going negative

Someone I’m friends with on Facebook asked, quite sincerely I suspect, whether there’s any chance that the band Greta Van Fleet is in on the joke. That they know full well how absurd the music they make is, and that their awfulness is in fact deliberate. Which would be amazing if it were the case, a prank worthy of Andy Kaufman. But sadly, that would be giving them too much credit. I poked around in their blessedly scant discography, listened to songs like “Highway Tune,” “Black Smoke Rising,” “Flower Power” and their cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (now that takes a staggering degree of chutzpah), and to their new album Anthem of the Peaceful Army, and I admit it did make me laugh. Give them credit for plowing through songs like “Age of Man,” “Brave New World,” “Mountain of the Sun” and, inevitably, “Anthem,” as though these ideas just popped into their heads! No, they cannot possibly be kidding. Tufnel & St. Hubbins could not come up with words like this: “Where is the music/A tune to free the soul/A simple lyric to unite us all, you know.” It’s that “You know” that elevates this, the laziest fake rhyme for “the soul” imaginable. Why bother to come up with something better when “you know” will do fine? “The world is only what the world is made of.” And I used to make fun of Uriah Heep and Sir Lord Baltimore. I apologize.

Everyone mentions how much GVF draws from Led Zeppelin, and that’s true, but I don’t see that as a problem so much. As touchstones go, this young band could do a lot worse; they could have gone full-prog (they do have some prog-ish tendencies), and considering how many artists Led Zep liberally stole from, it’s fair game. It does bug me a bit that this is the band some of my rock-centric acquaintances are pointing to as evidence that rock will never die. See?? Kids still dig loud guitars, screamy voices and dumb lyrics, just like in olden times. It’s cute how needy for relevance rock fans are that they will cling to Greta Van Fleet. I’d been hearing about them for a year or so, but I never felt the impetus to pay attention until recently when the band was critically decimated by a Pitchfork review. Like, dismissed with extreme prejudice. And I needed – see how clickbait works? – to hear for myself what got the reviewer so ired up.

As pans go, it’s pretty savage. For these days, that is. What struck me wasn’t that the review was mean, but that there was so much shock at a negative assessment of an album. That had to be part of the reason for publishing it; a mediocre review wouldn’t have generated any outrage. But there seemed to be surprise that Pitchfork was so unsparing. It was as though some protocol was breached. There just isn’t that much thumbs-down to music anymore. And that’s a shame, because what made rock criticism so much fun, and so vital, was that there was a streak of what would now be considered cruelty. Creem, the magazine I wrote the most for, mocked many, many artists and the albums they sent out into the world. Professor Robert Christgau handed out “D”s and “Must to Avoid”s regularly. The first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide (the red one that Dave Marsh and John Swenson edited), had pages of one-star reviews. The album GTR was reviewed in Musician magazine thusly: “SHT.” Greil Marcus famously knocked Dylan in Rolling Stone, who once upon a time would even run not-so-thrilled notices of albums by the Beatles and the Stones. Now, of course, even the most substandard of efforts by Jann’s pantheon of artists are instant classics.

Very few high-profile albums, no matter how bad, are slammed. Why isn’t that the case with movies? Most critics agree that things like Collateral Beauty (14% favorable on Rotten Tomatoes) and Life Itself (12%) are a complete waste of time, and you might think that Anthem of the Peaceful Army is the Collateral Beauty of rock albums, but over on Metacritic, a slim majority (58%) has given it a passing grade. And that’s really low for Metacritic. No current albums you might have heard of has below 50% OK. Bad TV shows like Insatiable (11%) and The Four: Battle for Stardom (17%) are called out on their badness. When was the last time you saw an album on a major label (or with any kind of public profile), get near-uniformly awful reviews? Only one new album in the November issue of Mojo earned fewer than three stars. How is that possible, unless the policy is, why bother at all with telling readers why something is terrible when there is so much three-stars-or-better music out there?

That’s why I got a kick out of the Pitchfork 1.6 rating for Greta Van Fleet. It reminded me that sometimes an album just needs to be punched in the mouth.

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