The resurgence of folk in the new millennium has created the economic and aesthetic conditions by which the forgotten and ignored artists of the boomer generation – people like Judee Sill, Vashti Bunyan, Ed Askew – can now find acceptance, both in terms of cultural capital and the plain old paper kind. It’s interesting to see these musicians resurface (or at least their music resurface, Sill passed away in 1979), for when artists such as these languor in obscurity for a large part of their careers, it underscores just how little quality has to do with whether a piece of art is acknowledged or not. That’s not to say that quality doesn’t matter at all, but rather to acknowledge that it’s merely one consideration networked to a number of interconnected factors (who do you know, how much clout do those people have, how much clout do you have, etc., etc.).
Askew created two interesting folk albums at the close of the 1960s, the first to little acclaim, the second remaining unreleased in wide circulation until De Stijl put out the CD last year. Rainy Day Song, however, is not a reissue. It’s Askew’s first new recorded work (released for public consumption) in almost 40 years. While there are connectives – lyrically, Askew doesn’t change that much – and it’s the same man making the music after all, the intervening four decades have shaped him as a very different artist. Before he fit dependably into the zeitgeist, but Rainy Day Song shows him transfigured. As history never goes away, his earlier self, his earlier art, is still in there, but the dialectical transformations have rendered them hazy and dissolute. Thus in vulgar marketing terms, he can’t simply be re-packaged and easily sold to the neo-folk crowd like Bunyan’s Lookaftering was.
The album itself lies somewhere on a spectrum encompassing Leonard Cohen and David Grubbs. Askew sounds like neither, but inhabits the same basin of attraction the others occupy. In other words, there are certain artistic trajectories that lead one into this basin, the aesthetic of the unheimlich singer-songwriter, playing around with the standard tropes, adding bits of stochastic novelty such as a non-repeating piano melodies. Rainy Day Song achieves within it the fusion, and eventual subsumption, of the folk structure with tactics of modern composition. The storytelling aspects and even the legacy of protest is there (“Climbing to the Top”), but it’s decidedly not folk music or even neo-folk music (whatever that ‘even’ signifies).
What is slightly frustrating then, and this has nothing to do with the quality of the album, is that Askew seems set up to once again be marginalized, sadly at the time when he’s making the best music of his public career. There are, of course, a large number of factors that determine these kinds of things, and I hope I’m wrong and that this is merely idle speculation based on incomplete information, but the irony is that the very aesthetic strategy he practiced in 1969 that relegated him to musical obscurity, and therefore transformed him into a “hip” artist, could once again keep him on the outside. Whatever the transformations were that took him from Little Eyes to his latest can only be glimpsed in bits and pieces through some songs posted on his website, but needless to say, through those changes, Askew shifted right out of his former niche, just as a certain segment of the music-making and buying public started to rediscover it. This isn’t, of course, dire. He didn’t shift so far over as to render his music completely unpalatable to large swaths of music consumers, but Rainy Day Song is definitely a product of late-style – more surety, more clarity, lacking the fickleness of youth – thus the contradiction will have to play out – hopefully in Askew’s favor.