We’re talking Pet Sounds and Smile. We’re talking Hard Day’s Night. We’re talking A Love Supreme. We’re talking Hounds of Love. We’re talking OK Computer. We’re talking Future Sexx/Love Sounds. BEYONCÉ is as sustained and powerful an achievement as any one of those albums. (That it knows it is, but that that doesn’t matter, is just one more reason to love it.)
BEYONCÉ is cohesive, but its cohesion is the collaged, underdetermined kind that pop music does so well. There is no single story or set of sounds or even monolithic biography integrating the album. Instead, a miasma of sounds and people and images and words and biographical snippets lend the album cohesion without reducing it to cohesion. From Jay-Z haunting the videos to the pervasive themes of performed sexual agency and feminine agency/feminism. From the repeated spoken samples taken from talent shows to the generic through-line of the songs. And from the lyrical idiom to the recurring sonic motif of the unexpected entrance of mixed-high whip-crack drum motifs on songs such as ‘Haunted’, ‘Mine’ and even ‘Blue’: BEYONCÉ invites engagement with it as a whole, without being pushy or overly self-conscious about that wholeness.
The event of the album—its shock release towards the end of a music year already settled into the idea of itself, a sudden release that sent much of the internet into convulsions due both to the basic shock of the release and to BEYONCÉ‘s unique character as a ‘visual album’—also contributes to the impression of cohesion. (Additionally, duh, the fact that pretty much every song maintains an incredibly high artistic standard within a tonally continuous context.)
So there is much cohesiveness here, but BEYONCÉ also enjoys the freedom that comes from not being tethered to the literalness of an overriding concept or narrative in the manner of more traditional concept albums.
The seemingly universal decision to see the cohesive ‘whole’ of BEYONCÉ in biographical terms, to see the album as a personal statement from Beyoncé’s deepest self to her audience, actually has a lot to recommend it. From the title’s programmatic wedding of the artist and the work to the importance of biographical signifiers on the album to the maternal lullaby of ‘Blue’ to the sudden release’s suggestion of the album coming unmediated from artist to audience, BEYONCÉ is as much an image of (a version of) Beyoncé herself as Pet Sounds is of (a version of) Brian Wilson.
However it would, I think, be a mistake to see BEYONCÉ purely or reductively in these biographical terms. For one thing, that kind of critical strategy is boring and limiting, tending to shut down interpretation when it should flower it. For another, various textual factors inevitably undermine the biographical reading – from Drake and Beyoncé’s seductive dance on ‘Mine’ to the obviously fictive scenario of many of the songs and videos, which include the beauty pageant of ‘Pretty Hurts’ and the jewelled and glacial horror of ‘Haunted’. The hidden labour of this album also needs to be considered, from the producers and writers (besides Beyoncé herself, who inarguably should be seen as the prime author of the album; but not the only author), to the directors of the videos, the fashion consultants, the choreographers, and so on. BEYONCÉ is an invitingly personal album, but it can’t be reduced only to the psychology and biography of its primary author. Similarly, Pet Sounds conveys something magical about childhood in America in the post-war era and about loss of innocence within that cultural context, but it can’t be reduced to a document of those things. As with the best art, BEYONCÉ plays on biography and narrative, hovering close to both without being reducible to either.
(Unlike a symphony, pop albums don’t need to be directed along one formal path or to be formed out of some grounding motives/motive force in order to secure cohesion; though of course symphonies are much more fragmented and formulaic than this gives them credit for. It is enough to plant seeds, to suggest binding themes and cross-references. This gives the audience freedom to read both their own selves into the biographical play and play of ‘authentic’ voices of pop albums, and to read cohesion and integrity into the [in reality] divergent and dissembled sounds/images/words of those albums.)
The other remarkable thing about BEYONCÉ—closely related to its ‘stacked’ cohesion—is that it introduces intermediality without being chained to it. This is a ‘visual album’ of 17 videos: the 14 songs, plus two separate videos for the first halves of ‘Haunted’ and ‘Partition’ (‘Ghost’ and ‘Yoncé’ respectively), and one superb video—the most wittily biographical of the lot—for ‘Grown Woman’. The wedding of the videos and songs creates a powerful, metatextual synthesis which demonstrates the power of images to reinscribe the meaning of sounds and sounds that of the images. However the modular nature of both the individual videos (which share some motifs but generally take place in very different visual worlds), and the contingent relationship of the sonic to the visual album, mean that the videos and songs can also be treated as being free and independent of each other if audiences want them to be.
So BEYONCÉ audio-visualises (to paraphrase Michel Chion) wonderfully, but it can also be heard as a conventional album based in sound. Unlike a sustained film with accompanying soundtrack, in the manner of Animal Collective’s ODDSAC, this is a modular audio-visual album that uses a novel model of textual production (notwithstanding similar previous examples such as Discovery). We are free to take the videos or leave them, but those videos—released in parallel with the songs as they were—are clearly of more central importance as components of the total album as videos for songs usually are, detached as those other videos invariably are from the total world of their albums.
That last point underlines the final aspect of the album that I want to discuss. BEYONCÉ is powerfully a declaration on behalf of the album as such. Even as it reinvents just what a pop album can be (both in terms of textual content and manner of release, the latter of which obviously contributes to the former), BEYONCÉ presents an argument on behalf of the album and against atomisation and song-based markets. Commercially and creatively, this is an album in the old tradition that is nevertheless delivered in the context of new traditions. It may well even be the last great album in the old mould, an inflecting point showing what can still be achieved in the medium whilst also arguing, through its very unusual nature, for the necessity of that medium’s reinvention. (Though that’s the kind of neat thing a critic would say.)
Anyway, those are some fairly initial thoughts. I could have written something like this the first day of BEYONCÉ’s release, but I wanted to wait at least a few days to absorb as fully as I could the experience of the whole thing, as well as to give my critical opinions at least some time to marinate.
So: ENJOY IT HUMANS FOR YOUR QUEEN* HAS SPOKEN!
(*it would be interesting to analyse the positioning of Beyoncé as perfect, royal body and artist; it’s not an unproblematic critical manoeuvre)