Release Date: Feb 21st, 2012
Label: Merge Records
What makes a record an instant classic? What does it take for an album to earn such high praise? Most music journalists undervalued the entirety of Nick Drake’s discography at the time of its release, and now, his albums are considered essential classics. But even if a few critics deem an album a classic, does it matter when fans don’t follow suit? Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle had a few reviews that understood how special the record was at the time, but it was panned or ignored by the public to the point where the label offered a free second copy to educate another listener with. The label felt it was a special record, and lots of critics agreed, but the public wasn’t on board… so is it still an instant classic?
It’s my contention that the label of a classic record comes from critics and fans over time. Yet, we casually and constantly throw out the phrase “instant classic” with regards to sporting events, live shows, movies, and albums. It’s in this divide that I find my answer. A “classic” label is earned by mass acceptance over time, while an instant classic can be bestowed only by individual taste – which brings us to Lambchop’s Mr. M. In my opinion, it is, without question, an instant classic, and to help make my case, I’d like to examine my own personal criteria for making such a claim.
An instant classic must present a new form of music.
An artist or band doesn’t have to create a new genre or invent a new instrument to fulfill this requirement. In the case of Mr. M, Kurt Wagner blends his folk, bluegrass, and country sensibilities with the influence of lounge music. But hold on; Wagner has tampered with the combination of folk and lounge on several of his past albums… how is this a new form of music? How is this any different than his past efforts? The answer is simple - he uses a different approach and he perfects it. As a big Nat King Cole fan I hear a brilliant combination of two specific Cole records: the easy, cigarette swirling lounge piano of Penthouse Serenade (1952) and the grandiose cinematic orchestration of Sings For Two In Love (1955). Wagner smashes those sounds against his aging, sometimes quivering voice, cementing the result within his folk and country influences. It’s a beautiful, strangely haunting sound, unique and eerily familiar all at once. There are moments when Mr. M feels like the soundtrack to a 40s noir, and others where it feels totally contemporary. The experimentation of genres seems to grow and build upon itself at every turn. The result is a stunning and surprisingly cohesive listen which no other album provides, not even Wagner’s past records.
An instant classic must make commentary on the present, yet be timeless.
Mr. M plays off of our current fear in a time of instability. The genius is how Wagner presents this fear, and how he makes it a universal theme, thus making the album timeless. For me, Mr. M is about how ideas both overwhelming and mundane manage to somehow coexist within our heads on a daily basis. On the opening track “If Not I’ll Just Die”, Wagner swings in and out of these kinds of thoughts. One moment he sings, “Like it was the last thing on your mind. And who is going to miss you?” Then, directly following this troubling and blunt lyric, he shifts seamlessly into tedium, singing, “Sustain me with your voice…clean the coffee maker.” On “Buttons”, Wagner sings, “A sentence past is paraphrased and you pick up trash in the rain, beside the motor-way.”
On “Gone Tomorrow” Wagner starts the song with the idea of a company being outsourced to another country. He says: “This was their last night on the continent, the production was shutting down.” Then, as if baffled and embittered by the fact that everything seems to be imported, he goes on to repeat, “Looks like water comes from somewhere else,” only to fall back into his to-do list, singing “I could use a thing or two, today.” The song becomes about distraction and replacement of thought, a theme which runs throughout the record. Every day, we hear about overwhelming issues like war, death, and unemployment, but no matter how long we spend contemplating them, the everyday tasks creep back in.
An instant classic must connect with the listener’s literary or personal sensibilities.
My favorite writer of fiction is Raymond Carver, and Wagner’s lyrics on Mr. M are reminiscent of Carver. Like Carver, Wagner finds meaning in moments that typically go by unnoticed. On “2B2”, Wagner says, “Took the Christmas lights off the front porch. February 31st.” On “Gone Tomorrow” Wagner crafts my favorite line of the album, “The wine tasted like sunshine in the basement.” In lesser hands wine would taste like sunshine…with Wagner, wine tastes like the sunshine in a basement, conjuring images of dust hitting streaming light and the musty sensibility of a wine cellar.
I could go on and on about the lyrical connection to Carver that my mind created, or about the images Wagner’s music puts into my head. The point is that Wagner has created an incredibly fertile album, ripe with imagery that’s accessible and yet mysterious. He romanticizes the forgotten shadows of the Midwest. Be it behind a stadium, outside a closed down manufacturing plant, or within the porches and basements of Tennessee, the worlds of Mr. M are vivid and inviting.
An instant classic has to be epic.
Epic, not a blockbuster. People betray the word by casually using it to describe everything from the fight scenes in movies to the pyrotechnics at live shows. What I mean by “epic” in relation to Mr. M is much more in line with the films of David Lean. What made films like Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence Of Arabia epic had nothing to do with the highest points of conflict, adventure, or tension – rather, these are epic films because of the large scope of storytelling, and because of Lean’s habit of letting scenes play out in long form one after another. Mr. M is an epic album because, like Lean, Wagner patiently allows his thoughts and songwriting to develop and build without over stressing forward momentum. He’s comfortable with letting a five plus minute instrumental song like “Gar” waltz around, and only ends the track when an emotional response is fully realized. Wagner isn’t pandering to our need for speed, constant new ideas, or any other ADD tendencies.
On the first listen of Mr. M, an album that clocks in just under an hour, I was shocked that I was only half way through the record after “Gar”. It felt like I had spun a full album and there were six tracks still to follow. I’m not saying the record drags, but Wagner treats his first twenty-eight minutes with such grace and patience that it could have been a record all its own. Every spin of Mr. M is in and of itself an epic journey through Wagner’s thoughts. You never feel like you’re in the wrong hands as he precisely realizes the full potential of each second that passes.