Every Song Ever - Twenty Ways to Listen In an Age of Musical Plenty
New York Times, Feb 17, 2016
by Simon Reynolds
Few things scream “first world problem” more loudly than the notion that there’s too much good art and entertainment being made at the moment. Yet it’s undeniable that there is something curiously oppressive about the current bounty, something paralyzing about our ease of access to it. TV is one field where what ought to be a boon feels increasingly like a bane: once there were only dozens of new shows per season, now there are hundreds, such that keeping up with the quality output gets to seem like a chore. If anything, the music overload feels even more unmanageable.
New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s new book is a remedial intervention for our predicament of being able to “hear nearly everything, almost whenever, almost wherever, basically for free”. Every Song Ever is framed as a set of strategies to counter the confusion and appetite-loss that can afflict music fans as they attempt to navigate what feels like a cross between a maze and a banquet - the overflowing riches offered by streaming services like Spotify, unofficial archives like YouTube, music-sharing blogs, and other instant-access sources of sound. Rather than rely on traditional signposts such as genre borders or artist biography, Mr. Ratliff proposes new routes across the teeming landscape: modes of attentive listening based around concepts or musical properties. Some, such as slowness, speed, stillness, and density, are fairly easy to grasp; others, like discrepancy and transmission, are more elusive.
Close listening is Mr. Ratcliff’s forte. When he gets right inside what a musician is doing in a particular recording or performance, and how that affects your body or perceptions, the results are usually lovely and illuminating. His studies of James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky,” Sleep’s Dopesmoker, and the work of João Gilberto and Curtis Mayfield, are precise but never clinical. The chapter “Getting Clear,” dealing with “audio space” as conjured on records by producers and engineers as well as by players, is particularly vivid, encompassing artists as various as Grateful Dead, Roy Haynes, Pink Floyd, Stockhausen and Miley Cyrus. Mr. Ratcliff fulfils the injunction of Manfred Eicher, the founder and in-house producer of the ECM label, to “think of your ears as your eyes.”
Another absorbing chapter deals with participatory discrepancies, a concept coined by the musicologist Charles Keil to describe the minute imprecisions in a performance that create a group’s unique feel. Mr. Ratliff advises that the best way to hear a classic rumba album by Totico Arango and Patato Valdés is “through headphones, at night, walking through heavy crowds in Times Square, smelling street food, visually processing the lights.” That’s because the music in your ears will mirror the external environment: “nothing happens in perfect synch or in a straight line”; instead there’s a mesh of “flickering, jostling particulars.”
Mr. Ratliff leans towards non-technical terms and unshowy language, which he then nudges towards the profound or revealing. Sometimes that works brilliantly: a passage on the Allman Brothers and the glory of bands with two drummers likens the role of Jaimoe to “a housepainter doing touch-ups, not on the second day of work but as the first coat is applied.” Other times the effect falls somewhere between cute and clever, like when attempting to account for why virtuosi are so often religious: “Perhaps they can’t contain their own pride and gratitude, or they can’t house the gigantic battery needed to power it. They need an external storage space for it, and they call it God”.
A larger problem with Every Song Ever is that its premise starts to fade from view – starts to seem like a pretext, in fact, for a fragmented miscellany of meditations on music Mr. Ratliff likes. That’s fine as far as it goes, and readers will often find themselves propelled to YouTube or Spotify to hear what he’s writing about. But I wasn’t convinced that the nomadic modes of engagement with music he advocates would necessarily help anyone grapple with the quandaries of listening in an overloaded era. The categories are so open-ended they might even increase one’s sense of disorientating plenitude. They seem more like exercises one might do after having listened to a hugely varied amount of music over the course of a lifetime.
Mr. Ratliff is both wary and weary of genre, which, near the start of the book, he asserts is “a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less”. Actually, genre terms mostly emerge organically out of communities of musicians and fans. Although Mr. Ratliff announces early on that he’ll refrain from using genre language wherever possible, in practice he nearly always identifies music using those tags: as bebop, happy hardcore, flamenco, dark ambient, nyabinghi. Genre terms are useful, perhaps indispensable; they tell you something. The self-consciously genre-crossing critic – just like the self-consciously genre-blending musician – depends on style boundaries precisely to transgress them and achieve desired sensations of liberation, discovery, an airy cosmopolitan feeling of rising above the rooted and local.
Mr. Ratliff uses terms like “comfort zone” as negative concepts, implying that listening widely is virtuous, or at least good for you, promoting a suppleness of sensibility. But fanatical relationships with a particular sound or scene can be just as engaged, just as rewarding. Metal fiends, for instance, find an infinite array of subtle shades in what seems like undifferentiated monotony to non-initiates. This sort of patriotic adherence to genre is something that Mr. Ratliff believes is on the way out, historically. Which may be true, but is that a good thing? The roaming listener who samples across the genrescape is more often than not harvesting musical fruits that were generated by narrowly focused and dedicated purists.
In the end, it remains debatable whether there is a right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy way to listen to music. Being an omnivore doesn’t even guarantee increased enjoyment. There are people who derive endless delight just listening to one kind of music, or even a single artist, as Mr. Ratliff acknowledges in a section about individuals he’s encountered who have all-consuming obsessions with Frank Zappa or the Grateful Dead’s live recordings. Conversely, one of the downsides of the age of plenty is that the more widely you listen outside your well-worn grooves, the more frequently you’ll experience disappointment, distaste, or just indifference. More is less.