This is going to be an unconventional review from me. This is also one of the only times that I will strongly suggest for you to listen to the album before you read my review. I normally try to talk about music in a way that can make you decide for yourself if you want to listen to it or not. This time, however, I feel as though reading this without listening to the music first will both spoil your experience when you do listen and leave you without enough context for what I’m about to say. If you haven’t listened to it yet, please go listen to it here, even for just a few songs, then come back and read what I have to say. If you’ve already heard it, then read on.
Like I said, this will be unlike any review I’ve done so far. I’ve decided not to give individual scores to songs and not give overall scores to my four categories. Maybe I will later down the road, but for what I want to discuss here, it would only serve as a distraction. This album unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) opens up a can of worms about the philosophy of music, which makes this album title a wonderful coincidence. I will therefore like to use this album as one huge example to pull from while discussing my beliefs on the art of music. This album struck me as the perfect example for such a discussion. I will go through a series of questions that relate to what music is and what goes into a good piece of music, using Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs as evidence to my answers.
The first question has to do with musical priorities, from both the musician’s and the listener’s perspective. Within any given piece of music, there are countless layers and happenings that are unconsciously received by the listener, and one can normally assume that they are all consciously decided upon by the musician. These happenings are byproducts of combining different musical elements, such as pitch, rhythm, form, dynamics, articulation, etc. The results include things such as mood, entrance points, time, virtuosity, and many others that aren’t necessarily obvious on the surface. One aspect that is very much on the surface and easily perceived is musical togetherness. Now, one reason this album is very peculiar is because I find no evidence that The Shaggs consciously made any of these decisions. The outcome of this is a bunch of surface level perceptions being very unexpected and perhaps unsettling, because listeners are so used to music having a certain level of familiarity. Togetherness, or simple rhythmic accuracy, is an example of something listeners have come to expect from musicians. This album has no togetherness whatsoever. Each of the three musicians spend most of their time in three completely different tempos and meters. That is not unheard of in music, and polymetric textures can certainly be done to great effect. In the music of musicians such as Sun Ra, Steve Reich, Frank Zappa, and traditional African drummers, their polyrhythms and intended metric discord come across as singular works of art come together in their own unique way. In this instance, though, there was no coming together at all in any sense. Due to the extremely small texture, simple beats, and obvious attempts to maintain a tempo, this literally comes across as being rhythmically incorrect. My question is, should togetherness really be a high priority? This album answered that for me: no; at least not to the extent listeners seem to give it. If a musical aspect has meaning for the listener, it is never done in vain. The complete discord on this album meant something to me, and hopefully to you. It meant that you can’t put a price on raw simplicity. Within conventional song structures and conventional instrumentation, The Shaggs were so unbelievably unconventional with their presentation that it actually works the ears and the mind in an important way. The bottom line is that it didn’t matter how together they were. The melodies were very fun and the timbre gave the listeners lots of interesting, juicy bits to take in and ponder. This album further convinced me that my way of reviewing music based on my perceptions of melody, harmony, and timbre really do give me a great way to find musical quality. There’s no need to judge the quality of music at its core based on togetherness and accuracy as much as we seem to do now.
So, if The Shaggs could unintentionally invent something so thought-provoking and introspective, my next question is this: does it ever matter what the intention of the musician is? I have pondered this question for years, and honestly, I still don’t have a concrete answer. I don’t think it’s meant to have one. This album did certainly provide a notable perspective in that regard, though. Just to clear the air, I think it is very obvious that the Shaggs didn’t know what they were doing. I know that this is a big hot-button topic related to this album, but I’ll not dwell on it here because the answer is simple. Being this level of dis-discombobulated and uncoordinated is not done on purpose, and if it miraculously ever is, it would be from a complete genius with an incredible amount of output and respect from the entire music community. In other words, not The Shaggs. I’ve heard all about their alleged conversations within the studio and how they stopped many times to fix mistakes, which has been wrongfully taken as evidence that the final product is exactly what they wanted. As a musician, I can assure you that this creation comes from their inability to actually hear and understand what they were playing. The mistakes that they heard were most likely them feeling like something was off, but they didn’t have the ear required to fix it. It takes training and experience to develop a good musical ear, and like the majority of humans, their ears simply weren’t good enough to fix mistakes on the fly. I’ve actually heard this exact level on non-coordination in music many times before, and they all come from teenagers who get together and form small rock bands without any musical training. No offense, it’s great to do that, but I’m sure 99% of those bands quit before getting better. Now, in Philosophy of the World, The Shaggs’ only musical output, their intention was seemingly to create a few catchy and enjoyable pop rock songs. What I perceived instead was a gritty, ugly, carefree, and overwhelming punk statement that questioned and re-affirmed my philosophies of music. Whatever the intention was, it’s safe to say that the perception is radically different. That happened to be a very good thing here. It doesn’t seem to happen often, especially in the popular music world, but the difference between what the musician was communicating and what the music was communicating turned out to be wonderful. In the end, we as listeners only get to experience the musician behind the curtain of the music. This album is a testament that we may want to rethink how much we value the strength of communication from the musicians themselves. Their intentions do not matter if their music doesn’t make us believe in them in the first place.
Even if the music can be perceived as substantially awesome in its own way, as this album certainly can, is it bad that a musician doesn’t make strong uses of musical elements? What does it mean to be a “bad” musician? Does one simply have to sound unpleasant, or is there more to it? Yes, there’s certainly more to it; that much I’m sure about. This album is actually rather unpleasant, but its substance goes far beyond that to reach a deeper meaning and purpose. To me, the music of Nirvana is the pinnacle example of this. They created some extremely unpleasant sounds, and they are some of the greatest musicians to ever live. Philosophy of the World isn’t on the same level of brilliance as Nevermind or In Utero, but it shares similar philosophical meaning. It’s quite hard to imagine, but after listening to this album, I don’t think I can call The Shaggs a group of bad musicians. Actually, it’s difficult for me to call them musicians at all. The definition of musician is up for debate, but I think an important aspect of it is the deliberate attempt to communicate to others through a specialized art form. I felt no deliberate attempt from The Shaggs to do this whatsoever, and since this is their only output, I’m not sure if I can describe them as musicians. Nothing they did was specialized; they had no unique talent on any of their instruments at all. The melodies were awesome and gave the album musical worth, but any lucky person could have sang those tunes without thought into a microphone. I consider none of this is bad musicianship, though, because they weren’t dismantling a musical structure in the first place. To be considered a bad musician, I would argue that one has to have deliberate attempt at communication but make consistently poor choices with the manipulation of the sound and have a small imagination that fails to achieve creativity. Even with The Shaggs’ inability to stay in time and strike a pleasant sonority, they had some creative, well-crafted lines and quite a strong imagination. I would think you would have to have a big imagination if you listen back to a master recording of yours like this and discern that it’s final. Musical non-conformity like The Shaggs is not bad; musical destructiveness like Justin Bieber is. Give me Philosophy of the World over any Justin Bieber song, easily.
Those of you who have been following The Music Observer or know me well can tell that I deal with music from a rather intellectual standpoint. While music is first and foremost and art form, it is secondly a discipline. Music has so much to learn and study from; I wouldn’t give up what I’ve learned about music for anything. I have no question that learning music as a discipline can seriously help one in creating music, appreciating music, as well as dealing with life. However, for the first time since learning about the modernist era of music, I am forced to ponder the real value of music as a discipline. I never would have guessed it would come from something like this. With no evidence of musical talent, training, or experience, The Shaggs created a disastrous delight that carries more interest and fascination than a lot of music created with intelligence and practice. The Shaggs don’t even seem to have a speck of musicality in them, aside from possibly a sense of good melodic tendencies. So yes, worthwhile music can be made by anyone, regardless of time spent in a classroom. While it’s a discipline, its so alive and necessary in the world that all individuals can take it and make it their own. While it has many nuances and layers, it’s a very accessible art, and that’s one of the true beauties of music. In what I’ve been taught about music as a composer and performer, it’s hard to say that The Shaggs did anything musically correct on this album. But who cares? Yes, musical correctness can be quantitative and measured to a degree, but I’ve just confirmed from this album that musical correctness does not equate to musical quality. What I’ve learned about within the realm of the discipline is the inner mechanisms of music; what it’s made of, how it’s formed, what are agreed upon conventions, etc. I was never told that following these rules would always lead to quality music, and I was also never told that the rules couldn’t be broken. My education and experience has proved right. Almost every rule was broken here to such an extreme fashion, and in that extremity is where the quality lies. By not even knowing any rules in the first place, The Shaggs had nothing to think about from this perspective. I wouldn’t necessarily say their lack of musical expertise was a positive, but it really didn’t matter. I’ll stick with using the running shoes metaphor to describe my belief in the value of the discipline: you don’t need running shoes to run, but it sure helps. Indeed, one does not require learning music as a discipline to create worthwhile music, but that background would certainly help every step of the way. Philosophy of the World needed no knowledge about music to be a compelling work; which is good, because it really had none.
Like I said, I didn’t give scores any of the songs. That would’ve required an extensive amount of explanation that really would require a perspective on my philosophy of music in the first place. Now that I’ve given that, I might go back and give scores just for the sake of consistency. In general, I thought melodic intrigue was strong. Melody was the element that gave the songs a listenable quality and actually contained some important uniqueness. The fact that non-musicians could come up with those lines was a surprising delight. The timbre strong and also well-received. The total imbalance was amusing at first, and then became quite peaceful when the realization of what I was actually hearing kicked in. This album had a wonderful raw quality to it and should serve as an example to musicians who want a starting place in sounding as pure as possible. The harmony was certainly the weakest aspect. The frailty and grossness of the guitar was certainly bearable within the context but didn’t capture the potential that the power of each individual song could have had, especially with no strong rhythmic variations within itself. I’ll guess that overall score for this album would have been somewhere between 115-125, which would make it good in my book. There you have it; I just called Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs a good album.