Recognizing a Work of Art

“Bowie, some McCartney, but who else does it sound like? It’s familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Give it a listen and help me out?” I texted my father. I was talking about Meilyr Jones’s stunning solo debut 2013, released earlier this year. In an age where almost every song from history is at our finger tips, this is how we talk about music. This song is a dash of this and a pinch of that, all mixed up in the bowl labeled Beatles. Analysis takes the form of deconstructing the song, breaking it up into its component parts and identifying each, showing of the interplay between the library inside your head and the one on your computer. Though we all do it, it’s not healthy. Steve Hyden is probably right when he says that listening this way lessens our enjoyment—we become so caught up in ID’ing influences that we forget to listen to the song as a whole.

Jones gets this; breaking down every genre and influence on the album is as futile as trying to name every type of flower in the bouquet on the front cover. While it does make it hard to explain to people (would you listen if someone told you one of their favorite albums of the year was a blend of rock, pop, and classical with the band sung by a former member of an electronic group backed by a thirty piece band made up of his friends in Wales? Didn’t think so), it makes for a great listening experience that gets better each time. It also allows Jones to play with ideas of love, authenticity, sexuality, and indexicality to create a sprawling work in which all roads lead back to Rome.

On 2013’s first song, “How to Recognize a Work of Art,” Jones croons that when he examines his photograph for the “mark authentic authors…leave on works of art,” he finds nothing. Though he took it, he declares that the photo is “a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake,” a sardonic mockery of society’s obsession with assigning authenticity. It’s a rejection of the idea that only certain people can create real art—a rebuttal to the “cult of the artist.” It reminds me of Ben Lerner’s essay in Harper’s on the “tyranny of price;” the idea that vandalizing a work is art if it raises the value, and criminal if it lowers it. Of course, the change in value almost always corresponds to the fame of the vandal. In a world where every phone has a camera and we all have photoshop, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of someone being a “real” artist, as if such thing exists. Of course there’s a difference between Annie Leibovitz and an eight year old with an iPhone; that’s obvious to anyone with eyes. The cult of the artist also diminishes the creator—it says the work is important because of the name on the bottom, not the content it’s attached to. Later in the song, Jones describes watching a video someone made with Kurt Cobain, noticing that the eyes aren’t right. Again, he sarcastically begins yelling that it’s a fake, even though it was real to the creator. Jones reminds us that despite what society says, real is relative in art. In his orchestra, the strings respond, matching his voice as he sings, “there are highs…there are lows,” in an arrangement reminiscent of classical music, only for the drums and guitar to cut across them in a traditional pop beat. He’s not a composer; it can’t be art—just a pop song pretending to be more.

Perhaps my favorite song on the album is “Strange Emotional.” It’s a testament to Jones’s skill that he can take signifiers relating to many things and shape them so their only referent is Rome. He takes a tone reminiscent of Road to El Dorado’s faux-Spanish colonial meets Brit rock,[1] turns up the Bowie influence, and makes it all seem as authentically Italian as Verdi. What’s more, he does this without relying on indexicals of being there. He follows the indexical that he is “writing to you from [his] room in Rome” his “only home” by asserting that he is “an actor recalling his previous life.” He is “happy here [he] used to know the winds above [him] and the sounds below” [emphasis mine]. Through the sudden switch to the past tense, Jones casts doubt that the preceding “here” refers to his room in Rome, undermining his own claim of being there. By unmooring signifiers from their referent in both the orchestral arrangements and the lyrics, Jones confronts binary ideas of sexuality—if “here” doesn’t refer to Rome, and Spanish structures are now Italian, what’s to say the “you” that wants “a man a little bit older” refers to the unnamed female prevalent in pop? This fluid sexuality is a theme of Jones’s album; “Olivia” begins with him singing sweetly about a “broke, white girl singing Sweet Home Alabama,” while “Return to Life” is an ode to a man with “wavy hair like Byron” who teaches Jones that “love is a burning strike.” In Don Juan, he bemoans that “girls can’t help me, boy’s can’t help me,” Much like the mingling of genres confuses the listener trying to box the album in, Jones purposefully confounds those who conceive of sexuality as either/or.

Photo by Phil Sharp for The Line of Best Fit

“Strange Emotional” also touches upon a motif that runs through the album: rain. The album’s halfway point is marked by an interlude called “Rain in Rome,” which features soft singing over the sounds of rain and thunder, which eventually morphs into applause. Throughout out the album, such as at the beginning of “Olivia,” the drum kicks and snares are played simultaneously with hi-hats and cymbals to invoke the feeling of a hard rain comingling with thunder. On “Strange Emotional,” he sings, “when it rains here, it really rains.” It’s an odd choice for an album meant to capture the experience of living in Rome, especially considering the city’s association with the sun. Somehow it works. When Jones couples his lover asking him if he takes the elevator or stairs with wondering why the lover would care if Jones “ran out to the streets with wet hair,” all you can think of is Roman streets and storms. It brings to mind the elevator scene in Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, as well as the protagonist Jep’s embrace of his ex-lover’s husband in the hard rain. Sorrentino’s biggest influence, Fellini, adored the beauty of rainstorms. Jones invokes the Roman rain of their films, all romance and no umbrellas, causing the listener to imagine an idealized version of the city. This doesn’t make his portrayal any less authentic. How Jones remembers Rome is inevitably informed by the city’s portrayal in film and literature; to pretend otherwise would be a rejection of his experience.

Jones doesn’t rely solely on his lyricism, however. As I touched upon above, his consistently brilliant arrangements enter into conversations with what he says, calling to mind the call-and-response nature of jazz staples. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Featured Artist,” where the trumpet acts as an exclamation point, a sarcastic laugh, and a straight response. Jones never fully strays into an identifiable style, however, preferring to keep the listener from fully dissecting the song through layering the jazz elements with pop guitars and romantic strings. The song’s lyrics focus on the human mundanity of the musician’s life, the repetition of rehearsals that lead to being “this week’s featured artist,” in a failed attempt to stave off death. Through mixing elements from several centuries, Jones turns the song into a statement on artistry, and people, in general—Jazz, classical, pop; musicians, painters, writers; artists, accountants, athletes; we all work hard to make it look easy, and die having done nothing else. The worry of repetitive work towards a cosmically unimportant goal reappears through the album. On “Olivia,” he lists a few of the select works that have outlived their creators before crooning that he is “working, working/ now I cannot be employed” as flutes, violins, and vocalists reminiscent of Russian ballet play in the background. It conjures the emotion of a man caught in an unfair system, one where he can either work himself toward a nigh-unreachable dream or chase love, but not do both.

Jones’s album reminds us of the futility of trying to fit music into defined, narrow boxes, chastising us that characterizing an artist solely in terms of their predecessors or genre is reductive and wrongheaded. A song is greater than the sum of its parts. A bouquet is more than just lilies, orchids, and roses. It’s the complicated interplay between them, the soft melding of the purples and whites, the mingled scents and sights. Approaching it as such tells us more about its creator and ourselves than any deconstruction ever will.


[1] Elton John did the soundtrack, and honestly, it’s one his best works, as absurd as that sounds.

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