Are you Reelin’ in the Years?

February 9, 2010

Music is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It stands on its own perfectly well, but it also supplements the works of film, television, video games, theater, and any other multimedia format. People identify with music perhaps even more strongly than with works of any other media, which isn’t surprising given the ease of access to endless amounts of music on the internet and radio and also the endless variety to be found. It’s nearly impossible not to find a musical artist to whom you can relate, or perhaps a single song which seems to have been written especially for you or about you. That’s not to say that other media can’t produce similar effects, but music is simply the most common media for people to connect to—you’ll often hear people say “This is MY song” much more often than they’ll say “This is MY book” or “MY video game” (in the context of relating to the work, anyway).

Music is also one of the more difficult media to analyze. For whatever reason, it seems our vocabulary for describing what we see is greater than our vocabulary for describing what we hear, or at the very least the former vocabulary is more accessible than the latter. Interestingly, I think it’s easy to describe things we see—we can describe shapes and colors and lighting and shadows and textures, etc.—but when it comes to things we hear, the discussion often ends up being about how we feel, or how the music makes us feel. Although I’ve been touting the notion that all art is quite useless, taken from Wilde’s manifesto, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to introduce the concept of catharsis, taken from the Aristotelian school of thought. Basically, catharsis is the purgation of excessive emotions through art, and Aristotle more or less viewed it as the purpose of drama. Rather than contradict myself and present catharsis as the purpose of all art, I will simply include it as a product of great art, with music being the type of art most conducive to producing catharsis.

In my mind, the first illustration of music as art always comes by way of Steely Dan, otherwise known as The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band of All Time, despite the fact that the band is in fact really only a duo (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) and the term “rock n’ roll” usually only applies to their music in the loosest of definitions. Nevertheless, Steely Dan has been producing stellar art for the past forty years, almost, with the perfect example coming off their debut album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill.

Though Can’t Buy a Thrill was not their highest ranking album on the Billboard charts, and other songs off the album climbed higher in the Billboard singles charts, “Reelin’ in the Years” is the song I count as nothing less than the definitive rock masterpiece. The lyrics are surprisingly biting for such an up-tempo number, which provides a sort of conflict within the song that gets easily overlooked until you catch on to gist of the vocals. The pacing of the song contributes to the discord, as the nearly breathless verses give way to the happy sing-along chorus, leaving the listener with little time to process exactly what is being said. The rhyming couplets of the verses say a lot with a little, and the consistent structure of the final line to every verse produces a perfect tag to conclude each thought and mark the differences between the narrator and his addressee, though it’s hard not to take the extra step and read each final line as being addressed to the audience in general, as a sort of statement to the differences between this new, innovative group and the average popular music consumer. As the lyrics go, the singer can’t understand the things you think are precious, the things that pass for knowledge, and the things you think are useless, which challenges the audience to rethink their values and broaden their horizons to this new wave of music.

Perhaps even more masterful than the lyrics, however, are the instrumentals of the piece and the way they build throughout the song. The opening riff sets the tone and gives you a taste of what is to come, but it’s over all too soon as the first verse begins. The audience is lulled into a sense of comfort with the first verse giving way to the chorus and then the second verse followed once again by the chorus, but then the sing-along gives way to the jam session, and Elliot Randall takes over with a performance on the guitar solo too dirty to be called virtuoso but too precisely masterful to be called anything less. It is in this solo that the song reaches its climax, with the bass, keyboard, and drums providing the driving groundwork that Randall barely treads as he soars overhead with his guitar. The solo and backgrounds occasionally meet on the kicks, thus lifting the entire track off the earth, and then the guitar strikes its zenith, holding by itself for a few blissful seconds until the third verse kicks back in.

The third verse gives way to the final round of choruses, and then the instrumentals pick up once more, giving the listener hope that they are in for even more guitar-driven ecstasy, but the opportunity is cut short just as the guitar takes over and the song fades away, with the riffs just barely audible though the oncoming silence. Normally, I hate when songs fade out rather than have a “proper” ending, but I can also see the benefits of such a conclusion, because it isn’t one. It leaves you with the feeling that somewhere up there in the ether, those glorious fiends are still jamming away on that solo, with no ending in sight. They tease you with the prospect of another experience like the first one, but even if they were to provide it, chances are you’d still only be wanting more anyway.

Ideally, it is the climax of the work that produces the cathartic effect, and I believe this holds especially true for “Reelin’ in the Years.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that Randall’s guitar work is speaking to the listener, but it is providing him with pure feeling in musical form, which I feel in this instance never fails to provide an actual physical experience. Naturally, much of this analysis centered on my own personal experience of this work (as do pretty much any of my analyses, really), and therefore not everyone is likely to be affected by this work in the same way. So much of art depends on taste, and I by no means mean to assert my taste over anyone else’s. As always, this is but a brief examination of a beautiful work. That is all.

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