We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the Penzey's spice catalogs we will never open is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, why "unplugged" versions of songs are so often preferable to their more fussed-over studio counterparts.
Phil Kingston writes: "I've been listening to Prefab Sprout's re-released acoustic version of the Steve McQueen album, and it sounds better [than the original]. Which prompts the question: Why do unplugged recordings work? Did the first production choices not get it right? Why does stripping down a song make it feel more authentic, deeper, etc.?"
For starters, you use an important word in your question: "authentic." As music listeners, we've all got a few cynical synapses that fire when we sense we're being tricked — think, especially recently, of the goosing of vocals via Auto-Tune. No matter how much we know about the process by which a record was made, it's easy to shrug off a song's sound when we can hear the sweeteners and the heavy hands of studio Frankensteins well-versed in turning marginal talents into slick superstars.
When Adele strolled in to the NPR Music offices a few years ago to perform a three-song Tiny Desk Concert on the eve of 21's release, her band didn't exactly play "unplugged" — an electric keyboard was involved — but her voice rang out without amplification. No filters, no microphone, no AutoTune, no way to mistake her for anything but the powerhouse captured on her records. Every inflection, every emotion rang out without assistance; everyone I talked to afterward was like, "No Auto-Tune there!"
Truly "unplugged," unamplified performances serve the same purpose. They strip away what we see as smoke and mirrors to reveal a lot of essences — the essence of a voice, the essence of a melody, the essence of a song's sturdiness and versatility — while also applying a veneer of timelessness.
Production techniques come and go, from the electric pianos and saxophones of so much '80s music to the overtly employed sweeteners that have turned up in a lot of pop music in the past decade. Love those techniques or hate them, they tend to cement a song's place in a very specific era of popular music — which is why, when Bon Iver dressed its song "Beth/Rest" in a gloss of Bruce Hornsbian '80s signifiers, so many fans recoiled. Our brains move on from outdated sounds in ways that make them seem jarring when we revisit records years and especially decades later.
When bands unplug — particularly when everything is boiled down to a voice and a guitar — those performances are rendered largely immune to obsolescence. Johnny Cash's voice-and-guitar masterpiece American Recordings followed a fallow period in which Cash released a string of sterile studio recordings, but when that first Rick Rubin-produced album came out in 1994, it could have come from virtually any era. Cash's weather-beaten voice obviously boomed out of a specific time in his life, and many of the songs were of recent vintage, but nothing else on American Recordings was tethered to any era.
In music, as in many fields that lean on technology, today's multidimensional state of the art is tomorrow's tinny kitsch. By stripping down to the most elemental, time-tested building blocks — a voice and a few strings, or maybe a piano — it's possible to sound both traditional and modern. After all, by its very definition, timelessness includes today.