As the end-of-the-year best-of lists finish dropping off the assembly lines, they are, again as always, compendiums of the familiar, the expected, the reliable, the safe: TV on the Radio, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, Santogold, MGMT, Portishead, Ne-Yo, so forth. Even The Lady of the Lake—which is to say, White Rock Lake; which is to say, Erkyah Badu—has seen her New Amerykah Pt. 1: 4th World War shoot to so many tops-in-pops-in-'08 lists in recent days that its inclusion has become almost ho-humdrum amongst the congratulatory roll calls. And those who've included year-end offerings from Beyoncé and Axl...well, some critics clearly aren't using their ears the way God intended.
But before the new year commences, a reminder of the achievement offered by The New Year last year—one of 2008's finest releases, without a doubt, but also a striking highlight in a career defined by them. Just as some of us had begun to believe we'd pegged and pinned down the music made by brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane—the roar of somnambulant guitars that's been their trademark ever since Bedhead awoke almost two decades ago—their eponymous third album provided one of the year's most welcome departures and revelations.
At last, a New Year album that elicits a grin, perhaps even a smile; at last, a New Year record full of fragile anthems bordering on—dare one say it?—pop music. It's a thing of absolute beauty—funny, raw, sweet, aching, stirring, perfect. It rocks: "The Door Opens" (all high-hat and angular guitar—sharp as barbed wire). It rolls: "X Off Days" (a strikingly peppy song about dodging the dead end before it's too late). And it lulls: "Body and Soul" (as full-bodied a melody as has ever appeared on a Kadane Bros. record—might as well be the jazz standard). And making it was no easy thing.
Released on September 9, its origins trace back exactly three years ago: to New Year's Eve 2005, appropriately. Matt Kadane, living in upstate New York and teaching history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, began writing what would become The New Year's fifth song, "MMV," on a piano—because, for the first time in a decade, he had access to a piano, simple as that. The instrument would become one of the primary colors of the new album, lending unanticipated beauty to the gradually constructed wall of sound. And it allowed Matt to bring to the fore lyrics that were, for the first time in his career, unabashedly optimistic as he sang of a New Year's resolution "to drink more and laugh more and sleep more and dream more." Says Matt now, yeah, "I was probably happier" making The New Year than he was assembling most of its predecessors.
And, fittingly, he identifies after much prodding, the reason the album feels so different to both maker and listener: "Because it feels more like a collection of songs, of things I don't have any hesitation identifying as 'songs,'" he says. Meaning? "There are other five-minutes slices of music I've created that I don't feel that way about. These feel like songwriter songs, with more pointedness to the lyrics and more definitiveness in the statements they make. I can say what every song's about, and I don't know if I could say that about what we've done before. And I worried about that. I didn't want us to fall prey to convention."
The Kadanes shrug off any notion that they were candidates for change. Says Bubba—one of only two New Year members still living in Dallas, the other being Peter Schmidt—"there was no grand design" to The New Year. Which, of course, makes sense: They wrote and recorded the album over a nearly three-year period, and did so in two different locations: at Steve Albini's Electric Audio in Chicago and Matt Barnhart's Echo Lab outside of Denton.
"We never know what we have until we've done it," Bubba says. "Music's different from making a movie, where you have to storyboard everything...People thought we were working on the record for four years, but from start to finish it was more like two, at the most, maybe a year and a half of time. We didn't have a single song for this record until Matt wrote the first half before the instrumental end section of 'MMV' on New Year's Eve of 2005. That line 'Sitting here waiting to leave New Year's Eve,' he recorded it then. And I was working on the instrumental end, and we were going back and forth on that almost the duration. That song signaled the beginning of us working on something in earnest."
"If we made a record every year or two years, especially under pressure, things would sound more dramatically different," adds Matt. "Which is why Wilco—who I know nothing about—but it seems to me they make a decision to sound totally different every record because they make music full-time and are in the practice room and have to make another record."
For months leading up to its release, Bubba spoke of how, perhaps, this might be The New Year record to transcend the cult, which is mighty—has been ever since Bedhead toured Europe in the 1990s, accruing a massive and devoted following. Even now, says Bubba, the band is "treated like kings in Spain," where it was a headliner this fall at the Tanned Tin Festival that also featured this year's reunion of Come, whose Chris Brokaw is The New Year's drummer. And it did receive tremendous reviews: Pitchfork wrote of the album that "the gradual and hesitant payoffs of these songs give the feeling of standing on a precipice, while their brief but gorgeous outros are like looking out on a limitless horizon"; The Los Angeles Times insisted that "the songs begin as reflective, melancholy odes and transform themselves into chiming cathedrals of sound."
But those are abstract words of praise for an album not easily defined—one that was made by men who move further from definition even as they toy with moving toward the "conventional." So, no, it's not the kind of album that makes national top 10 lists—not today, anyway. Because the timeless records are the ones that are recognized for their greatness only after the fact.
"I'm proud of everything we've done," Bubba says. "I like everything we've done. I feel like we've labored over everything we've done. We haven't sold anything short. I'm happy with the songs, as much the songs from the first Bedhead record as I am from this record. The difference with this record, for me personally, is that I want to listen to it more than the other records."
Why? Because it's the latest thing? Or because of something else?
"It's just...a different feel," he says, after a pause. "I've always been involved all the way through the end of the process with every record we've done. It's usually me and an engineer mixing every record. So I've done this six times now, plus a few EPs. And no other time after finishing a record have I really wanted to listen to it."