Does an album sound better if there’s a tragic story behind it? – Discuss

A few weeks back I stumbled on a track called “Nothing More to Say” by a band called The Frightnrs. One of my favourite DJs added it to his essential listening list and it immediately caught my attention. If you regularly read these rambling Discuss pieces, you’ve probably already predicted what I did next; dear reader, having never heard of them, I looked them up.

The story of The Frightnrs is a sad one. I read this NPR article with their album on in the background. As I read, the music touched me more. It is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of work; lyrically, musically and vocally. It’s reminiscent of classic, smooth 70s reggae – straight out of New York. Even the album artwork has the style of that era. I listened to the album a few times and although it’s by no means a classic, it’s certainly lovely.

However – and here’s the “discuss” bit – I wonder whether I’d think of it as fondly had it been produced in straightforward and more happy circumstances. The story makes it a remarkable and poignant piece of work, without it, the album is good and would have held my attention for a while, but perhaps no more than that. Does this make me a bit of a hypocrite?

Yet again ‘Spillers I come to you to discuss this issue. What do you know about all of this? Are average albums made better because of a sad back story, or does the back story make the album a much better piece of work?

While you think about it, here’s my favourite song from The Frightnrs album.

Till Then.

5 thoughts on “Does an album sound better if there’s a tragic story behind it? – Discuss

  1. It’s an interesting question because with internet you can look up so much about a song, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But when the intended meaning gets so specific to the writer’s situation, it’s harder to connect. I’ve had songs really get me only to learn years later it’s not about what I thought it was. But it doesn’t matter because it still means what it means to me. Learn beforehand what you’re supposed to hear and that’s all you hear. It’s like looking at a painting that has a tag on it telling you what it’s supposed to be.

    I think it stops being art when it’s explained too much. You’re brain is doing all the work and the heart has nothing to do.

  2. Hard to say.

    I’m a bit of cynic but the backstory behind Trees of Eternity adds to the feel of the songs and I like the songs in playlists but a whole album isn’t for me. I can leave it.

    Astrid Swan’s “From The Bed and Beyond” is intensely difficult to listen to now that I know her cancer is metastatic. But I’m a fan and will listen to it all when the mood takes me.

    Her show at Flow was magnificent. Art and pop. It deserved a much wider audience than it got and despite the subject matter we left elated at seeing a brilliant and utterly memorable show. And we were all moved to tears at some point. I know it turned my friend into a fan because she loved the performance and the music not the backstory.

    Here’s Astrid Swan’s own take on the reaction to her not tragic news story.

    Listening to Joy Division has become a struggle because I hear the lyrics and think: “Why didn’t someone help Curtis) Why didn’t they recognise the signs?” Different times, maybe.

    Strangely, it made me appreciate Joy Division as musicians and Martin Hannett as a producer because the music they produced complemented Curtis’s words so well, although they obviously never understood how much suffering he was experiencing.

    We’re human beings – we love a good story, even the bittersweet ones.

    And one thing is certain, I love certain songs more because they touched me at the right point in my life and carry emotional resonance for me.

    • Robert Smith claimed in the 80s that he got frequent letters from obsessives who were frustrated that he hadn’t committed suicide like Curtis. Presumably if he’d done this after Pornography it would have been the seal of authenticity. Interesting that Pornography got such negative reviews at the time – journalists seemed to be running a mile from being seen to encourage someone else to follow in Curtis’ footsteps.

  3. A really interesting question that I’ve sort of pondered for years. I’m not necessarily talking about tragedy but the idea of the tortured artist is certainly one that seems to carry a lot of weight for a lot of music fans. I remember reading a few years ago someone saying that the difference between the Gun Club and their peers in the 80s alternative scene was that Jeffrey Lee Pierce was “genuinely tortured”. Perhaps he was , I’ve never delved that much into the back story though I know he had drug and alcohol issues. The question that always comes to mind is – does it matter? He sounds tortured on record – but if that was all just faking does it matter if you enjoy the result? And if it does enhance your appreciation of the music knowing that the artist was in the depths of despair does that make you much better than someone than a voyeur at the scene of an accident? Or on the other hand presumably the artist wanted the listener to understand that what they were trying to put across was genuine?

    I had a bit of an introduction to these muddy waters as a teenage Dexys fan. There was a quote from Rowland saying “I will pin my soul up on the wall and let people read it”! I took that on face value but over the years it began to seem that Rowland might be tweaking and editing and even inventing bits of the “soul” he was pinning up. To give an obvious example – at the time he claimed that Come On Eileen was about a genuine girlfriend, called Eileen, from his youth. Years later he admitted that there hadn’t been an Eileen , he just liked the name and wanted to write a song about an “Eileen”. I then I became a Clash fan! I had to get used to the idea that “authenticity” wasn’t always what it seemed. Ask a Seasick Steve fan.

    A back story still seems to add something though. The Lurkers became a lot more interesting after I found out that 2 or 3 of them had experienced mental health issues and this seemed to come through in their lyrics. Maybe if they’d pushed this at the time the music press would have taken them more seriously instead of dismissing them as ordinary blokes copying the Ramones!

  4. I haven’t ever really thought about this before. My attitude to music has always been “Do I like this or not?”. The circumstances around how or why it was recorded are only ever going to be, at best a secondary consideration and generally irrelevant. That isn’t to say that the meanings or content of songs doesn’t matter, or that I am disinterested in the experiences of the artists, because those things are clearly important. For example, can you take the music made by Billie Holiday completely out of the context of her life and expect it to still be as resonant (particularly her later work)? Equally though, are the personal circumstances of someone like Robert Fripp in any way relevant to his music? For most singer-songwriters, their lives are grist to the mill, what would Joni Mitchell have written about without the life she led?

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