The Nazarene Allure of the Underrated (or Reviled)

In 1994, Chuck Klosterman wrote an insightful and very funny piece for Spin entitled “Give […]

David Zahl / 4.12.10

In 1994, Chuck Klosterman wrote an insightful and very funny piece for Spin entitled “Give Me Centrism of Give Me Death!” where he argued:

If you are the kind of person who talks about music too much, there are two words that undoubtedly play an integral role in your workaday lexicon: “overrated” and “underrated.” This is because those two sentiments pop up in 90 percent of all musical discussions…

I am not interested in overrated and underrated bands.

It’s too easy, and all it means is that somebody else was wrong. I’m obsessed with bands that are rated as accurately as possible-in other words, nobody thinks they’re better than they are, and nobody thinks they’re worse. They have the acceptable level of popularity, they have attained the critical acclaim their artistry merits, and no one is confused about their cultural significance.”

He then goes on to list the 10 most accurately rated bands, number one being Van Halen. It’s worth reading; Chuck definitely has a point, and he definitely has my number. Let’s lay aside the implications about our love-hate relationship with standards of measurement, i.e. the universal search for some Law-shaped peg to hang our hat on that won’t disintegrate with the next shift in cultural mores. Let’s hold off on talking about what this desire for justice and rectification and credit-going-where-credit-is-due says about the human condition. And let’s take it as settled that our obsession with rating and reviewing has as much to do with self-justification as it does with beauty and aesthetics.

Are you the sort of person who finds yourself constantly championing some underrated album or film or book (or theologian) and/or dismissing overrated ones? I sure am–embarrassingly so. If I take our archives as an indication, I’m drawn to defend maligned periods of an otherwise highly rated artist’s career: Michael Jackson in the 90s, post-Smiths’ Morrissey, Stone Temple Pilots (in any period), preferring Use Your Illusion to Appetite for Destruction, you get the idea.

Why? What draws a person to such material? What draws me to it?

First, it’s a comfortable place, a more-often-than-not elitist place, ripe with all the identity markers usually filed under “taste” alluded to above. The smaller the club, the more flattering. Perhaps my inner lawyer likes taking the hard cases, just to see if he can argue them. Then again, no one likes a contrarian, and even if it was an attractive quality, I’m not sure it’s enough to explain the hundreds of hours spent sorting through Elvis movie soundtracks in the hopes of finding one diamond in the rough. Meaning, if the obscuritism were solely an attempt to feel special (justified), I’m not sure it would be such an enduring (or fun) hobby. Certainly not such a private one. Plus, I still love this stuff once it finally gets the acclaim they deserve, e.g. STP, so I have to believe it’s not entirely an identity thing, that there is some genuine love of the material involved.

We’re fond of saying that Grace deconstructs things like taste – freed from concerns about what we feel we “should” like, we can experience music as music, rather than as what it might say about us. We can enjoy what we enjoy, in other words. But maybe “grace” is too strong a word – this process of coming to terms with one’s affections might simply be a part of growing up.

Yet perhaps there is something vaguely spiritual about these “Nazareth phases” of an artist’s work (no, not that Nazareth), as there always is when good, with or without a capital G, issues from a blindspot. Discovering the single beautiful element of a great artist’s worst output is a fundamentally hopeful experience. Despite whatever headwind the artist is facing (personal, cultural, political), some small vestige of their talent remains impervious to sabotage (calling Alex Chilton) or injury, a hint of redemption poking out of the dirt. There is something very gracious about that. Plus, ‘hidden gems’ tend to catch us unawares, and for that reason they are more apt to break through our emotional and aesthetic defenses, burrow deeper into our hearts. Then again, maybe it’s just that the mark of a true genius–a truly captivating artist–is not that they never fail, but that when they do, they fail big (calling Brian Wilson).

This brings us to Bob Dylan’s 1978 album Street Legal. It’s my favorite record of his, hands down. I would never call it his best, but it’s the one I find myself listening to the most (a close second being Planet Waves, a slightly less close third being Time Out of Mind). The ‘big band’ production was panned at the time of its release, and the tour behind it was the one where his born-again period was, er, birthed. So the critics hated it. But the sound has aged remarkably well, and as much as I wish it weren’t the case, the songwriting is considerably more inspired than on the overly religious records which immediately followed (discounting the unreleased material, that is!). “Changing Of The Guards”, “True Love Tends To Forget”, “Senor” and “Is Your Love In Vain?” are all top-drawer Dylan, and contain plenty of rumblings of what was about to go down. The only dud, IMHO, was “New Pony” but even that one had some great lyrics – the most explicit references to his change of heart…

Street Legal also begins Dylan’s criminally underrated late 70s-early 80s period. The song “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” in particular should have been a classic and illustrates what I’m trying to say about this rating talk. A Nazareth of a song, it describes the dark night of the soul in a distinctly theology-of-the-cross kind of way. A few lines:

The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure,
To live it you have to explode.
In that last hour of need, we entirely agreed,
Sacrifice was the code of the road.

I fought with my twin, that enemy within,
’Til both of us fell by the way.
Horseplay and disease is killing me by degrees
While the law looks the other way.

Your partners in crime hit me up for nickels and dimes,
The guy you were lovin’ couldn’t stay clean.
It felt outta place, my foot in his face,
But he should-a stayed where his money was green.

I bit into the root of forbidden fruit
With the juice running down my leg.
Then I dealt with your boss, who’d never known about loss
And who always was too proud to beg.

There’s a white diamond gloom on the dark side of this room
And a pathway that leads up to the stars.
If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise,
Remind me to show you the scars.

There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived.
If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived.
I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive,
But without you it just doesn’t seem right.
Oh, where are you tonight?

So what do you like that’s underrated and why?