Like coffee at a meeting or a beer at your niece’s softball game, weed makes music more enjoyable. Or so the thinking often goes — it’s subjective and hard to study, though there’s plenty of empirical evidence for it. Go to any concert — doesn’t matter if it’s indie rock, jam, hip-hop or punk — and you can expect to second-hand a few face-fulls of pot smoke.
It’s something I’m always aware of, because unlike many in the great state of Colorado, I don’t smoke. Anymore, anyways. In high school, when to smoke weed was to “get it,” and I looked pitifully over at those who didn’t and wondered when they’d come around. Part-way through college, I took a tolerance break, and to paraphrase James Murphy, weed was an astronaut: it came back but it was never the same.
One thing I’ve missed since I quit was listening to music while I was high. Not so much concerts, where stranger anxiety loomed heavy, but listening to albums. Weed opened doors of perception that as a grass-passing music writer, I’ve had to work to find, let alone slip a foot in.
In honor of 4/20, I’ve broken my pot embargo in the name of musical evaluation. I smoked a joint, listened to an album and took notes, then did the same sober. I have no idea what strain, name or color it was strain—I’ve had this joint in the back of my desk drawer for months. (It kind of tasted like a Sprite, if that helps.)
I can tell you what albums I chose, and why. For variation, I picked one that I liked, (Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison”) one I hated, (Will Smith’s “Willenium”) and one I’ve never heard (Neon Trees’ “Pop Psychology”). I listened to the first album, Cash’s “Folsom Prison,” sober first, and then changed the order after that because of time constraints. (For maximum sterotype, I was smoking and listening to the music outside in a desert [really] and didn’t want to be out there in the dark. As always with my relationship with the drug, paranoia comes first.)
Johnny Cash, “At Folsom Prison”
One of the great live albums of all time. Cash performed it soon after bucking his drug habit apparently, which makes it an apropos choice in some backwards way. From that perfectly everyman intro—“Hello, everyone. I’m Johnny Cash.”—to the last bars of the prisoner-written “Greystone Chapel,” Cash is on point. His sonorous baritone never wanders from his full command, but he’s not afraid to break from a tune to pal around with the prisoners, chuckling when they’re loud enough to scotch the tape and giving illustrated examples of the words that’ll be edited from the record (and then put back in for this remastered version).
It is odd that after ten down-and-out ballads—everything from “The Wall” to a rendition of “Long Black Veil”—he throws a pair of jokers in “Egg Suckin’ Dog” and “Flushed From The Bathroom of Your Heart.” He seemed committed to a sugar-free show up until that point. Still, the prisoner’s seem to love a good song about a mischievous, egg-eating dogs.
All the goofy bits stand out. When he mimics bum-bum-bum’s the bass line on “Orange Blossom Special,” when he tells off the prisoner laughing during “Dark as a Dungeon” and the strange morbidity of “25 Minutes To Go.”
It’s also a lot more gripping and immersive. I find myself trying to picture the band’s set up on stage, picturing Johnny Cash’s face singing the song (and Johnny Cash snorting drugs on “Cocaine Blues”) and then the prison itself. Is he singing to murderers? I hope not. Half these songs are about being executed.
Neon Trees — “Pop Psychology”
Focusing on what I’m trying to focus on — the songs themselves — is extremely difficult. I’m wondering if the album title is an admission that these songs are designed to infiltrate and set up camp in teenage brains. They’re all sound like they’re mixed for the radio (low end has been pushed up) and they’re almost all about being a teenager. The drums have that hollowed-out pop sound. I imagine they’re being played by a continual Rube Goldberg machine.
This is the poppiest album I’ve heard maybe ever. As a non-teenage girl, most of this is unlistenable for me. If you are wondering what an aggressively Top 40-aimed pop album like nowadays, “Love In The 21st Century” and the “My Sherona”-biting “American Zero” are the least grating. But that’s not saying much.
Will Smith, “Willenium”
I had it in my head that I hated “Willenium” because when I was eleven, my aunt gave me this album for my birthday and it was the least cool album anyone could have given me. (I was going through a punk phase.)
But I’m liking this. The production is so airtight and the beats are so happy. Smith scoops up cred when he and Jazzy Jeff tip their hats to old school rap, though he kind of leans on it, referencing hip-hip legends anytime he runs out of non-offensive boasts.
Jaden Smith as a baby makes an appearance right before Wild Wild West that makes me uncomfortable. So weird to hear Jaden Smith as a baby, like his dad is prepping his future career as a professional Twitter weirdo with this cameo. His job in the track to make it sound like “Wild Wild West” wasn’t planned–it was all Jaden’s idea. Here’s a piece of the exchange in all its taking-requests-from-a-baby glory:
Will: “Jaden, only a couple records left on the album, what song you think I should put on next?”
Jaden: “Wild Wild West.”
Will: “Wicky wicky wild! WILD WILD WEST.”
It’s a fine song, Will. No need to use your baby as an excuse.
Okay. I still like this.
The production is seriously great here, and the beats are solid. DJ Jazzy Jeff is the best part. Smith sounds like a neutered DMX at times, barking out raps but never cursing. The family friendly angle is obviously important to him, enough that he backtracks a couple times just to clarify how he doesn’t use swears. Probably why I hated this album as a little punk kid.
Smith’s star-power attracted a mixed-bag of guest spots. Nineties names pop out of the wood work all over the place. Despite the no-curse rule, Lil Kim joins Smith for the suggestive “Da Butta,” before Slick Rick and Biz Markie help on pointed 90s kickback “So Fresh.” Most of it’s nothing special—until “Wild Wild West.”
Thinking critically or just resisting the natural downhill flow of my attention is incredibly difficult when I’m high. The music brings imagery to mind without me really trying, and often times the associations have nothing to do with music. For critical listening, it’s problematic. I’ve run into the the same issue watching movies and TV: Total loss of plot, focusing instead on stonerisms like “acting is weird” and “would Martians visiting Earth refer to Mars as ‘The Mars?’” The entertainment comes apart at the seams.
Weed isn’t a good tool for reviewing music, but as everybody has known forever, it can make the simple act of listening to it a more dynamic and interesting experience. It won’t make bad albums sound better, but it can help you forget that you’re listening to bad music. It can also tarnish listening to a good album, distracting you from the actual music into some unrelated rabbit hole of thoughts.
Like, who’d Johnny Cash get high with for the first time?
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Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.