Counter-intuitive it may be, but rather than hearing another paean to your favourite group it’s often more rewarding to read about why someone likes music with which you have no familiarity, that you are not interested in, or even actively dislike. It challenges your preconceptions, widens possibilities, enlarges your rationale for listening to music. Do it regularly enough and preconceptions are minimised and maybe even disappear.
When I came across Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, the title I was initially drawn to was Let it be, Colin Meloy’s memoir built on the raw and rugged substance of that album by the Replacements. I’ve never knowingly listened to the Replacements, and have only ever been mildly inclined to seek them out, despite a certain fascination with their fucked-up mystique. I was keen to learn more, and as curious to see how they were important to Meloy, whose group the Decemberists I have listened to as much as any since Alistair first mentioned them in dispatches on Tangents. How great it was to work my way through the songs of a writer whose twin fascinations were historical narrative and life on the ocean, putting these to work against a well-defined musical sensibility to say more about the 21st century than anyone else seemed to care to do.
As it turns out, few of Colin’s pages go into any detail about the actual sound made by the Replacements on Let it be, and nor does he go out of his way to say exactly why he was attracted to the music of the Replacements rather than that of x, y or z, save for a sense of identification; that being from Minnesota, the ‘Placemats’ must have endured the same frozen winters and backwater culture as the young Colin in Helena, Montana. They could be the band making the glorious racket in the garage down the street.
Colin’s story is all about agency and context – cultural, familial and social. He writes about how a love of music arises out of the ashes of childhood, how in adolescence that love becomes so engulfing that it blinds you to everything else, and how slowly but surely you determine that you must become a participant. At some point along the line you establish in your mind a connection with a band that are where you want to be. It doesn’t matter whether this connection is real or illusory; what matters is that it’s conceivable.
Colin might have taken his musical rites of passage further, to the point where he has established a fully-functioning band, rather than end it arbitrarily at the point when he dares to dance aged fourteen with a girl in a bar. But his take on Let it be captures something infrequently documented as well as it is here – the girl- or boyhood dreams, influences and life of the mind of a future musician. And as with the gliding narrative lyricism of his songs, he gives the reader enough to generate the universal from the specific, letting us draw our own conclusions and parallels.
Certainly I’ve a greater curiosity to hear Let it be having read Colin’s memoir, but its immediate effect has been to send me back to the Decemberists first three albums, reflect again on the slight disappointment of the fourth, The crane wife, on which their lightness of touch deserts them from time to time, and hope that this is restored on the fifth. While we await that, there’s the self-explanatory Colin Meloy sings live! to look forward to.