In a 1962 essay, film critic Manny Farber described what he had come to see as two distinct types of art: “White Elephant Art,” defined as “an expensive hunk of well-regulated area,” and “Termite Art,” which he outlined as something that “termite-like, feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” For the most part, Farber was applying the concepts to film; years later, Greil Marcus would apply them to rock music in a column for New West (later California) Magazine.
What prompted me last night to pull out the Farber book which includes “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” was the new album by the Eagles, Long Road Out of Eden. Because if there has ever been an album that could be described as “an expensive hunk of well-regulated area,” Eden is the one. In this instance, that’s not entirely a bad thing – in and of itself, it is a major accomplishment that nearly thirty years on, Frey, Henley, Walsh and Schmit were able to create a 2-CD set that sounds not just a little bit, but exactly like the Eagles, circa 1979. Assuming that folks are able to find their way to the nearest Wal-Mart to buy it, I expect that it will be an enormous hit.
On the one hand, that accomplishment should not be downplayed – the album sounds great (if this album were a floor, you could eat off of it); from the first strains of “How Long,” when the guitars click in and the harmonies soar, you think “Holy Sh--! Nothing has changed!” You’ve got your mid-tempo Henley chuggers, your bemused and sardonically amusing “can’t believe I ever got this lucky” Walsh tunes, and your “time for the girls to swoon” romantic songs with Schmit singing lead – they’re all there, all enjoyable. On the other hand, whether any of these songs will ever become anything more than background noise is hard to know.
Most of the political stuff comes on the second CD, where the band does stretch itself a bit. But listening to songs like “Long Road Out of Eden” and “Frail Grasp On the Big Picture,” I can’t help but wonder how they might have sounded with a little less sheen – the fact that every damn note is so perfect; everything is so pristine; just seems to sap the songs of their power.
In the end, I’m torn. By no means is this a bad album; it’s one that I’ll find room for in my CD changer for a while (and maybe longer than that). But in many ways, it also feels like a cowardly one. 35 years ago, Robert Christgau wrote of the band, “in the end the product is suave and synthetic – brilliant, but false.” You could probably say the same thing about much of Eden, and much of what Farber would call “White Elephant Art.”