I thought my ears were playing tricks on me. The shuffling playlist at my local record store rarely extends beyond rap at one end and hip-hop at the other, the common denominator being diffuse aggression. But I knew this aria, from Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally, too well to mistake its delicate notes for long. Rushing to the cashier, I demanded to know what I we were hearing.
“It’s the new Buckethead album, Electric Sea, out tomorrow,” the clerk replied with a diffident air. “We can’t sell it to you, though.” To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I wanted it. Although the guitarist’s name had popped up now and then, over the past two decades, I’d never sought out his music. I’ve never been a big fan of artists who pursue technical mastery at the expense of all else, the sort that readers of Guitar Player prostrate themselves before, a category into which I’d mentally consigned Buckethead.
That was probably unfair. Snap judgments usually are. But my lack of interest in his work reflected an intuitive recognition that we traveled in circles that simply did not overlap. Even though I listen to a wide range of popular music, encompassing both mainstream fare and the output of obscure indie labels, I can’t think of anyone in my extended social network who has ever professed a fondness for Buckethead.
As Monday drifted towards his new album’s Tuesday release date, the memory of the guitarist’s piercing notes started to eat away at my prejudices. The more I thought about it, the more remarkable it seemed that a music library large enough to fill a terabyte hard drive with MP3s had no room at all for someone capable of bringing opera to the electric guitar without embarrassing himself in the process.
From this perspective, the absence of Buckethead from my collection started to seem like a black mark on its pretense to inclusivity. So on the same day when I had determined to bring home the new Sleigh Bells album that dozens of my Facebook friends were already talking about, I resolved to remedy my ignorance by buying Electric Sea as well. Although I felt sheepish approaching the register and nearly put the Buckethead back, I managed to brave the clerk’s raised eyebrow and walk out the door with both records in my grasp.
It seems ridiculous, when I tell the truth of that moment, that I care about something so inconsequential as whether a record store employee thinks that my choice of music is incoherent. But if books like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and the anecdotal evidence that friends have provided me over the years are any indication, there are a lot of people who share my sense that there’s a lot of social anxiety bound up with that sort of consumer transaction. Maybe that’s why I felt a surge of pride as I exited the store. I’d triumphed, however briefly, over peer pressure.
As it turned out, Electric Sea and Sleigh Bells’ Reign of Terror were the beneficiaries of my itinerary last week. I played them both on my hundred-minute drive up to Phoenix to catch a cross-country flight, then brought them along with me for my stay in Louisville. During the two days I was in that Kentucky city, I ended up listening to nothing else. And you know what? I ended up liking the Buckethead better.
Although there are tracks on Reign of Terror that I greatly enjoy, it still strikes me as too obvious overall, overshadowed by the “trick” that first brought the band to the attention of the Pitchfork crowd, a fusion of breathy female vocals with bristling metal riffs. Electric Sea, on the other hand, eludes easy classification. For one thing, a lot of it is not electric. Buckethead’s nimble fretwork doesn’t just recall Guitar Player forebears like Joe Satriani, but classical musicians as well. The finger-picking of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham is also in evidence.
More than anything, though, the album reminds me of someone who is in tight with the Pitchfork crowd, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. With the exception of the Catalani aria and two Bach compositions, Electric Sea is comprised of Buckethead-penned numbers that share with Mascis’s solo work, especially from the soundtrack to the Allison Anders film Gas, Food and Lodging, a keenly felt spaciousness that stands in stark contrast to the show-offy runs I originally expected to hear.
Electric Sea isn’t music for rocking out. Nor is it the sort that, for all its virtuosity, inspires the sort of we-are-not-worthy worship associated with the Guitar Player set. Clearly, Buckethead is someone who understands that what gets left out of a song is every bit as important as what remains. To be sure, all that negative space showcases his brilliance. In some ways, it’s harder to play slowly with precision, sustaining beautiful tone quality, than it is to rush up and down the fret board like some sort of manic surfer. But listening to The Electric Sea never feels like an exercise in submitting oneself to the mastery of a god.
Indeed, the more I listen to the album, the less I pay attention to the moments that are most likely to impress. Indeed, I sometimes forget that I’m listening to a guitar album at all. That is, although I know I’m listening to electric and acoustic guitar, all I hear is music. Perhaps this offers a way to make sense of the one thing I knew about Buckethead since the early days of his career, the fact that he played with an upside down Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket for a hat.
That sartorial choice used to strike me as the ultimate cheap gimmick. But when I listen to The Electric Sea, I hear someone who is trying very hard to make music that exists independently of public image. Buckethead must have had good reasons for hiding behind a mask when he began his career. The notoriety that gesture brought surely helped him stand out from the crowd as he was making a name for himself. Now, though, after sticking with it for over two decades, his “signature” has lost its novelty to such a degree that it can be interpreted as a way of enhancing the negative space his music requires.
When I sat down to write this piece, I decided to see what had been written about Buckethead on Pitchfork. After all, although the site specializes in what used to be called “indie rock,” it has featured reviews of plenty of mainstream music over the years, in a variety of genres, from Paul Simon to Adele. Rather amazingly, though, my search didn’t turn up a single hit. Even the review of Guns N’ Roses’ famously delayed Chinese Democracy, on which Buckethead worked for years and which features his guitar playing extensively, does not give him any credit.
I’m starting to think that Buckethead represents the negative space of the Pitchfork worldview, everything that the prejudices it cultivates are unable or unwilling to countenance. In that sense, there may be something therapeutic for me in his work, a means to temporarily free myself from the taste preferences that have shaped my adult life. I don’t have to think about what his musical touchstones are, how his work should be situated in relation to the histories I feel an obligation to track. I can just listen, losing myself in his music’s empty spaces, the void shaped by my avoidance. When I think about it, that’s a roundabout way of sidling up to the sublime.
Part of the problem with artists like Buckethead is that they make it too easy to experience awe. The great cultural critic Theodor Adorno would surely have contemplated the bearded hipsters of contemporary Brooklyn with the same disdain he directed at the popular music fans of his era. Yet his problematic critique of jazz is eerily echoed in the rejection of virtuosity that has underpinned the indie aesthetic from first-generation punk through Pitchfork.
Even instrumentalists like J Mascis who can “shred,” as the Guitar Player demographic puts it, have had to conceal or otherwise complicate their technical mastery in order to maintain their reputation. Yes, I’m oversimplifying matters here. Yet anyone who has heard the self-ironizing shame in the voice of indie artists who confess to having once loved Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes or, most tellingly, Rush can attest to the demands of the conversion narrative that the Pitchfork sensibility requires.
In his landmark book Distinction, the product of extensive research conducted with questionnaires, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu convincingly demonstrates that taste preferences are a function of class. People unwittingly reveal their standing in society by their reaction to particular forms of culture. “‘Pure taste,’” he argues, is “purely negative in its essence,” because it is “based on the disgust that is often called ‘visceral’ (it ‘makes one sick’ or ‘makes one vomit’).”
What Bourdieu’s rather deterministic analysis of postwar French society fails to acknowledge fully, however, is the extent to which people are intuitively aware that “nothing classifies somebody more than the way he or she classifies,” as he writes in his essay “Social Space and Symbolic Power.” They seek social mobility by learning new ways of classifying culture. Disgust may be programmed very early in life, but it is not static. Indeed, expressions of disgust that are self-consciously performed rather than wholly visceral are the easiest means by which individuals can show they belong in a particular clique.
To be sure, there’s a visceral component to taste preferences that sometimes overrides other factors. No matter how many of my friends rave about Joanna Newsom or Dirty Projectors, and no matter how much “cred” I might accrue by declaring myself to be their fan, I haven’t had the stomach to pretend that I like them. Sometimes the body simply won’t let the mind order it around.
But I also know that not liking something I’m supposed to like, being “discriminating,” is a lot safer than liking what I’m not supposed to like. In other words, it’s wise to err on the side of distaste, at least if one wants to show that one belongs. Sometimes, though, the risk of feeling like an outcast is its own reward.
Buckethead’s Electric Sea probably won’t enter the pantheon of my favorite albums. At the end of the day, whatever my reservations about the hipster mindset that Pitchfork promotes, I can’t stop loving what I’ve spent decades learning to love. The depth of my investment, in time and money, is impossible to undo. Sometimes, though, my “good taste” can feel like a prison and the sense of freedom I get while listening to records like Electric Sea a much-needed furlough. The awe I experience in that sense of liberation doesn’t come easy, but it’s all the more important as a consequence.
Photograph by Chris Monaghan. Published under a Creative Commons license.