Descent Into Turmoil: The Fresh & Onlys’ Tim Cohen on Expectations

Post Author: Tim Cohen

I recently came across a scathing review of my band’s recently released album, House of Spirits. A glaring “C minus” rating inspired in me strangely exultant feelings, and I had to see what all the fuss was about. The “minus” sign after the “C” was particularly inviting. Not one to take criticism personally, and far from scarred by the many less-than-glowing reviews we’ve run up against, I was expecting a thorough, well-balanced study of our dark and imperfect pop songs. I had recently had the nagging feeling that with this, our fifth album, we had somehow lost some of the alchemy that had whisked us through an accidental, middling career in “indie rock,” and I was curious to see whether this reviewer had picked up on a bit of our woe.

The review began with a reference to “the hero’s journey” as discussed by author John Green. I remembered being in college, reading about the hero’s journey as explained by renowned scholar Joseph Campbell in his dissemination of mythology. I had never heard of John Green. Regardless, the hero’s journey was a decent enough trope on which to base a record review, so I was all ears. As I continued reading, I was pleased to find that over and over again, this reviewer actually hit the nail on the head when he got inside the actual songs. He had obviously listened to our last two albums, and in dissecting certain musical moments, he genuinely seemed to understand what was going on, from a tonal perspective. In fact, I agreed with most everything he wrote.

But I took umbrage with an underlying sentiment in his article that he saw fit to include TWICE. At one point, the author wrote, “House of Spirits…marks the band’s descent into turmoil, its hero’s journey. The only problem is that no one asked them to embark on one.” Later on, and with necessary dramatic flourish, he wrote “House of Spirits is the saturnine successor nobody asked for.” Now, if I made it my business to take music journalists to task for every questionable statement, I’d never have time to raise my daughter or pay my bills, let alone create the art and music that has been my driving force and reason for existing for lo these many years. However, I do need to address what I perceive as severe disconnect in this writer’s understanding of the artist-public relationship.

To find fault in the artistic merit of a particular piece is one thing; to dismiss it on the grounds that the general public never “asked for” it is a wholly ignorant approach. As an artist, I have a fairly uncomplicated relationship with my work. My work is inspired by the things I see and hear, my experiences, my dreams and delusions, my good and bad feelings, and the people in my life that I hold distant or dear. I am almost never at odds with a completed piece, whether that be a hanging painting or a released song. I have studied, absorbed, and repeatedly attempted, and I have learned to live with and stand behind nearly every artistic decision to which I have committed. This doesn’t mean I’m a good artist; it means I am a committed artist. My work is NEVER completed at the behest of the general public, let alone the privileged few who discuss art and music in print for thousands of people to read.

I have a thick skin for criticism; I have learned to let go of my work once it’s in the public hands. As I suggested above, I was downright tickled by the minus sign in the C- grade; it had a wasteful redundancy to it, it was dismissive for the purpose of being dismissive. Let me digress: I believe that putting up an armor against negative criticism also shields an artist from too many other elements of the real world. The very nature of criticism is that it allows one who is critiqued to improve in ways that he or she hadn’t thought of.

I agree that music is meant to be heard, discussed, danced to, felt by many and the world over. And each has the unalienable right to like or dislike whatever one experiences. This reviewer seems to identify as part of a bigger group, i.e. the listening public, and asserts that “nobody,” not one of them, wanted us to create said album. “Wow!” I thought for a second, “It really IS us against them, isn’t it?” But, reviewer: Speaking on behalf of more than just yourself, as an editorial journalist, is not only dangerous, it is symptomatic of a greater confusion. It somehow gives the power of numbers to your words, and supports the notion that you and your assumed army of like-minded listeners have the coveted ability to place an artist and her work in a room, where her art is doomed to adorn the same four walls for all time. This seems to be a skewed take on the artist-appreciator relationship. Or is it the chicken-or-the-egg riddle in question? Which, in fact came first: the art, the artist, or the art critic? “The artist” is the answer. Certainly no one asked me to take on the endless struggle of being a touring musician. I decided to do that. It should also be noted that no one asked me to write these songs and arrange them into this album. Why? Because I just wrote them and we made an album out of them. Now that album is in your hands (or in your computer); tear it note from note as you wish, and leave it bloodied beyond recognition; I’m sure someone else will come along and nurse it back to life. But don’t think for a second that this album, which represents many lifetimes worth of strange and mundane experiences alike, needed yours or anyone else’s permission to enter the world.

As a musician, I am primarily concerned with melody, rhythm, and words; these are my tools. As an artist who has been blessed with the opportunity to perform and record for the general public, I do consider that what I find enjoyable in our music may or may not find favor with the public. I am okay with taking that chance. But if our last album was a “descent into turmoil,” it may behoove this reviewer to consider that the personal lives of its creators were tied up in burning apartments, rampant alcoholism, impending childbirths, joblessness, isolation, and in fact, turmoil. That is to say, the album was not generated as response to anyone’s expectation of us as a band, it was in fact our response to the elements which consumed us in real life. That is essentially what art is.

In summary, one particular reviewer identified himself as part of a greater “nobody,” the same nobody that asked us to record a dark, emotional record in response to the sometimes-overwhelming experiences that have defined us as human beings. By doing so, we went against this great “nobody’s” expectations and did our own thing, at great peril to our reputation. One needs only to look back to history and study the course of this “middling career” of ours, or those of millions of other bands before and after us. One would surely conclude that it is the nature of artists to expressly “unfollow” the rules set for them. Art has no rules, and should therefore never strive to abide any one viewer’s own aesthetic parameters. Yes, it is ultimately up to others to decide whether a piece stands the test of time, but no one else has the right to question an artist’s motivation, inspiration, will to work, or inclination. An artist should not have to live up to what a person asks of her, insomuch as that person should sublimate his own critical vision, to see more deeply outside himself.