin has sold the country on a bill of goods filled with apple cider and pullover sweatshirts that makes me shiver and sad. When these hints arrive, I put on this album and know at least a few guys understood the plight. Coast plants itself firmly in the weeks between the return to school and the start of fall. That its release date, Sept. 11, falls in this time period is a reminder of the time of year free from the clutches of history. It’s also my niece’s birthday, so I know that the day is capable of producing great things.
Ryan Adams – Gold
Of the time: So many signs on this album point to the specific time and place of New York City in September, 2001. Adams’ blend of singer-songwriter sentimentality and straight-ahead rock may not jibe with most preconceived notions of the American focal point, but his ambition certainly wouldn’t be out of place. He was both prolific and prideful in this time period, so certain of the classic within that even the album cover must be seen as an attempt at iconography. The first single and leadoff track, “New York, New York,” arrives so forcefully that you don’t really question why this guy from North Carolina thinks he can define this immense city.
The video starts with a haunting reminder of its place in time, just a few days before the Twin Towers fell. But the song, lacking even the slightest bit of ironic detachment in its affection, fit perfectly into the post-attack needs of new music listeners. The Entertainment Weekly review of the album pointed this out at the time, and in a way that still sticks with me to this day.
All the hallmarks of a creative burst of energy, bordering on excess, are readily apparent on Gold. Tempos and styles shift constantly, and simple country-tinged ballads like “When the Stars Go Blue” lead directly into a nearly 10-minute “Nobody Girl” jam that closes out the first half of the album’s 16 tracks. Later Adams albums would struggle with keeping the quality consistent throughout the album, but there are so many highlights on this hour-plus album that a full listen feels necessary. In researching the album, I didn’t even know about the addition that might test that notion, in the form of an extra five songs that would have necessitated a second disc.
Timeless: Adams might be more revered as a potential source for viable covers than as a performer in his own right. The area he frequently traverses, with his acoustic guitar and a prone heart, moves mountains of CDs when put through the filter of a young ingenue like Taylor Swift. But in the form of a shaggy-haired guy, it never connected in quite the same way. An interesting thought experiment could be conducted in much the way one theorizes about the inherent quality of a single-album version of The Beatles’ White album: what if Adams decreased his output in half and put the best half of his songs on those albums? Would we think of him differently?
In much the same way that there’s an imperceptible difference between the words ambitious (a positive character trait) and ambition (“Kicking, screaming, Gucci little piggies …”), so too is there a difference between Gold and Adams’ other work. The album came around at the exact time that it needed to come out, without the trappings of a sound that would relegate it to the particular vagaries of 2001. But the album has survived the subsequent years of growing cynicism intact, in a way that befits the album’s title and an author willing to call it so.