Not too long ago a friend of mine expressed the opinion that a band's first major album is always their best on the basis that it's the album the record companies are pushing the hardest. These albums have major producers and there's plenty of money to go around. I have also heard other opinions about this, such as that a good band has maybe four or five good albums in them and that's it. These views, along with many other similar ones, seem to be getting at the same idea: bands get worse over time. There seems to be a point where we feel inclined to say, "Look, haven't you guys done enough?" when bands keep at it.
To be honest, I've never understood this. It makes more sense to me that a band would actually get better over time, rather than worse. Time and again, I find this to be the case with bands that have real talent. Pearl Jam fits here, and so do Robyn and Manchester Orchestra. As they hone their craft they can be more nuanced. I feel it is exactly when the producers start looking the other way that a serious band can really shine. I'm not saying this is always the case; certainly there are one-hit wonders, one-album wonders, and those bands that just go stale, bands who keep making music because they want to keep making money. (As a quick side note, I also don't understand why that is so frowned upon. I mean, it is a job. Obviously, we'd prefer bands keep cranking out quality stuff, but if they can't--and people still want to buy what they are making--who are we to say they shouldn't be doing it?)
This preface, of course, is taking us the Meat Puppets 14th studio album, Rat Farm. This is the most recent offering from a band spanning three decades. Formed in the early 80's by the Kirkwood brothers (both of whom are still in the band, btw), the Meat Puppets have forged their own cryptic mark on the music world. They have a style which belongs to them and them alone. Sure they've borrowed pieces from a variety of sources, but they've put them together their way. A way no one else could have.
This album may be their best. There. I said it. Despite the cultural impact of early albums like II and Up on the Sun, this album is a culmination of three decades of talent and experimentation. I understand that on that cultural level it doesn't hold a candle to these albums, but content-wise it blows them out of the water. The songs you find on Rat Farm are delicately crafted. They rock, in their way, but even more so than that, they roll. There isn't an ounce of trying-too-hard in sight. The confidence they have in their craft, however, oozes from each track. I wouldn't even say there is one throwaway song on here, and that's saying something.
Take the title track for instance: "Rat Farm" presents a unique view of the addictions of the world. This song's message could be applied to consumerism, chemical addiction, or anything that reduces freedom with the promise of fun. The sound is so freewheeling and playful you could easily enjoy it without looking deeper, but looking deeper is kind of what this blog is about. Underneath the hooks and highly competent guitar-work, we find interesting melodies, harmonies, structures, chord-progressions, and lyrics that are fun and easy without losing meaning. We find, in short, something these same individuals were not capable of as young men.
If you haven't listened to the Meat Puppets since they took the stage with Nirvana in the mid-nineties, it's time you came back. If you don't know who they are, I think Rat Farm is a great place to start.
PS. I had the privilege of seeing Meat Puppets live in Salt Lake City recently, and the years have done little to dull their showmanship and on-stage musicianship. I recommend seeing them if the opportunity arises.