The first time I saw the ocean, she owned me. It was an encounter bigger than the moment, bigger than the steps that had led me, by way of a marriage altar, to that rocky Washington coast. Much bigger than any of the pictures, narrations, or melodies that had previously been, to me, the ocean. Its dimensions threatened my cognitive abilities and exhausted my mind in its efforts to take it all in. It was like looking into a great box, one that I couldn’t see far enough into, whose sides and top I could never hope to see, whose corners I was certain hid secrets I needed to know.

Rocky coast, very small figure on a rock out in the water

I understood, then, why all the paintings, stories, and songs existed; I knew then that humanity has, for millennia, looked at this body as we now look at the deep reaches of space. I have since breathed the salty air from several locations, and have come to see her1 as one great thing, differing in temperament from one place and time to the next, but cohesive in identity. I know, on some small scale, the character of that hidden soul of whom Melville wrote.

To really know a soul takes a lot of time, over many miles. With enough time one can predict moods and finish sentences. Mind reading is really just knowing enough about the person, their experiences, habits, preferences; with enough of that context you can empathize to a prophetic degree. It’s how lovers know each other, and how mariners know the sea.

What? you cry, All that through the medium of context? A key, both to the heart and to whatever treasure chests of knowledge we find waiting in those hidden corners? I dare say yes. Understanding what role is played by context, both our own and that of the people with whom and things with which we interact, will unlock the keys of the kingdom.

When I speak of context I mean a handful of things, so I suppose I should offer you what I see as the context of that context. Everything we have learned and experienced in life is spun together somewhere upstairs into a fabric or filter that influences everything that passes through it. When we read a new book, we aren’t getting only the words of a writer sitting in his or her underwear in a dark room pounding furiously or scratching absently in front of an inked sheet of paper or a ghastly grid of pixels. In addition to all that glory we get intimations of ideas harvested from the last thing we read, and the dozens of things before. Camus lives next door to Thoreau’s shack; Darwin inadvertently capsizes Noah’s ark; Suzanne Collins has the unfortunate burden of bunking with Bradbury. In every case the former is illuminated by the latter and vice versa; sometimes favorably, sometimes critically. More often, no value judgment is made since the act of connecting these ideas and filtering each one in terms of the rest is both subconscious and constant. Whether you are aware of it or not your brain is making all of these connections, and when you read together the two words “red dress” you not only conjure up images of red objects and various styles of dresses, your mind also bridges the two data points and makes all sort of inferences regarding what type of creature generally inhabits a dress, and (depending on the cut of the dress and shade of red your mind settled on) the nature, personality, and perhaps even hair color, figure, and sexual activity of the creature.

So it is with everything we consume. Literature, film, music, art, religion, politics, sports, conversations, food, smells; traveling, running, skiing, surfing, fishing, boating: The larger the net we cast, the more meaning we catch. In a very literal and physiological way, the more we experience in life, the more we are able to see of it in the future. It’s an exponential experience involving the continual linking and relinking of neurons and the sparking of complex electrical impulses along those chains, the chains being in fact the threads that comprise the previously mentioned filtering fabric.

All of this is something we’ve been slowly realizing over the last few hundred years: that meaning is subjective, that all we are really able to know is what we think and what we see,2 and that the twentieth-century modernist’s absolute world wasn’t the way we interacted with that knowledge. Modernism yielded to post-modernism, a reactive era with inherently nebulous boundaries. Knowledge was deferred, truth was relative, the color red was whatever each person’s experience told them it was. The musicologist Lawrence Kramer has provided one of my favorite observations of postmodernism, that it “treats as emancipatory the principle that subjectivity is… ‘culturally constructed.’”3 This gave us pop art and culture, a fusion in architecture of modernist aesthetics and classical idioms, and in music, a wave of popular forms.

What began in the music houses of Tin Pan Alley has increased many-fold and resulted in a final triumph of popular or folk music over art music. Academics and lovers of classical music can wail about that assessment, but contemporary composers, for the most part, have held to a narrow view of art music largely contingent upon the very modernist ideas of Schoenberg and his school, while a very vibrant music evolved and grew up around them, burying them under meters of rich undergrowth comprised of jazz, rock, hip-hop, MTV, music videos, Madonnas, affected Brahmsian film scores, EPs, LPs, and CDs. Albums. Stacks and stacks of albums. The symphony, once the greatest of large forms, is now hidden behind the shadows of cities built out of columns and heaps of magnetic tape, cardboard-sheathed vinyl, and laser-etched plastic. The still-intricate symphony has not died, but it is merely a museum in a metropolis.

Once upon a time records were made out of shellac instead of vinyl, and they spun approximately 78 times every minute, much faster than the later standardized 33 1/3 RPM, meaning that these early discs only allowed for three to four minutes of recorded sound, depending on the diameter. In addition to standardizing the typical song length for popular music, this format, when packaged together in back-to-back sheathes similar to a photo album, was dubbed a “record album” and used to distribute works that were longer than a few meagre minutes, such as orchestral suites, operas, and symphonies.

As the materials and methods used were improved upon, the speeds could be reduced, the discs consolidated, and more ear candy stuffed into more grooves. Record producers and publishers saw a new opportunity: If we get a hot artist to record one or two hits, we can then fill the rest of the black with two or three lower quality, cheaper to produce songs. They then charged customers for all half-dozen or so of the tracks, seeing that they would buy the whole thing on the strength of the hits. Those higher-quality songs were then released to radio networks one at a time and called “singles”, stretching out the commercial viability of the album over a much longer period of time than if they had merely released them all simultaneously. Where customers had once paid for two three-minute songs fueled by their brief appearance on stage or on film, they now bought four, six, ten songs, possibly also driven by shows or movies, but with frequent reminders over the hi-fi, re-excited every few months by the appearance of a new single from the same album. A drastic growth in sales was inevitable. It is why a music industry exists today, and healthily, in spite of its complaints about recession and piracy.4

In the following years, two peculiar things happened to our dubious hero, the album: it transcended its commercialist fetters; it became commercially obsolete. The two appear to be similar, and point toward one redeeming end, but they came about independently.

The first, commercial transcendence, was due to the efforts of artists in the 60s and 70s who saw in it something greater than a vehicle for singles. The advent of the concept album in the hands of the The-bands and British-invaders bled into the concept-album-obsessed prog-rockers, who perfected the idea and set the stage for my personal favorite offerings from the alt-rockers, goth-gazers, and grungers of the following two decades.

The second, commercial obsolescence, was the fault of that great enemy of the music industry: digital music. In retrospect, the RIAA’s railings against peer-to-peer music sharing probably had less to do with piracy than it did with their realization that their carefully placed profit bucket was being superseded by the ability for consumers to sip their music one track at a time, paying just for what they wanted and avoiding the less-well-crafted filler.

And so the fairytale has reached a crucial point. Many in the industry have declared the album dead, and it is, from their perspective. At the same time, serious musicians recognize the holistic power of the album, and continue to compose in that format. From its pragmatic beginnings, the record album has fully escaped commercialism. It is now poised to be solely an artistic form, a vehicle not for profits but for the greater meaning that can come from several smaller works presented in a single context.

This is the point in an essay where it would be poetic to reintroduce the opening concept; in this case, a trillion-something cubic meters of water. With that in mind, I’ll cut over to the latest pelagic experience in my life. Last month, The Smashing Pumpkins (alt-rock, prog-rock, The-band, shoegaze, goth, grunge) released their first album in five years, and their best in perhaps ever.5 It’s called Oceania.

Billy Corgan and his band, in its various incarnations, have been kind to the album as a form. The thirty-track6 Mellon Collie of the mid-nineties not only immortalized them but also reintroduced the massively-scoped concept album to a new generation of long-haired kids who had missed it the first time around. While their first two records were extremely tight, they really found something new with this one. The tone and subject matter evolved in their later work, but this approach to writing albums continued.

Delivering this newest album took some introspection and exorcising. Billy released three LPs between the demise of the original band at the turn of the century and this; all three stand on their own but weren’t enough to keep out the sharks. The world moved on from the old band, but Billy wasn’t done. In 2005, on the day he released a viscerally, beautifully personal (and poorly received) solo offering, he abruptly announced his intention to reform the Pumpkins. Bridges had been burned, and so the only original band member was Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer; the rest he cobbled together from his various connections. The resulting music was good. It was really good. But again, the critics dismissed it, and Billy became increasingly bitter toward the industry, his fickle fans, and his long-time love affair with the album. And so he rather petulantly moved on without any of them. “We’re done with the record business,” he said.7 In concerts he openly provoked fans and challenged their apathy, rejecting what he saw as their desire to be puppet-masters of a has-been rock band. In interviews he groused about the state of the industry and played the part of a victim, further alienating him from his fan base. In response to all of this he was asked, “So ‘Zeitgeist’ was the last album?” to which he replied

We’re done with that. There is no point. People don’t even listen to it all. They put it on their iPod, they drag over the two singles, and skip over the rest. The listening patterns have changed, so why are we killing ourselves to do albums, to create balance, and do the arty track to set up the single? It’s done.8

It was heartbreaking to hear. One of the great champions of the album declared it dead. It looked, for some time, like a captain had abandoned his ship. Music was made, and again, much of it was good. The message was that they were now constructing a super-album, but if there was a concept, it didn’t coalesce into anything like their former works. The music was released one track at a time, for free. A bold move commercially, but artistically, the songs barely floated. Flotsam, deprived of structural strength. Each of them isolated, suspended on a thin surface, cresting waves and following currents to an unknown shore.

The band toured. It was slightly different now; Billy insisted it was the strongest it had ever been. When they took the stage with a new lineup, a stripped-down presentation, and a set list comprised of these piece-songs, these album-seeds, something happened. The songs grew. A garden of tears, Billy called it. A kaleidoscope. In their collocation, colors emerged that hadn’t been there before, overtones of meaning. I remembered why I loved the band. And apparently, so did Billy:

We basically sat down and said, ‘This is it. This is boring.’ So what do we do to actually change this? Only thing that made sense was to make an album. Can you make an album that is so strong that it reignites the flame within you and the audience? Is that even culturally possible?9

He decided to find out. Billy wiped the sea-spray from his eyes and commanded his newly-crewed vessel to new waters, ostensibly somewhere between Indonesia and Hawaii. He marketed it as an album-within-an-album. He promised to return to his old form, to craft like he used to craft. The journey took over a year, and the sharks and storms were no less present, but they finally arrived. A week before the album’s release date, the band announced via email that the entire work would be freely available for straight-through listening until its official release, “allowing the album to be heard as it was intended to be.”10 Billy emphasized that the band

was dead set on making an album where every song was just as valuable as any other, ignoring the typical claptrap you hear about needing a single. The only way to make the case that every song on Oceania is worth hearing is to put your heart into the sequence as a cohesive whole.11

They got it. My heart sighed an audible Finally! when I read this. With this incantation they were at last free to create the modern large-scale musical work not because of corporate prescriptions but because it best served the art of the music.

Following my own snobbish tradition I didn’t listen through the album until I received my copy on vinyl. Music often sounds better on vinyl than it does digitally; as an analog medium it represents sound with infinitely greater resolution than any digital format can. The actual audible difference depends on how the music was originally recorded, how it was mastered before pressing, and, of course, on the ear of the listener, as well as how well the record has been cared for. The real reason for this tradition, though, is not because of the analog advantage; it is because of how it influences my perception in inaudible ways. It is well established in the culinary world that color directly adds to the experience we call flavor; in the same way, the flavor of an album is affected by the format in which it is consumed. Again, when the context changes (no matter how slight) so does the meaning, and with it the perceived enjoyment. Many dismiss the preference for vinyl because of the nominal tangible gains;12 I acknowledge the dismissal, but continue to choose the medium for the way it demands attention and encourages the listener to leave behind the day for a consecrated hour of sound.

A vinyl copy of Oceania, playing, label slightly blurred

My first hour with this particular sound was emotional. I heard a band again, not just a lone man with an old name. When I heard female backup vocals and checked the jacket to find the new bass player Nicole’s name bearing vocal credits, I nearly wept. The whole experience was like embracing an old friend. Track after track, flipping the disc every three or four, a story unfolded.

I’ve listened to the album at least seven times since.13 The second time around was a more energizing experience, although that might have had something to do with the listening setting, mowing the lawn with my head wrapped in my Beyerdynamic phones, the sounds punctuated by quasi-quixotic battles between the can of Raid in my hand and the early-summer explosion of the wasp population. The difference in mastering between the digital and the vinyl also affected that second listen; the vinyl mastering was much warmer and saturated, possibly contributing to the more nostalgic experience of the first listen, but also adding some distortion to those troublesome inner tracks. The digital lost some of that warmth, but gained a crispness that paid off well in the higher-tempo portions.

Oceania is a joy. Each song bears the love of careful artistry, but it is only in their union that we can appreciate what they do; only together can they tell their story. I could have heard “Quasar” alone and felt glad for its Siamese Dream–like opening, but also feared that Billy had finally resorted to pandering to his hit-song-craving fans. As the opening track to an entire album, however, I felt the gladness but never had the chance to fear, because I was immediately treated with so many other subtleties of Pumpkin past: the Mellotron in “Celestials” harkening back to Mellon Collie; the ghost of D’arcy’s backups on several tracks; the effervescent lead guitar in “Pinwheels” and “Wildflower”, straight out of TheFutureEmbrace; a Zwan-ish vibe in “The Chimera”. Onto those echoes are summed new sounds for the Pumpkins: the rhythm acoustic guitar sprinkled throughout, something we’ve rarely heard from Billy except for on demos; an expansive use of sine-wave synths, a brighter alternative to the many squares and saws in Adore; a dramatic switch to double-time in “The Chimera”, no doubt a contribution of the new drummer, Mike; a deeply layered female-vocal harmony on the bridge of “Pinwheel”, a stunning new aesthetic for them, and one of many on that track. Any of those facts taken from any of those recordings on their own would have resulted in the same confusion that the one-song-at-a-time release schedule was giving us before. It wasn’t that those tracks weren’t doing new things, or giving nods to yesterdays, it’s that none of them had the strength of any of the rest for support. As it is we have a remarkable work—for all the nuances above, perhaps their finest—an ocean of ideas, differing in temperament from one track to the next, but cohesive in meaning, with many a secret buried in its depths.

The last time I saw the ocean was in San Diego. The city is dirty, but it supports much more palatable suburbs. The trim, welcoming town of Coronado boasts the highest-rated beach in the nation.14 The water is cold, but the sand shimmers, and the ocean banters with the sun much as she does at any set of coordinates she claims on this spinning sphere. It was a brisk day for June, and I didn’t stay to visit as long as I’d have liked. We exchanged small-talk, Salacia and I; she got me a cup of tea, which I sipped absent-mindedly. We stared together, past the gamboling half-naked fellow ocean lovers, at the subject of our adoration. It was a good moment, spent in silence, yearning to drink it all up without being drowned. There is so much of life out there, and while this one spot is lovely, and precious for the glimpse it affords of her plutonic heart, I want to gaze more deeply. I want the bigger picture, the zooming-out, the true world view. I want a larger-than-world view; I want to know the world from every angle, top to bottom, forward and backward in time; I want to look out past the horizon and discern that vaster ocean, the light-years of history branded on the face of space-time, ever fed into our eyes like magnetized acetate running past a tape head, tape so old and brittle that the encoding substance disintegrates into memory the moment it is observed and recorded.

There is so much, and music seems more trivial than quadrivial. However, none of us are capable of cognizing the so-much. We can search and scratch and horde, but the scope of reality is unbounded. While we can’t consume it all, we can frame what we do consume in as comprehensive a matte as we can construct. Learning is an additive process, after all. It directly inherits from this notion of contextual meaning since learning is merely meaning, compounded. I once read an idea15 that further augmented my understanding of the way we learn (thereby proving itself); it was that we can’t fully understand or interact directly with a facet of reality until we have a way of representing it. By this principle, the individual who looks to the humanities for as many representations of the ocean as the mind can hold may, by virtue of our continual contextual learning, come to understand her better than those who have walked a small stretch of her shores but neglected her many depictions.

When we listen to songs, how are we listening to them? If on the radio, our understanding of their meaning is filtered through a fabric of advertisement, radio-personality gimmicks, and perhaps the roar of traffic. If from a playlist or in a random shuffle from our digital player, the meaning becomes one that we have subjectively created by our particular choice in music. I’m not making an indictment of either of those methods; in fact, the latter has particular value because of how it allows us to hand-pick the meaning of a song, in fact creating new meaning for it by the songs we place around it. James Brown’s “I Feel Good” means one thing when surrounded by Katrina and the Waves and Johnny Nash, and a completely different thing than it does grooving next to The Meters and El Michels Affair.

However, let’s assume that the music you are listening to comes from an artist who deliberately packages a song with a dozen others, each of them created especially to complement the rest. There is no better kind of music than that which is the product of careful planning or unifying energy, and when either or both of those things are involved, what you get is a killer album. If that effort and spirit has been invested and manifested in this gestalt, shouldn’t we want that added meaning? It’s like a hidden track that you can’t get to by playing past the end; the historical subtext of a century-old novel; the “third something” of Eisenstein’s films.16 Please, continue to love the single songs, just as we love ocean-side vacation spots, but do what you can to know the whole soul.

Looking out at the horizon over cresting coastal waves

  1. There’s a risk in personifying an inanimate object, and a greater risk at assigning it a gender. (It’s a shame that English lacks a gender-neutral way of personifying matter. Not for long, perhaps.) Criticisms of female personfication generally have something to pay attention to, especially if it’s a male doing the personifying. Having acknowledged that, the ocean must be personified, and it is, perhaps in a real sense, our first mother. More personally, while I prefer to dissolve their binary association and to emphasize the similarities between men and women over the exaggerated differences, there is something about the experience of someone of a gender other than our own that we’ll never be able to apprehend, in the same way that I’ll never be able to know all of the ocean. ↩︎

  2. More on this in a previous essay ↩︎

  3. Lawrence Kramer, Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), 21 ↩︎

  4. The RIAA’s 2011 Year-End Shipment Statistics reports a .2% growth from its 2010 report; unfortunately for them they reported this growth even as they were claiming industry-wide losses as a justification for passing SOPA. ↩︎

  5. Calm down, all of you who just unsheathed swords; I’m about to explain. ↩︎

  6. Closer to 60 if you count all of the (outrageously good) B-sides from The Aeroplane Flies High, a box-set of singles from Mellon Collie. Mind-boggling for a band’s 3rd album. ↩︎

  7. Billy Corgan, interview by Greg Kot, “Billy Corgan dishes on the Smashing Pumpkins: The past is dead to me”, Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2008, accessed July 3, 2012, ↩︎

  8. Ibid. ↩︎

  9. Billy Corgan, interview by Greg Kot, “Billy Corgan’s mission statement for ‘Oceania’: Do or die”, Chicago Tribune, June 15, 2012, accessed July 6, 2012, ↩︎

  10. Email message to the band’s mailing list on June 11, 2012 ↩︎

  11. Ibid. ↩︎

  12. Although one of the greatest advantages of the medium is its very tangibility: When the world ends and all your batteries have died, I’ll have built a gramophone and will be bathing in Led Zeppelin’s IV. ↩︎

  13. Chicago Tribune 2012, op. cit.: “Don’t expect anyone to listen seven times.” ↩︎

  14. That is, if you can trust the analysis of someone who calls himself Dr. Beach ↩︎

  15. Not a new one, but here represented by Kaja Silverman talking about the ideas of Pierce. The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford University Press, 1983), 16 ↩︎

  16. He wrote that, when assembling two strips of film, “no matter how unrelated they might be, and frequently despite themselves, they engendered a ‘third something’ and became correlated when juxtaposed according to the will of an editor.” Sergei M. Eisenstein, The Film Sense, trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947), 9 ↩︎