Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
When Dissect, a serialized music podcast now in its second season, reached #1 on iTunes’ music podcast rankings, it was something of a win for the little guy. Dissect is produced by one man, Cole Cuchna, in his garage in Sacramento, California. Cuchna has no connections, subsidies, or sponsorships. As he reminds us at the end of each episode, “There’s no team behind Dissect — it’s just me.”
Cuchna’s not exactly charismatic. He reads the script of each episode in a stiff monotone, and rarely, if ever, diverges from it. He doesn’t make jokes or goof around. He’s never had a guest on. Dissect is all business: its success is entirely due to the quality and depth of Cuchna’s musical analysis, and the degree to which its premise — “Long form musical analysis broken into short, digestible episodes” — meets a felt need among its listeners.Dissect isn’t so much revolutionary as it is blindingly obvious… We need more than a thousand-word review to appreciate great music.
On Dissect, Cuchna picks an album and works his way slowly though it, devoting an entire episode (sometimes two) to each song. His first season, which finished up this past February, was devoted to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a towering monument of an album which, I don’t mind admitting, I badly needed Cuchna’s help with. Before I listened to Dissect, I knew To Pimp a Butterfly was a great album. Now I’m convinced it’s a work of rare genius, a seminal album of our time — and more importantly, I better understand why that’s the case.
Cuchna traces the album’s narrative arc, working through its lyrics line by line, sometimes pausing to fill in significant historical or pop culture context. He illuminates Kendrick’s musical choices, explaining how this or that beat or melody is working. He tracks down samples and explains their significance. He plays clips from interviews with Kendrick and sets To Pimp a Butterfly in the context of Kendrick’s own life and experience. I finished the season knowing that To Pimp a Butterfly still has far more to offer than Dissect, for all its thoroughness, was able to cover.
For season two, now about halfway finished, Cuchna has chosen Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Here Cuchna’s task has been, at least in part, one of rehabilitation: for all his enormous stardom, Kanye is a polarizing figure. Plenty of people still categorize him somewhere between “clown” and “asshole.”
But those people haven’t listened to Dissect‘s second season. Cuchna spends a couple of episodes filling in Kanye’s own story. How he started out as a talented upstart producer who was ridiculed for his attempts to make it as a rapper. How he beat the odds with his unparalleled work ethic and determination, surviving a near-fatal car accident and actually rapping his first single, “Through the Wire,” just a few days after with his jaw still wired shut. How he broke through with his “college trilogy” and became famous, not only for his music but also for his impulsiveness, endearing honesty, and penchant for saying whatever was on his mind. And finally, how that tendency nearly cost him everything when he crashed the stage at the 2009 VMAs to tell Taylor Swift that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.”
The backlash of the VMAs incident, which saw Kanye roundly ridiculed and generally written off as a jerk, set the stage for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released the following year. As Cuchna explains, Kanye saw it as his redemption album, an album that had to be so good, no one could argue with it. And as Cuchna painstakingly shows, Kanye delivered.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, as Cuchna puts it in episode four, a “colossal sonic edifice, a Roman Colosseum of expansive, detailed production.” On it, Kanye describes his rise and fall from public grace and invites us into, as Cuchna describes it, “a kaleidoscopic meandering into the deep recesses of his mind — his fantasies.” Kanye shows us the dark, seedy underbelly of fame, and waxes philosophical about his own creativity. As I write this, Cuchna is up to the album’s ninth track, “Runaway.”
Cuchna’s ambition isn’t to revitalize pop music criticism. He’s just giving the music he loves the attention he knows it deserves. He’s satisfying his own curiosity. In a recent interview, Cuchna explained his detailed approach:
I was a music composition major in college and used to spend hours studying a single classical composition. I’d research the composer, their life, the social and political climate at the time of writing the piece — all of it. I took those tools and applied them to a contemporary genre I’ve loved my entire life: hip-hop. I was curious to see if it could stand up to the same kind of scrutiny I’d applied to classical music. It does. Unequivocally, it does.
The first and most important task of criticism, before it actually criticizes or judges anything, is to explain art to us: to set the context, to explain difficult subject matter — to offer us ways in. Music criticism looks at the untamed jungle of the music industry and brings order by introducing organizing principles and points of connection.
Of the millions of Kendrick and Kanye fans out there, how many are actually sitting with these albums long enough to appreciate their layered meanings and nuances, their carefully constructed narrative arcs? And of those who are, how many are still missing much of the richness for the simple reason that they need a guide, someone with the knowledge of hip-hop, the musical chops, and the plain old determination it takes to engage with the music on this level? Dissect isn’t so much revolutionary as it is blindingly obvious: as much as we may flatter ourselves otherwise, we need more than a thousand-word review to appreciate great music — especially music as dense as hip-hop.
But pop music criticism these days tends to skim quickly over the first task of criticism, the explaining part, on its way to passing judgment. This tendency is understandable, in one sense, given the glut of new music coming out all the time. Reviewers only have so much time to give each new album. Their reviews function more to tell us which albums deserve our attention at all, rather than to offer us ways into the music itself — thus we have the ubiquitous ratings systems of new albums. These are, of course, completely subjective, and often damaging, since a bad rating from a prominent reviewer can really hurt an album. If an album doesn’t happen to tickle the reviewer’s fancy, it’s tough luck.
A recent Pitchfork review of The Clientele’s new album, for example, complains vaguely that the band has “left something behind” (it never says what exactly), and then damns the album with a 6.7/10 rating. (Is it really necessary to rate them to the tenth of a point?)
All this plays directly into our swiping and scrolling culture. This is the age of Spotify and Apple Music, when all the world’s music is at my beck and call. I don’t invest in an album as an artwork anymore. I can listen to it once on Spotify and move on. Tell me whether this album is worth my time or not, so I can check it off the list and move on to the next one. I fight this tendency in myself all the time: I often catch myself listening to an album just so I can say that I did, without actually giving it the time or focused attention it calls for. We want quick categories, and too often that means we skip right over the slow, laborious task of living with and learning the music we listen to.
Cole Cuchna, for his part, isn’t interested in quick categories. In the finale of Dissect’s season one, he excuses himself from the whole business altogether:
Here’s my critique of the album: [crickets] Yeah, I got nothing. Because here are my thoughts on criticism: Sometimes, art doesn’t need it. And frankly, I don’t have time to criticize. We already give too little of our time to art as it is. I’d rather not waste that time on critiquing. If it’s something created with honesty, let’s meet it with respect and openness. Let’s let it say what it has to say without judgment. If it resonates, beautiful. If not, let’s respectfully move on.
In fairness, offering measured judgments, whether aesthetic or moral, is also an important element of criticism. But it has to come after the first, explanatory function. Until we’ve done the hard work of explanation, we’re not in a place to pass judgment. The critic should have to earn his or her pronouncements by demonstrating proficiency in the craft and culture of the art itself. And when judgments do come, they should open the album up to us, not shut it down by forcing it into quick categories or a rating out of ten.
So even though he says art doesn’t need criticism, Cuchna is actually performing the critic’s task admirably. Rather than a cursory review that pigeonholes an album before we have time to sit with it, he’s spending time in the music and letting it speak on its own terms: he’s meeting it “with respect and openness.” Having done that, if he wanted to venture a few critical judgments of his own, he’d have earned it.
Instead, Cuchna’s only judgment of To Pimp a Butterfly is one of deep respect and affirmation, even gratitude. It’s one that, having spent all that time with him, we eagerly share.
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