It took me a while to select an album for this week, even though I ultimately chose one of the first candidates I came up with.
I really wanted not to agonize over my choice, but I did anyway, partly because agonizing over choices is just how I roll, and partly because it was my first album pick for the group and therefore took on a sentimental significance to me.
Anyway, I agonized because a number of different album-picking strategies presented themselves to me:
- I could pick a personal favorite album of mine, possibly one that not many people know is a favorite of mine, thereby marking my first pick with a record that theoretically reveals something to you all about me.
- I could pick an album that’s a big deal right now. Something hip and current, something necessitating “hot takes”. (E.g. that new Childish album which I still haven’t listened to).
- I could just pick something I happened to be listening to lately, nonchalantly clueing you all into what I think is vibey right now. (Potential problem with this strategy: since the election I’ve been listening a lot to Washington, D.C. punk rock band/violent separatist political party The Nation of Ulysses, and even though they’re the greatest band in human history, I have a feeling they may not be y’all’s cuppa tea.)
- I could rack my brain for an album I dig that I think you would all find something in to dig yourselves.
- I could pick something I’ve never heard and want to listen to myself.
In the end, I chose an album that I thought might fit both strategies 1 and 4.
I first heard about Steve McQueen in like 2007 when I read a review of a reissue. I didn’t actually listen to it till sophomore year of college, though . I remember liking it the first time I listened to it, but it was on the second listen (while doing homework) that I think I was like holy shit. I still can’t fully explain what it is that draws me so strongly to the album. It’s not consciously clear to me what a lot of its songs are trying to communicate; I can really only describe the music’s mood in vague terms like “wistful” and “romantic” and “nostalgic”. It’s more like I can feel it in my bones.
Obviously Steve McQueen is a personal favorite of mine, but what did I see in it for all of you? Well, I figured Spencer was a fairly safe bet to like it: I thought he would dig its ’80s production aesthetic and Paddy McAloon’s blue-eyed soul vocals (ditto Jason on the latter). I thought Alex might be able to get on board with the drumming, especially on “Hallelujah” and “Moving the River” (Neil Conti is now a well-respected session drummer). I also feel like the album sits in kind of a nebulous middle ground between big, dumb ’80s pop and ’70s soft rock that would appeal to this section of The Crew generally. (Like it’s not explicitly influenced by ’70s soft rock, but it is rock and it is pretty soft.) And I’ve noticed that almost everything Connor listens to has really strong and often fairly complex melodies (which is weird considering his lack of musical training), so I thought that could win him over if none of the aforementioned characteristics did. Zach was the only person for whom I didn’t have an immediate argument that he would like the album, but I also don’t know a ton about his tastes outside the rap/R&B sphere. You can tell me whether any of these qualities struck any of you in the comments, or just make fun of me for inaccurate analyses.
I’ll also give my own little review, while I’m here: Although I’ve said already that Steve McQueen is one of my favorite albums to cross my ears in the last few years, it’s not perfect. I think it gets a little bogged down in the back half before finishing strong with “When the Angels”. The culprits for me are “Desire As” and “Blueberry Pies”; it’s not that they’re bad songs, they’re just more boring than the others. Both tracks have their place, but both are suitable for a way narrower set of moods than, say, “Moving the River”. I’ve even read reviews that say “Desire As” is the “masterpiece” of the album, and maybe if you’re in the right mood, and maybe a little bit emotionally compromised, I could see it being a spellbinding piece of music; but I rarely get into that sort of state. (Also I learned from Connor that the song includes the word “sylph,” which is another strike against it in my book.) What I really like about the album, first and foremost, is that it has fucking songs. Some of these things are just beautifully put together, and the way sections build into other sections, the way the songs ebb and flow, all the little details, it’s all so considered without feeling clinical or losing its sense of emotional commitment. Like listen to that build into the “Johnny Johnny” part of “Goodbye Lucille #1”: It’s the queasy upslope of of an emotional roller coaster. It’s one of my favorite moments of recorded music, ever. Even some of the big gestures on the album, the things that could come across as corny, feel earned because of the overall attention paid to the way things fit together: There’s the way the rhythm section locks in with the vocals for the line “Life’s not complete/till your heart’s skipped a beat”; there’s the way “Horsin’ Around” suddenly shifts into a weird, synthesized ’80s version of a swing tune (and Paddy McAloon legitimately starts to sound like Michael Bublé); and there’s the burning passion of the chorus on “When Love Breaks Down”. The highs on this thing are hella high.
Verdict: Prefab Sprout wails, and some of the grooves on Steve McQueen are deeper in the pocket the lint in your Levi’s.