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The Sea and Cake - The Moonlight Butterfly

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Artist: The Sea and Cake

Album: The Moonlight Butterfly

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: May. 12, 2011

What does it mean to have a creative career that spans decades? As consumers of art — some of us who are artists ourselves — what should we expect of bands or writers who continually create? Do we chastise those who steadily make interesting works, but never change or progress? What does progress even mean?

I continually have these problems when it comes to saying something about artists that are five, six, 10 albums deep in their career. How am I supposed to orient myself toward this artwork, this album — in this case The Sea and the Cake’s new EP Moonlight Butterfly? I listen to it, it’s enjoyable and I find myself anticipating the songs, especially the weird minimalist electronics of the title track or the slow burn of “Inn Keeping.” There should be no problem. But I keep wondering: It’s very much like most of the band’s back catalog…is that a negative?

It could be just me, but I think there’s a certain tendency out there, maybe just a feeling or a spirit in the air, that what people want out of artists over time is not consistency but rather novelty. It seems to be an adjunct to the grand Progressive Narrative of the Enlightenment. Ever since the 18th Century, Science and Reason have been on the march and as the argument goes, by following the dictates of Reason and Logic, we can build a utopia. Look at Science, steadily moving from medieval superstitions to cars, planes and iPhones. If that isn’t progress, what is?

Then the Progress Narrative got broken open by a bunch of world wars, drowned in a 30-year mass slaughter fueled by technology. Sure, we built cars and planes, but we also built efficient death camps and atom bombs and aerial drones. Technology isn’t simply good, and better technology doesn’t make us better humans. Many stopped believing that there was such a thing as progress when it comes to societies or civilizations or eras. There are just different ages or paradigms — the medieval period had some positives and negatives, just like the current era. Of course, a lot of people — a majority most likely — still believe in progress.

I think a lot of this seeps into, at least my, aesthetic evaluations. How does the so-and-so’s second album compare to its first? What about its ninth? There certainly can be dialectical arguments made — how does an artist’s aesthetic transform over time — but that first comparison strikes me as a mistake. How does Moonlight Butterfly compare to The Fawn or Car Alarm? That’s the wrong question. If a band progresses at all, they merely follow out their logic of their aesthetic. Look at a group like Yo La Tengo. The kind of 1950s-ish-by-way-of-1990s indie-rock sound that they’ve been playing with since Summer Sun was there since the beginning, and they’re just following the logic of that idea. But expecting some kind of “every album should be greater than the last” or “each album should offer something new” is a trap borne of the Progress Narrative.

Similarly, it’s wrong to think of a band like The Sea and the Cake as somehow “stuck” or “churning out more of the same” (no one’s said this that I know – I just hear it from time to time about artists that have been creating for a while). Creating over time isn’t about progress or (necessarily) experimenting, but rather about finding some core aesthetic truth and exploring it, refining it, learning new things about it and so on. The artists that turn shitty are the ones who end up betraying this truth. For example, Steve Malkmus, and I don’t think he’s shitty, but there was something honest and unique about Pavement’s sound that by the second or third Jicks album had turned into 11-minute guitar solos and classic rock lyrical narratives. It feels like he’s abandoned what made his creative vision unique. That doesn’t mean he’s bad, but then I listen to The Sea and the Cake, and even with an EP released 17 years into the group’s career, I feel like there’s something real and honest in the music that’s always been there.

By Andrew Beckerman

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