Thursday, 20 September 2012

Music: Keep or Cull No.14: Alice in Chains - Dirt (1992)

One of the first genres of music I really got into of my own volition was grunge. When I was 11, I was obsessed with bands like Nirvana, Hole, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees and Mudhoney. I was pretty blinkered at this point in my life and would only listen to bands that had guitars, and preferably had a grungy, angsty strain to their sound.

For someone who was so into grunge, it now seems pretty odd that Alice in Chains passed me by during that period, and I only bought the album in a charity shop in Penrith in Summer 2010 when I was writing up my PhD. There must have been some strange psychological need to feel carefree and young again, but for a while I was listening to a lot of grunge again, and rebuying albums that I’d sold years before, or buying ones that I had overlooked or not owned physical copies of before.

I’m not sure how it happened, but from the birth of Napster and Audio Galaxy, until the closure of Oink, my CD collection had been neglected. I’d bought so few albums in that decade that I could probably count on two hands how many I actually bought. I had embraced internet piracy and enjoyed a barrage of free and limitless music. The advantages to this are obvious: I could, on a whim, think ‘ooh, I wonder what these guys sound like’, and within a few minutes have the album loaded onto my MP3 player. There were disadvantages too, ones which I never realised at the time, but have since become quite apparent. Firstly, the music became more transitory and less meaningful. If I didn’t like an album on the first listen, I’d probably just delete it; some of my favourite albums of the past have been growers, only becoming great once they had settled in my mind. Secondly, I downloaded far too much music to appreciate. I had a half-terabyte external hard drive that was always full – I realised I had become an archivist rather than a music-lover. Thirdly, I was listening to music differently: with a CD, you are forced to listen to a collection of a band’s music, usually recorded in a short period of time, with an overarching intention in mind. I would find myself listening to music on my MP3 player on random. Between 2004-2009, I owned a 40 gigabyte Creative Zen Touch, and would always listen to the player (which was always full) on random. It was full of bands and music that I was unfamiliar with; I remember having the vague notion that I could get into all of this new music if I just stumbled across it while listening on random – I didn’t.

When I accidently plugged my photo-printer plug into my external hard drive, and it started to smell all burny and never worked again - I was gutted. I’d spent half a decade collecting and cataloguing music and now it was all lost. What I felt was a catastrophe at the time, I now see as a blessing. In a strange way it liberated me. I found myself buying music again, enjoying albums in their entirety, actually getting into bands and falling in love with music again. Many people go on about the importance of owning the actual physical format: for me it wasn’t about that, it was about the way I listened to music that was important, and for some reason owning the physical copy of an album made me give more time to it. ...

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