The Trouble with Rock Album “Growers”

 

THERE’S A SCENE Steven Spielberg should have included in Lincoln.

It starts off with a reverse shot of Honest Abe leaning across his seat in the darkness of Ford’s Theater. Our American Cousin’s third act is off to a slow start.  Everyone’s favorite Gettysburg addresser tells Mary Todd he doesn’t understand anything happening onstage. “I’m going to head back to the office to sign some documents or something,” he yawns. “Maybe kick slavery in the crotch a few more times before bed.”

“No, don’t leave yet,” she says. “Sit. Sit. Sit.”

“Why?” Lincoln says.

“You’ve got to see this play at least a couple times. It’s a Grower.”

~

There has been a similar scene around my house lately, though featuring fewer facial warts and assassination attempts. I’ve been trying to decide whether to wait out a Grower or head back to the Oval Office.

I might be on the cusp of enlightenment or a bullet to the head. It’s all Nick Cave’s fault.

Specifically, it’s the fault of the Bad Seeds’ new album, Push the Sky Away. The record’s detached pace seems to purposely avoid finding any sort of groove. Even more troubling, it eschews Cave’s previously irresistible incarnations as a Flannery O’Connor-like Southern gothic storyteller, sensitive junkie crooner and sleazy midlife crisis sufferer. In their place is something lazy… Maybe.

I can’t decide if Cave and company are phoning it in, as they have been known to do in the past (I’m looking at you, Nocturama.). But maybe this album will become just as essential as Let Love In after I unpack its complexities.

I have listened to Push probably a dozen times, hoping that a ray of light will find me. I’m praying this arctically cold album reveals itself as another stroke of Cave-ian genius, but I’m having a hard time taking this optimism seriously.

~

What exactly is a Grower?

A Grower is a work of art that doesn’t instantly grab people, but slowly unfolds itself to be brilliant upon repeat exposure. It’s a fragment of pop culture that does not cause immediate Bieber Fever, but develops firmer roots at its own pace. It grows from unlovable to indispensable. Growers are almost always associated with music (Think Pet Sounds), but you could probably add Arrested Development, Wes Anderson’s movies or van Gogh’s paintings to the family tree.

Best I can tell, the term Grower was invented around the time Radiohead forgot how to play power chords. “Grower” was rock critic shorthand for saying, “You will probably hate this, but give it a chance. I am smarter than you. I wear glasses.”

Pavement made a juicy career out of such reviews. But somewhere along the grand scheme of things, people realized Terror Twilight would never evolve into Slanted and Enchanted. Twilight simply could never be a Grower. But when did people close the casket lid on that record?

Or any potential Grower, for that matter?

 ~

“I was the match

That would fire up her snatch”

-Nick Cave

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4CkPM0LJT4

This is not supposed to be a review of Push the Sky Away. So, I’ve been fighting the urge to spill hundreds of words about undercooked music and iffy lyrics like those above. But I allowed myself this one jab. I mean, come on, this reads like an Insane Clown Posse B-side. But the Grower-lover in me says perhaps Saint Nick is satirizing the world’s knuckle-draggery here. He wrote a couple books. He knows what he’s doing, right?

Maybe another dozen listens will clarify the album’s Grower worthiness. Maybe not. It could go on like this for years. The magic of a grower is that one day you just get it. Unless, of course, that day never arrives.

Such is the crisis of a Grower.

~

Patsy Cline, Charles Mingus and a million others created truckloads of instantly lovable music. I could put those on right now and be happy. But they don’t have the appeal of a Grower. The work that goes into loving a Grower pays off for a lifetime.

So, this begs the question, how is a Grower even born?

Faith is as good a reason as any. This is the fuel powering my Nick Cave Machine at this point. All those qualities I said I adored (Gothic blues, heroin heartache, general sleazeballery) took me a long time to embrace. I gave up on the Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds several times before “Red Right Hand” properly enthralled me, and I couldn’t buy the band’s back catalog fast enough.

Fear – Specifically, the fear that I am not smart and/or cool enough to fully grasp a record’s brilliance. I have been known to replay an album because I sense there is something I’m not fully grasping. My hope is that repeat listens will clear the wreckage away. Fear is why I try and force myself to enjoy David Bowie’s Low every few years without much luck.

Puzzles –This is probably the greatest reason a Grower is given the time to develop. When a magic bit of an album gets stuck in your head, you feel like Albert Einstein’s math teacher, making the kid repeat algebra because you see some promise.

My own list of artists-I-once-dismissed-but-grew-to-love is too long to type out. Tom Waits, Guided by Voices, Belle and Sebastian, Willie Nelson, Fiery Furnaces. In every case, a hook or a lyric found itself stuck in my mind and wouldn’t give up. This scrap of enjoyment allowed me to slowly piece together a brilliant musical puzzle.

Recommendation – In this case, other music lovers or popular bands rave about a particular album so I give it more leeway. If respectable people respect a specific album, common sense says to give it another shot. This was doubly true for me with Exile on Main Street. I bought the pinnacle Rolling Stones album because gritty bands in the 90s wouldn’t shut up about it. I was initially unmoved due to its lack of “Satisfaction”-like hits. But after a few years of returning to Exile, I found the entire experience flawless in its ramshackle ways.

Here was a rare Double Grower because I had the same ambivalence toward Robert Frank’s photography. Thankfully, his involvement in the album art led to a love of his pictures. A lot of folks have this same Double Grower experience with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. One, inevitably, leads to the other and we are all better for our patience.

 ~

While that provides a better idea of where Growers come from, it still doesn’t answer the question of when to give up on a potential Grower. Doctors only apply the paddles to a dying man’s chest so many times before checking the clock and filling out a death certificate, right?

Thinking back on the scrapyard of abandoned Growers in my record collection I realize evolution kind of solves this problem for us. Inevitably, albums not worthy of Exile on Main Street levels of patience simply fade from attention. Sometimes, as with my beloved Nick Cave, you get Tender Prey and sometimes you get this latest record I will probably forget in a few months.

If only we all had Spielberg’s power to edit out life’s Grower dilemmas. But, then again, maybe not. Think about what happened to Honest Abe in that movie.

Wrestling with a record—hoping to make that connection only a Grower can give—eases an awful lot of frustration. The promise of a lifelong partnership with an album is such a unique experience it’s worth letting a John Wilkes Booth slip into the stack once in a while.

About Patrick Wensink

Patrick Wensink (@patrickwensink) is the author of the bestselling novel Broken Piano for President and the essay collection Everything Was Great Until it Sucked. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon and many less-reputable sources. He lives in Louisville, KY.
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7 Responses to The Trouble with Rock Album “Growers”

  1. Hank Cherry hank cherry says:

    It’s pop music. All of it derives from the same bleary beats, the same bluesy shuffles. No matter what you dress the shit up in, it’s still pop. Grower or not, rarely will there be a true surprise like Mingus’s Moanin’.

    That said, this was a fucking fun read!

  2. Pingback: Patrick’s Column in the Weeklings. | Broken Piano for President

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  4. jason says:

    To beg the question means to ask a question that actually answers itself. Not ‘invites the question’.
    e.g. We know the Bible is the divine Word because it was written by God.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

  5. jason says:

    good article, though.

  6. jason says:

    Guided by Voices were a grower for me. And MyBloodyValentine. And NuetralMilkHotel.

  7. Laika Pupkino says:

    TROUT MASK REPLICA by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band was my first experience with this. I was 15 years old and considered Spirit a boundaries-challenging band. I was totally unprepared for Trout Mask, but was anybody? My self-appointed arts appreciation mentor (we had sort of a musical and literary Dom/sub relationship) told me to give it more than a single chance, and in a dozen or so listenings Trout Mask went from “Why did I buy this noise” to “I think I see what they’re doing here” to pure awe as the Beefheart virus rewired my brain and changed me forever. And now I’m a horrible freak but too late now oh well. My mentor? I wound up shooting him on a balcony in Paris, convincing the police he was just some weirdo who had broken in to my flat.

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