Xgau Sez: March, 2022
On not grading on a curve, not loving Nina Simone, not pledging unqualified fealty to Bruce Springsteen, & not finding fun in fascism, Kid Rock, or Kanye West. Plus: the story of Nirvana's "Bluebaby."
Thank you for all your great work. It has increased the pleasure I take from music. My question: do you sometimes grade, even a little bit, on a curve? For example, you recently said that you’d give Beggars Banquet an A. Is that partly because it sits behind other albums by the same band, and you want your marks to reflect that? It seems to me that if Beggars Banquet were subtracted from the world, that would be a bigger loss than the subtraction of any number of other records you’ve graded as A+, and I imagine you might agree. But no doubt there are also better Stones albums, and if A+ is the highest grade you give, maybe you feel that some separation is lost if all their classic albums get bunched together under that heading. Thank you for any comment. — Henry Baskerville, New York City
That is not the way it works for me. I decided Beggars Banquet was worth a full A because I sat there with Carola with both of us saying, “Holy shit, that one” as familiar classic we hadn’t heard in a while followed familiar classic we hadn’t heard in a while. Context and oeuvre had nothing to do with these responses and in principle never should. For the same reason there is no A plus album I think better subtracted from the world than any A album. But to be clear that’s the world and this response is mine and mine alone, so instead of “the” world it should probably be “my” world. Moreover, there pretty much have to be some albums currently graded A that should be A plus—quite a few, conceivably. The one I always think of is Wussy’s Funeral Dress. Nor is it impossible to imagine hearing an A plus and deciding it’s only an A. But only insofar as it’s a good use of ear time to make such judgments every time you play something. I try not to. Makes the fun too much like work.
Have you thought about a reassessment of Nina Simone’s body of work? — William Boyd, Salt Lake City
Many times, although not when Simone—who suffered from mental illness for most if not all of her life—sent me what amounted to a death threat after I gave Baltimore a B minus in 1977, my only review of her ever. When I signed on at NYU in 2005 I taught the Simone chapter of Daphne Brooks’s terrific Jeff Buckley 33 1/3 book on the grounds that I ought to teach something I didn’t like—two somethings, actually, since I don’t like Buckley either. In both cases it’s about what I hear as self-aggrandizing expressionism—she overdoes everything. So I tried to like her more then, with encouragement from Carola, a somewhat bigger fan although undying love it ain’t. Tried again a few years later too. Nah. I should mention, though, that in 2014 one of my best students ever, an Anglo-Nigerian woman, wrote a Simone paper I admired with reservations I explained and came back with a rewrite so all-encompassing I gave it an A plus and sent it to none other than Daphne Brooks.
This is a question that has confused me as to what the answer is based on reading your reviews dating all the way back to 1976. I can’t really tell if you like or don’t like Bruce Springsteen. Could you please clarify? At times, you seem to be admiring of his songwriting and ability to tell a story, but then there seems to be an equal amount of other times where you find him overly sincere and overtly dramatic. The same seems to be true when it comes to his live performances—you’ve admired his recent performances on Broadway, yet you don’t seem impressed by his legendary shows with the E Street Band. You’ve always made clear your admiration and love for classic artists like the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and Neil Young, but I’ve never been able to get a handle on your overall feelings about Springsteen. I guess I’m asking because I’m a big Bruce fan. — Bob, Milwaukee
Springsteen fans can be so single-minded. They expect unqualified, uninterrupted fealty. So for starters, let me point out that pre-1976 includes three positive reviews of his first three albums—well before Jon Landau, I was promoting Springsteen’s early work with no thought he’d ever be a superstar, though note that the Landau-overseen Born to Run that marks Bruce’s pop breakthrough was actually released 1975, hence before 1976, and got a full A. His 1984 superstardom breakthrough Born in the U.S.A. got an A plus. As of 1992, however, I began to feel he was overextending himself, and it was 2005 before I gave him another A (for Devils and Dust), with only one more subsequently not counting Springsteen on Broadway: 2012’s Wrecking Ball. I awarded 2020’s Western Stars a one-star Honorable Mention; I gave its follow-up Letter to You a lot of time and did not find it worthy of even that. So say that as a songwriter and album-maker I assume he’s pretty much run out of gas as so many veteran geniuses do. In addition, however, I gave Springsteen’s Born to Run memoir such a rave that I not only reprinted the review in Book Reports but named the book itself in that collection’s introduction is one of the very best there reviewed. In addition, I should note that below the CG stuff on my site are five relevant links. The one I recommend most heartily is “Singing Along With Bruce,” a rave account of his performance at 2012’s Roskilde Festival in Denmark. Finally, but unlinked, there is a very enthusiastic account of back-to-back live shows by Bruce and Michael Jackson in 1984 in my Harvard collection Grown Up All Wrong. Since Harvard doesn’t let me post its contents, you’ll have to buy the book to read it, which as a completist I’m sure you will.
Hi, Robert. Hope everything’s fine. Just wanted to know what the backdrop is to the fictional dialogue in your review of In Utero. I seem to be missing a reference point or something! — Keiro Kitigami, Kyoto, Japan
That’s always been a favorite of mine, but it does rely in part on its long-gone historical context. When In Utero came out Nirvana epitomized a certain subset of what we’ll just call young people—the suddenly booming and perhaps even hegemonic though as history turned out actually fleeting alt-rock “subculture,” footloose and fancy free. My review was among other things an oblique reminder that these youths would before too long engender their own younger generation, as the cover of Nevermind, the title of In Utero, and indeed the fact the Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were parents of a one-year-old all portended. It imagined two probably male Nirvana fans charged at that future juncture with babycare responsibilities deciding which of their favorite band’s albums to play. It did not by any means imagine that Kurt would be dead in six months, rendering the imaginary Bluebaby a tragic joke.
So Kid Rock. Devil Without a Cause seems to have finally found a cause. Should I give it a listen anyway? Would you give it another yourself? It sounds like it would be fun but how would I feel in the morning? — Drew Wawin, Montreal
Hadn’t heard tell of this—the Kid Rock Radar Kit I got when I bought Frosted Flakes by mistake crapped out years ago, piece of shit that it was. So I watched “We the People” on YouTube—twice, I’m such a fussbudget—without having any “fun” whatsoever. Fascism is never fun. So when I reread my old review I did think about replaying that 1998 album but decided life is too short. “Fuck Fauci,” what a card—the demonizing of one of the most gifted, diligent, and honorable public servants ever is odious beyond my ability to crack jokes or Citizen Ritchie’s ability to keep a thought worthy of the name in his head.
Hello! Any thoughts on Kanye West’s Donda? — James, Liverpool
Approximately two. One, it’s two fucking hours long, three if you count Donda 2. And though I thought its first five-six tracks sounded OK, the plausible rumor that it was radically front-loaded scotched what little desire I had to proceed. Two, West is even more mentally unbalanced than the average Trump stooge.