The “perfect 10” ratings given to Kanye West’s new album have given many pause for reflection on the inherent ridiculousness of numerical review scores. When Metacritic lists a score of 93 on an album, it does suggest that it must be uncommonly good. I mean, that many people giving it 10/10? Really? For something to be that good, it really has to be as good as albums ever get. What worried me in this case was how few people seemed willing to really mention the music – what made it such a “perfect” album?
No album will ever be perfect, but I would expect a “perfect ten” to be strong all the way through. It would have to be more innovative than Radiohead’s The Bends, and stronger than My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, which was certainly inventive but was ultimately forgettable as a collection of songs. There’s plenty of great albums I just never got round to buying. You might be surprised that I’ve never bought Sgt Pepper, and I don’t really know why I didn’t, but I can’t miss what I don’t know. Many more, I’ve not owned long enough to know I’ll still love them many years down the line, or they have too many weak moments among the strong.
Pitchfork gave The Stone Roses a perfect 10, and that’s the opposite of what I’d call an “ideal” album – they were really only good for one single, and the album was ultimately quite weak and patchy, didn’t break any new ground and was – at least by me – quickly forgotten. A perfect 10 needs to do better – much better, at least, than the brief snippets of Kanye’s new record, which didn’t entice me to hear more. If I’m thinking of a “perfect 10”, it has to be something like
Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
Primarily influenced by David Bowie’s Low with the thematic influence of The Wall, it’s not really surprising that I would love it this much. As a varied and consistent album, The Downward Spiral is stronger than anything NIN produced before or since. Over 15 years later, Trent Reznor’s breakdown album is still an absolute pleasure to hear.
Yes, I’m still banging on about Foetus, because even though virtually nobody has heard of Jim Thirlwell, he’s about as important to music history as Syd Barrett or Ray Davies, so you really need to pay attention. This won’t by any means become a Jim Thirlwell blog, but while he’s on the forefront of my consciousness, I really think you should check him out. Specifically, you need to start with Nail.
I heard this little gem from 1985 a whole decade later when a friend at work gave me a cassette tape of the album. To put things right, I recently bought the mp3 for a whopping £6.99 – available from his own site or Amazon – which is probably less than it would have cost me to buy the album 15 years ago.
Nail sounds dated now – of course! – but there’s been a lot of care and attention paid to how the sounds are layered that still sounds impressive given the limited resources and age. I’m pretty sure it was an influence on NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine, which came out four years later. Everything about Nail indicates “labour of love”, however hate-filled the lyrical invective. I’ve been playing it to death lately, so I’m just going to share a little “walkthrough” for anyone who’s not heard it yet. It’s a concept album of sorts but f***ed if anyone knows exactly what was going through Thirlwell’s head at the time. Nail is an incredible achievement, and one you really need to hear.
The opening track, Theme from Pigdom Come, sounds like the missing Danny Elfman theme from Batman (which, again, came out four years later) – all twinkling percussion and soaring synth-strings, both epic and playful. Thirlwell re-scored his instrumental project Steroid Maximus with a live orchestra: he really needs to do the same with Nail some time.
The Throne of Agony is to me the same as that Can track is to Everett True. It’s the song you can’t get past; the one you keep going back to. It’s the Casablanca of songs – practically perfect in every way. The lyrics are achingly clever (“gimme a break/start at the neck”) and totally indicative of the album: a gallows humour that tempers the ferocity of the misanthropy and self-disgust. It randomly switches in and out of Mission Impossible before gaining momentum – all the while his voice lurching from off-key growl to pretty Elvis impression. It’s this tension that makes it exquisite – both beautiful and ugly; perched between catchy rockabilly hooks and outright chaos.