I love pop songs.
Mind you, this is kind of a crazy thing for me to admit. In college I was a music student for a good three years, and pop music never crossed my mind. Even earlier on, as a kid, I never really knew the stuff; I'd heard the crap my sister and friends would listen to, of course, but it never made any connection with me. My musical interests in high school, for the most part, tended towards Steve Reich, Schoenberg, Autechre, and the like. Kid A struck me as unremarkable, if that gives you some idea.
It wasn't until much, much later - we're talking like a year after my undergraduate degree - that I began to understand the essence of the pop song. The turning point, predictably, was Prince, as Prince got the medicine of pop music understanding into me by way of a spoonful of sweet, sweet weirdness. I mean, take a listen to this thing. I honestly think this is one of the best songs ever written: the verses are great, the chorus is spectacular, and it's got a riff so good no ass in hearing range shall remain unshaken. And yet in this version, it's got that freaky freeform intro and a bridge that lasts forever going pretty much nowhere. In every way it conforms to pop music forms, and yet it's almost eight minutes long and pretty much indisputably bizarre. (This taught me a lesson about pop music that I still recognize today: good pop music is, by definition, somewhat strange pop music. The weirder and more incomprehensible (within the form's limits), the better. Go listen to Thriller if you don't believe me: at every moment the album radiates weirdness, and yet it never fails to hit the standard cues. This marriage of formula and contained insanity just is good pop music).
After Prince it was only a matter of time before I found Marvin Gaye, Sinatra, Madonna, Bobby Darin, the Beatles, and of course Jacko. At about this time, of course, Rickrolling had hit the net with full force, and so I also found out about Stock Aitken Waterman - a cynical pop song factory that, by the end, had perfected the art of hitting the lowest common denomenator.
Good lord, the SAW back catalogues. What a fucking mess of horrible shit and fantastically inspired genius. Never Gonna Give You Up is only the beginning, folks, these people had been plowing the world with impossibly catchy tunes for years before they even hit on the goofy redhead in the suit. Remember Dead or Alive? That was SAW. Remember Bananarama? Yup. Hell, even Judas Priest worked with these fuckers for awhile. SAW was the scourge of the '80s pop charts, especially in the U.K., and they were even famous enough to even attract parodies (Rickroll fans should watch for an Astley trio about 45 seconds in). Obviously I personally skipped the portions of my childhood where I would have cared about any of this, but this strikes me as the sort of stuff that kids would have bought like musical crack right up until the point where it became cool to scoff at it. Such is the order of things. And it is terrible, right? It's not subtle, it's not something you can use to impress potential girlfriends if they have any degree of "taste," it's not something you can play seriously at parties. And yet.
You know all those free jazz albums you claim to love so much? Those breakcore producers, those psychobilly bands, those math rockers? When's the last time you ended up humming one of their tracks for days?
And that seems to me to be the fact of the matter. We can judge this stuff poorly all we like, but for some reason it sticks to us. It holds our interest, our care, when the things that should don't. And so you can pose and preen like you're above this stuff, you can hide behind your Mountain Goats and Death Cab albums all you want, but the fact of the matter is: these cynical fucks could write better music than half the folks in your collection.
The reason I bring up SAW, then, is because the Blackout Stout reminds me of them - and, I believe, for good reason.
Great Lakes is probably my favorite American brewery at the moment. I've already reviewed their Glockenspiel, but there's just so much more: the Dortmunder Gold and Eliot Ness, which are among the best lagers I've ever had; the Oktoberfest, which is a near-flawless exemplar of the style; and, above all, the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, which I think is the best porter brewed in the States (excepting the Baltics, which are very different beers, and the much stronger "imperials" - e.g., Flying Dog's Gonzo porter). I've never had anything from them that was short of excellent; I'm not even sure if they're capable of it.
Today, though, I'm reviewing the Blackout Stout. They only brew these suckers in Winter, and I've been storing this one since March. The bottle, incidentally, declares a freshness date of August 9, 2009. I think that may be Great Lakes' poor idea of a joke.
Anyways, this stout has a rather unusual history. According to its website, it's named for "the infamous 'Blackout of 2003' that left the northeastern United States in complete darkness, but resulted in old-fashioned neighborhood porch parties and down-home fun." The picture on the bottle depicts this happy darkness, with candle-bearing folks getting together (apparently) to suck down a box full of fine Great Lakes beers. The trouble is, although this beer is named after this blackout, it clearly wasn't brewed for it: it got its first award in 1996, as "Emmett's Imperial Stout." I don't know who the hell Emmett is, but clearly the guy knew a thing or two about beers. Anyways, let's get this thing in a glass.
Well now, this isn't what I expected. It pours a ruby-tinged black - nothing out of the ordinary - but what surprises me is that it's really not all that thick. I mean, it's not exactly watery (this is an imperial stout, after all), but compared to others of the style this is definitely lacking in viscosity (think 5w20 rather than 20w50). I also get a one-finger tan head, with a little bit of lacing - that, like the color, is also pretty standard. It initially smells of cacao and a little bit of raisin; when agitated, I get some molasses as well. There's no trace of booziness at all, either. All in all, it's a very subtle smell after the heavy ice-creamy Brooklyn last week.
I've now taken my first sip, and the overall impression is ash - deliciously so. This tastes like a smoky fourth of July barbeque smells. Up front is a tingly, almost sandpapery texture, which - moving back - evolves into a wonderful roasted malt bittersweetness. There's a little bit of other stuff in there too - maybe some brown sugar - but not much. The charcoal taste hits at the end and takes up most of the aftertaste, along with some lingering brown sugar flavors. How can I describe this better? Do you remember how, way back when you roasted marshmallows as a kid, you used to prefer - rather than just searing them - actually catching the marshmallows on fire, and then blowing them out ? There was a good reason for this: burned almost to a crisp, they were actually way fucking better to eat. This stout is a lot like those crispy, burned, but delicious marshmallows. God it's good.
What's really striking is just how easy it is to drink. The mouthfeel is extremely light for this style - it's got none of the heavy bombast you get, e.g., in Old Rasputin. Despite the 9% abv, It would be dangerously easy to quaff this stuff all night. I said some nice things about the drinkability of the Brooklyn last week, but this is really in a different league altogether. I could work through a four-pack of these like a bag of candy - something I couldn't do with most stouts, let alone imperials. I of all people wouldn't want to draw sharp distinctions between styles, but the more I drink the more I think this may be mislabeled as a "stout." If anything this reminds me of their own Edmund Fitzgerald, a porter, with the roasted malts and the ashy hops all given a good extra jolt.
So, obviously the Blackout is not the most complex of the imperials. Nor the cheapest, I should add. However, it's incredibly delicious and almost pathologically drinkable. What this is, then, is the SAW take on the style. If you're trying to show off your manliness as a beer drinker, you can not and should not admit to liking it - it's just too damn smooth and simple. No, you'll want to find an imperial stout at 30 proof with enough hops to kill a hippo to declare as your favorite. Really though, if there's any of these things that one could drink every night, it's this - because it's just so goddamned fun. Appearances be damned, I couldn't stop loving it if I tried.
Summary: The most drinkable imperial stout I've had yet.