The concept of “honesty” is tossed around liberally in discussions of music, yet the word means different things to different people. It’s used legitimately in discussions of mainstream vs independent music, where the implication is that the sentiments of independent music are usually more literally truthful than that of “mainstream” music, which is often written by people the purported “artist” might never have met.
But it’s used when discussing independent music too, in more subtle ways. The honest artist is s/he who writes unmitigated music, free of expectations. S/he has no aspirations of fame or fortune. S/he takes influences only in spirit, not dogmatically.
The problem is that there’s nothing contained in recordings that will provide concrete evidence of any of this. Of course art doesn’t exist in a vacuum but it’s taken for granted that we’d like to think it does. So for example, outisder art will always be appreciated on a different level, for instance, Charles Manson’s copious recordings will never be appreciated without relation to his infamous history.
For a less extreme example, San Francisco indie rockers Girls gained publicity because of frontman Christopher Owens’ almost-incredible backstory, which a couple of investigations have near-enough verified. Whereas Owens’ lyrics frequently feel like trite pastiches of 60s rock & roll, his backstory gives them a different slant: with this absence of a stable family, I for one believe that Girls’ carefree expressions of romance are actually quite genuine, honest expressions.
Ideas of honesty are more pronounced in certain genres. Culturally, we associate honesty with very traditional ideas and images disconnected with any sort of glamorous lifestyle, and with straightforward songwriting, with minimal instrumentation. Folk music is the most direct manifestation of these ideas, and English folk music will always be regarded as “honest” even if the songs are about myths and legends that contain no trace of self-expression. The concept of honesty is also part of the reason why the “world music” section of record stores exists; essentially “world music” is that which doesn’t aspire towards the standards of Western music, and is therefore regarded as “other”. It is seen as honest simply because “world music” is so far removed from Western rock star imagery, and we (by “we”, I mean the Western world) therefore assume that all “world” music is made with purely expressive intentions, because we cannot conceive of this music being made to attract fame and fortune.
(And can I quickly add, just as a side note, because I didn’t particularly want Decemberembers to start dissing bands: here is why I hate Mumford and Sons. They’re making a career out of transparently imitating this idea of “rustic” folk music, after drafting in some hack with a banjo who goes by the name “Country” Winston Marshall. The way they contextualise their music reflects how shallow it is. Take a look at their website’s biography, which subtly uses so many terms associated with honesty – ‘music that matters’, ‘romance’, ‘melancholy’, ‘passion’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘misty-eyed’, and, most tellingly, ‘family business’; in this one paragraph there are too many to mention – and by doing so reveals their conscious crafting of this persona, ready to be packaged neatly into those TV adverts.)
There are also a lot of timbres and recording techniques which are associated with honesty. If you can’t sing, or at least have a unique voice, you’re more likely to be interpreted as an honest singer; Bob Dylan, Joanna Newsom, and Jeff Mangum certainly benefited from their unconventional singing styles. And while super-lo-fi recording is often seen as pretentious, very hi-fi production is seen as commercial and dishonest. Any imperfections emphasise a recording’s perceived “honesty”, as will vocals uncomfortably high in the mix. All of this, of course, applies to real playable instruments, and electronic music will rarely come under criticism in terms of honesty. Aphex Twin seems to recognise this, frequently spinning outlandish backstories in interviews: apparently, he drives a tank, composed Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 in his lucid dreams, and only sleeps for 2-3 hours a night.
However, it might be argued that the only thing that seems positive about the idea of honesty in art is the positive register of the word. Might it not be deemed better to methodically craft an emotionally powerful work of art than to limit oneself to self-expression? T.S. Eliot certainly thought so; in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ he idealises the artist’s ‘continual extinction of personality’. [link] Eliot argues that the artist must act as a ‘catalyst’, paralleling creation and scientific method, and allowing no trace of the artist in the final product.
Arab Strap’s career provides a good example of ideas of honesty at work. Every song they’ve written is starkly confessional, squirmingly graphic, bitterly honest. It takes a lot of courage to publicise any lyrics; even the most abstract lyrics will be taken as personal, but Aidan Moffat makes no bones about personal connections, going as far as to use first names – the ‘Malcolm’ in ‘First Big Weekend of the Summer’ presumably refers to his long-term bandmate Malcolm Middleton.
This song is usually acknowledged as their best; perhaps in part because it’s not as extremely confessional as some of their other work, it’s actually a fairly straightforward monologue describing an eventful, if unexceptional weekend, epitomising the nature of a generation of lazy Britons. It perfectly captures the emotion a great Simpsons episode can create, and the disappointing actuality of a romantic drunken venture, and the fear of sleeplessness and nightmares, (among other things), while remaining stubbornly matter-of-fact throughout. It culminates in what is musically one of Arab Strap’s most joyous moments, certainly the most uplifting point of The Week Never Starts Round Here, the album on which it appears, and was even featured on a Guinness advert – which undermines a lot of people’s definitions of musical integrity, but I doubt Arab Strap cared very much at the time where the money came from, and I’m sure the irony of Guinness using a song with such an ironic chorus was not lost on them. Most songs used in adverts weren’t written for that purpose, and although the retrospective shift in context of the music might be seen to diminish the art somewhat, I don’t really blame any artist who takes the royalties provided by their music appearing in adverts. (Although that of Montreal ‘Outback Steakhouse’ ad was a bit much.)
Middleton says that the record he’s ‘most proud of’ is The Week Never Starts Round Here, describing it as ‘completely undiluted and free from any self-expectations which we later developed’. [link] Essentially these ‘self-expectations’ are what makes later Arab Strap albums more contrived; compare Middleton’s statements with Moffat’s description of the final Arab Strap album, The Last Romance: ‘I felt it was important we didn’t make the same album over ten years’. [link] Moffat essentially admits that the record is contrived, yet these statements are made to sound like a positive thing (whereas Middleton’s “self-expectations” are made to seem negative). Last Romance received warmer critical praise than Week Never Starts, which is just about the least-appreciated and certainly least-heard Arab Strap record, according to RYM.
Week Never Starts‘ flaws are also that which confirm its spontaneity. It has some really bad mixing, it’s produced very messily and a lot of the instrumentation is unprofessional. Most tracks have Moffat’s voice barely audible in the mix and there are several songs that sound like they’re using cheap keyboards, distorting certain sounds fairly recklessly. The production values are all over the place, and there are a few a capella tracks which sound all too naked, hard to stomach. ‘General Plea to a Girlfriend’ in particular sounds like it was recorded on a kid’s cassette, harsh on the ears and with only a toy drum accompanying Moffat’s voice.
And it’s so bleak – most tracks are minor key, and barely grow. Take for instance ‘Blood’ – a song Moffat still plays live – in which Middleton picks through two chords with only a slight variation to give the verses breathing room. The lyrics contain all the ingredients of your standard Arab Strap song – sexual over-sharing, vicious insults lobbed at nondescript ‘fickle disco tart’, defeatism, a longing for something better (and ‘I wish it was someone else’s blood on the johnny’ is just the quintessential Arab Strap line). But musically it’s one of the sparsest things Arab Strap have ever created. (here’s a recent live version which begins with Moffat joking about the price of an Arab Strap reunion – which is relevant because it implies that he’s currently still performing honestly and artistically, whereas an Arab Strap reunion would be contrived).
Later in their career, Arab Strap flesh out that stark sound a bit. ‘Fucking Little Bastards’, for instance, from Monday at the Hug & Pint, takes obvious cues from their once label-mates and sometime collaborators, Mogwai; the song brims tense with distortion, unleashed into cathartic instrumental sections, buried under heaps of white noise. Yet the production values are much higher, everything is more controlled, and the gorgeous string arrangements show a definite musical progression which makes the Week Never Starts songs sound like demos. Lyrically, it deals with the same old themes – self-deprecation, over-sharing (always so much over-sharing…), paralysis – but this song is steeped in metaphor. Week Never Starts songs were always stuck in the moment, they were monologues dealing directly with emotions and situations, and while metaphor is arguably present (perhaps in ‘I Work in a Saloon’), it’s never as explicit as in ‘Bastards’. ‘Bastards’ concludes with a distant minor-key strum of guitar way in the background as feedback drowns out the ironic lyrics ‘Now I want to party all the time’, all of which is drowned out again by screeching strings and an incoherent answer phone message slurring out the phrase ‘fucking nightmare…’
“Honesty” is not a concept that applies, as the song relies on many un-spontaneous artistic devices, particularly in this elaborate ending. Yet this only adds to the song’s power – whereas the emotional impact of Week Never Starts was its directness, their later records see them changing directions, experimenting with different shades of bleakness and consciously creating moods rather than transmitting them straight to paper.
A few months ago I saw Arab Strap live – separately, as Middleton opened for Moffat – and while Middleton, under his moniker Human Don’t Be Angry, performed mostly instrumental ambient guitar loop pieces, Moffat’s show could almost be described as spoken word. He barely played more than three chords on autoharp and strumstick, performing straightforward rhymed couplets all at pretty much the same tempo – but he’s one of very few performers who could hold my attention so well doing so little. It helps that so many things contextualised this as what would usually be thought of as an “honest” performance. The mic was turned way up so you could hear every syllable with crystal clarity, that the crowd were in yearning silence, and of course that Moffat was, as ever, effortlessly self-deprecative, mixing bleak humour with songs that had me suppressing tears more than once. Whether it’s honest or contrived, Aidan Moffat was up there because he’s extremely good at evoking emotion with his inimitable songs.
Cynics would say that Moffat is over the hill, that his songwriting hasn’t developed since his first record (‘Blood’ is written in pretty much exactly the same style as his most recent songs), that he’s surviving off his former fame. It’s what one tends to assume of solo artists still performing after time in an influential band. As listeners we value both originality and honesty, and there’s often a tension between these two ideas: as soon as one makes an effort to be original, one is self-aware, compromising the most “honest” artistic expression.
But in practise, honesty is not something that can be traced – it is something subjective, that resonates for the listener. This will be for the same reasons as any music: its context, and how much arbitrary attachment we make to it; there is nothing concrete to separate “honest” music from music which is “contrived”, so when we talk about “honesty” we are talking about a given context (anything peripheral to the music) and judging the truthfulness of it for ourselves. We value the word “honesty” but this is just the positive side of one coin: on the other side is lack of self-consciousness, spontaneity, recklessness. Ultimately, art is necessarily self-aware, and most artists benefit from a healthy dose of dishonesty.