I’m inaugurating this blog with a decisive, potentially divisive statement–an assertion of personal belief; a creed, if you will. It may seem like an arbitrary place to begin. But this one belief sums up the trouble I have with the way we discuss music on the internet and elsewhere, and encompasses my reasons for adding my voice to the throngs already engaged in that discussion.
Ready? Here’s my hill to die on: the worst thing you can possibly do to an album is rate it.
I’m fully aware that most people don’t see it this way, since the most popular music reviewers on the web all assign numerical measures of quality to the art they analyze, and sites challenging their users to rank their own record collections on a similar scale continue to see booming traffic. But despite the popularity of these methods, I can’t stop seeing them as depressing at best and violent–even sacrilegious–at worst. It’s too simple; at once too mathematical and too arbitrary; and always carries the implication that it’s intended to be a sort of final verdict on an experience that no two human beings will ever have the same way–that even a single human being will never have the same way twice. It makes no sense to record a probability of enjoyment, like the final data of a rigorous experiment, when in reality, the results can never be replicated. In this sense, music is closer to alchemy than chemistry–the measures are not exact, the ingredients are shrouded in legend and obliquity; the outcome depends on the circumstances, the hands that prepared the solution, the presence or absence of God that the treasure-seekers bring to the table. And it’s uncertain. Even a five-star album may not speak to you. Even a critically overlooked single may make every speck in your body sing. You can never know if you’re going to get gold.
There’s no sense in arguing that all music is uniformly “good,” of course. There will always be some works that are obviously lacking in effort, sterile of imagination and light on artistic investment. And there will always be highly celebrated, even innovative works that leave you, personally, cold. But even these, in the case of music, have the potential to be rich with pleasures and personal meanings that can never be expressed in a simple number, or even in a written opinion. In the end, all there is to say about music is “it sounds like this” and “it made me feel this way.” I believe that a music reviewer’s ideal goal should be to describe those two elements as accurately as possible.
Further, I believe that accuracy in the discussion of music demands the use of the poetic. To simply compare one artist’s sound to other artists’ is a useful tactic for selling records to established fans of other acts, but only takes a description of an interaction with art so far. In the case of something truly original, it often does the art a disservice. Attempting to illustrate the experience with a creative and strategic use of language, image, and metaphor also has its limits as a method, but it is a way of answering art with art, of turning analysis into a conversation instead of a comparison.
I want to talk about music in a new way–a way that illuminates its magic rather than taking it apart, a way that allows for the highly subjective, deeply personal, democratic, and universal nature of the way it affects us to remain only minimally touched by these boundaries of language and critical evaluation.
While I write this, I’m listening to Yeasayer’s 2007 All Hour Cymbals. It’s warm and wild and full of shafting sunlight, the sound of a deep forest layered with a million years of life and death. The bass gets in the bones, free-tumbling and animating; the vocals float in the distance like a campfire singalong you’ve stolen away from. I can tell you that you might like it if you’re a fan of Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs or tUnE-yArDs’ whokill, but so can the recommendation algorithm on the iTunes store. Instead I’ll tell you that this album is a soundtrack of explorer’s daydreams–blending the new frontier with home, firelight, community. I’ll tell you that the last lines of this album are “In my short life, I have met so many people I deeply care for,” and they are surrounded by a steady and beautiful rhythm that makes them ring truer than any coin or sword, and it is so comforting, and so healing, that something so simple and familiar can still be said in a way that feels profound, that strikes you, that wakes you up to it. This is how it feels to be me, sharing this intimate moment with a songwriter I’ll never meet.
That’s all I can say, all I have the authority to say, what I have the humanity to say. But maybe it will help someone else uncover greater beauty.
I believe that art has the potential to touch our whole being, the physical and the non-, the going water and the gone, the hairs on our arms and the constellations inside us. I believe because it has touched me. And I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.
But what I’m not going to do, what I’m never going to do, is send a number to do a tongue of fire’s job.