Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty
Ben Ratliff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A non-science book review for today’s post. This is a great read on “how to listen to music”. There have been hundreds of books published along these lines, the innovation here however is that we now live in an age of musical plenty. Every song ever recorded is available at our fingertips to listen to when, where and how we want. This means that the author can draw on Thelonious Monk, Sunn O))), Shostakovitch and Mariah Carey. And you can seek it out and find out whatever it is that they have in common.
I got hooked in Chapter 2 (discussing slowness in music). I was reading and thinking: he should mention Sleep’s Dopesmoker, but what are the chances? I turn the page and there it was. Then I knew that we were literally on the same page and that I would enjoy whatever it was he had to say. Isn’t confirmation bias a wonderful thing (outside of science).
A lot of writing about music is terrible, but I love it when it is done well. As it is here. I especially like reading “under the bonnet” analysis of songs. Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head (or Twilight of the Gods by Wilfred Mellers as an extreme example) springs to mind. This close analysis means you can go back and find new treasures in old songs. And this is the essence of the book.
I must admit that I have thought about trying to write similar analyses of songs on quantixed. Aside from the fact that I don’t have time, I was worried it might make me seem like Patrick Bateman discussing the merits of Huey Lewis & The News in American Psycho. It’s something that’s difficult to do well and Ratliff’s analyses here are light touch and spot-on.
The short section on blast beats which mentioned D.R.I. made me smile too. Although there’s a factual error here. Ratliff talks about how singer-drummer-brother combo Kurt and Eric Brecht lock in on Draft Me when they played CBGB’s in 1984. Drummer Eric had left the band at that point to be replaced by Felix Griffin, and it is him, not Eric, duelling with vocalist Kurt. Both on LP Dealing With It and the gig at CBGB’s which was later released as an LP and video. Again it’s a band that I have soft spot for and it was great to see them picked out.
There were a couple of quotes that I found amusing, being a CD collector and something of a completist. Here’s one:
A friend described to me the experience of acquiring a complete CD collection of Mozart, after having had a piece-by-piece relationship with his music for most of his life. It was 175 CDs, or something like that. “I realized,” he said, “that now that I had it all, I never needed to listen to it again.
Along the same lines, I thought this quote was pretty chilling.
We can pretty much wave bye-bye to the completist-music-collector impulse: it had a limited run in the human brain, probably 1930 to 2010. (It still exists in a fitful way, but it doesn’t have a consensual frame: there is no style for it.) It is not only a way of buying, owning, and arranging music-related objects and experiences in one’s life, but also a distinct way of listening.
As somebody who is not a fan of streaming and still values physically owning music I know I am out-of-step with the rest of the world. However I think this quote is at odds with what the whole book is trying to achieve. The guy listening to music on his phone speaker on the bus, described in the intro can’t hear and appreciate much of what is described in the book. To hear that squeak of John Bonham’s kick drum pedal on Since I’ve Been Loving You from Led Zeppelin III, you need to be listening in the old-fashioned way, rather than in the noisy and busy way most music is consumed nowadays.
It’s a great read. You can get it here.
My Blank Pages is a track by Velvet Crush. This is an occasional series of book reviews.