Face the Music: Album Reviews Are Not About Music.

Article June 17, 2018 David Hill
I write sentences about myself to appear more authoritative

Our mood, where we are, who we’re with… it all affects the feelings we assign to music we hear.

I don’t listen to much rap music, but I really like Tee Grizzly’s “First Day Out”. Why? I have no idea. I could have burped as the song came on the first time, and I associate the chorus with a light, comfortable feeling in my abdomen. That’s NOT the reason, but the real one could be equally random. So quantifying the value of music and determining how the reader will perceive it is ill-advised because you can’t. How many aspects of music composition can we accurately describe in an interesting and relatable way? Well, almost none. I know this because Tyler knows this. 

Tyler is a music critic in New York. Every week he listens to 14 new albums and writes 500-word reviews about eight of them. When they’re all Garage Rock bands from Detroit it creates a problem for Tyler. Writing about the music would A. become the exact review eight times, and B. require a Steven Hawking-level knowledge of music. Tyler doesn’t play an instrument or know much music terminology, so he writes abstractly and makes up his own stuff. This allows him to dance around descriptions that sound deep but lack substance. Something like, “The same power and precision from their debut shines through in a more structured way, but they’ve managed to stay true to their post-grunge alt-synth take on the New York post-core EDM scene.” I’m not saying this is a music conspiracy. Tyler has a job and he does it.

Cursive's Domestica Album Cover on Timed/Edition

There was a time I thought Cursive’s Domestica sounded like actual static, and that anyone who listened to it was loudly proclaiming their unique snowflake-ness. “See? You’ll never GET this, maaaaan.” The music was loud and dissonant. The lyrics were screamed, and rarely in a way that resembled actual singing. I thought it sucked; at least until “the thing happened” two years later. The “thing” was a relationship and the “happening” was its dissolution. Cue nineteen years of pent-up teenage angst. Now the songs didn’t sound like Tim Kasher slamming his guitar into a wall (for the most part). The static-driven “The Martyr” suddenly morphed into a gut-wrenching story of love gone wrong. What had happened? The music didn’t change. My perception did. Domestica’s nine tracks helped me understand my own feelings in new ways, and that’s something that can’t be accounted for when reviewing music – the ways people project their own meaning and understanding where there was none. You know that incredibly popular song by Tom Petty, “Free Falling”? Yeah, it has emotionally resonated with millions of people over the years. But when he wrote it, Tom was goofing around in the studio to make the guys laugh – until the band realized his melody and lyrics sounded good. They recorded the track the next day. (Check out the origin story of “Jesus Take the Wheel”. It’s even better.)

No one I know reads Spin to rave about a badass fermata in an Adele song that “really took things up a notch!”

Album reviews are like Apple Jacks cereal. You can look at the nutrition facts and find a list of vitamins and minerals, but everyone knows it’s sugary shit. I have never met a person that read Rolling Stone to learn which Kanye tracks were creating the most harmonic tension; and whether they each resolved properly. No one I know reads Spin to rave about a badass fermata in an Adele song that “really took things up a notch!” People simply don’t read music reviews to learn about the music. People read music/album reviews to live vicariously through someone else, or to justify a $50 vinyl purchase they made on Tuesday night after too many whiskey drinks. I know this because I know this.

The key to writing a GOOD album review is to NOT write an album review. Write about the ancillary details instead; the band, their attitude, the crazy hijinks. Write a compelling story. That is the conduit for critics to share their feelings about music with readers. Elvis said many wonderful things (I assume), but his most profound quote was probably, “I don’t know anything about music. In my line of work you don’t have to.” 

Elvis Presley on Timed/Edition

A well-told story about a band CAN evoke emotions that resonate with masses of people, even more than the band’s music. In the case of album reviews, maybe less music talk really is more – as long as the story is written well. My “review” of Mondo’s Katamari Damacy LP release received some VERY passionate feedback (read: bad). By the time I wrote the review the album was sold out, it had been discussed countless times, and the music had been listened to thousands of hours since its debut on the PlayStation 2 in 2004. But it wasn’t a review. It was an abstract story that featured the album and explored other topics in the process. And that fault was mine. It was a misrepresentation for what was to come.

“I don’t know anything about music. In my line of work you don’t have to.” – Elvis 

Of all the feedback, one comment by Redditor darkmush really stood out, because I couldn’t argue with him. He wrote,

“The actual points from this shitty review that are about the album:

  • “The original artwork by WE BUY YOUR KIDS is stylistically on-point, and the swirling multicolored discs are heavy, balanced, and extremely clean”
  • “It’s everything I could ever want in a Katamari Damacy album – great packaging, sonically impressive recordings, extremely colorful vinyl”

That’s all

Darkmush was right… The Katamari review was shitty. After hundreds of words I practically said nothing of the album itself. I wondered what that said about the review. What did it say about my writing? I carefully considered darkmush’s comments for the night, and received my answer in the form of a zen, Yoda-like question.

What did you expect me to write about? The Music?

David Hill

Author & Collector

David Hill writes footnotes about himself to make his work appear more authoritative. He lives in a condo that he shares with his wife and daughter, but has no animals due to the outrageous pet deposits at his complex and the lack of backyard.

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