Sunday, September 21, 2014

 My Mates Are Awesome 02: JP Young

This piece is part of a '5 albums I'm loving right now' article I guest-wrote for Simon Sweetman's blog Off The Tracks.  You can find the whole thing here.

Anniversary Day is Awesome

Full disclosure – while I was not involved in the writing and recording of this album, I do play in the JP Young live band occasionally.  But surely a man can Love This Album Right Now, even if he’s been known to take some of the tunes out of the house of a weekend.
Anniversary Day is that most common of things – a Hidden New Zealand Classic.  If I told you I’d been listening to a concept album based on the story of Wellington’s only recorded fatal shark attack, you would probably treat me to some combination of polite nodding and glaze-eyed smiling.  But this unassuming monster succeeds with aplomb where Neutral Milk Hotel did a brilliant job of something rather different.

The balancing act in writing a pop concept album is that every song has to be a worthy stand-alone pop tune, while still clinging tenaciously to the Concept.  The temptation to slip in a thoroughly banging tune which is completely off-topic is only outweighed by the possibility of writing a total clanger in order to flesh out the story.  And here we have twelve songs which build to a coherent story while still having enough bone structure and sinew to be great tunes in their own right.  It’s a feat.
There’s more though.  In choosing a historical topic and giving it the pop treatment, Young asks and answers some big questions about songwriting in the 21st century.  For the last 50 years or so, musicians and writers alike have been urged to ‘write from life’, to ‘write what you know’.  And because most musicians start writing early in life, when they don’t know much, we are treated to millions of songs about being a confused teenager.  About trying to make sense of life, the universe, and everything.  About riding around in a van playing gigs.  About getting and spending, loving and losing, trying and failing.  About (o god this is the worst) trying to find things to write songs about.
But as Tom Wolfe points out in his kick-arse preface to Bonfire of the Vanities, writing from life needn’t mean writing exclusively about your shitty life; writing what you know needn’t mean displaying your ignorance – you can learn stuff, about the world outside your mouldy practice-room, and you can write about that.  If you’re good enough.

So it’s not just twelve great songs, which move and inspire all by themselves.  And it’s not just twelve great songs that fit together into a great story.  It’s also a kind of manifesto – a demonstration of what pop songwriting can be, if we’re good enough, and we try hard enough.  A suggestion that The Album can still be a worthwhile conceit, even in this age when no one actually buys Albums any more. In short: Genius.  Bastard.