Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Mock Tudor

Here's a Rolling Stone review of Richard Thompson's new album 'Mock Tudor':

Richard Thompson, Mock Tudor

Producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Foo Fighters) toughen Thompson's sound a bit. On the opening track, "Cooksferry Queen," a harmonica solo bathes in distortion, and the rhythm section lights a fire under "Two-Faced Love." "Hard on Me," meanwhile, is a six-minute tour de force in which Thompson takes two slash-and-burn guitar solos. Beyond that, Thompson mines the veins that have always replenished him. His melodies recall timeless ballads, while his playing -- sometimes set in tricky (but not showy) time signatures -- moves among jazz inventiveness, folk resonance and rock & roll power. He's so deft that his extraordinary originality seems utterly natural...

That last sentence is the kind of thing that you often come across in reviews, and it's easy to skim past, thinking you know exactly what the critic means. But wait a moment, hold on, something disturbs me about it. Let's look a little closer.

Can You Be Too Original?

Originality is inherently good, isn't it? The more originality there is in a work of art the better, surely? If you've got it, flaunt it, right?

The implication of what Rolling Stone is saying here, though, seems to be that originality is, in its raw state, unnatural and even somewhat shameful. Thompson uses his 'deft' intellect not to show off (those 'tricky but not showy' time signatures) but to tone down his originality, make it more discreet.

To be too original without Thompson's discretion and sleight of hand, they seem to imply, is to court freakishness. Perhaps, in extremis, originality is like the burblings of a Martian, meaningless to mere Earthlings.

So you can see why a highly original artist might worry about frightening Rolling Stone readers by speaking in his true Martian voice, and have a vested interest in disguising it, deftly passing off his burblings as something a bit more natural.

Seeming natural is good, isn't it? I mean, we wouldn't want a piece of music to sound convoluted, contrived, calculated or artificial, would we? Art should have the natural tranquility, the serene majesty, of a lake, a wood, a mountain, or the sea, shouldn't it? The Romantics got it right back in 1820, didn't they?

Fig Leaf

In the Rolling Stone scale of values, originality and naturalness are both positively rated attributes. But originality seems to be slightly more questionable than naturalness. Originality is somehow scary, vulgar, or distasteful. We should praise artists who, while original, have the skill and tact to cover it up with a fig leaf.

There's an interesting parallel with Thompson's album title, 'Mock Tudor'. This refers to 20th century British suburban detached houses built between the wars. Their architects, while using modern technology, were at pains to make the outsides of the houses look as traditional as possible, and so added completely non-functional wooden beams and Tudor-style window panes.

We could see this as a sop to the innate conservatism of these houses' likely buyers: young families eager to escape the inner city with its racial diversity, exhausting pace, unrelenting modernity and moral turpitude. Political refugees of a sort, in search of a little greenery, a bit of nature. These demanding petit bourgeois wanted the latest labour-saving technology in their houses, but they wanted it packaged in a contradictory shell of reassuring historical symbolism.

(In architecture, the opposite of a Mock Tudor detached suburban house would be something like Piano and Rogers' Pompidou Centre in Paris, which has all the pipes, escalators and service ducts stuck shamelessly on the outside of the building, with nary a decorative wooden beam or red roof tile in sight.)

As Original As... Nature?

Mock Tudor (the style) can be seen as a symbol of our desire for a safely contained 'nature'. The nature we sentimentalise in parks and postcards, of course, not real nature with its microbiology, mud slides and meteor showers.

For real nature, certainly as it's understood by contemporary physics, is a freakish and bizarre thing. The more you look at its oddness and complexity, the more it begins to resemble something... original. Something Martian, meaningless to mere mortals.

That, then, can't be the kind of 'natural' Rolling Stone is talking about, because that kind of nature would exaggerate, not vitiate, an excess of originality. If Thompson overdubbed the natural sound of cancer cells dividing, for example, it would only make his music more embarrassingly original.

Actually, what Rolling Stone must mean by 'nature' is some sort of appeal to tradition, to the known, to the well-established genre conventions of popular music.

Just as the fake beams on a Mock Tudor house make it look more like our traditional idea of what a house should be (and less like the machine a modern house actually is), so Mr Thompson must have added some reassuringly traditional 'half timbered sounds' to his otherwise freakishly original music to make it more palatable to Rolling Stone, and listeners of a nervous disposition.

One is reminded of Stockhausen, who added piano to his wildly original electronic composition 'Kontakte' thinking that listeners would need a familiar sound to 'guide' them through a landscape of such unprecedented strangeness.

From Mock Tudor To Analog Baroque

The trouble is, I just don't buy the idea that Richard Thompson ever risked being too original. I haven't heard his new record, but I would be surprised if it sounded even 25% as original as Stockhausen, Oval, or Harry Partch.

So it rather worries me that Rolling Stone are saying that the degree of originality exhibited by Richard Thompson, a respected, currently slightly rocked-up middle-aged folky, is still a little bit too freakish for them. It disturbs me that they think that even that degree of originality needs to be tempered by decorative beams and the application of several coats of 'natural' varnish.

This is all quite close to home for me, because the title Mock Tudor is one I could easily have used for my own current style, Analog Baroque. In fact, it would have been a good alternative name for my record label.

Because for me (as perhaps for Richard Thompson -- I'd be intrigued to know why he chose this title) Mock Tudor is bad taste beyond the pale, part of a populist backlash against the mandarin Modernism of the Bauhaus. Mock Tudor, like coal-effect fires, Zenith television cabinets, and Disneyland, is acceptable only as recontextualised by postmodern pranksters like Jeff Koons (or, for that matter, playful photographers at magazines like i-D, The Face or Dazed and Confused, who might happily use Mock Tudor houses as the background for an ironic and transgressive fashion shoot).

Come The Fall...

Richard Thompson and his old band Fairport Convention based their claims to integrity on historical accuracy, authenticity of detail and respect for tradition. Analog Baroque revives folk and classical music, but tries very hard to get them 'wrong'. It goes out of its way to celebrate all that is anachronistic, inauthentic and unnatural. Ironically, it then uses this as the basis for new claims to authenticity and integrity.

I'm not going to get into some squabble about 'my Tudor is more mock than yours, Richard, so I'm more original and, ironically, more true to the ultimate mystery of the past...'

I'd just like to point out that postmodern irony is the fig leaf that demonstratively original people like me use to cover up our secret taste for tradition, whereas less hip, less ironic artists use tradition as a fig leaf to cover up the shame of their originality. But in the end we all sort of meet half way, and end up making different shades of half-timbered Mock 'n' Role. God knows who's going to look more stupid when autumn comes and the fig leaves blow away...

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