It’s easy to say that the past year has introduced a plethora of knowledgeable and self-aware records – Kendrick’s hidden double album that’s meant to play in reverse, Father John Misty’s one hour and seventeen minute lecture of a record, and Sufjan’s exploration of cosmic poetry – we have more music than we need to digest for self-reflection, music that takes the term “concept album” another step forward. (But seriously, what album released nowadays doesn’t have some kind of concept behind it?) It’s something we shouldn’t take for granted, however. With today’s mainstream music overlooking this social commentary and self-reflection, concept albums and mixtapes have started to fill in that gap for self-evaluation and discovery. 2017 has come to show that records are more aware of themselves as tools for change, expressing thoughts and ideas that come across clearer than through any other medium nowadays.
Now, I’m not a genre-focused individual. The genre is always secondary to me when I first listen to a record. I’ve always considered it more so of a vessel, a package that ideas and thoughts could come in. And for the past year or so, folk music has reigned supreme in delivering these packages full of societal and self-reflective messages.
We’ve seen plenty of folk records released this year, and if not in record releases, there have been some impressive set pieces in performances (i.e. Bon Iver’s epic Coachella performance, Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium tour). These records and performances seem much greater than the some of their parts, more than just a singer with a guitar, but it’s about what they’re exploring and inspiring that sets them apart from the rest.
If one looks at it like old western films – a genre that used to be at the forefront of Hollywood filmmaking. Films like The Searchers or Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 brought major cinematic themes to the front line, using plot as a package for explosive social and political commentary, not unlike what folk records have been doing this year, the most obvious being Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy.
FJM expresses his lyrics and themes and messages much like a college professor would, using rhetoric and diatribes to tell a narrative that’s much bigger than itself and too good to be true. It’s a very direct approach, however – a bearded man with a guitar telling us everything will be okay, and two sides will mend as one, eventually. But as FJM preaches directly to us, it brings about a reminder of how we got stuck in this sticky political climate in the first place, of taking words and speeches at face value and not questioning authority.
But there are other folk records that seem to be expressing the same themes of the duality of man and the lack of trust with one another, only a little less literally. Fleet Foxes’ Crack Up, released earlier this year, expresses these same emotions. But rather than having someone tell us that the future will be in good hands, Crack Up is all about self-trust, a knowing reminder that the only ones we can truly rely on are ourselves, and that sometimes, maybe that’s all who we need. Nevertheless, Crack Up strikes hard to the core of an individual, ensuring us that sometimes we just need to take our own word over others. We need to be our own authority.
I remember Bon Iver’s Coachella performance this year being bookended by blank white screens that surrounded the stage, with Justin Vernon’s voiceover distorted through a talk-box that rang throughout: “If we do not move past greed, we will never have another renaissance.” It’s a daunting quote, especially in today’s world where we couldn’t even begin to think what another renaissance would look like, nonetheless how it would start. But to stay stagnant and hesitant is just another way of going down the wrong path, a rejection of trying to be better versions of ourselves.
Much like the old western films, folk artists today will continue to resurface these topics and raw emotions, reminding us who we should strive to be. Thank god someone is.