Today’s the day: the second issue of the zine is out! Here’s the editor’s note for this quarter, trying to give some background for the possibly excessive amount of consideration paid to the concept of the album across this issue.
By means both incidental and existential, much of this issue of the Quarterly Review of Contemporary Country is focused on the question of the album. Incidental because much of what worked best this quarter, and much of what dropped stars from otherwise worthwhile projects, came down to their construction as an album. And existential not only because this is a zine focused on the reviews of albums, but because those successes and failures necessarily began to reconstitute the imaginary that surrounds the material thing that we call an album.
Starting at the base: an album is, of course, first and foremost a material abstraction. It is a way of organizing labor into material that can be marketed, sold, and consumed. It is a commodity, in the sense of a thing with a price, and use and exchange values, and which is caught up in the production of surplus value. As with all commodities under capitalism, of course, this is presented in the context of a market; and as with all commodities under what might variously be called late capitalism, the spectacle (where social relations are mediated by commodity fetishism/images) or postmodernism (the cultural expression of neoliberal policy’s dominance in the capitalist mode of production), it is subject to highly specific modes of valorization, which includes, to resort back to the Lacanian term, its imaginary.
Which is just to say that it goes both ways: the idea of the album is determined by its material conditions, including (and especially) the way that things are made and sold in general, and that the idea of the album feeds back into those same conditions, albeit obviously on a very different scale. So trying, say, to conceptualize just what an album should do is not a neutral project, any more than saying an album fails to do what it meant. Take, for instance, the review of Robbie Fulks’ Upland Stories, where I take the position that the critical dogma of “take the thing on its own terms” is never enough, especially as dogma. Or how the review of Neil Young & Promise of the Real is invested in Earth precisely because it organizes itself into an album in ways that live records rarely do. The concept of Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, or the bizarrely introductory quality of The Lowest Pair’s Fern Girl & Ice Man and Uncertain as it is Uneven. The useful brevity of Maren Morris’ HERO and the way that case/lang/veirs keep interest with the round robin style. All of these things don’t fail to implicated in value.
The question, then, isn’t how to theorize the album in such a perfect way that it escapes these things, but to continue to develop an understanding of what it means to put a dozen songs together with some art and a press release. And hey, maybe taking a look at some of these records will help.