Shuffling off the album experience?

This morning, I listened to Neil Young Harvest for the very first time.

It’s not that I don’t know the songs – I’ve heard them all many times before.

But not as an album experience. Until now.

And now that I have, I don’t have a lot to say about it that hasn’t already been said. Other than that it’s superb for so many reasons – the poetry, the highly technical and beautiful guitar work, the backing singers (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and C, S and N).

This post isn’t about Neil Young. But the above is an example of something I’ve been reflecting a lot about recently: are we losing the album experience? And is that a good or bad thing?

My normal procedure when I physically buy CDs is that new discs will sit in a pile next to my reliable and wonderful 20-year-old Paradigm speakers and get a run on an old-fashioned CD player. I usually buy a bunch together and listen – album by album – devouring liner notes and trying to remember if the guy on electric bass was the fellow who played on that other album by…you get the picture. Eventually they join the broader collection.

But with downloading, the experience has shifted. There’s no physical pile – nothing to prompt me about my new purchases and encourage me to experience the album as it was intended by its creators. So after an initial listen, the iPod gets set to shuffle and the occasional song from the new album is the only reminder.

And the absence of liner notes….oh the absence. They’ve always been an intrinsic part of the initial album experience for me. It’s not just about having the lyrics to hand. In fact, for me it’s less about that and more about knowing who’s making the noises – the band, the backing vocals, who wrote what. And I especially like the thank yous. I find them really telling. Who helped, who is important to this artist, and who influenced. I’m not telling a true music fan anything unique – you get it. These are the things that can make the first listening experience truly complete. I then listen with broader ears – knowing what – and who – went into the album. But that doesn’t seem to happen with downloads. I could hunt about online – and I do. But it’s not the same.

And then what about the artwork and design, the smell of the paper, those first fingerprints you leave on the inside pages? I definitely miss all that.

And for the true audiophile, there’s also the dark side: the crime that is compression. One hunts high and low for the stereo set-up that delivers beautiful resonant bass and clear, crisp top registers only to experience a mere facsimile of the original production as it winds its way through a tiny docking station and flimsy white wire to your expensive speakers.

But then again, there are also a lot of upsides to downloading.

Firstly, I can find much more of my kind of music online – which is not exactly mainstream or readily available. No need to go into a store and try to order from a face wearing only spots and a blank scowl that only 10 minutes before was in raptures over Justin Bieber.

Second, thanks to the shuffle function, I can spend all afternoon massaging this blog, or working on other things, without having to stop every 30 minutes to change the CD.

And ironically, also thanks to shuffle, I get so much more out of the albums.

What?

I’ll be pootering about doing things while I’m listening, and suddenly a track will come on that really strikes me. It’ll be one I’ve heard a million times before – and maybe even wasn’t that much of a fan of compared to the rest of the songs on that album. Then suddenly, emerging from behind random other artists, it’s like I’m listening to it for the very first time. And loving it.

So are we losing the album experience? Maybe not. We’re just coming at it from a different – and randomised – angle.

And frankly, if I really want the brilliant audio quality and the smudgy marks on the liner notes, I’ll get off my lazy patootie, get the physical CD, walk the 10 steps to the stereo, drop to the floor and lose myself in that tiny italic writing: “Lyrics by…vocals by…backing vocals…left-handed harmonica played by…thanks to…”…

…then I’ll upload it and let shuffle show me the things I may have missed the first time.

Ah, progress.

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