“This is a multi-lifetime process that we have now embarked on. Meaning starting now, you’re just starting to see a glimmer of what the idea of West will mean. So right now, at this age and with this visibility and with the skill sets that Kim is now giving me, I think I have a good chance of success in building something that has longevity, high integrity, high success rate, and is very fulfilling, not only for me creatively but also in adding fulfillment to people’s lives. Adding ease. Adding wonder. Adding magic.”
"What Is This Heart?" is one of the year’s best albums, despite a title that sounds like something straight out of Peabo Bryson’s back catalog. It’s another treasure from this decade’s miraculous run of progressive R&B albums, and sounds totally at home on any playlist that also offers Frank Ocean, Solange, Miguel, or the Weeknd. You’d think there’d be something interesting to say about the fact that among these, How to Dress Well is the only white academic whose songs are inspired by the works of Hegel. But inspiration comes from everywhere, and the pop landscape has always been polyglot. So who is Tom Krell, and what does he want with us?
A Pitchfork feature this summer painted him as a cerebral songwriter whose lyrics can often be surprisingly literal. In the bridge of “Repeat Pleasure,” his best song by a comfortable margin, he straight-up channels the Titanic soundtrack: “Even broken my heart will go on!” What gets you is that voice, so light and airy, running up and down the melody like it’s a flight of stairs. The song is about the way our expectations change after we consummate a new relationship — “once you got it you want something else.” Krell is ready to commit, but the girl has already moved on.
The song is about agony, but it’s also a seduction. That’s what I respond to the most here — the way that Krell, defeated by love, crawls right back up to it. He’s hurting but he hasn’t given up, and using only his voice he tries to build a bridge back to a happier time. Somehow, by the time it finishes, you’re feeling just a bit better. In this sense it’s the opposite of the Weeknd, whose songs leave you wanting to take a shower. Krell’s music, by contrast, is almost shockingly wholesome. “Repeat Pleasure” has no edges. It cuts you anyway.
Often when we say an artist’s latest album recalls an earlier one we mean it as a criticism: the repetition suggests a poverty of imagination, a running out of steam. But there can be a comfort in it, too. As plenty of people have noted, “Turn Away” — the whispered acoustic centerpiece of this year’s Morning Phase — would have fit very easily on Sea Change 12 years ago. The plaintive strings and strumming evoke the same melancholy that represented a radical turn for Beck in 2002; lyrically, its emphasis on making a break from the past fits entirely with the breakup theme that ran through Sea Change.
But while I understand those who dismiss Morning Phase as more of the same, I’ve come to appreciate its low-key charms. After a decade spent chasing the wild pastiche of Odelay, to diminishing returns, Beck reconnected with the emotional directness that was so novel to us when Sea Change came out. Enamored as I was, and remain, of Beck’s lyrical absurdism — he could have retired after the lines about going down to Houston to do the hot-dog dance, as far as I’m concerned — I was struck by how effectively he could chronicle the aftermath of a breakup. “Lost Cause,” a sonic cousin to “Turn Away,” has the best melody Beck ever wrote — and it also contains some of his most plainspoken songwriting. Hearing that chorus for the first time, with its existential sigh — “I’m tired of fighting for a lost cause” — it was impossible not to feel like we were meeting the human version of Beck for the first time. And then he disappeared.
In the years since we’ve had cause to wonder whether “the real Beck,” too, was just a pose: a lifelong chameleon interpreting the breakup album for dramatic effect; one more lark in a career full of them. But for whatever reason I give him the benefit of the doubt. And so when Beck showed up this year in Sea Change drag, my ears perked up. On balance, Morning Phase is sleepier than its predecessor, and feels better suited to quiet reflection. One reason why is that it’s a bit more oblique, lyrically. I can read “Turn Away” as a kiss-off, and I can read it as an encouragement to break with the past. The multi-tracked vocal gives Beck a certain distance from his subject matter; he sounds like a god presiding over a trial. But those cries in the background, and certain bends in the melody, reveal the song as a lament. And that’s enough for me, really. A Beck like this only comes around every dozen years or so, like a comet. But the work stays with you.
Some great rejoinders to my piece from yesterday about the rise and fall of Music Tumblr. A few worth pointing out:
- katherinestasaph: “I would blame the economics of journalism long, long before I would blame YouTube and Bandcamp and Spotify, because one has at least opened up far more music to conversation, whatever other macro effects they have had, and the other has made many of the excellent writers I know demoralized, afraid and/or fired. These are not ideal conditions for writing, especially not writing for free. It’s not that “the old guard was successful enough that they had other things occupy their time besides personal blogging,” it’s — and I’m going to be blunt here, so know that I’m talking about people like me — that some of the old guard was unsuccessful enough that they had to find other things to occupy their time besides unpaid personal blogging, like temping, or finding other jobs, or trying to find other jobs.”
- tomewing: “Tumblr just isn’t a great medium for music, not just ‘music writing’. Playlists are hard, multiple videos are hard, videos are just videos, audio never seems to get traction. And there’s not much Tumblr-native music culture, there is no musical equivalent of the gif, or the narrative stream of images post, or the reblog cascade, or the comics moment - to name a bunch of things that give Tumblr its flavour and help define how comics or TV or social issues get discussed critically here, in ways that are having real feedback effects on those spheres of culture (hence the backlash). One Week One Band uses the format really well, but honestly you could do more on LiveJournal in most cases than you can here.”
- barrybailbondsman (of groovesnjams, which is great): “I can’t speak to the phenomena of Music Tumblr, but my own excitement hasn’t waned. Two years ago, GNJ had 90 followers and had only maintained a regular posting schedule (then one post per day) for about 6 months. Now, we have 358 followers* which includes 90 new followers in this calendar year alone. We post twice per day and are sourcing our music in more diverse places and working to maintain parity among the artists we write up. I feel like that blog is thriving and I’m proud of the work I do there. But I’ve also never felt a part of any Music Tumblr community and if I am, it’s part of a second wave. I feel way more connected to TSJ and One Week One Band than Popcorn Noises or 1000xpm (though I follow all four).”
- teenageart: “I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and for me it connects with something else. Someone mentioned Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, and I think that particular tumblr was key, because Pitchfork often stirred the pot and we bees would get a buzzing. We were Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, all of us. Not that Pitchfork was at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but Pitchfork and whatever I imagined Pitchfork stood for was always in my mind when I was posting about music, and it seemed to be important in my corner of the Internet. I was often posting against Pitchfork, or trying to respond to the near-hegemony it seemed to hold over a particular (and probably imaginary) culture. In my case, I was riled up with how non-queer it seemed, mostly. The Year Pitchfork Snubbed Night Work was a big thing for me, and it was good to have an adversary, particularly since I thought of Queer Art as a whole and equal aesthetic adversary (rather than a moral one) against Indie Art.”
- airgordon: “Very upset I was not contacted this. My addendum: ’It was tight. Yeah, I was there for some of it and it was tight.’
So there you have it: reasons for Tumblr’s decline among music writers have also included the brutal economics of journalism, fear of attacks over social justice issues; Tumblr’s failure to develop better tools for writers and music lovers; a sense that mainstream publications co-opted the causes of the Tumblr writers and no longer seemed like an adversary; and airgordon never following me back despite me throwing red hearts at him for two years. But also: groovesnjams and many others are still going strong, and many are linked in those response pieces. I just followed literally all of them, because the rest of my blog friends are dead. Or rather, almost all of them are almost dead.
As for me, I’m not going anywhere. Tumblr retains many excellent qualities, and I’d keep coming back here every day for the GIFs alone. But I also hope we see the rise of another community that attracts the same amazing mix of professionals and hobbyists to talk and think about the music they love. In 2010 Tom Ewing called this Tumblr’s “pop intellectual posse.” I miss the posse.
Once upon a time, my Tumblr Dashboard was full of writing about music. I started a Tumblr with my friend Steve in the spring of 2008, and at first it was the random short-form tumblog I thought that Tumblr wanted from us. But owing first to Steve’s departure for law school, and my own all-consuming passion for music news and criticism, Crumbler gradually became a place to thinks about songs and artists and the strange collisions between them. In part, that was because my Tumblr Dashboard had been taken over by music writers, or writers who wrote mostly about music: perpetua, agrammar, tomewing, maura, barthel, tombreihan, and twentyfourbit, to name some. Many of those writers had grown famous on other platforms. But Tumblr also helped to nurture a new generation of music writers — some who were enthusiastic hobbyists, like hamtunes, and softcommunication, and 1000xpm; and some who would go on to write for Pitchfork, Time, and many other established music publications. Music writing was always a hobby for me, and as I grew older it became less important to me. Crumbler posts these days are now few and far between, and are mostly reblogs. Good reblogs! But reblogs nonetheless.
At some point I had the idea of reaching out to some of my favorite writers and ask them a bunch of questions about Music Tumblr, in hopes of putting together an “oral history” that was actually an “email history.” I reached out to a dozen or so people and just about everybody responded. The only people who did not respond, unfortunately, were the women writers that I contacted, and I felt really bad about that, and shelved the project for a couple months. But now that folks like markrichardson and popcornnoises are talking about the death of Music Tumblr I felt like I should just let you know what I found out through my half-assed journalism, because the writers who did respond were generous with their time and brilliant, as ever, in their responses. What follows makes no claim to be totally representative, and acknowledges that there are many still people on Tumblr writing well about music.
What follows are 2,500 or so words about the life and death of what some folks, myself included, are presumptuously calling Music Tumblr. It died for four main reasons: