How noble are the pop critics! Those foolhardy souls who plunge themselves into a life of unerring passion, soul-crushing sensory overload and internet comments posted under their work, that say things like ‘lol id killmyslf if id writen dis, [insert shit band name] = ledge’. As with music, as in writing: it’s a shit business.
Still, hats off to Bloomsbury for the ever-fascinating 33 1/3 series. Written by the sort of obsessive fans you’d expect to crank out 100 pages about a solitary album by their favourite band, they’re a doe-eyed assemblage of close readings, manic enthusiasm and crackpot theories taken beyond logical conclusion, just for the fun of it. Right on cue, here’s another four instalments for our delectation.
Darran Anderson’s analysis of Histoire de Melody Nelson comes first: arguably Serge Gainsbourg’s masterpiece and almost certainly one of the finest records to flop commercially. Anderson is a fine writer, effortlessly explaining his love for the record whilst weaving in philosophical observations about art and an absorbing biographical narrative of the multi-talented Parisian. If that all sounds a bit too much to swallow, then trust us. It’s a bloody good read, and perhaps reflective of the initially-overwhelming complexity of the record. Just give it time.
Despite his obvious hero worship, the author does not shy from exploring Gainsbourg’s much-vaunted sexual… er, ‘confidence’, and focuses heavily on the volatile relationship between the musician and his Lolita-esque muse Jane Birkin. ‘Jolly good,’ one might say, ‘given that they rank amongst the album’s central themes’. But the real winner is the value placed on intermittent anecdotes – the tale of Serge’s deft handling of a concert hall filled with an angry nationalist lynch mob is heart-warming and inspired. A solid addition to the canon, in other words.
Next up is an exploration of They Might Be Giants’ major label debut Flood, and it’s somewhat less easy to digest. Like the record itself, it’s a collaborative piece between two writers: sci-fi blogger Philip Sandifer and music academic S Alexander Reed, both proud holders of PhDs and very clearly folks with far too many ideas buzzing around their brains at any one time. Their central argument is that TMBG exist first and foremost for the exploration of ideas, and the title of the record represents a very deliberate overload of influences, sounds, styles and… well, you name it. They decry the accusations of novelty that have plagued the band since their inception, suggesting that what makes the Johns Flansburgh and Linell appear nerdy and goofy is in fact indicative of hyper-curious minds at their most creative.
To prove this point, Reed and Sandifer fling every idea they can muster at the wall, with references as diverse as Lincoln biographer Carl Sandford, New York no-wavers DNA and even Douglas Adams coming thick and fast. It’s smart and thoughtful, but sometimes the swell of theories can feel overwhelming, and as such the book often feels far more clever than absorbing.
Phillip Crandall fares much better with his frankly ludicrous examination of Andrew WK’s signature LP I Get Wet. Dividing the book into themed chapters such as ‘Juice’, ‘Sweat’ and ‘Blood’, the author delves as deep as he can into the mysteries of the famed party-rocker, and largely comes up trumps with a character study that’s odd and occasionally frustrating, yet broadly fascinating. Despite songs such as ‘Party Til You Puke’ and the heroically moronic ‘Party Hard’, it turns out that WK is no drinker, and more of a workaholic than his self-propagated image as goodtime reprobate. One tale does reveal the singermemorably defining ‘party’ as “when you throw a pillow on the floor, then you run around it until you get dizzy and pass out and puke.” Even this, however, is used to illustrate his singular drive, as he goes on to make his point by spinning around in a chair and attempting to run upstairs – just to prove something which is never fully explained. It’s a brilliant yet baffling moment.
Crandall doesn’t write much like a music critic – indeed, there are times when one wishes he’d get under the skin of the listener’s musical experience a little more – but his journalistic approach nonetheless unveils some tremendously daft theories. There’s one neat motif that he returns to towards the end of the book, concerning the young WK’s experiences of being made dizzy as a child and then informed that this experience is fun by his rollercoaster-enthusiast mother – this may, perhaps, be the roots of his fondness for music that sounds or feels extreme. Then there are tales of his generosity towards fans, including signing the data side of a CD before presenting the recipient with a free additional copy, so they can still listen to the music. The book’s real triumph is its detailed philosophical interpretation of what WK is really getting at when he says ‘party’ – and even if the theory is complete bollocks, it feels satisfyingly powerful.
Finally, there’s Marc Weidenbaum’s exploration of an electronic landmark: Aphex Twin’s landmark Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Things get off to a moderately infuriating start, with an entire chapter devoted to exactly why critics heralded the album by citing the descriptor ‘beatless’. To anyone with a vague comprehension of the artist’s oeuvre, or the basics of ambient music in general, the answer seems obvious: Richard D James (to use his real name) is virtually synonymous with splattered breakbeats and glitch-based techno. This record uses foregrounded rhythm tracks sparingly, if at all. As much fun as the writer may have in exploring other theories, they feel extraneous thanks to their obvious irrelevance – ‘enough of what the album isn’t,’ one may find oneself sighing. ‘Tell us what it is’.
As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that all of these books suffer from the immensely pointless feature of the introductory chapter, wherein they tell us what the book will be about. As your humble reviewer’s English teacher used to ask – why tell us what you’re going to say? Why not just say it?
But back to Weidenbaum and Aphex. Despite those daft beginnings, proceedings really kick up several notches from thereon in. As well we being something of an anomaly in the widely-understood narrative of James’ career, Selected… was also notable for its avoidance of traditional song titles, instead appearing to assign them individual pictures. This, the author notes, plays havoc with metadata systems like Gracenotes (primarily known as the software that identifies music when it’s uploaded to media applications such as iTunes), not least because the album’s popularity amongst early worldwide web users led to a transcribed list of the images as phrases such as ‘Parallel Stripes’ and ‘Blue Calx’ somehow became a commonly-accepted tracklisting by Aphex fans. That’s arguably the best thing about the book: this sort of analysis of the relationship between technology and the way ‘electronica’ fans interact with it. Weidenbaum also details how other musicians have attempted to recreate the album’s vast palette of sounds with acoustic instruments, with varying degrees of success, in a glorious attempt to understand what makes the album work from a variety of perspectives. It is, quite possibly, the best volume of this 33 1/3 selection. Eventually.
In an age where it seems that everyone is a critic; where music journalism has watered itself down and lost its authority; where the ubiquity of freely-available media and information means that there is no singular narrative driving popular culture in the way we have come to understand it, it is gratifying to know that there are still publishers willing to take a chance on ventures of this sort.
Any Cop?: With this series, Bloomsbury provide a valuable service to anyone who’s interested in music on a level beyond the simple fact of enjoying a song. How noble are these pop critics? Extremely so.