Stuck in the Middle: Content or Context?
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Albums That Improve with Age and Were Overlooked Upon Initial Release
IT might seem odd to some that I have this particular album...
IN THIS PHOTO: Natalie Imbruglia (date unknown)/PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
at the top and centre - I have been listening a lot to records that were given a bit of a mixed review when they came out. The reason I have started with Natalie Imbruglia’s Left of the Middle is because at the time, in 1997, it was subject to some mixed reviews. Her single, Torn, had been a massive success but many felt the remainder of the album did not have the same sort of power and memorability. I think some of the issue might have been with the artists around at the time and how Imbruglia fitted into the scene. I recall getting the album because I loved Torn and tracks like Big Mistake. Here was someone who was a bit different to what I was listening to in 1997 – the likes of Blur and Radiohead – and that might have been a consideration. The scene in 1997 was very much about these very different bands who were producing their own thing. It was a year when some epic albums were unleashed and I think Left of the Middle got overlooked. This retrospective review by AllMusic is positive:
“Admittedly, some of the material will be seen as pop fluff by certain listeners, but fans of popular latter-day female artists like Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, and Meredith Brooks will find Imbruglia's debut most enjoyable. What separates Imbruglia from the aforementioned artists is her willingness to experiment with electronic sounds, no doubt courtesy of mixer Nigel Godrich (of Radiohead fame), which can be heard on such tracks as "Smoke."
“Torn" proves to be the best song on the album, with its bouncy acoustic feel, but the pop/rocker "Big Mistake" is almost as good. Not all of the material on Left of the Middle fares as well, however, such as the Alanis Morissette sound-alike "Intuition," but Imbruglia need not worry about being lumped into the copycat category; for the most part, she has a style all her own”.
At the time, artists like Alanis Morissette were hitting it big – Jagged Little Pill came out in 1995 – and there were a few female singers who had that rather intense-sounding voice. Maybe it was common in 1997 to hear someone like Natalie Imbruglia. A lot of the songs on her debut are written off because there is a familiarity regarding the vocal. Turn the clock forward nearly twenty-two years and the songs actually stand up pretty well. There are some tracks that are a bit light but how many Pop artists do we have now like her?! Critics need to judge records on how the view them at the time and what is around them but I feel many of us overlook perfectly fine albums because of how we viewed them at the time. If there are singers like Paula Cole and Meredith Brooks around in 1997 – and that means there is little breathing room – then should we ignore the album years down the line?! I am not suggesting everyone listen to Left of the Middle now (although it is pretty good) but I feel a lot of dismissal and underwhelming reviews are based more on the flavour of the times and not indicative of the nuance and true quality of the material.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
There are many albums that get stick or are not completely adored when they are released and they sort of improve and find their place down the line. I have raised this subject before but there were some really big albums brought out in the 1980s and 1990s that critics hated and, since then, they have been proved wrong. Maybe the situation is different to that of Imbruglia and her experience but I feel there is this sense of not giving records chance; judging them against what is ‘normal’ or, if there are a few artists that sound the same, maybe writing someone off and assuming they are exactly the same. It happened a lot with Pop albums but there were some big Rock/Blues albums, like Led Zeppelin’s debut, that were written off by some. Rolling Stone felt the playing was proficient but the songwriting weak and the material too close to the Jeff Beck Group. Again, there was a sense that here was an artist a little too similar to someone else; why bother listening hard and realising there is personal depth and originality? John Mendelsohn, of Rolling Stone, tore apart Neil Young’s Harvest when it came out in 1972 and felt it offered nothing to set it apart from the pretty singer-songwriters at the time. One feels he might have been talking about singers like Joni Mitchell and not truly listening to the music. Even at the time the record was astonishing but, yeah, perhaps the fact a certain scene has died and the legends have passed, it makes albums like Harvest even stronger.
Think of the slightly cold reviews Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique received in 1989 and the comparison a few years later. Not many were prepared for a sample-heavy masterpiece back then and felt, because it was unusual, it was no good. 1989 was a great year for music – and Hip-Hop was hitting its peak – but there was not a lot around that had the same ambition and sounds as Paul’s Boutique. Some reviewers not only compare albums in a contextual sense – whether they are too similar or inferior to what is already around – but they unfairly compare them to an artist’s previous work. Weezer’s Pinkerton is a classic case of reviewers looking for the U.S. group to repeat what we are used to and not accepting their 1996 gem. Rolling Stone readers ranked the album as the worst of 1996 and many critics hated the lyrics. Maybe it was not what we were used to from Weezer and confused by the sexual nature of the lyrics. Pinkerton was not a complete failure at the time – although Weezer’s lead, Rivers Cuomo sort of dismissed it – but I feel a lot of people were ranking it against what/who was popular in 1996 (Fugees, Beck and Manic Street Preachers included) and sort of being a bit myopic.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
If reviews for Pinkerton were a little mixed at the time, retrospective reviews, like this one, have redressed the balance:
“Loosely structured as a concept album based on Madame Butterfly, each song works as an individual entity, driven by powerful, melodic hooks, a self-deprecating sense of humor ("Pink Triangle" is about a crush on a lesbian), and a touching vulnerability ("Across the Sea," "Why Bother?"). Weezer can still turn out catchy, offbeat singles -- "The Good Life" has a chorus that is more memorable than "Buddy Holly," "El Scorcho" twists Pavement's junk-culture references in on itself, "Falling for You" is the most propulsive thing they've yet recorded -- but the band's endearing geekiness isn't as cutesy as before, which means the album wasn't as successful on the charts. But it's the better album, full of crunching power pop with a surprisingly strong emotional undercurrent that becomes all the more resonant with each play”.
The one and only album from Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, was attacked because of its anarchic and rebellious spirit. I feel a lot of critics were not really listening the songs and the fact they conveyed huge potency and quality. Maybe many did not like the band’s anti-royalist stance but now, in 2019, an album like this sounds completely right and fresh. I am not saying all critics would rave but we are more used to albums like Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. If critics were not aware of the Sex Pistols’ place in Punk in 1977 then many felt the same the same about The Rolling Stones and their impact on Rock in 1972 – Exile on Main St. was initially seen as quite ragged and unfocused. Maybe critics were used to a slightly cleaner and more focused style of music but, given the fact it was The Rolling Stones, I am shocked to see any negative reviews for such a great album! Many might see this pattern and think that it is mainly Rock and Punk bands who were ahead of their time. Ramones were subject to doubts when they unveiled masterpieces and the same is true of Black Sabbath and Nirvana. Look at some Pop diamonds and it is not a certain style of music critics misunderstand. I will return to Natalie Imbruglia in a bit but there have been some great Pop records that have been written off and only revaluated further down the line.
Michael Jackson’s Bad arrived in 1987 and, compared to 1982’s Thriller, many felt it was a pale imitation and an album that did not scale the same heights. This is a case of critics comparing artists to what they perceive is their ‘golden days’ and, in 1987, huge albums like Appetite for Destruction (Guns N’ Roses) and The Joshua Tree (U2) were out. Even though this was Jacko, was it the case there was not a lot of Bad-sounding albums around – were critics judging it against what was trending at the time and not given the material a fair shout?! When the Spice Girls released their 1996 debut, Spice, they were perceived by some as another bubblegum band that were not adding anything with depth and quality. Again, look at the year 1996 and the fact albums by Rage Against the Machine (Evil Empire), DJ Shadow (Entroducing.....); Beck (Odelay) and Tupac Shakur (All Eyez on Me) were receiving a lot of praise. Look back now and the Spice Girls’ debut is a solid and memorable set of songs. It actually stands out more now because there is a surfeit of like-minded artists. Girl bands are somewhat redundant and Pop is becoming less anthemic, fun and interesting. 1996 was a hard year to pitch a Pop tent because we had passed through the best of Britpop and a new dynamic was taking shape. Critics were keen to emphasise this and not too concerned with listening to the songs in their own right and not being concerned with how Spice ‘fitted in’.
Perhaps a lot of these once-maligned albums become bigger and more relevant because of how they change music. I do wonder what some critics were listening to when they give albums from Michael Jackson, Spice Girls; Led Zeppelin and Neil Young bad press. Another Pop act that were overlooked because they were outside of current convention was No Doubt. They introduced their eponymous album out in 1992 and it has Ska and Pop mixing together. This was the time when Grunge was ruling and critics were drooling over something a little meatier, masculine and familiar. This is an album many critics are unsure of because it differs to the more radio-friendly Pop they would become known for. One of the most famous cases of an album being judged based on past standards and expectations is The Beatles’ Let It Be. In 1970, many were embracing bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and there was less attention for The Beatles. The band was gaining headlines because of tensions and the fact they were nearing the end but many critics in 1970 were not too keen on Let It Be. A lot of contemporaries felt Let It Be was a sorry addition to the band’s output and not a fitting epitaph. Retrospective reviews were kinder and saw true quality. This review from Pitchfork in 2009 highlights issues around the album and how we should view Let It Be:
“And when they finished, no one really liked what they'd laid down on tape. So not surprisingly, the essential nature of Let It Be is that it feels incomplete and fragmented; it's a difficult album to peg because the Beatles were never sure themselves what they wanted it to be. So the best way to approach it is as a collection of songs by guys who still were churning out classics with some regularity. It may not succeed on the level of the Beatles' previous albums, but there's enough good material to make it a worthy entry in their canon”.
There are many cases of albums being judged against what is popular then rather than the quality on display. We can all name other albums that were sort of given short shrift because they did not conform with what was popular back then; maybe it was not what we expected from an established artist but, in many cases, albums have grown and found new room because of changes in terms of sounds and genres. There are bigger albums than Natalie Imbruglia’s Left of the Middle that deserve new ears and bigger reviews but I was particular stirred by her debut. It was a case of there being similar-sounding female artists being around and I think many were too eager to compare Imbruglia to them. Urban Hymns by The Verve came out in 1997; The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land came out then as did The Chemical Brothers’ Did Your Own Hole and Oasis’ Be Here Now – an album, ironically, that got great reviews back then but, upon closer listen, did not fare too well. I do like Natalie Imbruglia’s debut and think the songs, on their own, stand up and warrant more appreciation. I look at other albums I have mentioned and feel like critics need to judge them fairly and not compare them to the current scene or what they deem is ‘cool’ and ‘original’. The more you think about it and research, you will be shocked by some now-respected albums that, back when they were released, were given...
A beating by critics.