As a music critic and journalist, I can get pretty jaded about listening to the new CDs that cross my desk (or, increasingly, the digital or streams that are grudgingly entrusted to me by record labels through top-secret back alleys of the Interwebs). But I can’t front—I was flat-out excited when I opened up a recently and found inside my very own copy of Miranda Lambert’s third album,Revolution.
I have found Lambert’s unlikely journey from Nashville Star runner-up to fully-formed artist uniquely satisfying, and admire the speed and sureness with which she established herself as a first-rate songwriter and singer with a remarkably fully formed artistic persona. That she has managed to thrive in mainstream country even while being mostly ignored by radio (her lone Top 10 to date, the murderous “Gunpowder & Lead,” is also her most amusingly unlikely) has also helped to redraw longstanding Nashville rules and given her the freedom to avoid the kinds of compromise that for most in her position are a matter of course. She’s one of the best we have.
I held onto my copy of Revolution until the end of the workday, when I could slide it into my car’s CD player and give it the undivided attention it surely would deserve (while simultaneously obeying all laws, naturally). As the first few spilled out of the speakers, something began nagging at me. These were clearly good songs—the “White Liar” and “Dead Flowers” I’d already heard and liked, and “Only Prettier” was up-to-par Lambertian sass. By “Me and Your Cigarettes,” I knew something was afoot. One part of my brain was entertained, another was troubled.
It was the fifth track that did it. “Maintain the Pain” opened with a menacingly understated intro and a classic Lambert lyric: “I put a bullet in my radio/Something just hit me funny, I don’t know/Just pulled the trigger going down the road.” When the song exploded into its aggressively rocking chorus, I immediately wished I had a gun of my own. My suspicions were definitively confirmed: This album is too damn loud. I knew immediately that what should have been one of the best albums of the year had been ruthlessly defaced, and that the Loudness War had well and truly come to Nashville at last.
If you have no idea what I’ve been going on about for the last couple of sentences, don’t feel bad—it’s a technical audio matter that until recently went comfortably under the radar of most consumers. Think of it as a conflict in a far-off land that has been raging for a decade, but only now come to your shores. And believe me: Both sides are losing, valuable treasures are being sacrificed and the fight is not worth it.
So here’s what you need to know. First of all, there’s a difference between “volume” and “loudness.” The former you can with the knob or button on your stereo/radio/computer/iPod/Victrola/whatever. The latter is decided upon before you ever buy the music. “Loudness” is the built-in volume of each element of each track, levels that are usually determined in the mixing or mastering stage of . The more “loudness” is applied to a track, the less it has in the way of dynamics—the quiet parts of a song become just as loud as the noisy parts. When “Maintain the Pain” slams into its chorus, for instance, the dramatic impact is lessened because the “quiet” intro isn’t really quiet at all.
Since the late 1990s, many of the people who make the music we to—fromartists to producers to label execs to whatever other chefs are in the kitchen—have carried on a war of attrition in which one after another nudges the loudness higher and higher and higher in an attempt to grab the consumer’s increasingly difficult-to-hold attention. No one wants his or her song to be quieter than the song that precedes it on the radio, for fear of losing a possible consumer’s attention. (Much more can be found at the website of Turn Me Up!, an organization formed to fight the practice.)
The loss of dynamics is a shame, but that’s not the aspect of the Loudness War that’s had me throwing an epic music-geek hissy fit for the last year or so. The real trouble comes when loudness is jacked up so far that it “clips”—that is, it becomes louder than the available spectrum of sound on the recording media can handle. Then the sound becomes distorted, and not that good kind of distortion you get from a guitar pedal—this is the kind of distortion that and even hurts your ears, and turns a great song like “Maintain the Pain” into a cacophony of undifferentiated noise. Pull “Maintain the Pain,” “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” “Sin for a Sin” or several otherRevolution tracks up on a recording device and look at the wave forms; you don’t have to be an engineer to see that for large chunks of each song what should look like squiggly lines (think parallel EKG readouts, one line for each stereo channel) instead look like simple rectangular blocks.
For the rock world, the Loudness War finally became a matter of public protest last year with Metallica’s Death Magnetic. The band’s return to artistic form was wrecked by a mix that compromised the drama of epic songs like “The Day That Never Comes” by compressing their dynamics flat and so heavily distorted the loudest tracks that I, for one, couldn’t stand to listen to it on headphones. I wasn’t alone—fans started a to have the album remixed (mastering engineer Ted Jensen repudiated the album, saying the loudness was built into the mix before it reached the mastering stage). Other offenses were cataloged, including loudness-afflicted rock and pop albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Christina Aguilera, Rush and others; recently remastered albums by groups like the Rolling Stones and ABBA have classic music sounding suddenly shrill and clattery. And now it’s country’s problem too.
This must stop. Great music should be timeless, something to be returned to again and again, something to be discovered anew. The long-term viability of music like that on Revolution is compromised when presented in a fashion that punishes, rather than rewards, repeated listening. The fact that this phenomenon has continued after the Death Magnetic fiasco bespeaks a troubling disregard for the value of music on the part of the very industry that is built upon it. Songs are being painstakingly composed, performed and recorded by teams of talented people only to be casually defaced at the end of the process.
Yes, a great deal of hackneyed, commercially calculated and downright vacuous music emerges from Nashville city limits. But each song I loathe is undoubtedly loved by someone, and when any person hears a song that enriches his or her life I believe that moment is at least a little bit sacred. For that reason, every song deserves a chance to be heard clearly.