Critical Care: "By the Way, What Did You Think of My Review of You?"
Ten years ago, I reviewed a record called Mood Ring by a Minneapolis singer-songwriter named Jeff Arundel. It wasn't a particularly good record, and it's fair to say that it earned its spot in the great milk crate in the sky, where promo discs go after they've had their industry-standard three spins.
Actually, I wouldn't even remember having heard Mood Ring but for the fact that it was the first album I ever reviewed. My college paper printed my opinion, giving me $10 and my first byline.
Maybe this will seem weird, but in the decade since Mood Ring, I've never asked for feedback from any artist I've reviewed. After I review a band, I tend to avoid 'em like the plague. I'm not sure why, exactly, but there's something inherently awkward about artist-critic interaction, even if I've said nice things. That goes double for guys like Arundel, whom I compared unfavorably to John Cougar Mellencamp:
"It's quite possibly Alan Greenspan's fault that Middle American singer/songwriters like Jeff Arundel don't seem to have anything to write about," I wrote as a smug 20-year-old. "Arundel's Mood Ring is the kind of straightforward blues-tinged folk rock you might expect a well-adjusted Midwesterner to make with his acoustic guitar. Yet, despite his talent and ability to write songs, Arundel doesn't seem to have much to express, lyrically or musically . . . Arundel is clearly a talented musician and, maybe, if he gets a little help from a recession, he can find his musical vision."
Well, we certainly got that recession. Sweet, right?
After looking up that review on a fleeting whim of nostalgia, I thought I'd track down ol' Jeff Arundel. Partly, I wanted to see if my Greenspan theory worked out. But mainly I wanted to conquer my weird artist-avoidance thing. Also, I guess I kinda wanted to hear whether Arundel thought I was an asshole. Or, maybe, whether all critics were assholes.
As it turns out, Arundel is still making music. His soon-to-be-released new album, Bomb, is stellar, actually, though the nation's overall economic climate has nothing to do with it.
For a folky type, Arundel is pretty well off. He happens to be the guy who invented those Lifescapes music kiosks you find in Target, the ones that sell Celtic Soul and Caribbean Music for Stress Relief. The venture was very successful, he says, and he pumped the proceeds of his entrepreneurial efforts back into his music career. He hired top producers for Mood Ring and spent months in New York putting it on wax. The record didn't break, and by mid-decade, Arundel pretty much gave up making his own music. Instead, he produced records for his wife, a piano chick named Keri Noble.
Then, she left him.
"After seven years, totally out of the blue, she left with the bass player, who was our friend, whose wife was our friend. So I had this massively traumatic experience that I just never saw coming, so I did what I did at the start of my musical life, which was that I had feelings and I wrote about them."
Obviously, that's a trajectory you wouldn't wish on anyone. But the resulting album, Bomb, which opens with a crushingly intimate acoustic version of the story, is excellent.
I wasn't expecting that from Arundel. I also wasn't expecting any thought-provoking career advice. But weird things can happen when you look up random people from your past, I guess. Turns out Arundel has a cautionary tale for musicians — and for critics.
"The first record I ever made was in 1989, and it was called Walking in the Dark. It was a record that got played on radio, which kind of got me going on a serious, competitive deal," he says. "Mood Ring was pretty calculated in lot of ways. [We were] trying to create something that would achieve commercial success. Bomb is something where it's in there and it's gotta come out and I don't care what anybody says. So the perspective is totally different. We both know, you and me, that the best art is created when it's happening that way, where it's just gotta happen, and the person is not attaching themselves to the outcome, but that's a pretty authentic, hard place to get to as an artist."
It's an increasingly hard place to get as a critic, too. Back in my college newspaper days, I wrote the best review I could and moved on. Maybe I got a letter or two if it was really outrageous, but usually not. I was well insulated, sitting up in an ivy-covered brick tower sipping Mountain Dew Code Red and raking in the princely sum of $10 to casually judge the product of someone else's heartfelt passion. Good times.
Now, of course, critics get instant and incessant feedback via the Internet. Also, the success of our work is easily quantifiable, not just at the once-a-year Arizona Press Club awards banquet, but in weekly Web traffic reports.
"That's going to have the exact same effect," Arundel says. "That's going to change what you write and how you write it. I mean, not you personally . . ."
No, I say, it absolutely could have an effect on me personally. That's something I worry about a lot. So I've just got to be authentic?
"Well, that's so cavalier. It's like, sure, that's my advice. It's also really hard to do," he says. "You face, ironically, the same core question that the artist faces, which is, 'Am I doing this to get the clicks or am I doing it because I love doing it and I'm going to write about it?' And, God, that's a really tough question. In my own personal circumstances, it meant I finally kinda got beat down to a place I'd actually rather be, which is that I'm doing it because I love to do it, and whatever happens happens."
Eventually, I ask Arundel what he thought of my review of Mood Ring. I figure everyone is detached and wizened after a decade.
"I actually think your review from 10 years ago was pretty astute and pretty shrewd," he says. "As I look back on it, I struggle hearing [Mood Ring] myself because it's just not as authentic . . . I got caught up in the game where, you know, we've had this success, and these radio stations played it last time and how are we going to create this thing that will continue the momentum. All that stuff ends up being, in hindsight, from the maturity I have today, kind of soulless, and I think in your review that's pretty much what you were targeting."
Time has a funny way of revealing the truth about that stuff, I think. At least to guys like Jeff and me, guys who mix art with ambition but still hope to do the right thing. There's a fine line to walk, for sure.
"I feel like that filter of anxiety — of whether I'm going to get clicks, of whether or not people are going to like it — I feel like I'm free of that now," he says. "That's a great place to be."
I hope I'm there, too. It's hard to tell.
Let's talk about it in 10 years.
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