It started with a sort-of obsession with a website called Ruth and Martin’s Album Club, which ran for the best part of a couple of years, and involved inviting a celebrity (of varying degrees of actual ‘fame’ – JK Rowling, Richard Osman, Ian Rankin and Tim Farron, on the one hand; lots of people I’d never heard of, on the other) to listen to a ‘classic’ album they’d never heard before and write about what they thought of it. I had been toying with the idea of writing a weekly blog of my own, going through each of their selections, when on New Year’s Day, an e-mail from Mookbarks dropped into my inbox, linking to their new ’52 Albums in 52 Weeks‘ project. And having a bit of time on my hands in that dead zone between New Year’s Eve and the inevitable return to work, I thought that it would be a better idea to use their list. For one thing, it would have the element of surprise. Rather than spending literally weeks dreading having to find something worthwhile to say about The Wu Tang Clan or Andrew Lloyd Webber, news of the week’s album would appear each Sunday morning, and I’d fire up Spotify (and only twice through the whole project did Spotify not have a copy of the week’s album – King Crimson and Anais Mitchell). And it did have the effect of jolting me a bit out of my late-30 something indie guitar with a side order of folk and classic rock bubble.
So what did I learn from the process? Well for one thing, writing about music actually seemed to get harder the more I did it. At least if I wanted to avoid repeating myself. I’m not a musician – I can strum a few chords on a guitar, and I know roughly what a key change is, can identify a minor chord from a major one, but I’m not really in any position to write about the music itself, as distinct from my reaction to it. Years ago, Frank Zappa (whose music, I’m afraid did nothing for me) described music journalism as ‘people who can’t write, writing about people with nothing to say, for people who can’t read” and it is easy to end up feeling a bit of a fraud writing record reviews. There are really only so many ways of saying either ‘I liked it’ or ‘this did nothing for me’. Am I really doing anything more than a bit of an ‘if you liked X, then you might also like Y’, with a bit of biographical stuff about what I was doing when I first heard those records with which I was already familiar thrown in? Or perhaps a brief explanation of why a whole genre, say early 20th Century classical or French chanson, had passed me by. On the other hand, if I was a musicologist, able to offer informed comment on the musical structure of songs by say, Prince or Childish Gambino, then how many people would actually understand a word I said anyway? Is music journalism all a matter of hiding how little you really have to say?
Nonetheless, I enjoyed writing these pieces, and, for the most part, I enjoyed listening to records that I might never otherwise have given the time of day. Even if as often as not, I did end up having my prejudices confirmed: Repeated listening failed to shift my indifference to either Prince or George Michael, I am perhaps too male and too old to stand much chance of ‘getting’ Lily Allen or Girls’ Edition, and Korn didn’t sound any less like an angry man grunting pointlessly over a sludge of de-tuned guitar after four days’ listening. Whether I needed to give them more than 4 days to worm their way into my head, or whether it’s just not for me, I don’t know.
There were discoveries though. Of the 52 albums, 33 were new to me (though some were by bands that I was not unfamiliar with). And a few of these records I ended up going back to long after my four days with them were over. Anais Mitchell’s folk-musical re-telling of the myth of Orpheus set in rustbelt America Hadestown was a good soundtrack to the beginning of the Trump presidency and Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob actually grew on me more after I had written the week’s piece and I actually think I short-changed the record a bit in my review. I discovered that I did in fact like jazz, or at least Miles Davies’ Kind of Blue (and Bitches’ Brew for that matter) which meant that I’ve found one more place to go when looking for instrumental background music when I’m writing. And then there were records that I didn’t love, but which nonetheless were better than I expected them to be. I’d never paid much attention to Lauryn Hill when she was at the height of her fame in the late 1990s – mentally filed her away as ‘that singer in the Fugees’ but listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill I realised that I’d been unfair. And maybe if I give the album some more time, then it will properly click with me.
And then there were those albums that I hadn’t listened to for years, and had the experience of going back to revisit, in one or two cases, decades after I’d last listened to them. As I entered my teens in 1991, it was inevitable that I spent a lot of my teenage years listening to the grunge music that came out of the west coast of the US. More than twenty years later, Nirvana’s Nevermind no longer really connected with me, whereas the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream did. Because leaving the very adolescent lyrics aside, it’s musically a great record – the production is fantastic. Then there was Cat Power’s The Greatest which brought back memories of running around the Meadows, and Beth Orton’s Central Reservation which sent me back to my student days. Never mind Proustian madeleines, only certain smells are better at evoking memories of particular times and places.
And so finally it is over. Thanks to Emily and Fiona for setting up their 52A/52W site. It’s been a fun ride. This will no longer be a regular feature, but if you are reading this and thinking ‘But I really want to know what you make of this album, then leave comment or tweet me to let me know what the record is, and I’ll give it a listen and write up what I make of it.