Today I was listening to "The Wilderness," just released by Explosions in the Sky, and it had me kind of daydreaming about music and the creative process, and all these sorts of feelings and notions and half-formed thoughts that tend to float through my head whenever I'm hearing brand new music from a familiar artist.
...The excitement and anticipation of not knowing exactly what is going to come next in the song, a certainty that whatever it is, I'll like it.. combined with the risk of disappointment that maybe I won't. That weird space where the familiar and the unfamiliar meet and interact. And that whole behind-the-scenes process of trying to contextualize what I'm hearing in real time.
Am I hearing 4 guys collectively pushing their creative limits, or am I hearing 4 guys at the top of their creative game just naturally doing what they do best? Does the question even matter, or make sense? OK, I'll admit it probably doesn't.
Still, while listening my mind drifts into the rehearsal space with these guys- or wherever they were for whatever portion of the past 5 years they spent writing and crafting this new music. What was the overarching mood there? Excitement, certainly. But did something akin to worry about how to follow up 2011's amazing Take Care, Take Care, Take Care enter their minds at all? And did this accumulation of creative decisions hitting my ears arise out of something like a tense struggle, or more of a relaxed natural flow?
Is one mode generally better for the creative process than the other? I don't think so. Or, at least maybe it depends.
I'd argue that, by definition, one must be outside of their creative comfort zone to actually push any boundaries. And so that entails a certain risk of failure- that maybe what you create won't be any good to anyone, or that it will please you but be rejected by your audience. Although if you don't occasionally fail, can it be said you're just playing it safe and not pushing hard enough?
Operating in the midst of all this I think is an implicit contract between artist and audience. For example, when I hit play on the new Explosions in the Sky record, I know that I will not hear a polka breakdown or someone singing about hooking up at the club, or any number of other perfectly fine things. As groundbreaking as any of that those could be in defying my expectations and challenging me as a listener, this would be a violation of The Deal- the only rules that maybe matter: We Like What You Do / Don't Fuck It Up. I get the sense that critics appreciate it most when artists flirt this line without crossing it, and they hail the result as pushing new boundaries.
And certainly the tension and pressure associated with the risk of failure- of going too far, or falling short- must get baked into the music somehow, and even make the final product better. But must creative growth be challenging and risky for it to actually mean something important, or can it just as well come naturally and easily?
I guess if my rambling post has any point, it is just that- I'm sure as an artist you must always feel some sense of urgency to improve upon and surpass what you've done in the past. But I'd wager that sometimes meeting this standard comes with relative ease, just because you've grown as an artist. Other times, maybe you just don't see any possible way to top the last thing- it was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, so you choose to follow up with Adore. You take your struggle in a new direction instead and flip the script and start exploring something else. And by its very nature, this unfamiliar territory presents challenges and risks, and new artistic struggles.
Whatever the actual case with this particular record, in my imagination I hear nothing like struggle when I listen to The Wilderness. Instead I see these guys just doing what comes perfectly natural to them- exploring their surroundings and reporting back to us with the music from this incredible otherworldly place.
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