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Music that Grows on You

13 December 2005

Music fans are familiar with albums that ‘grow on you.’ The first assumption is that the music is so great that common ears can’t fully comprehend its brilliance unless it is heard many times. The second prevailing idea is that we are being charitable when we say something is a grower, suggesting implicitly that the record is second-rate or worse.

Let’s look at this from a few different perspectives. To what extent do records that are generally considered to be great possess this “grow on you” characteristic? It’d be interesting to try to break this down in a quasi-scientific manner, but I think you can easily find examples of great albums that are immediately recognized as such and those that require repeated listens.

THE BEATLES fall into the first camp having made many accomplished records in the Sixties that immediately impressed. And indeed The Beatles were bigger than life in their day so recognition came fast.

To the other extreme, I owned LOVE’s Forever Changes throughout my 20s and thought it a very good but overrated album relative to the rave reviews it received from so many music critics. However, in my 30s everything fell into place and I came to understand why it is indeed a towering work of art. Seeing ARTHUR LEE for the first time in 2002 opened my eyes—and ears.

Intrinsic to this idea of ‘growing on you’ is the subject of musical complexity. On the surface, it appears that increased complexity slows the appreciation of music but at the same time ensures a
longer shelf life. One sterling example: Third by THE SOFT MACHINE. The jazz/rock album was comprised of four long sprawling songs that simply did nothing for me. I played it several times, shrugged, and then dispassionately filed it away. Years later, I grew to adore the record, especially the epic “Moon in June.” It’s hard to believe that these ears could have such different reactions to the same music.

Top-selling pop songs are often easy to like and easy to forget. In a word: Disposable. Like fast food, they are quick, cheap and soon leave you hungry for something better.

But then there are groups like BUZZCOCKS who made infectious and catchy songs that have stood the test of time. Arguably then, Buzzcocks possess the secret ingredient that enables their music to be tasty right off the batter and to stay fresh almost three decades later. So it’s it a bit of a red herring to put too much weight on the ‘complexity’ argument.

But where do we draw the line in deciding when it’s time to give up on an album? I’d assume the number is not absolute for most people but in broad strokes it’s probably safe to say that if it is music by a favorite musician we’ll be much more willing to give the artist the benefit of the doubt. Conversely, if we find ourselves begrudgingly listening to an artist, we will bail sooner than later.

But things can get sticky when we consider an album by a favorite musician to be a grower. The obvious question arises: Are you saying this out of misguided (and perhaps subconscious) loyalty or is your opinion essentially objective?

From an emotional perspective it’s hard not to be biased. And
because you are both judge and jury there is no independent way to answer this question. But I suppose the best way to answer the question is to see if you are capable of ruthlessly panning music by your favorite musicians. (In this week’s Top 10 I do just that pointing to lousy albums by otherwise great artists.)

Do you have any growers to recommend and thoughts
about what is common among these albums, if anything?