Steve Wynn is a solo artist as well as a founding member of the Dream Syndicate, Gutterball and the Baseball Project. Read/listen more at www.stevewynn.net and his Facebook page.
Most musicians know — well, hopefully, they do — that ecstatic feeling of hearing a record so good, so exciting and inspirational that it simultaneously makes you want to immediately make your own record, your own answer to the thrill of the new discovery and at the same time makes you never want to make a record again.
I had that reaction to not one but two records by Primal Scream. When I heard 1991’s Screamadelica I was working on my second solo album. Hearing Primal Scream’s unique and yet inevitable mash-up of ’60s flower power psychedelia and the sound of the pre-rave dancefloor changed the direction of the record I went on to make. And then, in 2000, when I was kicking around and looking for something — anything — to give me a clue how I wanted to move forward, I heard XTRMNTR, and that record’s raw, militant fearlessness pushed me to strip away the veneer and let the rough edges show, to embrace the magic balance of unflinching, fearless snarl and haphazard playfulness. Just a few months later I went into the studio and made Here Come the Miracles, a record that I, and many others, think is my best to date.
And I’m certainly not the only one who was affected that strongly by Screamadelica and XTRMNTR. Both of those records are considered landmark releases by critics, fans and musicians alike. And when the Talkhouse asked me to write about Primal Scream’s new album More Light, I was eager to give it a shot. I mean, the band’s last few records were serviceable and forgettable, but knowing that this one was produced by soundtrack guru/mixtape maven David Holmes, who had already done a few incendiary collaborations with Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, and having heard the opening track, a nine-minute, sax-laden, Roxy/P-Furs glam-fest called “2013,” which evoked the no-nonsense mission statement opening track “Kill All Hippies” from XTRMNTR, I figured I was aboard to write a triumphant comeback story. And everyone loves a triumphant comeback.
So, why, oh why, can’t I say that More Light is up there with those other two albums that rocked my world, blew me away, and made me rethink whatever I was doing? There are some undeniably great, inventive songs (the aforementioned “2013,” the trippy “River of Pain,” the ominous, Leslie-soaked “Tenement Kid,” and “It’s Alright, It’s Okay,” which almost sounds like a Screamadelica parody, as well as a seamless, seemingly inevitable use of Robert Plant on “Elimination Blues”) and most of the album evokes the best moments of Primal Scream’s best albums while updating just enough to not seem like a collection of b-sides. It’s good. It’s plenty good.
But why isn’t it turning my world upside down?
Look, music hits us in unexpected, unique ways. The same record that inspires you to create, fall in love, murder, give up or embrace hope might just be background noise for me while I drink my coffee and read the New York Times. I’m having a hard time connecting in any profound way to More Light but I couldn’t stop myself from playing “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk about 15 times this morning — and it’s not even 9 AM yet. I find myself unable to stop talking about and listening to the latest releases by Phosphorescent, Parquet Courts and Tame Impala. “Jubilee Street” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was the soundtrack to almost every Manhattan stroll earlier this year. I find myself wishing I had been assigned any of those records so I could wax poetic and praise high and low these artistic heights from both new and veteran artists.
Listening to Primal Scream has always been a delicate balance, maybe a little bit like my own music, because the band’s commander Bobby Gillespie most certainly comes off as an excitable fanboy, a lover of music and modern culture who is just dying to show you what he’s digging. But — and apologies to younger readers for this ancient pop culture reference — “Sorry, Charlie, Starkist don’t want tuna with good taste, Starkist wants tuna that tastes good.” (And, Lord, I could never understand why the scholarly fish wanted so badly to be turned into tomorrow’s mayonnaise-soaked sandwich, but that’s a question for another time.) But if Gillespie and Holmes’ impeccable taste doesn’t translate to compelling listening, what does that say about them or — holy smokes! — me? Can you build up immunity to this stuff? Can the same music that thrilled you in your youth merely amuse you 20 years down the line?
So, I listened to Screamadelica and XTRMNTR all over again. And guess what? They still sounded great, radical, exciting. I still found myself moving and grooving and tripping out to the former and still felt the espresso/meth/adrenaline (take your pick) rush of the latter. And then I went back to More Light. Yes, aggressive, Detroit-leaning tracks like “Culturecide,” “Hit Void” and “Sideman” would have been at home on XTRMNTR while “River of Pain” and “Walking with the Beast” brought back memories ofScreamadelica. But I had already heard and developed the built-in pleasure response to those records the first time around and couldn’t bring back those feelings just because those moments were replicated. Maybe I couldn’t sense an honest sense of a new sense of enthusiasm or discovery from Gillespie or Holmes and, thus, I couldn’t feel it either.
And therein lies the sad, frustrating (or more optimistically, challenging) truth for a veteran musician (or actor or director or author): Even though your legacy and your innovations are your enduring birthright, it’s never enough to retrace your past steps. And then someone else comes along and retraces those steps (Daft Punk=Chic, Parquet Courts=Wire, etc) and they become the talk of the town. Fair? Absolutely not. And as much as I love Primal Scream and as much as I, well, admire (a kiss of death accolade if there ever was one) More Light, I just can’t get excited about it. Because it doesn’t feel like a surprise. It feels like a prototypical Primal Scream record designed by a computer program or focus group, or a David Holmes soundtrack to a movie about Primal Scream — a very good movie about Primal Scream, actually. But I don’t feel compelled to listen to it and might not again anytime soon.
Man, I think it’s time to put on “Get Lucky” again.