Box Set Special – The River, by Bruce Springsteen

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Released October 17, 1980

83 min, 47 sec

Coming from the musical triumphs of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town back to back, Bruce Springsteen had established that he could do whatever he wanted for a little while. Born to Run marked the beginning of Springsteen’s turn from excitable hippie to representative of the working man; Darkness captured the raw essence of how the working man truly felt. As I noted when talking about Darkness a few years ago, Springsteen was in a dark, dark place when writing that album, and upon emerging from it with the supporting tour, Springsteen decided that he wanted to try and recapture his lighter, more fun-loving side.

The early recording of The River certainly reflects this pivot in Springsteen’s mindset. He wrote and recorded quickly, hammering away at new songs as well as songs that had first appeared during the Darkness sessions, songs like “The Ties That Bind,” “Independence Day,” and “Sherry Darling,” many of which premiered during the Darkness tour. The sessions through August 1979 yielded twenty-four songs; Springsteen, with a single album in mind at this point, pulled together ten for a tentative track list:

1. The Ties That Bind

2. The Price You Pay

3. Be True

4. Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own

5. Stolen Car

6. I Wanna Marry You

7. Loose Ends

8. Hungry Heart

9. The Man Who Got Away

10. Ramrod

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Already, at this point, darkness began to creep into The River, mainly through the appearance of “Stolen Car” as the Side 1 closer. But this track list clearly demonstrates Springsteen’s desire to release a lighter album, keeping himself above the shadowy corners of Darkness.

But Springsteen was dissatisfied and restless, and he continued recording through the next two months. At this point, the album’s emotional core began to emerge, particularly with the recording of “The River,” though Springsteen still pushed against the dichotomy of light-heartedness and heavy reality that he had yet to truly understand.

This struggle personifies The River, and Springsteen’s desire to illustrate all sides of rock as a genre was the primary motivating factor behind the album’s expansion into a twenty-track behemoth. At this point in time, however, Springsteen was still thinking and formatting the album in the mold of a single LP, determined to make his vision fit within its ten-track confines. He felt comfortable enough with the format that he submitted a single-LP album to Columbia Records in October 1979, with the title The Ties That Bind:

1. The Ties That Bind

2. Cindy

3. Hungry Heart

4. Stolen Car

5. Be True

6. The River

7. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)

8. The Price You Pay

9. I Wanna Marry You

10. Loose Ends

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This was closer, but Springsteen felt that it wasn’t drastic enough, wasn’t big enough, just was not enough. The label began working on the album artwork and promotion, intending to have the album out before the end of the year. But after submitting it, Springsteen, ever the perfectionist, pulled the album back and began hammering away again.

The dichotomy between joy and sorrow, he felt, needed to be more explicit, needed to be more detailed. The framework of that split can be seen in The Ties That Bind, with “Hungry Heart” and “Stolen Car” in sequence one after the other, and with “The River” opening Side 2 immediately before the frankly inessential “You Can Look.”

It’s a little remarkable to see what didn’t make the cut at this stage of the album’s recording process – no “Ramrod,” no “Independence Day,” no “Point Blank.” The sheer depth of Springsteen’s songbook at this point of his career is astounding. He would just write and write and write, to the point that he would give away bona fide hits like “Because the Night” and “Fire” simply because he wasn’t interested in fitting them on one of his own albums. Springsteen’s signature prolific nature, combined with his dissatisfaction with the picture The Ties That Bind was painting, would eventually burst the dam of the single album format, spilling out into a double album in early 1980 as Springsteen continued to write and hone in on the sound and themes he was hoping to convey.

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Springsteen stated after the album’s release that he’d realized, during the production of The River, that contradiction and paradox are core tenets of rock music – the “frivolous next to the solemn,” as Wikipedia puts it. Rock music is about joy and partying and enjoyment of life, but it also illustrates hardship and despair. Springsteen’s goal with The River was to illustrate that dichotomy, to show both the party and what happens when all the guests leave, and the host only has himself for company. It was this desire that led to the emotional whiplash of “Two Hearts” leading into “Independence Day,” and the way Side 2 crashes down from “Crush on You” to title track “The River,” a song Springsteen wrote about his sister. “Crush on You” is inessential and tacky, but its mere presence causes “The River,” a song about accidental pregnancy forcing a couple to grow up too quickly and too soon, to resonate even more with its listeners than it would have if it stood alone.

The balance is delicate at times, and doesn’t always land right. Side 3 is a pretty good example of this – I’ve never really enjoyed the sequencing of “I’m a Rocker” into “Fade Away” into “Stolen Car.” It feels a little bit thrown together, as if Springsteen wasn’t really sure where these songs should sit on the record, just that they needed to make the cut. And a lot of the songs meant to illustrate the lighter side of the rock and roll life come off as inessential and filler-y, as if Springsteen had committed to a double album and needed to justify it. I understand their purpose, and in terms of serving the album’s core theme, they work, but as standalone songs, I’ve never enjoyed them, and it takes a lot of effort to not simply skip over them when listening to the album. It’s a little funny to me that Springsteen described some of them as his desire to capture the feel of his live shows, when the songs that really cemented him as a master of the live show were epics like “Backstreets” and “Jungleland,” with Springsteen giving his audience a tour through the heart of America, warts and all.

I’ve got a hearty list of favorites, though. “Independence Day” details Springsteen’s relationship with his father and the town they grew up in, vividly illustrating the inherent sadness his father fought with, enduring a changing of the times in the late 70s that carried over into the 80s. “The Ties That Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” and “Out in the Street” all convey a feeling of freedom, fleeting as it may be, that was so hard to grasp for the blue-collar worker in America in the 70s. “The River” is a classic, of course, but so is “Fade Away,” a powerfully melancholy song illustrating the loss of a love, who has moved on to someone better for her. But perhaps the strongest one-two punch of the entire album is “Drive All Night” into “Wreck on the Highway,” closing the album on the opposite note of the opening – once again embodying the two sides of rock music that Springsteen strove so hard to convey.  “Drive All Night” is dripping with despair, the protagonist fighting against a loss that feels inevitable from the start to the end, pierced through the middle by a haunting, wailing Clarence Clemons solo. “Wreck on the Highway” is the come-down, the quiet coda to the long journey of The River, focusing once more on a couple in the middle of America, contemplating the cruelty and callousness of the world around them.

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Perhaps The River’s sprawling nature is why it doesn’t feel as essential, as vital, to me. But it was massively successful, propelling Springsteen further and further into the American consciousness. The album produced standards like “Ramrod,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “Two Hearts,” and of course, the monstrously successful “Hungry Heart” – Springsteen’s only top-ten Billboard pop hit, which, like so many other songs, Springsteen hadn’t even written for himself. Manager Jon Landau convinced Springsteen to retain it, and after a remix that sped up the song and pitched Springsteen’s voice up, the song became The River’s breakout pop hit, and one of his biggest live show hits.

Funnily enough, the tour in support of The River was just as large and sprawling as its root album, with Springsteen returning to Europe for the first time since his ill-fated trip during the Born to Run tours. This tour also featured, until 2014, the longest show of Springsteen’s career, on New Year’s Eve 1980 (and leaking into the start of 1981), 38 songs over four hours. The River’s tour was, like Darkness and Born to Run before it, an escalation of the same tour structure that came before, with longer shows and a more grandiose presentation by Springsteen. Like its corresponding album, the tour isn’t talked about in the same reverent terms as Darkness, but, like pretty much every tour Springsteen has ever embarked on, it had more than enough iconic moments, including one of the first instances of political speech Springsteen had ever exhibited, at the November 5, 1980 show, the day after Ronald Reagan was elected President. Springsteen stated of the election, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening,” and followed that with a powerful, hectic rendition of “Badlands, a surprisingly strong political statement at the time.

Now then, what’s in the box?

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The River, like Born to Run and Darkness before it, received a deluxe reissue collection in an anniversary year, this time the 35th anniversary in 2015. The Ties That Bind: The River Collection uses The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story as its base, containing a remaster of The River in packaging that emulates the original vinyl release (though not as closely as previous reissues), a live show from the era, a documentary chronicling the making of the album, and a set of outtakes. Uniquely, The Ties That Bind separately packages the original Ties That Bind single album, providing fans a glimpse at what could have been.

The packaging is predictably gorgeous, held in a simply massive slipcase featuring an expanded version of The River’s album cover, the text left off to focus on the stark profile of Springsteen. The CDs and Blu-rays are packaged in a facsimile of a tour crate, alongside a reproduction of Springsteen’s River-era notebook (with lyrics to the outtakes printed and faux-stapled in), and a beautiful coffee-table style photo book filled to the brim with photos from the recording and subsequent tour.

Despite the expansive nature of The Ties That Bind – that’s becoming a pretty common theme here – I found it to be somewhat more lacking than The Promise. Part of this is the sheer level of mysticism and lore centered around Darkness and its enormous amount of outtakes that Springsteen saw fit to dish out as sparingly as he possibly could. Another part is that Springsteen apparently deemed a decent swath of River outtakes to be unfit for release, which, combined with the sizable amount of River outtakes previously released on Tracks in 1998, meant that Springsteen had to recycle a batch of “greatest hits” outtakes from the River era to fill out the outtakes CD. And it was a significant amount, amounting to the entire second half of the outtakes CD.

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Though it made sense why Springsteen filled it out in this manner – there was a standard of content quantity established by The Promise, and The River had already used nearly half of the songs written on the original album itself – it still felt like a bit of a letdown. But hey, we got a studio recording of “Paradise by the “C””, while I believe is the only instrumental track Springsteen has ever released, as well as highlights like “Meet Me in the City” and “Stray Bullet.”

The professional mix of the single album is also a curious listen, even if it had been available for decades as a bootleg in the exact sequence released in this box set. It’s a nice, unique nod to the evolution of The River’s recording process, and an interesting batch of tracks for the less obsessive fan.

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The River accomplished what it set out to do – it’s a sprawling collection of songs written at the height of Springsteen’s raw productivity, and provides a fascinating look into how Springsteen thought about the genre he worked in. At times it feels overly long, it drags for nearly an entire side, and the box set doesn’t quite match the heights set by The Promise, but The River is still easily an essential piece of the Springsteen canon, his first step forward as a true rock star, setting the stage for the rest of his career.

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More Springsteen: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. | Born to Run | Darkness on the Edge of Town | Born in the U.S.A. | Live/1975-85 | Chimes of Freedom | Columbia Records Radio Hour | Blood Brothers EP | Devils & Dust | American Beauty

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Instagram, A to Z

I made an Instagram.

The idea behind it is to show off my colored vinyl collection, but I’ll probably alternate between those and regular vinyl to pad out the posts. There’ll probably be one every couple of days until I get tired of it. There’ll generally also be a blurb about the album on each post, so it’s like a miniature iTunes, A to Z post each time because god knows I can’t handle posting here regularly.

I’ll have a 2018 goals post up once I actually feel the motivation to do it. Apologies for the sudden silence this past year after promising more – my creativity and desire to write ebbs and flows pretty strongly, even after I did a hard reset of my brain to try and loosen up, and not think of everything I write in terms of what I can get out of it. That didn’t really extend to this blog, however, and I got pretty demotivated after writing two obituaries in a row of two childhood hero musicians.

But I’m definitely thinking about this blog, and figuring out some sort of thing to do with it. Maybe even just once a month could be enough. I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, enjoy aesthetic posts on Instagram.

One More Light

 

This one…this one really hurts.

Childhood idols shouldn’t be dead at 41.

I’ve talked, at length, about the influence that Linkin Park had on me as a child and early teenager. Linkin Park was my musical awakening, the first band that I latched onto and said “Yeah, this is my favorite.” Hybrid Theory and Meteora became a soundtrack for middle school and early high school years that, in retrospect, were overblown on a personal level, though there was plenty of legitimate anger and angst to be had. (Everyone always says that about themselves.)

Linkin Park was the first band I was a fan of that felt like they were my contemporaries. They hadn’t been around for 30 years like Rush, or even 10+ years like Green Day, or 20 years like Metallica. Linkin Park hit the scene in 2000, when I was 7, old enough to at least passively absorb the things I heard and remember them as parts of the pop culture that I grew up in. And I became a fan at, in my opinion, just the right time – when Linkin Park took a permanent pivot away from surface-level nu-metal and started really drilling down into figuring out the kind of music they wanted to make, independently of label and fan expectations. And though it has been a very long time since I’ve had a feeling of true excitement regarding something Linkin Park-related, being a hardcore fan through the Minutes to Midnight, A Thousand Suns, and even LIVING THINGS eras was something I’ll always value and cherish.

I thought Linkin Park would last forever. As a young teen, I thought it would be because they were rock gods. As an adult, I figured that their core fanbase would provide enough support for them to keep doing literally whatever sort of music they felt like doing, with a new album every few years for the next forty years. Chester Bennington and the rest, in their 70s, still somehow belting out “One Step Closer.”

Instead, this.

Right now, it’s too fresh. No statement. No indicator what the future will hold for the band, in the wake of Chester’s suicide by hanging. How could there be? Is there even any filling in of such a massive void? This is a band that, for eighteen years, had one line-up, with only temporary hiccups in the early years. By 2001, the line-up that played their final show on July 6, 2017 was fully formed. Sixteen years of the same six men, in the studio, on stage together. I cannot even begin to imagine what you would do next.

And today, Chris Cornell would have been 53 years old. I don’t think that’s just cruel irony, either.

But it’s still time for another round of questions without answers, grasping at reason, trying to make sense of it. “How could a man with millions, an iconic, multimillion unit selling band, a wonderful wife, and six kids not see the good in the world? In his life?”

There’s no answer. None that will ever be satisfactory, at least. If it was depression, then depression has claimed yet another innocent victim. If it was something else, maybe we’ll find out some day. For now, we’re all left holding our questions, while the band and Chester’s family are left holding a void.

But what a career and legacy to leave behind. Linkin Park was utterly gigantic, an inescapable behemoth of rock radio, in the early 2000s. Singles from Hybrid Theory and Meteora were ubiquitous. “In the End,” “Somewhere I Belong,” “One Step Closer,” “Numb,” the list goes on and on. Bona fide hit parades, those two albums. And there are still radio gems across the rest – “Leave Out All the Rest,” “What I’ve Done,” “Bleed it Out,” “Iridescent,” “Burn it Down.” And not to mention that Chester had the opportunity of a lifetime – to step into Scott Weiland’s shoes and lead the band he worshipped as a child, Stone Temple Pilots. For two magical years, Chest got to live a lifelong dream, and was such a successful musician that he had to leave because he had a bigger band he had to put his attention on. Imagine having to leave Stone Temple Pilots because you could only make your schedule work with one worldwide giant of a band. And Dead by Sunrise was fine, too.

It’s hard to get through this, honestly. Maybe it’s because it’s still fresh news to me, or maybe it’s because Linkin Park was so much closer to my heart than Chris Cornell’s work, but this hurts much, much worse.

I do know this: I will always cherish the memories I have of Linkin Park. As the genesis of my musical taste, they will always hold a special place in my heart, no matter how old I get, no matter how many times I look back and think “my god, that’s embarrassing.” When things come to an end like this…all of that other shit seems so small. It doesn’t matter what the public perception of Linkin Park was, how the band became a meme and a synonym for the sort of edgy preteen who doesn’t really understand how embarrassing their behavior is. The epitome of “It’s not a phase, MOM.” None of that matters right now.

What matters is, for all of those kids, all of those teenagers, even if they reminisce and laugh at themselves, how the smallest of things meant the world was ending to them, they’ll always be able to hold on to the idea that there was a band out there they could relate to. A band that sang about the same things they were thinking and feeling. Everyone needs music they can hear themselves in, because it becomes a comfort, a safe zone. The world might not get it, but at least these guys did. The value of that is immeasurable.

I only ever saw Linkin Park live once; incidentally, it was the same tour in which I saw Chris Cornell for the only time, Projekt Revolution 2008, in West Palm Beach, Florida. The early experience of seeing my favorite band perform live was transformative. I still have the professional recording of the show, straight from the band. Maybe it’s time to listen to it again.

A lot of songs become…difficult…to listen to, in retrospect, but there’s a lot to love in Linkin Park’s catalogue, and it’s worth it to indulge your inner teen, even just for a little while. There will likely never be another band like Linkin Park again, and certainly not a guy like Chester Bennington.

To close out, a video. Linkin Park performed on Jimmy Kimmel shortly after Chris Cornell’s death, playing “One More Light,” the title track of their most recent album, as a tribute to him. Eerie as it may be, it ends up being a very fitting tribute for Chester himself.

Who cares if one more light goes out?

I do.

2016 Part 2

So, back in January, I said that I would need to wait until I was on my feet completely to reassess the blog situation.

I moved out at the end of May, and have been living entirely on my own for three months now. It’s been pretty straightforward, not too stressful. Adult life. Same job, same car. I’ve been looking a little bit for a better opportunity, but I’m pretty content where I am for now.

Last month, I took a look at the blog and decided to slap out a post about the new blink album, and it gave me the little burst of confidence and drive that I needed to dip my toe into posting more often, which I’ve done. It feels good, and I’m trying very hard not to force any posts, just rolling with inspiration when it comes. I did kind of force out the OF Tape post, but the other two came along without me having to force myself to do them.

At most, I set a goal to make more posts in a two-month span than I did the last time I randomly decided to start posting again, back at the start of 2016. I’ve been wrestling with making a decent post about the new Frank Ocean album – both of them, really – but I don’t know when I’m going to be able to get that one out. Other than that, it’s just rolling with the library and seeing what strikes me for a post.

With that said, I’m still not going to force a schedule on myself. That worked for about three months and then it got blown up, and I really just don’t have the time for regular posts as it is. I know that even if I try really hard to put out even three posts a week, I’ll just burn out and ignore the blog for another five months. So just keep an eye on the blog, and more posts will come along.

Reprint Special – Reflecting on (five) years without the Big Man

I wrote this four years ago today, which feels like a lifetime ago. Today marks five years since the death of Clarence Clemons, one of the most iconic pieces of Bruce Springsteen’s 1970s and 80s output, the cornerstone of the E Street Band. Raise a glass and give Jungleland a spin before it hits midnight.

So, as of today, June 18, 2011, the E Street Band has been without Clarence Clemons for one entire year.

Now, I’ve only been a serious fan of Bruce for about a year and a half now.  But the one thing I learned upon immersing myself in his music and everything that surrounds it was that there are only two people that are immortal in the eyes of the E Street Nation: Clarence, and Bruce himself.  Sure, Steve’s probably hovering right below there, and the rest of the core band a bit below him, but when it comes right down to it, Bruce and Clarence are the only two who are untouchable.

And when someone who’s supposedly untouchable ends up dying, it has an enormous effect across the entire spectrum of music.  When the news that Clarence was gone hit the community, several huge musical figures made tributes in any way they could; Bono read several lines from Jungleland during the closing song of U2’s two concerts the day of and the day after Clarence’s death in tribute, while Eddie Vedder dedicated a performance of Better Man to Clarence (initially dedicating to his health, only to be told by a tech who came on stage that Clarence had passed).  The subsequent days were a whirlwind of news and tributes from fans of Springsteen, prominent Jersey Shore musicians that had worked with either Bruce or Clarence in the early days, and artists that had worked with Clarence in the most recent years leading up to his death.

But there was just one person that most of us were waiting for to comment on Clarence’s death; Bruce himself.  Bruce had stayed fairly quiet, beyond a single statement released by his camp the day of Clarence’s death.  And Bruce delivered; delivered a beautiful eulogy at Clarence’s private funeral that went over every aspect of their friendship, every aspect of Clarence’s life in itself.  I don’t believe that the full eulogy was released, if my memory serves me right; however, the arts that we did get were heartfelt, powerful, and beautiful, fitting for a man as transcendent and influential as Clarence.

I remember how I felt that day when I found out.  I’d only been a fan, a serious fan, for maybe four or five months by that point, but I’d already decided that Clarence was the best and my favorite member of the E Street Band.  I remember doing some early morning reading about The Edge of Glory, the last song that Clarence performed on that was released prior to his death, and the Wikipedia article mentioned “the late Clarence Clemons” and I completely freaked out.  “THE LATE CLARENCE CLEMONS?  WHAT?”  I googled his name real quick, and, sure enough, there were two or three news stories about it.  And damn, did that ruin my day.  I might’ve cried a bit, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I was a zombie the entire day, running entirely on Bruce-fueled autopilot.  That night I listened to as much Bruce as I could squeeze in before bed, as well as the two Gaga tracks Clarence had played on, and finished it all out with Thunder Road.

Thunder Road.  The opening track (and, at one point, the closing track) of Born to Run, Bruce’s breakthrough album.  That album is definitely the album with the highest concentration of saxophone out of Bruce’s entire catalogue, with the possible exception of The River (I’m still not sure how many songs have sax on that album, I haven’t counted).  Clarence’s saxophone was a sound that distinguished Bruce from the rest of the 70s musicians that were thrown into the poisonous “New Dylan” category.  The saxophone, along with a piano and organ, was what made Bruce’s music a different kind of rock, one infused with several other genres to create something unique, something great.  Bruce himself stated during the Wrecking Ball press conference that he wrote (in the 70s and early 80s, at least) around that saxophone sound, around the one man that helped give Bruce his big break.

Because, honestly, could you imagine 70s Scooter without the Big Man by his side?  Because I sure as hell couldn’t.

Even though Clarence’s role in Bruce’s studio work was highly diminished in the 2000s (particularly on Magic and Working on a Dream, perhaps due to Clarence’s failing health in his later years), his stage presence was still larger than life, as he pounded out the legendary solos that helped make Bruce’s career, and the newer songs where Clarence’s saxophone still had a prominent place.  He played those songs like it was still 1975, like Bruce was still 26 and he was still 34.  Even when he couldn’t play a run of notes in one breath, even when he missed notes with a higher frequency than usual, Clarence stood tall and played every single show like it was his last, right up through the intimate 2010 Carousel performance in Asbury Park, his last with the E Street Band.

And, of course, we cannot forget his involvement with Lady Gaga, the pop superstar of the late 2000s who’s still selling out shows across the world in minutes.  Clarence was, perhaps, an odd choice for an artist like Gaga, whose music is usually synthesized, but gaga cited Bruce Springsteen himself as an influence for her second album, and who better to help articulate that influence than the Big Man who stood tall next to Bruce for nearly 40 years?  Clarence himself had professed a great admiration for Gaga prior to his recording with her, and mentioned that when he got the call, he flew out that same day.  These recordings ended up being his last, with the subsequent music video and live performance of The Edge of Glory being his last in both respects as well.  Clarence’s involvement with Gaga helped to build further interest in Bruce’s music with a younger generation, as thousands of Gaga faithful no doubt said “Who’s that guy playing sax?  Where can I find more of that?” or something similar.  Gaga’s love of Clarence was perhaps most obvious the days after his (eventually) fatal stroke, where she called for her fans to send in get-well videos for Clarence, compiling them all into one long video for him.

All in all, today is a rough day for the E Street Nation, for the Ministry of Rock n Roll, marking one full year without the Big Man, the Minister of Soul, Secretary of the Brotherhood, the biggest man you ever seen, do I have to type his name?  But we all just have to remember Bruce’s own words, his mantra for the Wrecking Ball Tour:

“If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.”

PABLO WATCH: The Life of Pablo 1.1

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My god, he actually did it.

This past week, Kanye West did exactly what many suspected he might do, but didn’t actually expect to happen – The Life of Pablo, still exclusive to streaming on Tidal a full month after its release, was changed this past week. The Life of Pablo, version 1.1.

Astounding.

The process technically began a month ago, shortly after the album’s release, when Kanye declared that The Life of Pablo would never escape Tidal’s walled garden, that CDs were dead and there would be no Pablo CD. He seemingly demonstrated his power over the album by changing the name of “Silver Surfer Intermission,” elongating the first two words to now read “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission.” After that, Kanye declared that he would “fix Wolves,” and then promptly moved onto the next thing, announcing new album Turbo Grafx-16 was in the process of being recorded for a summer release. We’ll see about that one, by the way. Remember when So Help Me God was a lock for 2014?

As it turns out, however, Kanye truly wasn’t done with Pablo. On March 13, just a day before most peoples’ Tidal subscriptions were to run out, “Famous” was updated with a minor lyrics change, and an edit to the transition into the song’s main breakdown. People were puzzled, more because of what the change implied than what it actually was. Now, Pablo was not an album, a static piece of music, solid in its stance in the canon of Kanye West. No, Kanye had turned it into something else, taking full advantage of its exclusivity to a streaming service, where he could continually tweak and adjust the album’s songs, be it minor mixing changes or entire structural overhauls. The Life of Pablo is receiving patches, friends.

On to “Wolves” – Kanye said he would fix it, and on March 15, he certainly did…something…to it. With Vic Mensa and Sia previously having been cut out of the track in favor of Frank Ocean, Kanye found a way to keep them all in the song, sort of, without reducing his own presence. Now, Kanye’s two verses, Vic Mensa, Sia, and Frank could all fit on the track, more or less. Frank was actually kicked out into his own track, but at 38 seconds and consisting of nothing but the original outro for “Wolves,” it’s honestly just the “Wolves” outro again. It’s even called “Frank’s Track” to emphasize the offhand nature of the track split.

But did he “fix it?” Well…

If you wanted all of those components back in the song, then maybe he did fix it. But it’s clear that this was a reaction, probably some sort of extended knee-jerk reaction, to the fans’ clamoring for the original version from the SNL performance in 2015. Sia’s verse is tacked on to the end of Vic Mensa’s; both are sandwiched between Kanye’s two verses, with little in the way of a sensible transition. The end of “Wolves,” going into “Frank’s Track,” is abrupt and jarring, going from the standard beat of “Wolves” to the sparse, empty original outro. It all smacks of something that Kanye, normally such a perfectionist, slapped together and threw on Tidal, maybe even in pursuit of re-upped subscriptions.

(It’s important to point out that, today, Tidal extended the free trials of everyone that signed up around the time that Pablo was released, with the explicit purpose of allowing people to listen to the changes. Perhaps that means more is on the horizon. Who knows? We’re not paying for it, after all.)

Kanye has always been a fan of trying new things, blazing a new path for himself and not looking back to see if anyone’s following, behind he doesn’t do it for anyone else. The idea of the album as an ever-changing medium with no “definitive” version is interesting, potentially unique, and also potentially a mind-numbingly frustrating gimmick. It all depends on what Kanye chooses to do from hereon out – and, as usual, we’re all just along for the ride.

nostalgia,ULTRA., by Frank Ocean

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Released February 16, 2011

42 min, 6 sec

Frank Ocean has made himself infuriatingly elusive since dropping channel ORANGE, one of the best albums of the year, in 2012. He’s surfaced for minor features – on Kanye West’s “New Slaves,” Jay-Z’s “Oceans,” Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday,” several Tyler, the Creator tracks, Beyoncé’s “Superpower,” and West’s “Wolves” – and he’s released one or two tracks of his own, in “Hero” for Converse, Django Unchained soundtrack b-side “Wise Man,” and two preview tracks from an alleged new album, but his public appearances have been incredibly few and far between, especially since his gorgeous Grammys 2013 performance (where he was fucking shafted, I might remind you), and any hints of a new album are even less frequent. Just as suddenly as he burst onto the scene with nostalgia,ULTRA. five years ago this month, Ocean seems to have become content with sitting on the sidelines, chipping away at an album at least three years in the making. And he’s already missed a release date.

Ocean’s random cameos in the music of his friends and the Circle of Jay spurred me to put both channel ORANGE and nostalgia,ULTRA. on repeat for the past two weeks or so. nostalgia was released for free on February 16, 2011, the product of frustration and neglect on the part of Ocean’s record label. Def Jam signed him after he made waves in the industry for the songs he wrote for artists as varied as Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Rihanna, moving to California in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to make a career out of his love of music and songwriting talent. Def Jam signed him for his potential and promptly let him sit and rot on the shelf. No advance for a record, no promotion, no singles, no nothing. Def Jam signed him like he was a trophy, an indicator that they could grab up hot names before they could become hot. Ocean eventually grew tired of it, gravitating to the young, quickly-developing Odd Future collective, lending his vocals to songs on nearly every Odd Future-associated album released ever since. By definition, he was an outsider, but he was accepted into the fold just like any of the group’s other members, despite being far older than any of them. But he kept his eyes on the bigger prize – his own album.

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Ocean grabbed beats from friends, and looked all over the Internet for interesting songs to rework for himself, unable to generate his own backing tracks at the time. nostalgia came together quickly, fueled by Ocean’s desire to do what he wanted to do, meet the goals he’d set when he’d moved out to the west coast five years prior. February 16 came, and Ocean posted an album cover to his Tumblr with no warning, and only a humorous exchange for context. The link leads to a now-dead Mediafire download of the album, for free, with no backing from Def Jam, and likely without a single person at the label knowing about a single second of it before its release.

nostalgia is the sound of Ocean breaking free from the constraints he’d worked under as a writer-for-hire, building a dark, relatively sparse album with a central theme of struggling with love. Some songs, like “Novacane” and “LoveCrimes,” are built to be pessimistic, demonstrating Ocean’s distrust of love and its sources (“Novacane” is also a thinly-veiled shot at the type of music that Ocean used to write for other artists). Others, like Ocean’s re-imagined version of “Strawberry Swing,” portray a purer love, even in the face of an apocalyptic end. “Songs 4 Women” demonstrates more of the shallowness and skepticism that Ocean treats the subject with on nostalgia, which comes to a head on the album’s thematic centerpiece, “American Wedding.”

A re-working of the classic Eagles hit “Hotel California,” using that song’s instrumental and distinctive guitar solo as a basis, Ocean laments a shotgun wedding and the false love the comes with it, telling the tale of a couple that got hitched too fast, as the relationship is torn to shreds, leaving Ocean with nothing but a broken heart and broken promises. It’s an interesting track to hold off on until the end of the album, particularly after “Swim Good,” another pure highlight, which details killing a loved one and dumping them off after they’ve broken your heart. Coupled with “Strawberry Swing” at the beginning of the album, the listener gets a sense of coming full-circle, viewing a relationship from both ends of the spectrum, on two tracks Ocean re-appropriated for his own use. And, naturally, they both end in tragedy.

The album is tied together with a series of interludes that are based around switching out cassette tapes, interspersed with video game sound effects and titled appropriately. These serve as palate cleansers, to prepare the listener for the next shift in tone, and they would recur on Ocean’s next project, channel ORANGE, forming the backbone of that album as well.

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Despite its low-key, self-made release, nostalgia immediately made waves in the R&B and hip-hop industries. Ocean was lauded as a genius and innovative songwriter with a gorgeous voice, and a number of major industry names wondered where the fuck he’d come from. Why hadn’t this guy been lighting up the charts? Wait, was he the guy that wrote “Bigger” for Bieber? What the fuck?

Def Jam was blindsided, naturally. Some of the execs didn’t even know that Ocean was the artist they had under contract – he’d written as Lonny Breaux before branching out for himself, and that was the professional name they’d known him by. Ocean took to Twitter to lambast the label for not giving him a chance and leaving him to fend for himself, exclaiming that he’d done everything for nostalgia himself, and that those stupid fucks at Def Jam had no fucking clue what they were doing. He absolutely ethered them in public as nostalgia continued to build and build in notoriety. Beyoncé came calling later that week. And Don Henley accused Ocean of stealing his music, because that makes sense when you put a mixtape on Mediafire for free. He even threatened to sue Ocean if he dared to play his own fucking song live. Despite people fellating the Eagles for decades and decades without Henley shitting his diaper about it. Maybe it was the “bastardization.” Maybe it was the subject matter. Maybe it was Ocean’s complexion.

Who knows. But all this attention mean something very, very important for Ocean – he’d hit gold. He’d done exactly what he’d set out to do in 2005. He’d made it.

The big time.

The big time also meant that Def Jam had finally taken notice, thanks in no small part to a change in management. New label head Barry Weiss made meeting with Ocean and understanding what he wanted one of his top priorities when he took over the company, and Ocean and his management team made it very, very clear what he wanted – fucking money. Money to make a record. Lots of it.

Def Jam dropped a $1 million dollar check in his lap.

They also attempted to commercialize nostalgia, with a seven-track EP titled nostalgia LITE, featuring the most accessible cuts from the mixtape, as well as two songs Ocean had recorded in the meantime in “Whip Appeal” and “Acura Integurl.” (“American Wedding,” Ocean joked, would probably not make the cut, so as not to invoke the wrath of Mr. Henley, though “Strawberry Swing” might have made it.) “Novacane” and “Swim Good” saw releases as singles with accompanying videos before work stalled out on the EP. Ocean confirmed the cancellation of the project with a few notes on Tumblr and an unofficial release of “Whip Appeal.” Instead, he moved back to channel ORANGE. Time to get to work.

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And, of course, he did – we covered that a while ago – and channel ORANGE was even more acclaimed than nostalgia, though it fell victim to the usual snubbing of non-white artists at the Grammys, quarantined in the “Urban Contemporary” category and being snubbed in Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Ocean himself for Best New Artist. Nothing new for the Recording Academy.

But Ocean likely would never have made it there if he hadn’t taken a chance on himself, fed up with being ignored and unappreciated. Who knows if Def Jam would have ever looked at its contracts and realized that they had an artist for an entire generation on their books – and no, I don’t mean Jay-Z or Kanye. Trust me, they know about those guys. But nostalgia put Ocean on the map, and it forced the world to take notice. Anyone who somehow overlooked him even after nostalgia was surely brought in by channel ORANGE. Frank Ocean had arrived.

And now, five years after the fact, we’re no closer to album three. Ocean’s Tumblr blogging slowed down significantly after the release of channel ORANGE – he’d previously posted a few b-sides in between nostalgia and channel ORANGE to keep fans engaged, but he separated further and further from his online presence as his fame grew. Ocean posted a cryptic Tumblr post early last year, featuring him looking over a set of magazines titled “Boys Don’t Cry,” and implying that an album of the same name would be dropping in July 2015. July came and went, and Ocean fell silent. No mention of any music has come since then. The waiting continues.

There’s no way to know how long we’ll be waiting for Ocean to release another classic. It could be this year – hell, it could be this week, after this post goes live. It could be next year, three years, never. Ocean plays it close to the vest – we know only what he wants us to know. Hopefully, he’ll feel generous again soon.

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