Months before the release of Wilco’s latest record, The Whole Love, front man Jeff Tweedy told Spin the album might turn out a bit obnoxious and irreverent, at least compared with the band’s other work. Of course, he also figured that as soon as the record was out, there’d be “somebody sitting in a basement at their computer with the word ‘meh’ already typed up,” waiting to write it off. The finished product certainly doesn’t sound cramped; it ranges around from sunny Americana to pop-rock fundamentals, and it’s bookended by two long tracks you might describe as experiments. But it’s the kind of record a lot of fans praise not by pointing out powerful songs or grand ideas but by spotlighting the musicians themselves—some imaginative, molten-metal guitar leads from Nels Cline here, some nimble and inventive drumming from Glenn Kotche there. It turns out that Tweedy and his basement “meh”-sayers are both right: Wilco has packed some first-rate musicianship into an album that feels a bit like sitting on a Chicago back deck watching a particularly uneventful baseball game.
A similar reception might be in store for the Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist and her new album, Metals. Four years ago, a sly pop song called “1234” wound up propelling her out of indie circles and further into the mainstream than she might have imagined—the kind of mainstream that involves Grammy performances. The problem: For a while, countless descriptions of her music revolved around coffee shops and dinner parties or cast her as a maker of middlebrow background listening, of NPR Muzak. The career change was big enough that the artist stepped away from music for a few years—and when she returned, it was to hole up in a cliffside studio in Big Sur and make Metals, a record that politely ignores whatever commercial or marketing expectations anyone might have had regarding her. Metals sounds natural, like brambles, stone, and thunder; it’s almost obsessively interested in the sounds of wood knocked, metal plucked, and bodies moving in a large, open room. Now and then, it gets genuinely heavy, ramping up to a commotion like a storm passing over; and unlike Wilco’s latest, it stirs at somewhat more pungent emotions. (Wilco always seems like something you’d listen to in company; Feist is good at making you feel like you’re the only one hearing her.) But as much as it may ignore the bigger audiences it could be courting, Metals is still a singer-songwriter record, with gusty singsong melodies about finding clarity by the oceanside delivered over cozy acoustic arrangements—which is to say, there is plenty of “meh” in the world for it, too.
Perhaps that dismissive reaction strikes you as snobby or elitist. Then again, perhaps you have precisely the same feelings about, say, Mylo Xyloto, this week’s album release from Coldplay, a band much of the mainstream public has agreed to think of as boring pap; at times it seems like their pivotal role in our culture is to give even the most casual listener one solid chance to be snobby about music. And perhaps you wouldn’t feel particularly elitist about that opinion; only correct.
If I were to claim that records like Metals and The Whole Love—or recent albums by Neko Case, Bon Iver, Stephen Malkmus, perhaps even Radiohead—represented some kind of norm or mainstream in American music, you might wrinkle your nose a bit. These acts don’t sell nearly the number of records that Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or Coldplay do, and we have the habit of thinking of them as independent acts (and, by extension, underdogs). But if there is a consensus about what counts as respectable, adult music in 2011, these acts are surely a part of it: While more people consider pop music inherently silly than enjoy it, few assaults are leveled at the seriousness or artistic value of this stuff. It’s tasteful and subtle and brings a few newish ideas to the middle of the road; it adheres to a classic sense of what rock and American music are, but approaches it from artful enough directions to not seem entirely fusty; a certain type of teenager and a certain type of parent might agree on it. If this sounds close to the definition of what was once considered “adult contemporary,” well, that’s precisely the territory bands like Wilco have spent the past decade colonizing, often entirely by accident. One good indicator of this norm’s normalness? The main criticism you hear about this kind of record—even outweighing references to Starbucks and/or the bourgeoisie—is that it is just too dull to even bother producing any more complex indictment of it. These acts, intentionally or not, have won; they’ve taken a lower-sales, lower-budget version of the type of trip Sting once took, from a post-punk upstart to an adult staple.