The New Monumentalism in Reissues and Box Sets
director's cut, The Wire, 2013 End of Year Issue / January 2014
by Simon Reynolds
Blame it on Nick Cave’s “A Box For Black Paul”, but box sets have always been associated in my mind with coffins. A resemblance more pronounced in the early days of the CD reissue boom, when boxes were typically oblong and came with lids, but the association endures on account of the serene and solemn aura that hangs around these music memorials. Here lies an Oeuvre, or a Genre, long since severed from the living world of music. Like Lifetime Achievement Awards, box sets are honours that almost invariably accrue to artists whose culturally productive phase is passed.
Owning music, old or new, in physical form is steadily becoming a minority pursuit: a habit elders can’t relinquish, an archaism adopted for gestural reasons (in the case of vinyl) by hip youngsters. Even with those who still buy solid-form releases, the provision of download codes suggests that the actual everyday usage of music is increasingly immaterial. Yet perversely, in seeming inverse ratio to the shrinking market for and vanishing utility of analogue formats, reissues and box sets keep expanding in size and sumptuousness. Some are getting like those ostentatious haute-bourgeois family vaults in cemeteries like Père-Lachaise.
Case in point: The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, a casket-like extravaganza of oak, silver birch, sage velvet and gold leaf. The 87 tracks of blues, jazz and gospel engraved into six vinyl platters are just the crème of a total 800 supplied in MP3 form on a USB stick. This inclusion jars aesthetically and philosophically with the package’s repro antique look, perhaps even sabotages it: one can easily imagine the purchaser never actually getting round to playing the LPs in practice, but instead using the iPod-ready digitized versions. Acquiring this ten kilo monstrosity would mean – excuse the pun – coffin up around $400. And the same amount again, if you aim to complete the set: yes, this is just Volume 1 and another chunky lump of audio-furniture is due in November 2014, via the collaborative auspices of Revenant and Jack White’ s Third Man Records.
Reissue monumentalism comes in several subcategories. Rise and Fall is an example of the archaeological treasure chest: multiple volumes of long out-of-print or never-before-released material. Another is the drastic inflation of a single iconic album, such as T. Rex’s The Slider: not the two-CD deluxe treatment that’s just standard business nowadays, but sturdy cases containing multiple CDs + a DVD + 180 gram vinyl version, along with in-depth booklets and an array of repro memorabilia (badges, flyers, tickets, press photos, etc). Then there’s the Complete Works of a legendary artist, sometimes snazzed up with a gimmicky repackage (The Clash’s boombox-shaped Sound System) or more soberly collated at intimidating scale (the 34 disc mega-anthology of Herbie Hancock’s Columbia years, as reviewed by Greg Tate in The Wire 357). A relatively recent development is the rise of live hyper-documentation, pioneered by the Grateful Dead in 2011 with a 66 CD set of their entire 1972 European tour, and echoed this year by King Crimson’s The Road To Red, whose 22 CDS + DVD track the group’s 1974 tour of North America immediately prior to the recording of the classic Red album.
The monumentalist trend hovers unwholesomely at the intersection of niche market capitalism (squeeze the hardcore fanbase for every last drop), consumer bad faith (fans all too happy to be squeezed for the chance to reconsume/relive something they’ve already consumed/ lived through) and heritage culture (everything deserves documenting, nothing should be discarded). Okay, let’s be fair here: genuine curiosity, unstinting curatorial dedication, an arguably noble impulse to salvage for posterity’s sake, are all at work too, sometimes. What I personally find disquieting, though - as someone who has succumbed to the fetish-appeal and completest logic of these sets more than a few times - is that even when the best motives are involved, the preservationist impulse almost by definition embalms what was once a living force in the world, draws it into cordoned-off seclusion.
Box sets represent an incursion of the “museal” into the domestic space; they are micro-museums in your own home. The more imposing these box sets get as physical objects, the more listening to their contents feels like an imposition (albeit a self-inflicted one). Just like visiting a museum, what begins with real enthusiasm rapidly gets to feel like a chore, an ordeal. Gorging your senses and sensibility with too much in too little time leads to an experience that unhappily commingles edification and excess, duty and decadence.
Real musical life lies elsewhere. In his review of the Paramount box (Wire 358), Phil England noted that the label was known in its own era for “quantity over quality”: it pumped out thousands of tunes, recorded at levels of fidelity inferior even by the standards of the time and pressed on low-grade shellac. In other words, Paramount’s approach—short term, mercenary, they even melted down their masters for metal eventually--was the absolute opposite of the reverence of Revenant, the tender care and luxuriant largesse of Third Man.
Fast-money music, issued almost without discrimination, Paramount’s "race music" was the early 20th Century equivalent of early 21st Century street beats: the shitty-sound-quality tracks thronging and teeming through the infosphere as YouTube remixes, pirate radio sets, Soundcloud mixes, phone-to-phone swapped MP3s, etc - the ceaseless and promiscuous outflow of urban dance cultures like North of England’s jackin’ house, Los Angeles ratchet rap, and the innumerable ghetto dance sounds of the developing world. Just like Paramount’s 78s of songs and instrumentals, these modern dance styles are rowdy, bawdy, and “lowly”; looked-down-on by upstanding citizens and discerning music fans alike.
It is a structural inevitability that future equivalents to Fahey, White, and other epigone-custodians in that Robert Crumb/Terry Zwigoff mold, will emerge to collate these disposable sounds. But that’s a process that only happens once their original audience has disposed of them. (The syndrome has already kicked off with early rap and electro, early house and dancehall and jungle, of course. Expect grime, screw, and crunk salvage to begin in earnest soon). These future antiquarians will hunt down fugitive MP3s and resurrect long-ago dried-up streams. They will annotate their conditions of making, auterise their makers, and assemble their findings into archives that may be physical and exclusively priced, or immaterial and freely public. But as with The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, the original experience of this music—what it was made for, how it was used—will be largely irrecoverable. Which is perhaps how it should be. Everything has its time and its place.