For most of its history, rock and roll was meant to be played loud. The idea was a simple one: Cranked up to deafening volume, rock music would free your ass—your mind might or might not follow—while cracking you upside the head. The usual punk-manqué bands, of course, still amp it to eleven, and preen as if 1979 never ended. (I’m pointing at you, Green Day, but also at you, you richly hyped “The” bands: The Hives. The Vines. The Strokes. The White Stripes.) Lately, however, rock music’s claim on the world’s excess decibelage has been waning. Half the songs now on my iPod come soughing at me like leaves in a gentle autumn breeze. Is it because I’m older? Duller? Of course! But I’d argue that among rock snobs of all ages, quiet is the new loud. It’s worth considering why.
Indie enthusiasts will likely recognize Quiet Is the New Loud as the title of the 2001 release by a Norwegian duo called the Kings of Convenience. The band plies a deceptively generic sort of Euro-folk, with a heavy shading of Simon and Garfunkel—the kind of music to make your inner 15- year-old spit blood. And yet Quiet Is the New Loud isn’t nerdy consolation rock for the Natalie Merchant set: It also comes in a remix version, featuring such unimpeachable hipsters as Ladytron and Four Tet.
“I feel at home here, in the middle of nowhere,” the Kings of Convenience sang on their album, and that pretty much sums up the genre, as does the title of the duo’s latest (and quite wonderful) album, Riot in an Empty Street. You can pick up a similar sensibility in acts as diverse as the Clientele, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, Iron and Wine, Owen, Jim Guthrie, and Sondre Lerche. But the patron saint of the form remains the late post-grunge singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. Smith launched his solo career as a lo-fi bedroom folkie, and two of his earliest albums, on the aptly named Kill Rock Stars label, remain his best: Coiled, harrowing, relentlessly inward-looking, they feature home recordings by Smith, alone on his acoustic guitar. Fame found Smith when Gus Van Sant selected a handful of his songs for the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, and he eventually appeared on the Academy Awards show, dressed in a fancy white suit, sandwiched by Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion. The image was fitting: the class loner forced onstage at the global prom.
Smith’s entire recorded output was a junkie’s lament, and his final album, the newly released and posthumous From a Basement on the Hill, is no more or less tortured than Roman Candle, his first. Instead of combing it for clues, as if it were a suicide note, we’re better off reading it as an allegory for Smith’s career. On From a Basement on the Hill, Smith is trying to unite his disparate creative personalities and, if not exactly reconcile them, see if they might coexist. On the loudest cuts, Smith is grasping, grunge-style, at an angry decade that never came to pass.
But when he plays quietly, as on “Twilight,” “The Last Hour,” “Memory Lane,” and the absolutely perfect “Let’s Get Lost,” he appears to have reclaimed his true musical self. “Burning every bridge that I cross,” he sings. “To find some beautiful place to get lost.” This is the sound of rock and roll gracefully ceding the public stage. To tweak a lovely phrase of Virginia Woolf’s, it’s also the sound of intimacy breeding near silence. It comes at a loss, but also, truth be told, as something of a welcome relief.