It’s hard to find music of substance in this post-alternative world. When I say post-alternative, yes, I do mean the mid-to-late-90s. Musical trends shifted from grunge and alternative to lighter techno and dance oriented tunes in the late 90s, and then as the internet started to unravel the loosely held together “business model” known as the Compact Disc, consumer choice grew like never before.
While everyone can appreciate choice, it seems as though there is a bandwidth (even if loosely-defined) for how many songs, albums or artists get ushered into the spotlight. The gatekeepers of the industry still hold tightly to the keys, and mainstream radio airplay and TV talk shows and commercials are mediums reserved for the shallow, boring, repetitive, asinine, “I just woke up and wrote this” kind of music. It’s hardly artistic or creative in the truest sense.
Image is still king. Pop music may not be selling as well as it once had, but there would be no “industry” if it didn’t continue to penetrate the masses and rack up substantial sales figures.
Where grunge and alternative was abstract and anti-technical (allowing the listener to decide for themselves what the songs were about), today’s music is anything but subtle. If I were to coin a term, it would be “crotch in your face” music. We’ve gone past the point of subtle allusion and euphemism. No one has time for that anymore.
Today’s music is not anti-technical, nor is it abstract, but god forbid anyone use more than a drum machine and a keyboard to construct a “beat”. God forbid anyone write a chorus with more than five words. God forbid anyone use rich, layered vocal harmonies.
This is supposed to be talent? I’m sorry; few bands in the 60s or 70s even had the privilege or option of doing multiple takes or overdubs on their recordings. If they did, it was just to flesh out the tracks or “fill the holes”, not to try to cover up poor performance. Bands had to be tight units.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that there hasn’t been any good music since the mid-90s, nor am I glorifying grunge (it’s not even my favorite style of music). I’ve certainly enjoyed some of the melodic rock, electronic, and even pop and punk projects that have come out since. Some have been mainstream releases, but that’s usually the exception to the rule.
I think Jonathan Ferguson fills a niche that few would dare explore in this in-your-face world. He’s an intelligent, thought-provoking singer/songwriter whose carefully crafted songs have genuine depth. Who in this day and age would deliberately enter the folk scene and try to write songs that feature rich storytelling, metaphor, and allusion? Who in this day and age would dare use subtlety to convey a message? Who in this day and age would cite Jackson Browne and Paul Simon as influences?
Well, more artists than you might think. Again, you probably just don’t know about them.
With Ferguson’s solo debut album, Sweeter After Difficulties, listeners are invited to foster and explore independent thought once again. Undoubtedly, this album does explore dark and melancholy territory, with songs like “Ballerina”, “Girl in the Little Green Car”, “Fireworks” and others. But then again, some of the most memorable artistic pieces in music history have often been those that are reflective and thought-evoking rather than merely celebratory. Neither is wrong or right, but heartache can draw out intense, dormant feelings within an artist, causing them to dig deep for a meaning and therefore a song.
Sweeter After Difficulties is also a cohesive and immersive experience. It’s great to listen to all the way through. Many artists today rely on singles to keep their fans engaged. After all, it’s easier to put your focus on one song than it is to have to think about how a dozen or more songs are going to fit together. It may take longer to accomplish, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing. In fact, it should be celebrated more than it commonly is. An album takes effort, just like a book or a painting or a sculpture takes forethought and imagination and planning and hours of execution.
In the music industry, there has been a lot of talk about how the album is dead, but the resurgence of vinyl proves otherwise. You don’t just put on a record to enjoy one song. Even if there is a song or two you enjoy more than the others, it’s also about the experience and the auditory journey leading up to those songs that is just as satisfying, if not more. Where others zigged, Ferguson zagged.
Sweeter After Difficulties is a great album to have playing in the background, but true enjoyment comes from just listening to, soaking in, and experiencing this collection of songs. Ferguson’s invitation to his listeners is clearly to engage in the art-form of songwriting once again. From beginning to end, the album has flow - upbeat to melancholy to hopeful - and that doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes planning and thought that you will rarely find in the microwave music of this generation.
This album also has depth that stands up to repeated listens. There are layers of instruments, vocal harmonies and backing instruments that you may not even notice the first or second listen through. The rhythm section is primarily built on a mix of percussion and drums, a stand-up bass and Ferguson’s own acoustic guitar. The pre-arranged strings sections and acoustic-and-electric lead guitar parts provide great atmosphere and countermelodies too (I won’t lie; I may have had a hand in that).
This album does utilize some modern production techniques. There are some MIDI instruments in use. There is some editing, and there are overdubs. However, the rawness of the vocals and the guitar playing prove that performance is still alive. The whole is polished, but not to the degree that the life is sucked out of it.
Ferguson certainly has room to grow, but that’s what’s exciting about this debut release. His follow-up is sure to showcase some of the growth he has honed through live performance and collaboration with other musicians.
It’s time to embrace choice again; not merely for the enjoyment of the novel, the passing, or the euphoric. The album experience deserves to be embraced and not diminished; especially if there are more than two or three “good” songs on a given album. Music deserves to be appreciated and not devalued. Attention and concentration should be devoted to artists and the art they toil over. There should be value attached to their work.