I’ve wondered a lot what the first book in the series would be like, to the extent that I’ve been avoiding reading it. The first six 33 1/3s came out close together in October 2003, so it’s not like Warren Zanes was alone in writing his before the series existed. He did get the inaugural slot, though, and it’s tempting to think of it as setting the tone for the ones to follow.
It does, in a sense, in setting a wide horizon of possibility: “This is not a book about a record. Sorry.” Instead, it’s a book about Zanes trying to understand why Dusty in Memphis held such significance for him, hearing it first in 1985 as a teenager on tour with his band. He describes complexity as a defining element of the album, with the songs exploring a darker type aspect of love than Springfield’s previous songs.
Stanley Booth, who wrote the album’s liner notes, appears in the first chapter. Zanes sketches out Booth’s character and goes vivid and descriptive in describing his encounters with him. Booth is back in Georgia but Zanes compares him to Memphis, a place he lived in and observed closely for years. Dusty appears as framing, but the main interest is in building layers on myth, detail and associations.
The second chapter centres on Jerry Wexler, who signed Dusty Springfield to Atlantic Records and produced Dusty in Memphis. More conjuring, and then a series of phone conversations. Wexler describes Springfield as a worshipper of the black music of the South in the 1950s and 1960s, wanting to be part of the music and its environment, and drawn to Wexler because he was in the thick of it. The beginning’s not promising for Springfield and Wexler, with Zanes quoting Wexler’s description of bringing her 80 carefully chosen songs and having them all rejected, and then, having nothing new on hand for their second meeting, bringing 20 of the same songs to full approval.
There’s a consideration later of criticisms of Wexler, as a man making money bringing the South up north and looking for music “so good it don’t sound paid for”, with Zanes noting that exploitation is a part of the story but any story about music in the South focusing only on the exploitation narrative is one-dimensional. It fits in smoothly, flowing into a long discussion of authenticity. Two chapters later, the book returns to Springfield and her myth - make-up, illusion, a stage name - as it was born in the South, and the construction of identity. Comparing Springfield to the realist aesthetic of Alan Lomax, Norman Mailer and Pete Seeger, Zanes notes that she incorporates the fantastic, the journey of the imagination that comes along with the journey to the South.
In between, there’s Zanes and his imaginary South, illustrated by a story of peeping in windows with friends as a kid and watching a new neighbour from Tennessee undress, embodying the lore they knew and its untamed, intoxicating draw. Describing Springfield earlier as someone troubled who has freedom in an imaginary elsewhere, Zanes writes, “I felt like I was hearing from someone who shared my favourite elsewhere.”
The final piece is a transcript of an interview with Stanley Booth, running roughly along the same lines as Zanes’ comments throughout the book, and closing with, “having been a guest at all the best Memphis jails, I’d say it is possible to get at the South directly. But I don’t recommend it.”
There’s coherence to the breadth of the book and though the approach is personal, it’s accompanied by considered, informed supporting arguments and a rich prose style. It’s not an introduction to the songs, nor does it document the recording and production, but it has the quality shared by all of my favourite books in the series: it enhances the album the next time you listen to it. That seems like a pretty great opener.
In case you’ve been so busy imagining your fantasy 33 1/3 entry that you missed the announcement, Bloomsbury will have a call for proposals for the series open from 19th March to 30th April. Lots to think about.
Gillian G. Gaar is quite clearly encyclopaedic about Nirvana, and In Utero includes a massive amount of detailed information without resorting to infodumps. It has lightest authorial touch of the books I’ve read to date - no comment on why this album or her own relationship with the music, and most opinions expressed are mostly through others’ words. Gaar focuses on the making of the album and the story is told by those involved with it, with the author well behind the curtain.
The introduction is a brief look at Nirvana’s circumstances at the start of the album’s sessions (and this is, admirably, about as close we get to the tabloidy aspects of Cobain’s life during the making of the album), and then a chapter on non-album track ‘Sappy’ gives a sense of Nirvana’s writing and recording process. From there, straight into the sessions that led to the album’s tracks: Seattle in 1991 (Music Source studio), Seattle in 1992 (Word of Mouth studio), Brazil (1993), the album sessions with Steve Albini (1993). Fluidly, each track’s history comes through, including inspiration or lyrical correspondences with real life, changes in instrumentation, notable aspects of the recording or debates that arose. The descriptions of the songs and the band’s sound are steady and informed, such as noting the vocal qualities Cobain uses on ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ in contrast to the band’s other output.
The difficult points in the album’s story - the label’s dissatisfaction with the Albini recordings and the debate around remixing, and then the controversies about imagery and song names on the album cover and packaging - are balanced, somehow even managing to let Albini (who was interviewed for the book) come across as both Steve Albini and also someone quite gracious. The album art and the video for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ are both described in some detail, the process and the reception.
It’s such a complete book that it feels unfair to fault it for lack of a spark, and yet it’s quite flat throughout. I appreciate that Gaar was fully, fully aware of the extent of writing on Nirvana (and, among other projects, she worked as consultant on the With the Lights Out box set), and so perhaps that came with pressure to avoid redundancy, but there’s so much emotion involved with how people hear(d) Nirvana and it’s strange that that’s nowhere here. Gaar’s writing style is affable and so well-informed, and a bit more passion or character would have made this one extraordinary.
Stephen Catanzarite takes on U2’s seventh album - which he describes as being “the record on which U2 can be said to have discovered its genitals” - and examines it as a meditation on the Fall of Man. In addition to stating that the book is not about Achtung Baby, Catanzarite states that he intends the book to be catholic rather than Catholic despite its Christian perspective.
The conceit is interesting and I’ve been looking forward to seeing how it worked in the book. I’m an atheist (and have no interest in metaphysics, even, let alone religion) but I appreciate those books in the series that test the boundaries of the format and I’m willing to suspend a little more disbelief (pun unintended) to see what they offer.
Catanzarite clusters the songs in their album running order, and each set gets a lengthy introduction setting out the broader thesis. There are many long quotations, including appearances by St. Augustine and Richard John Neuhaus, which might have benefited from brevity for the sake of integration rather than appearing like assigned reading.
There’s a running narrative - a third one in parallel to the Fall of Man and Achtung Baby - about a relationship rife with sadness, conflict and infidelity, and this is where the book began to come apart for me. It’s told under the headings of songs but skips across the lyrical and musical content to insert a dialogue, and it marks the point where the wearying Baroque quality of the prose gives way to a truly improbable representation of speech and feelings. Though the fallen couple can be tied back to the larger theme, their story only detracts from it.
(The prose is actually best when Catanzarite is describing the arrangements of the songs - it’s too flourished for my taste, but it does evoke an emotional response to the music and displays analytical skill.)
Things take an unfortunate turn at the sixth chapter, which covers ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World’ and begins with several pages on “women’s wisdom” and the feminine genius. Catanzarite contends that authentic womanhood has been compromised by feminism and scientific rationalism - a fuck-that-noise watershed for me as a reader - and then produces a pair of the most remarkable sentences:
How ironic (and how sad) that by forbidding a man to place a woman on a pedestal so that he might appreciate her virtue, radical feminists have made it all the easier for him to place her on a pedestal in order to look up her dress. The fact that some supposedly “liberated” and “empowered” women offer themselves on such a pedestal is of little consolation.
Completism winning out over repulsion, I did read the rest of the book - there’s death and man’s relationship to God (or the void in its absence), and then an epilogue that places the album in U2’s career, the influences at this turning point in the sound, and how it was received. Achtung Baby was followed by the Zoo tour and its multimedia representation of mass media, Europe with its (literal and figurative) walls taken down, youth culture and colour and theatricality. It’s no more humble than the solemn, preachy U2 that preceded it, but it’s an interesting shift filled with deliberate iconography and a deliberate invocation of dance culture (referenced repeatedly by Catanzarite, but never examined). With the book bearing a regrettably arbitrary connection to the album or to U2, it seems even more of a pity that this is the entry for Achtung Baby rather than one examining the album’s dense cultural identity and posturing.
Scott Tennent manages remarkable efficiency in the book, comprehensively covering Spiderland while also producing the first book on Slint’s whole career. It’s meticulous and detailed, but he’s fortunate that anyone likely to pick up a book about Slint is probably going to be receptive to the approach - if you read a lot of 33 1/3 reviews across a wide swathe of internet, it becomes clear quickly that the expectations of each title are bound by the type of fans and usual coverage that album artist has, with many people closed to any other approach, and that music writing is a very niche interest. So, with terra nova and an album with fans that are generally nerdy and informed about music, it’s satisfying to see that potential put to use.
Tennent begins with the Louisville scene and particularly the bands Maurice and Squirrel Bait, and it’s like a diagrammatic progression towards Slint, watching the shifts in the wider context of the local scene and punk/hardcore. The expected narrative, I guess, would be that the book’s subject is the ultimate destination, and yet Slint was just one episode in the larger musical careers of its members, and so this seems appropriate. It leads smoothly into Slint and their first album, Tweez, which Tennent describes here and in interview as being baffling and alienating to Spiderland fans, initially at the very least, but he does a fine job presenting its process and merits here. Given the perfectionism and technical competence of the band, Steve Albini’s heavy hand on Tweez makes for an interesting interlude here.
The Spiderland sections is the peak, with the descriptions and analysis of each song benefiting from the full force of Tennent’s skill. He emphasises its dynamics and contrast, especially relative to the minimalist approach they’d elsewhere show a preference for. ‘Good Morning, Captain’ in particular gets about a dozen pages of some seriously exemplary writing (with mad bonus points for the bit on R.E.M.’s ‘Belong’).
Following a concise look at the album art, we get to four-year-old Slint breaking up and leaving Spiderland in their wake, and the book surfaces nicely by describing and quoting interviews, then a contemporaneous appraisal by Steve Albini (his review in Melody Maker), and the specifics of how and where Spiderland was influential.
One paragraph in this last chapter is very reminiscent of Wilson Neate’s Pink Flag (briefly: also excellent) and Wire’s position, though it’s about Slint’s successors:
The cold detachment of Slint’s clean guitars, their subverted vocals, their dramatic juxtapositions - more exaggerated than, say, a Pixies chorus - was like an avenue out of the sound being co-opted by the major labels. If the mainstream, through Nirvana and Green Day, was going to scavenge four-chord punk, feedback-laden noise-rock, and fuck-you slacker attitude, then the punkest thing to do was to turn off your distortion pedal, slow your tempo, and speak in paragraphs rather than shout in slogans. It was a total effacement of personality, statement of intent, and accessibility.
It must be noted that David Pajo and Todd Brashear were interviewed for the book, but Brian McMahan and Britt Walford declined, though there’s no sense of anything missing while reading it. I really enjoyed this one, both in the context of the series and as a Slint fan.
Abba Gold starts with two points - albums are seen as superior to compilations, and being an Abba fan puts you on the wrong side of the cred wars. The latter in particular reads like protesting too much (though in Vincentelli’s defense, her Abba love predated them getting a poptimist reappraisal), but both come up far too often through the book, defensive embarrassment undermining a capable writer who’s obviously also a sincere fan.
Vincentelli approaches the compilation album by album, chronologically, and for each song we get some combination of chart placement at the time of release, characteristic or unusual choices in the arrangement, working titles, descriptions of the videos and how the portrayal of the four individuals might work here and in the music. It’s thorough, but it’s also dull after a while and isn’t laid out like a reference one might scan but as prose.
Interesting things pop up in the course of this treatment, but many of them (like Abba’s popularity with Latin audiences, their relationship to genres, the reasons the US audience didn’t take to them as much, schmaltz) get short shrift and are generalisations. Similarly, knowing why Vincentelli enjoys the band or her personal relationship to the music would have been interesting, but there’s too little and much of it declarative. The final chapter takes a look at the significance of the compilation and the new fans it brought in, but also Eurovision and rock’s attitude to pop and too many things explored too quickly.
The subject had potential for an interesting exploration of how we reevaluate bands over time, but instead there’s a conclusion that calls Linkin Park inane (a cheap shot that repeats what’s done to Abba) and closes with Muriel’s Wedding as capturing how Abba meant “you don’t have to abide to [sic] commonly accepted definitions of hipness to be happy”.
The thing is, the oddly defensive tone is wearing and probably unnecessary when the reader has chosen the Abba volume, either liking the album or signing up to approach it in good faith anyway. The compilation format means that the backstory/writing/studio/tour narrative template can’t apply, and album by album seems a fair way to try a conventional structure instead, but the result is lacking the depth to be engaging.
Thanks to Jamie for the book!
Dan Kois begins with the night Israel Kamakawiwo’ole* met engineer Milan Bertosa in the middle of the night in 1988, recording ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World’, wasted, massive and sweet-voiced. Most of Facing Future was recorded in 1993, but the story’s the right one to open with, a good distance from the easy-listening audience the song found and also presenting Iz before producer Jon de Mello became part of the story.
Equally significantly, the first chapter opens with a journey along the west coast of O’ahu, and Hawaii is second only to Iz as a major character - though Kois is careful to note that Iz was far from an activist, he was also (to himself and his island audience) very much Hawaiian and presenting a Hawaiian cultural identity. The album includes several mele pana, a tradition of songs about place, and a staggering number of layers of cultural signifiers that tie it to Hawaiian culture which are deftly explained throughout the text and also track by track in the middle section of the book.
Iz, though, takes the foreground. The book follows him from childhood, a kid who took to music easily and didn’t much care about school. His parents, uncle Moe and brother Skippy also played, and he was 11 when he began performing, playing for tourists with his brother. Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau formed when Iz was 15, also including Skippy, and they were busy and popular, with Hawaiian pride and sovereignty (pushed by Skippy) and management issues as interesting points for where Iz went next. Skippy died of a heart attack in 1982, and Iz stayed as the frontman (but not the band leader) until 1993, when he left the band and had an attorney sever his relationship with the management. During one of many hospital stays mentioned in the book, Jon de Mello came to visit Iz at the attorney’s request, and on subsequent visits they planned the solo album they’d make on his release. De Mello is a strong personality that has obviously raised the ire of many people involved music in Hawaii, including Milan Bertosa, and his approach to accommodating Iz while recording the album makes for an eventful section on studio time.
There’s a section following Iz’s death on licensing and the continuing business - it’s bizarre and very interesting - and even the album’s tracklist has an amount of marketing strategy behind it. In addition to Hawaiian standards and the cover version that sent sales stratospheric outside Hawaii (and there’s a bit on Iz’s legacy that explains the effect this had on Hawaiian pop), there’s two Jawaiian songs on the album, island reggae. One is a reworking of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home Country Road’, the other is ‘Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man’, and Kois describes how they’re in a sense more specific to Hawaii than the Hawaiian language songs, as Jawaiian music is hugely popular yet sounds extremely cheesy to ears from elsewhere. While the album found a single, specific foothold in the rest of the US and beyond, it hit multiple audiences in Hawaii, two spheres of success both achieved by the same thing.
Facing Future kept sending me back to parallels in Irish culture, not to reduce either by trying equate the two but the questions of cultural nationalism, sovereignty, cultural exports, cultural influences on behaviour and referring to the Mainland made it hard to read at a total remove**. My own fantasy 33 1/3 would be about a (much older) Irish album that has passed through multiple audiences and runs into many of the same questions, so the one thing I was left wondering was the exact demographics of Iz’s fans in Hawaii then and now, but this is more about my curiosity than any omission - one obvious part of an answer is Kois’ description of how hard local men were hit by Iz’s death because they identified so strongly with him.
The book is excellent, but it also sent me listening to the album for the first time…and the second, third, fourth and fifth times. I’m not sure what to do with it, but it’s sincerely affecting and beautiful.
* ‘Iz’ was used so fat-fingered idiots like me wouldn’t balk at ‘Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’, but it’s also expedient.
** Truthfully, the thing I think about most when I think of Hawaii is Jocko Weyland’s The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World.
Matthew Gasteier presents Illmatic through a series of dualities or oppositions, and the introduction falls under ‘Black/White’ - Gasteier is white and really, really loves hip hop but notes that he is not hip hop, and the book is not about his relationship to it, it’s about the album as “this work of art in its own context”. As much as I enjoy reading about why someone cares about an album, Gasteier’s clarity of purpose and self-awareness is borne out through the measured, structured approach taken by the book.
Illmatic is framed as a turning point in East Coast hip hop, an end to what went before and a beginning that’s name-checked as revolutionary. In the first chapter, ‘Endings/Beginnings’, there’s a quote from Q-Tip comparing Nas’ effect to Rakim’s - “You had rap before Rakim, like, you could do Rakim A.D., you know what I’m saying? There was rap before Rakim and rap after Rakim.” Q-Tip was interviewed for the book, along with AZ, DJ Premier and Pete Rock, all producers on Illmatic, and MC Serch, the executive producer who was also instrumental in several early opportunities.
The early opportunities feed into the narrative as Illmatic is Nas’ first album, but Gasteier notes and steps cleanly over the street, relationship and label gossip to look at Nas’ neighbourhood background. Like Marley Marl, Nas grew up in Queensbridge and the narrative of the projects is in there, but as Gasteier notes, there’s both a representation of the projects but also the thing where ‘making it’ is getting out of hustling, sort of about representing the story rather than either damning or glorifying it. ‘Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)’ has this Craig G sample, “coming outta Queensbridge” in the chorus that starts reading like a double meaning in that context. Anyway, here in Queens and Queensbridge, there’s Large Professor (the producer declined to be interviewed but appears a lot) and ‘Live at the BBQ’, Nas’ first recorded appearance. Gasteier points out that the neighbourhood and background is more than just backstory for Nas, with Illmatic a Queensbridge narrative and the album cover transposing an image of him as a child onto Queensbridge: “more likely, he was merging the two images because they were, in his mind, one and the same. Nas was Queensbridge itself, and now he was introducing it to the world”.
This narrative goes over a few chapters, each building with a slight shift in focus. ‘Death/Survival’ combines the condition of New York hip hop, Nas’ brother being shot and friend being killed, gangsta culture and the running themes of paranoia and survival on the album. ‘Individual/Community’ is not only interesting in a Queensbridge context, but also the move from crews to “lone gangster sitting on top of the world”, something that was happening on the West Coast while the stagnating East Coast still ran the neighbourhood crew model. The book’s full of nice details but one here, amid crediting the other hands that worked on the album, is that ‘illmatic’ as a word had appeared in 1988 on a compilation track by Tragedy.
‘Fantasy/Reality’ takes on cinema and storytelling, and ‘Faith/Despair’ is a belief in hip hop, in community and in himself, not in a god. ‘Tradition/Revolution’ examines Nas’ persona - emphasising ‘One Time 4 Your Mind’ and ‘Represent’ as the most detailed representations - as well as the contrast to Biggie and Jay-Z’s street kingpin personas.
‘Breaks/Flows’ is a track-by-track examination of the producers, their choices, the samples, the guests, the genesis and how the tracks come across, to Gasteier as well as critically. The conclusion, ‘Gift/Curse’, points to Nas’ ascendency and stylistic changes following Illmatic, with Gasteier concluding that regardless of what followed and how it measured up in comparison, Illmatic would have made Nas’ reputation as “the quintessential modern emcee”.
Illmatic is a good companion to the album and a careful account of its context, benefiting from an author who has real analytical ability and also loves the music. It’s enjoyable to read, too.
(Apologies for the gap, it was an odd graduation/birthday/life collision last week.)
Wilson Neate interviewed the four members of Wire - Bruce Gilbert, Robert Grey (then Robert Gotobed), Graham Lewis, Colin Newman - and producer Mike Thorne as part of writing about Pink Flag, and the book has a critical, documentary approach that draws on this wealth of material. Many others appear - Robert Pollard, Ian MacKaye, Rat Scabies, Graham Coxon… - and substantiate claims of influence or the 1977 context, all filtered through Neate’s steady, convincing, linear writing.
The interview material is used throughout as part of the main text, which builds up context, background and process over the first six chapters. The first introduces Wilson Neate very briefly, describing when he first heard Wire and how Pink Flag sounded. The second brings in each member of the band (accompanied by their descriptors from the album - blue eyes, or 6’3”, etc) and a biography to date, with music and art being about equally weighted in terms of influence and development. Being the first album by a band with strong individual perspectives and artistic interests, the biographical aspect’s essential and directly related to their approach(es) to performing, songwriting, titles and all that will follow.
The third chapter on the state of punk in 1977 is nuanced and comprehensive, not a sidebar despite Wire standing off from most of it. In particular, there’s the displacement of pub rock and rhythm and blues with something that quickly grew its own orthodoxy, narrow range of influences, defined set of language and cues, and debt to rock - intention/claims towards change and the new but a lot of the opposite taking place. (In a way, it’s a pity that anyone likely to read a book about Wire probably gets this, because it would make a good primer.) There’s also Wire’s own relationship to this (intellectual, technically adept, eschewing American rock’n’roll, not as young (Gilbert was 31) nor part of the scene) and a gorgeous quote from a Mojo retrospective by Keith Cameron: “no guitar solos, no clichés, no mates.” Their methodical, stripped back approach comes through here in choices about equipment and aesthetics on stage (“more Kraftwerk than Slaughter & the Dogs”, in a quote from designer Jon Wozencroft, and “coming on [stage] as if they’d come to mend the fridge”, according to Bruce Gilbert), and there’s also the punk and critical response to the band. Interesting that two of the more negative, disinterested critical takes are in contemporaneous reviews by Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs.
Neate makes reference to Simon Reynolds’ assertion that the art school backgrounds of bands was generally not carried through into their approach to music, and Wire are obviously an exception to this. The next chapter examines minimalism, which brings in the cover art and songwriting as well as the departure of original member George Gill, who left early in 1977 as the band moved further from rock and his sensibilities. Gill isn’t interviewed and is instead described by the others, alongside the process of them taking on the songwriting role he’d had. Elsewhere in this chapter, there’s the description of framing, tackling the conceit of including one-two-three-four on studio recordings and how a song might begin and end - far from arbitrary details on Pink Flag.
The making of the record brings in producer Mike Thorne, and the chapter covers the concept and their label’s wishes in addition to the recording and production process. At the end, Neate allows for Colin Newman’s note that Thorne’s role has been exaggerated by others at the expense of the band’s contribution, while also including Thorne in the narrative as much as the others - again, there’s room for nuance and not a single tidy narrative.
The sixth chapter takes the album track by track, comprehensive in every respect and with the kind of insight and detail that demands they be read while listening to the tracks. Neate describes having listened to the album with his interviewees, and in addition to the songwriting process and shifts happening when, say, Newman went to sing Lewis’s lyrics on ‘Lowdown’, I was interested in Newman’s comment that the “rape” repetition in ‘Reuters’ sounds unintentionally gleeful and might have been reconsidered if it were made now.
The final chapter is short and manages an abrupt-but-not-unfinished ending worthy of the album’s tracks, dropping us back to the present. Bruce Gilbert hasn’t been involved with the band since 2007 when they had a dispute about altering credits - more named, less cooperative - on reissues, and their oddly conventional narrative of disputing songwriting credits brings the book to a close.
I’m very fond of Pink Flag but have always felt at a slight remove from it, like there was another something extra to it that I wasn’t quite smart enough to get, and there’s a comfort in confirmation that it’s an ensemble of songs rather than some secret, underlying whole I’d been missing. There’s seduction and distance, mathematical precision yet some hell-bent Ramones-loving clattering, sincerity and pastiche. Neate’s approach allows for every aspect of the album to come out, managing to present a thoughtful, critical, enriching take on the album and also presenting it so comprehensively that Pink Flag speaks for itself.
Geoffrey Himes approaches Born in the U.S.A. as an album compiled from the many tracks recorded during the period 1981-4, describing how the selection came together but also examining the songs that ended up elsewhere, especially those on Nebraska. The book opens with Springsteen at home in Colt’s Neck trying to write about a man returning from Vietnam, and broadens this to bring in his background, the draft and Springsteen’s approach to the subject through research. Beginning here in the book, also, is the shift manifested in songs like ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ and ‘My Hometown’ towards sticking around (or coming back) and dealing with the reality of the town, not hitting the road for the unspecific promise of something better - a shift Himes seems to appreciate.
The development of Springsteen’s songwriting is handled nicely, first in a discussion of influences and a move from wordy Dylan-influenced lyrics to a shorter, sharper and more populist style, which is very present on Born in the U.S.A. Intertextuality is kind of a running theme, but it’s the focus of an excellent later chapter on Springsteen’s relationship to reading - no interest in anything at school, kicked out of college, and yet unsatisfied with his life following the same path as his father’s, and so he became a reader in pursuit of information. (Film comes in here too, notably John Ford as well as John Huston’s Wise Blood.) Flannery O’Connor was not only an influence, but appears in short story titles borrowed for songs, plain language and literary devices. Langston Hughes pops up too. Also, his ability to write personal songs that aren’t autobiographical and yet have an abundance of earnest credibility, something that bears repeating even though it’s evident in the songs.
The literary lyrics apparently struck African-American audiences as corny, and there’s a segue into discussing how this frustrated Springsteen, and how he began letting sex and syncopation into the songs. In addition to writing for rhythm and blues singer Gary U.S. Bonds, he’s also writing a song for Donna Summer during this period, and there’s a nice quote about how “[Summer] could really sing, and I disliked the veiled racism of the anti-disco movement”. One of my favourite songs on the album, ‘Cover Me’, was written for Summer initially before he was persuaded to keep it, and in it there’s an audible departure, for sure.
The prose is persuasive, authoritative and staying away from personal narrative. Himes has evidently combed through mountains of interviews with Springsteen and the band, and quotes are interspersed to support arguments and provide first-person perspective. It’s very accomplished as a style, and so it’s jarring to run across one section that’s arrestingly strange in the specificity of its conjecture:
‘I’m on Fire’ marked new territory for Springsteen; never had he dealt so directly with sex. He had often written about romantic relationships, but those songs often seemed variations on his songs about male/male friendship; they were more about honesty and loyalty, cars and records, than they were about erections and foreplay. But here, when the singer asks if the woman’s other boyfriend “can do to you the things I do,” he’s clearly talking about clitoral stimulation, not the latest dance step. Springsteen had obviously been listening to Prince a lot, and black pop would exert an increasing influence on his songwriting in this 1982-84 period.
So. I don’t think there’s anything markedly different between the level of innuendo and intention here (recorded 1982) and in ‘Prove It All Night’ (1977) - it’s not about dancing either - and “clearly talking about clitoral stimulation” seems like an odd stretch. The tone of the song is much more about sex than machismo, especially the drawn-out spaces between lines, but it’s not a total departure. (There’s good news for fans of the infantilisation in ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, mind.)
One argument in the book that led me to think differently about Springsteen’s work is the framing of ‘Glory Days’ as comic and that Born in the U.S.A. lets in both serious and comic songs, unlike the sober, earnest Nebraska. I’d never read ‘Glory Days’ as poking fun at its subjects - people who peak in high school and spend their lives looking back - but it is, and quoting Springsteen saying that it “took the key line from ‘Rosalita’, “someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny” and turned it into a whole song”, it’s doing this in the same world the serious songs occupy.
Himes makes a case for Born in the U.S.A. being the best album Springsteen made, and one of the book’s delights is the appendix of brief album reviews in which the others are considered on their merits. (It’s an articulate, heartfelt argument that I appreciate even though I don’t agree and remain with Nebraska and Darkness of the Edge of Town, which he describes fairly as being short on variety. Born in the U.S.A. is the pre-90s Springsteen album I listen to least, though, and I’ve considerably more time for it now.)
The final chapter is threaded through a Springsteen concert, taking in the question of patriotism, conservative columnist George Will and Ronald Reagan’s misreading and misappropriation of the title track. Aside from Nebraska (recorded without the band), Springsteen had been touring like crazy for years and so it seems balanced to have the live act as a coda to a discussion of the albums. I had been watching tor a mention of the album art - I didn’t expect the book to explore it, but I doubt I’m the only one for whom the cover clarified things in the morass of teenage sexual identity - and Himes gets to it here in relation to the gigantic flag and ‘subversive’ image, brief and to the point.
There’s two flaws in the book for me. One is the structure, with the chapters taking thematic variations but without a clear stated remit or even a subheading where the focus is on a given song, and blurring into déjà vu as a result. The second is related, and it’s the frequent paragraphs of a dozen or more song names, charting which recordings from which sessions were going on which album with a meticulousness that would have merited an appendix instead of being impossible to parse. In spite of these issues, it’s a thorough, considered look at the album and this point in Springsteen’s career, and it’s particularly worth reading if you’re a Springsteen fan - no matter which kind of Springsteen fan.
Carl Wilson’s book is one of the best-selling and most widely praised in the series, distinguished both by its subject matter and its systematic, careful consideration of the album and how it sits in a cultural context. It’s approached in good faith, and towards the end, Wilson describes the value of the experiment as “to give Let’s Talk About Love a sympathetic hearing, to credit that others find it lovable and ask what that can tell me about music […] in general” rather than to see if one could learn to love anything given a premise and some time.
The book opens with the 1998 Oscars - some film about a boat was popular and Elliott Smith appeared between Trisha Yearwood and Céline Dion. Presented with Elliott Smith chasing away depression and the spectacle of Titanic and fog machines, fog machines won, confirming Wilson’s rage. (Later, revisiting this, Wilson comes across a story with Smith describing how sweet and genuine and kind she was to him, “too human to be dismissed.”)
There’s an interesting note in considering the critical reception of her work, and that’s the realignments in taste that take place - guilty pleasures, or metal and disco, or taking pop seriously - and the gap between popular taste and the critically acclaimed, part of which is down to criticism involving defining an audience by exclusion. (My reading list grew during this book - on that last point, Deena Weinstein.) There’s then the exclusion of things that are popular and how that relates to snobbery, but that gets a closer look later.
The chapter titles take full advantage of the opportunities in the album name and use it as a running motif, so we get ‘Let’s Talk In French’ for the exploration of Dion’s Québécoise background and huge family, success as a child popstar, reinvention, and the politics of singing in English or French (culturally, as well as lyrical quality vs musical quality). In a Canadian and Québécois context, there’s her celebrity wedding and the question of whether she’s kétaine (cheesy, sort of) and a much longer history with her work - “we hated her before you did” in one sense, but also an understanding of why in a way that doesn’t pass geographical boundaries as easily as other aspects of her work.
This follows into a mention of the Stephin Merritt/EMP Pop Conference 2006 issue, which was followed by accusations of racism. Wilson doesn’t put much weight on that, but instead on the point of Merritt mentioning studio methods in “black music, like Céline Dion” (a slip), and following this into trying to place her music in a genre. The consideration of schmaltz and the rise and fall of the power ballad, and ‘conspicuous production’, begins to make it possibly to understand her popularity and its relationship to other popular culture, which is continued later in interviews with fans.
Bourdieu’s in the background there not just because I’m an asshole, not just because he comes up here, but also because it was music writing (I think Simon Frith’s Performing Rites, specifically) that got me reading him - Wilson draws on a broader range of sources, but his critique of Bourdieu and consideration of how the theory of cultural capital relates to contemporary popular culture (and the practice of self-consciously absorbing high and low culture together) was extremely interesting. There’s plenty of work done on taste and how this relates to someone’s class, experiences, education, identity, and it’s more interesting in non-academic writing about culture than some of the stereotypes that appear earlier in a review Wilson quotes.
My favourite part of the book is a minor thread that gets a solid chapter towards the end, and it’s the one where Carl Wilson listens to Céline Dion, in his poorly soundproofed home: “it turns out I am not so bothered by having strangers hear me have sex, compared to how embarrassed I am having them hear me play Let’s Talk About Love over and over.” (In addition to the part about having to assimilate into new circles through work and doing it “awkwardly, with a lot of crushes”, this is excruciatingly resonant, GPOY territory.) The album gets due consideration, its producers and writers and the moods it passes through, written like a feature on a reissue and pretty satisfying for it. He’s listened to the album many, many times and seen her Las Vegas show, and her own democratic nature is matched with his belief in a democracy that’s “not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like”.
Watching Carl Wilson with Stephen Colbert, I’m struck by the smug, sneering, LOL-Céline-Dion tack taken by Colbert - Wilson makes a good representation while also obviously getting the joke and taking it in good spirits - and it’s a pity, because this is a genuine approach, keeping himself in the narrative and second-guessing taste and examining approaches to criticism, while also taking the woman and the music and the fans and the cultural baggage on their own terms. It’s enjoyable, too, drawing on a wide swathe of sources from critical theory to fan forums. I’m not going to be falling for the album any time soon, but I’ve thought about it more than I’d ever anticipated.
(Let’s Talk About Love contains an “antisexist dancehall-reggae anthem” cover (yes). Of all the things I learned while reading this, that one’s the most unexpected.)