You know you’ve become a caricature of a music dork when you start listening to Can. You’re a Championship Vinyl clerk, an awkward college-radio host, a guy with tons of weird rare bootlegs, the dude that James Murphy seems to playfully lampoon in “Losing My Edge.” You are James Murphy, in other words.
But…the thing is Can is and was amazing. There’s a reason they have the cooler-than-cool reputation that they’ve built up over the years, and their music was certainly at the time pretty radical. In fact that’s true of all Krautrock, which separated rock music further from its roots in blues and embraced more avant garde compositional and improvisational techniques. Still, it grooved. Pretty hard. (Side note: I know Krautrock isn’t a super PC term—that being said it was used in every record store I visited in Berlin, so…not sure what to make of that I suppose.)
Can, for me, is not a band that I had some kind of epiphany while hearing, nor did they immediately blow me away. I think the first song of theirs I heard was “Spoon,” and my initial reaction was, “hey this song is really fun!” But it was also one of their more pop moments, and they were by and large a much weirder and more complex band than that one single. To wit: When I picked up Tago Mago on CD in college, I liked it, but I certainly didn’t get all of it. Why was “Halleluwah” so damn long? Why was “Aumgn” not actually a song? Etc.
But that was then. Now? I think it’s a masterpiece. And that has a lot to do with purposefully chasing difficult sounds and challenging myself as a matter of personal enjoyment. I think pop music just kind of wore me out at some point and eventually I needed to hear uglier, weirder, more dissonant sounds. Then at one point, listening to “Aumgn,” I got it. And I thought it was one of the coolest parts of the record. Likewise, I don’t know why I ever would have complained about 18 minutes of “Halleluwah.” That can just keep on grooving and I’ll be just fine.
Listening to Can is a little bit like reading Shakespeare or the Bible, though. You’ll understand so much music that came after so much better once you understand the source material. You’ll get the allusions and the motifs. It makes the experience richer. I not only get the tribute to the band in The Fall’s “I Am Damo Suzuki,” I hear the lyrical melody from “Oh Yeah” in Mark E. Smith’s delivery. I also can hear how Radiohead cribbed from the band, well, all the time. (Listen to “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and “Sing Swan Song” back to back and you’ll see.)
Tago Mago isn’t the first Can album I’d recommend to newcomers, though it is the first one I bought on vinyl (after I heard pretty much all of them digitally). But it’s certainly essential. I’m not James Murphy. But I get it.
Sound Quality: Great