Man walks into a column, no.9: Music

Writing about music is like etching about sex: ultimately pointless; you always wind up wanting to do the real thing. Only the very bestest of writers can capture a little of the experience of listening to a song, and even then: best to just hit play.

Most album reviews, for instance, take this form: [establish historical precedent for new release e.g. how long it’s been since band member X left band] + [situate ‘in the now’ by reminding reader of: band’s recent stunning live form/frontman’s memorable quote in interview/decision to record this in a woodshed in the Appalachians] + [compare and contrast sound of album to previous albums by same band] + [compare and contrast to other artists, weaving in references to obscure musical back-alleys to demonstrate reviewer’s impeccable credentials] + [end with smug pay-off e.g. ‘this could be X’s year’, ‘best sampled with a bottle of whisky’, ‘still enough spark to start the occasional fire’].

This heavy reliance on connections, similarities, departures and revivals makes it very hard to enjoy an album review to the full if you’re not familiar with the hinterland the reviewer’s describing (it’s also what makes the music magazine the natural haven for men of a certain age with trainspotterish tendencies: it’s like a big ol’ dot-to-dot puzzle).

Book or film reviews, on the other hand, are able to meaningfully convey some of the substance of the thing itself. Is it a question of the number of points of reference? Compare reviewing films and reviewing music. With a film you’re able to talk about the script, dialogue, cinematography, acting, effects, editing, score, lighting, costumes, sets… all of which are absolutely integral to the film itself. But with a piece of music – even a whole album – you only have the lyrics, melody, rhythm and players before you find yourself moving beyond constituent parts to linkages.

There are admirable exceptions which prove the rule: take for example this great track-by-track review of the new REM album, Collapse Into Now, which – for me – succeeds in conveying more of the light and shade, the texture, the granularity of the music itself. But how frequently do music journos have the space for a blow-by-blow account of a new release? And even with the space to go into this level of detail, making a case for why a new album is good or not suffers – more than cinema or literature – from the ‘well I don’t feel that way’ response. Again, because music has fewer easily identifiable constituent parts upon which to base an argument.

Writing about musicians and the process of music-making is much easier, and reading about the people and events of musicworld is often fascinating, especially if, as in my case, there’s as much chance of you becoming Sean Connery as there is of you becoming a musician.

But whilst it’s intriguing to read about the forces that shaped a musician’s life or experiences, they’re rarely any better placed to convey the music itself; worse, often. Take the interview with PJ Harvey that appeared in this month’s MOJO (not, as far as I can see, online). An exceptionally articulate person, but her description of 2000’s Songs From The City, Stories From The Sea was simply ‘…it was honest to the moment, in that I was feeling very exuberant […] It was a very vibrant time. Very exciting. And the music’s bursting with it’.

This is not to be disrespectful to Harvey or to anyone else. It’s just that conveying music without simply sitting someone in front of the speakers is hard. And having a meaningful conversation about music that goes beyond ‘I like this’, ‘I liked that more’, ‘this is great’ is even harder.

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