Sunday, 5 October 2008

You got the money, I got the soul

When I set up this blog, I had a series of sort of vague ideas of what I was going to do with it. One of those sort of vague ideas was that I might occasionally turn my hand to music criticism, mainly just because it's a field of writing that's always interested me. Like just about every other music geek, I delude myself that my taste in music is better than everybody else's, act like a terrible snob when I find out that someone enjoys something that I consider unworthy, and more or less live in a perpetual state of fury that the whole world does not understand the music that I love. When I first read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, I got tremendously excited, because I recognised so much of myself in those characters, who lived and breathed music with an all-consuming passion that far outstripped their ability to sustain functional relationships, even interractions, with other human beings. "That's me," I thought to myself,"I mean, with a much inferior taste in music though, obviously."

I have a tremendously unhealthy relationship with music. One of the first questions I have to get out of the way, before I can objectively judge whether I'm attracted to a woman or not, is "what do you think of Radiohead?". A negative response to that question is a bigger turn-off than syphillis, in my eyes. Start talking about the programming on Kid A, though, and I'll be making wedding plans within the hour. I swoon at girls who know their way around a microkorg or a protools unit. I know that this is disturbing. I can't help it. It's the way my mind is wired. I struggle to even have a proper conversation with someone until I've established that we at least like a couple of the same albums.

I don't really know where this obsession comes from. Both my parents have a fairly uninspiring attitude to music; they like some of it, they don't like most of it. My Dad will often say things like "you can't have a good song unless it's got a catchy tune", and other like statements which make me cringe with despair.

I first picked up the guitar when I was about thirteen. Now I play whenever I have a spare moment. Sometimes I write songs. Sometimes I play in a band. But I've always thought of myself first and foremost as a music fan above a musician. It's a troubling dialectic between words and music that goes on in my head. No matter how much of a feel I have for good writing, I can't shake the voice that says: Music is real. Rhythm and melody, they exist only as themselves. Art and literature are only refractions, shadows cast by music on the cave wall of reflection.

I've had an idea for a book that I've been toying with for a while, in which the lead characters' development is charted by a series of pieces of music criticism, the subject of each one hinting at the path his narrative will take. Some of the music writing that appears in this blog may be used for that project eventually, but for the time being it's just to satisfy that primal need, to share that music which stirs so much in me with others, to force them to understand.

Maybe it would help if I tried to explain what it is that makes 'great' music for me. Not just 'good' music, there's altogether too much of that for me even to think of writing about. Most of the music I hear I can find something 'good' in, but that's beside the point. If music is just 'good' I don't really want to hear it. That's like saying food is 'edible' rather than 'delicious'. I know lots of 'good' albums which I can listen to every so often. Everyone just wants a Big Mac from time to time. But you couldn't really call it the point of eating.

Great music illicits a gut response. It is hardwired directly to your involuntary muscles, provocative and tantalising. What I said earlier, about being a music fan rather than a musician? I guess that's because any time I hear a piece of music that really grabs me by the throat and moves me, it's because I'm thinking wow, I could never have made that. I need music to do things that I don't expect. I hate that old phrase "a tune that feels like you've heard it a million times before". What does that prove? Why would I want to listen to that, if I know where it's going? I'm not saying songs like this aren't good. I'm saying that they aren't great.

Intrinsically connected to this need is the need for detail, craft, layer upon layer of painstaking production. If I'm listening to an album for the hundredth time, I still want to hear something new, every time. I can't stand bands that try to record their albums 'as live'. Of course there's an energy and a joy to live performance, of course I love to watch music being played skilfully right in front of me, surrounded by like-minded fans, but you're not playing live. You're recording an album for fuck's sake. A piece of art, a legacy. If you don't make every conceivable effort to make each individual note or beat a vital and valuable part of the enterprise as a whole, contributing to this vast mosaic of an experience, well then, you don't deserve to be making music.

So to my mind, those are the two most important principles of great music. There are plenty of other principles which are vastly important, if not essential, of course. Valuable, intelligent lyrics that contribute to the piece, rather than vapid, shallow words. There is obviously something to be said for musicianship, the ability to do with an instrument what others can't. But above and beyond all other considerations, it is the adherence to and the pursuit of the mood, the atmosphere, the form. And the form of great music must only be the album, a complete and self-sustaining body of work.

So, starting next week, I'm going to aim to do a weekly critique of each of my favourite albums, trying to explain just why I love them so damn much. This is going to be one of the few regular bits of writing you're going to get from me that will be entirely positive; in fact it will all but shimmer with love and passion and good vibes. That said, I must warn you now, I'm going to lead off with one of the darkest, most confrontational and abrasive albums of all time (but also, in my opinion, one of the greatest ever to be recorded), the most indelible lyrical masterpiece to spill from the pen of the beautiful yet tortured soul of Richard James Edwards, Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible. See you next week.

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