Most albums I instantly like or dislike. Some artists I have to get used to. Enter exhibit one: Leonard Cohen. I failed to appreciate Mr. Cohen for a very long time. I liked cover versions of his songs (‘Avalanche’ in the version of Nick Cave, ‘I can’t forget’ in the version of The Pixies), but I couldn’t unlock the mystery of the man himself. After I turned 40 something changed. Starting with his most recent albums, I gradually worked my way through his catalogue. His last album, ‘You want it darker’, released shortly before his death in 2016, is still one of my favourites. So what was wrong with Leonard? Nothing really, he’s just acquired taste, someone I only started appreciating after my testosterone levels dropped.
The same is true for some albums. Enter exhibit two: Led Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’. I listened to it when I was 16 and dismissed it as irrelevant; too bluesy, too polished, too perfect. Physical Graffiti felt like champagne in a glass that is too clean; instantly dead. It was the complete anti-thesis of Punk. No dirt, no errors, no excitement, no character. Only now I can appreciate it because I learned to listen in a different way, one which enables me to hear the magical interplay between singer, rhythm section and guitar, and how the individual songs are at the same time firmly rooted in a tradition of Blues and Rock and occupy new territory miles outside of it.
All of that is not what happened with ‘Exile on Main St’ (Rolling Stones, 1972). A masterpiece according to practically all music critics, but for years I couldn’t relate to it. I tried, and tried, and tried some more. The album felt inconsistent, unbalanced, fragmented even. In retrospect I heard the almost physical presence of a band in decay, torn apart by fame and heroin, on the verge of breaking down. It came too close. You hear and feel the rot in almost every song. It is riddled with error, small and bigger mistakes, an overall sense of sloppiness. In short, everything I normally loved.
So why, why then?
It wasn’t the obvious presence of Blues, Gospel and Country, the fact that even for a band rooted in American music ‘Exile on Main St’ was by far their most American album. It wasn’t the lo-fi production or the rambling style of playing. For a while I thought it had something to do with the (seemingly) absence of emotion, a strong message, a lyrical theme to keep it all together. There is something in its extreme fragmentation that made ‘Exile on main St.’ difficult for me. Not in the same way as Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’. The key to ‘Trout Mask Replica’, just listen to it over and over. At some point it connects with you on metaphysical level, at some point it becomes part of you. It will never leave you again.
No, ‘Exile’ is an album that literally coincides with its title. Be an exile on Main St., move as long as you can on the path you identified for yourself. Move forward, remove obstacles, experience progress until you finally, and inevitably hit a brick wall. In that moment of exhaustion and despair, when you feel like an exile on the highway to success, then it will finally hit you. At least that’s what happened to me.Tweet