In a decade when more art is released in a month than could be considered properly in a lifetime, and every song recorded in the past century is just a quick Google away, our ideas of originality are changing. Once true uniqueness – the conquest for the unseen and unheard – was one of the first aspirations of art, but now it’s all laid bare: every source of inspiration, every melody borrowed from an unknown artist from the other side of the world or remembered in a dream. In 2017, Robert Shore’s book Beg, Steal and Borrow helped to shatter the myth of originality in art, and even more-so remove the stigma of weaving your influences together to make something new: a newfound embrace of artistic copying and pasting.
In the art world, it was the 20th Century fashion for collages which put originality on the back-burner, by stitching together other works from across mediums (as if a millennium of painters copying Greek statues shouldn’t have done that already). Hip-hop’s sonic collages did the same for music, with producers digging crates in order to find samples and create a hot beat.
Dance-Punk may be a genre you haven’t heard of before. That might well be due to the fact it’s not a genre, and what? That doesn’t even make sense? Dance. Punk? What does the rebellious grime of punk have to do with the glamorous strut of disco, or worse, Diplo? But it is also, undeniably, a thing. Inconcrete and still the subject of much debate, yes: but the music the term is used to define stretches across two of the most iconic eras of popular music. It thrived in the New York punk underground of the late 1970s, and saw an even grimier revival at the start of the 21st century, where bands like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs became pin-ups for a new generation. Dance-Punk also contains some of the most confident and potent music ever laid to wax, in the form of the Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem and New Order.
The fact that most of its finest music was produced in two distinct periods of time, and the specificity of its New York-roots, have left Dance-Punk cocooned as a “scene”: a concept so alien to anyone who started seriously listening to music after the release of the iPhone that it might as well come etched on a scroll. The musicianship is undeniable, but exploring it can feel more like embarking on an archaeological dig. These songs and albums are enduring though: a thrilling melting-pot of ideas which span funk, punk, dance, disco, synth-pop and acid-house, producing some of the finest grooves ever recorded, all with an attitude more capital-P Punk than the so-called ‘political’ bands whose names ended upon on MasterCards.
In 2014 Sun Kil Moon hit their stride with a record many instantly deemed a classic: Benji, in which frontman Mark Kozelek put up front a lifetime of experience and poignant stories of those lost across his life, with a density of language that bordered on spoken word, and a frankness rarely seen in any medium. On Universal Themes he retreats from this boldness, his stories no longer upfront but introverted somehow – and yet the album is twice as ambitious because of it.
Novelist David Foster Wallace was obsessed with the idea of boredom, and the need for distraction. His final novel, The Pale King, was set in an IRS Station and was about exactly that. He was also an essayist and one of his more famous explorations of the topic is titled “This is Water”. It begins with this story:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?””
Wallace’s point is this: the un-thought of, tedious realities of life are often the most telling and important, and that to understand this necessitates an awareness of, and attentiveness to, dull truths that are all around us, yet often go unmentioned. On the amazing Benji, Mark Kozelek stunned with remarkable tales which drew to attention the million coincidences and dark ironies that surrounded their death of their protagonists. Universal Themes strives for a similar poignancy, but does it by telling tales of nothing. Continue reading “A Quiet Revolution: Sun Kil Moon’s Universal Themes”→