Friday, March 4, 2016

Do We Still Need Album Reviews?

Earlier this week, there was an article doing the rounds entitled 'Is the Album Review Dead?' The piece was a lengthy one, and the points it made were many, but the main thrust of writer Dan Ozzi's argument can be summarised thus:

Album reviews no longer serve a purpose because anyone with an internet connection can listen to any album they like and form their own opinion instead of relying on somebody else's.

Or, to quote the article itself:

"A music critic’s greatest competitor has always been a listener’s own damned ears. Why take the word of some greasy snob hiding behind a byline when your brain can tell you whether or not a song is any good? [...] With every new album available at our fingertips completely for free at the instant of its release for our own personal judgement, you've got to wonder: Do we still need the album review?"

Ozzi makes a strong case: why should you, the listener, waste your precious time reading a review? You don't need a professional critic to tell you whether or not that hot new album is any good - you can just fire up Spotify, have a listen, and find out for yourself!

As valid as that point is, though, it does seem to assume that the only reason anyone ever read reviews was to help them to make a decision. And that just isn't true; I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I read an album review, the CD being evaluated is very often one that I already own.

The best reviews search for meaning, rather than merely assessing quality.

The question of whether or not album reviews are still relevant hinges entirely on what you think a review is for. If reviews are merely the preamble you skip past when you're looking for a star rating or a mark out of ten - if you think that a reviewer's job is simply to give a thumbs-up, a thumbs-down, or a wiggly hand gesture indicating something in between - then I'd agree that you no longer need reviews. In fact, I'd argue that those type of reviews were obsolete from the very beginning, what with music being subjective and one man's favourite album being another's unlistenable garbage. A review that ends in a rating merely tells you whether or not that particular writer liked the record in question, and given the overwhelming prevalence of straight-down-the-middle three-star reviews, many don't even tell you that much.

However, I believe that reviews can still serve a purpose if we stop trying to assess the quality of the albums we review and start using those paragraphs to search for the meaning in the music. My all-time favourite album review is Drowned in Sound's take on Last of the Country Gentlemen by Josh T. Pearson (read it here). Yes, David Edwards' writing can be a little purple in places, and yes, he does conclude by assigning the album yet another meaningless rating. But the points he makes in that review really changed my perception of the LP, and even enhanced my enjoyment of it.

For example, part of Edwards' review focuses on the long, drawn-out codas with which Pearson apparently can't help but conclude his songs. During my first couple of listens, these overlong outros really bugged me, and the subsequent ending fatigue threatened to completely blight my experience of Country Gentlemen. But then I read this:

"On first listen, it’s tempting to find issue with the prolonged codas of certain songs, as vocals and guitars re-emerge to echo lines and motifs unexpectedly from nowhere. But they seem to exist almost as metaphors for sorrow, a musical representation of how ancient memories and regrets creep upon you when you’re least expecting it, haunting you even when you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve exorcised the ghost."

And just like that, those interminable endings started to sound good. Some may roll their eyes and mock 'pretentious' reviewers like Edwards who try to find meaning in everything, but that's the sort of thing I love doing - hence The Album Wall, I suppose - and reading Edwards' interpretation of Last of the Country Gentlemen gave me a fresh angle from which to approach the album and a new appreciation for its structure and for Pearson's idiosyncratic, ultra-miserable approach to lonesome country music. Last of the Country Gentlemen, incidentally, now numbers among my 10 favourite albums of all time.

Of course, an album's meaning can be just as subjective as its quality - just as Alice might hate a record that Bob loves, Bob might think that Alice's favourite love song is actually a creepy ballad about stalking somebody. But whereas one person's assessment of an album's quality is almost worthless, one person's assessment of its meaning can have value whether that assessment is 'correct' (as the artist would have it) or not.

Consider these two scenarios:


You've been hearing a lot about this hot new pop trio called Made Up Name. You're thinking of buying their CD, and for some reason - maybe you've forgotten your Spotify username - you decide to read a couple of reviews to help you make up your mind.

Surprisingly, the first review you read is unequivocally negative; the writer tears Made Up Name apart with such verve as to suggest that the singer/keytarist ran over this guy's dog or something. Unsure what to make of this hatchet job, you pick up a different magazine and flip to the reviews section, where you find roughly a thousand words of pure gush. This review, spread decadently over two whole pages, is the exact opposite of that first one - not only has this reviewer given Made Up Name all five stars, they've even thrown in a little 'Album of the Month' badge for good measure. The write-up is so utterly glowing that you begin to wonder if Made Up Name might have paid for it.

Confused, you grab your phone and tap the following query into Google:

made up name album review

Your search is rewarded with yet more reviews - reviews from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and The Quietus and countless other online publications, each with their own take on Made Up Name Sing the Blues. Most of these reviews, you notice, fall somewhere in between the first two; in fact, pretty much everyone else has given the album three stars, with the occasional two- or four-star rating providing a little variety. According to Metacritic, the MUN album has a total aggregate rating of 68, indicating 'Generally favourable reviews'. Good, not great.

As your eyes scan over everyone else's opinions, trying to decide which one you would agree with if you'd heard the album, a lightbulb appears over your head and you suddenly remember your Spotify username (it's 'wigglesmcdicks'). You sign in, search for Made Up Name, and press play...and then you press pause, because their music makes you want to tear off your ears. Turns out you agree with that first guy.


You recently purchased an album called Made Up Name Sing the Blues. You kind of like it - a couple of tracks are actually awesome - but you generally feel like you haven't quite 'clicked' with it yet. During an idle moment in the office, you find yourself looking at some Genius annotations for one of the songs you really like; turns out that Sing the Blues is actually a concept album all about the singer's struggle with depression. Unhappy though it is, this discovery does lend the album a little context, shining a light on the lyrics and breathing life into some of the songs you didn't really notice before.

Intrigued, you decide to read a few reviews and find out what other people are saying about Made Up Name. One writer flags up the Kate Bush influence that's present in many of the album's key moments; someone else has written a blog post comparing Made Up Name to early blues musicians, noting the ways in which MUN have taken tropes and chord structures from old blues songs and deftly woven these elements into a keytar-led pop framework. A couple of reviewers have attempted to plot out the story that the album tells track by track, while others (who presumably didn't receive the band's press release) seem completely unaware of the whole 'struggle with depression' thing. Many of the latter group seem to have come up with their own theories as to what Sing the Blues is all about; one person thinks it's a concept album about a drug-fuelled, Fear and Loathing-style road trip, while another is pointing to the numerous pop-culture references that litter the album's lyric sheet and claiming that the album simply represents a day wasted watching crap on TV. Some bloggers don't even attempt to unearth the album's intended meaning, instead imposing their own onto it; one person's account of listening to the album shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer nearly moves you to tears.

Having read all of these different interpretations of Made Up Name Sing the Blues, you find yourself enjoying the album more and more with each passing day. Made Up Name become one of your favourite bands; their songs mean an awful lot to you at this point, and it's all because you read the reviews.

* * *

An exaggerated pair of examples, perhaps, but my point is that reviews are still valuable to listeners when the reviewer seeks to be an interpreter rather than an assigner of scores. We no longer need writers to simply tell us whether or not an album is worth listening to - as Dan Ozzi points out, the likes of Spotify and Bandcamp and YouTube rendered those people obsolete some time ago - but I believe that people who, in their writing, search for the meaning behind the albums...I believe that these people will continue to enrich the listening experience no matter how music consumption evolves over the years to come. 

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