A Thesis On Music Reviews

I don’t think there has ever been a month like this one for new music releases. Stars, Cat Power and Animal Collective all released new albums. As did Ben Folds Five, Brother Ali, Bob Dylan, Mumford and Sons, No Doubt, Aimee Mann, The Dum Dum Girls, The xx the Avett Brothers. My disapproving ex-housemate gave me the newest album by Spook of the Thirteenth Lock and my wife-unit gave me a great bootleg of an REM gig from 1989 (with something like this on it).

All this and the greatest of the Irish songwriters you don’t yet know about, Ro Hession, has a new album out too.

New music can feck off this month.

But one of the drawbacks of so many great artists releasing stuff is that I spent longer than usual reading music reviews. And I developed a theory.

I could call it the Mumford and Sons principle because most of the reviews that really aggravated me were about their latest album. I’ve only given their new record a single listen and I’ll grant that it sounded samey and I’m surely a little hasty here but a touch like the leftovers from the first album’s rehearsal sessions all polished up and made sparkley. In other words: I was underwhelmed.

If I sound harsh, please be assured that this is a warmer review than many I have read of one of the most eagerly awaited albums in years. The consistent tone in all the negative reviews is “I told you they’d come unstuck! I told you they were shit!” I read one sour review that just cited 24 reasons to not touch the album. A common theme running through the hack-jobs was that the band is made up of posh Englishmen playing American country music. I always thought the genius evolutions in pop music came about when people appropriate other people’s music and make something new? I think the whole pop music thing might possibly be the result of a bunch of posh white boys ripping some people off… Another subtext that maybe I am just paranoidly imagining is that these boys are very religious, aren’t they? Hence uncool.

Aimee Mann’s album got a listen while I did the grocery shopping so it is an equally fleeting impression I have gathered. It is full of lovely songs with stunning lyrics. In other words, it is like all of Aimee Mann’s albums. She has suffered because she wrote two of the greatest albums of all time; Whatever and Bachelor #2 (which doubled in a large part as the soundtrack to Magnolia). The peaks that those records represent render the other albums relatively underwhelming. But if Smilers had been released by a debut musician we would have all done cartwheels over it.

Perhaps because of her occasional legendary brilliance, Aimee Mann’s consistent but not necessarily breath-taking brilliance has had a muted critical response over the last few records. However, with this album she has all her famous friends appearing in funny videos, one of which is a shot-for-shot remake of one of her successful videos from the 1980’s. And it features that handsome dude off of Mad Men. So I predict that this album will get lauded with a deafening chorus of critical applause.

There’ll be a backlash next time though.

Ben Folds Five have reassembled. And they are suffering a bit of a backlash. One review declared Ben Fold’s work misogynistic! The same writer declared his lyrics condescending. Which, you know, is a bit like a kettle calling a pot an African American. All those wonderful collaborations with Nick Hornby and Regina Spektor and Amanda Palmer and other people who are quite cool are now going to haunt Ben Folds and the two unfortunate buddies-from-the-90’s that pal around with him until he reaches that mysterious Burt Bacharach phase and becomes cool again, forever, just as he retires.

The thesis I have formulated is that people shouldn’t write negative musical reviews.

Why is it that a damning review of a movie can be simultaneously enjoyable, informative and still somehow make you want to watch the movie whereas damning music reviews (even with verdicts you share) just make you want to ban music reviews? Why is it that a hard slamming of a novel approaches the kind of artistic status that we extend to good novels themselves but bad music reviews are, well, bad?

I think it might be because of narrative. Books and movies and plays tell a story or at least focus on a theme. Concept albums are so rare that we always review them with dainty opinions lest hindsight show us up to be idiots without vision. For the most part, an album of contemporary music is a collection of the best 10, 12 or 14 songs the artist could gather before a record-company inspired deadline. They don’t tell a story. And so we don’t have characters and plot or even perhaps intertextuality in the same way. It is hard to review a collection of songs that are held together by little more than the fact that they are packaged in the same plastic box.

Furthermore, while a novel or collection of essays is unlikely to have the kind of massive grammaticall carcrashingss you’ve come to expect from my bl- . they can still be full to the brim of technical failures. Writers can fail to meet an expected standard. The same holds with TV and movies. Actors can be hammy. Directors can be heavy-handed. With pop music though, any issues with technique can be ironed out by a producer with a few gigabytes of RAM and the right software package. Hence you have critics attacking Mumford and Sons because their songs feature common contrasts between quiet and LOUD. That is meant to be more disreputable than using changes in tempo or key to effect the listener, allegedly.

Good writing on music exists. Of course it does. In Ta Nehisi Coates we have a jewel of a writer. And Nick Hornby can still make reading about music almost as harmonic as the thing itself. But the key to writing well about music is writing about music you love. I most enjoy the reviews that gush. I want to listen to the albums that people enthuse over.

In many ways, music has become our purest cultural sphere. The internet has removed so much of the market’s interference. We all listen to our music for free and unconstrained, whether through legal channels like Spotify or through illegal channels I am not allowed to tell you about. But snark remains the tone in which we get to discuss music.

I say, without a hint of ironic detachment, “Down with this sort of thing!” Write about music you love. Read writers who aren’t shy about sharing why they love music. We’ll lose nothing if we stop grading albums out of ten or with five stars. The albums no one can get giddy about will be the albums we know we can miss. I suspect, as a result of all this musing, that you can expect a carefully constructed ode to Dictionary Crimes soon.

But if I seem like I am just writing an attacking review of the reviews that attack, let me finish by quoting something fine my lovely Wife-unit once wrote, when she was trying to explain, with the help of Aristotle that there can be no morality without friendship. The antidote to the cynic’s Mumford and Sons principle is found around the edges of Aristotle’s teaching on temperance (of all things!):

Temperance is the mean between the deficiency and excess of bodily pleasures, although there are some exceptions. It is not self-indulgent, for example, to delight extravagantly in music. And while it is not indulgent to delight in the smells of “apples or roses or incense” it is indulgent to excessively delight in the aromas of “dainty dishes” for the reason that these are objects of a man’s appetite.

This is an important and nuanced distinction. When we listen to music, we are delighting in it for its own sake, because of exactly what it is to us at the moment when we listen, and it is for happiness’ sake that we listen to it. Likewise, when wandering in the countryside and we are delighted by the discovery of the smells of the outdoors – flowers and fruits – we enjoy their odours for what they bring to us at that moment. However, when we smell the aroma of our dinner being prepared, it is not the aroma itself that we appreciate; rather it is the anticipation of eating our dinner that we enjoy. This is a base and animalistic response for, as Aristotle puts it, “ … dogs do not delight in the scent of hares, but in the eating of them, but the scent told them the hares were there.” To smell a delicious meal with a full and satisfied belly brings two responses: nausea at the prospect of more food, or disappointment that one is too full to continue eating. No such response is elicited while delighting in a sensory experience that is not linked to the animal appetites.

Attack not the music you despise. Be temperate! Love without exhaustion the music you love and share it. We’ll all be better off.

Your Correspondent, A victim of sideshow hypnosis

4 Replies to “A Thesis On Music Reviews”

  1. This is great Kevin. I totally agree that there’s something depressing (and nasty) about a lot of negative music reviews. Whereas I really enjoy hearing Mark Kermode or Pete Bradshaw ranting about a movie they hated.

    The hatred targeted at the Mumfords is particularly vicious and strange. I think it really does have something to do with their faith, or at least their sincerity and hopefulness. It doesn’t have the detached irony that is required by NME critics.

  2. I haven’t so much listened to the new Mumford album as I have heard it playing in several rooms I’ve been in this past week. But here is a negative music review that I think I can get behind:

    “Folk is a malleable resource, and here it is stripped of all politics or witness-bearing, becoming an exercise in romantic exegesis for nice men with mandolins.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/sep/23/mumford-and-sons-babel-review

    To invoke Barth and thus end the argument in my favour, someone who says “Yes” to a certain kind of music will sometimes have to say “No” to a perverted form of that music. Long may negative music reviews continue, I say, provided they’re written by people who know and love what they’re talking about.

  3. Though I did think this was interesting (from the end of the A.V Club review):

    “There are images of walls and towers in nearly every song, but they don’t serve as a unifying theme—a missed opportunity for an album named after a famous tower. Instead, the images seem like go-to words in a lazy songwriter’s starved lexicon. It’s not hard to get the feeling that Marcus Mumford has spent his whole life reading the language of the Bible without stopping to think for a second about what any of it means.”

    My copy will be arriving next week so I’ll just wait and see…

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