Two threads run though my friend Marcello’s The Blue in the Air: one’s a fear, rarely directly stated; and the other’s a trust, a implicit confidence, a gamble. Between them, these oblique stances, very different but very connected, lure or impel us through an astonishing maze of music, much of it very likely unfamiliar, from radical free improv to one-off novelty pop, via every imaginable sheeptrack or rat-run or scenic bus ride…
Blue collects Marcello’s commentaries on 50 records, written over 12 and a half months in 2007-08 (or actually 150-odd records; or — truthfully — 150,000 and counting): it’s also (in its sly, understated way) a map of the last 50 years in music (or actually 150, or truthfully…). And I imagine a map of this map could be devised by citing Carlin’s writerly forebears, if that’s a way you like to establish value. Here’s the GMarcusian close-reading, for example: as when he takes us phrase-by-phrase through vocal and arrangement of Kevin Rowland’s 1999 version of ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’, a song written for (but never performed by) Chet Baker, which builds to its final phrase, “if not I’ll just die…” — undiluted melodramatic, of course, which is exactly the kind of melodrama Rowland knows how to unroll in unexpected ways. And there’s the deft Morley-esque deadpan: as when, via the Doors-alike song ‘Endless Tunnel’, the long-forgotten Serpent’s Power’s same-name debut LP is adjudged not the “28th best album of 1967′ but instead the “37th best”.
In this second mode, some silly touchstone of rockchat (the yearly best-of list!) lets us fuse significance with the idiotic, while playfully hinting that in pop (and thus in all of art) they ought never to have been deemed entirely unfused. While in the first, the Marcus-ish close reading, you’re receiving an empirical masterclass in critical observation; how music works, at the level of the phrase, the hinted echo, the drum-beat, the sigh — the puncta, you might almost say, where the praxis of and fissures in an artist’s technique meet the listener’s own often secret story. (The semi-veiled backdrop to this project being profound personal loss, and the rediscovery of the possibility of love; as some know — but it’s worth stressing you don’t need to know this in difficult detail, and nor is this aspect ever more than fleetingly adverted to.)
Also at NME in the early 80s, and one of one of the quieter critical architects of Marcello’s beloved New Pop, was my own subsequent mentor at The Wire, the late Richard Cook — and there’s much Cookian scholarship in Blue, too, including authoritative hinterland exposition of the terminally unfashionable, of forgotten sessions and impossibly minor sidemen, and strange sideways moves from the wilds of free jazz into the bargain-bin bubblegum basement and/or TV comedy-wasteland cash-in cul-de-sac, and (yes!) back. And actually, you know, maybe there’s even a trace of me here too. Marcello’s distrust of cultural parsimony is certainly something I share, and we both reject the cull as any kind of route to understanding; the unwieldy sprawl produced by lack of cull is potentially a world of sudden unlikely but exacting juxtapositions, and this too we share a love of. Though as much as anything it’s just that he cracks jokes I wish I’d thought of (Tight Fit or the New Seekers should INDEED have recorded a version of Stockhausen’s Stimmung… ) (the joke being that this really ISN’T a joke).
At which point I should obviously reiterate my disclaimer, that I know Marcello well, and his wife Lena too, and am proud to have been now and then on hand as they built their current life together, and am exorbitantly delighted that someone’s had the vision to turn Marcello’s tireless blogwork into a book at long last, and a bit sad it’s been overlooked so far by reviewers. And if such attachment and such allegiance are ways you dis-establish and discount value, then actually — probably — this book will be gifting you nothing of enormous consequence anyway: it really really isn’t a great deal to do with any of the myths of cultural objectivity.
Natural as it is, stressing these various writerly comparisons, valid or not, is an easy way to mistake the nature of this project. Blue really doesn’t stands square or simple anywhere in the ordinary line of popwrite. Not least because it cadges no grand historical importance out of claims made for its contents — as most such books must, of course, to sell. Song no.16 in Blue is sung by British popstress Dorothy Squires, her 1970 version of ‘My Way’, released as her lovelife and career began a last long downswing into thrown-over and resentful (not to say litigious) obsessiveness. Very easy indeed for the winners in this life — the young, the smart, the ambitious, the reasonably self-aware — to chuckle a little as they assign quasi-Nietzschean pop-typologies that amount to nothing to hear here, folks…
What’s the importance, after all, of importance? Why do we need things that matter to us to matter to all? And — the real question — how much does it matter how they matter? To grasp the point being made about it in Blue, you almost certainly have to come in, sit down and read Carlin, and then up and track down and go hear Squires, deluded naff loser though she may seem: to shortcut is to shortchange yourself.
Though they’re not at all the same thing, criticism largely currently exists in the exact same space as reviewing, primarily because reviewing is a paying proposition within consumerworld where criticism very often isn’t. “I undertake this so YOU DON’T HAVE TO”: and yet the pre-emptive cull is far more a consumer-driven response to time-poverty under current conditions, than any species of grown-up intellectual response to the material at hand. The critic, with a mortage to pay, internalises the reviewer-pretext, the two disciplines inextricably confused everywhere. Result: a half-and-half practice that most-times battens on and extends excuses for ignorance, bigotry, complacent semi-informed parochialism.
The problem isn’t the instant response-at-the-time — that’s reasonably easy to justify, and has some benefits — so much as the way a certain aggregate response congeals over time into habit-of-certainty. Certainly far too much reviewing — from the high-minded belle lettriste essay or politico-polysyllabic quasi-philosophical long-form study across and down to the conveyor-belt leisure-processing of each new week’s routine of new releases — is essentially supplying its specific public with short-cut excuses NOT to read a book, see a film, plunge into a song or a show. This excuse requiring an armature of discernment, the practice manifesting as the production of the factitious generalised ideal, the critique as quasi-intellectual pre-articulated checklist: the role of outsourced labour-saving sensibility-minion requires you be seen to bin stuff, in quantity…
So jump to No.18, which is Britney’s ‘Heaven on Earth’. Again, the Morley-esque perspective on the value of a chart is at work: 18 isn’t two UP or two DOWN in this list, it’s two ALONG. A gnomically personal narrative is unfolding here, partly via chart-maker’s reason for selection (which may or may not reveal itself: if it does, it arises out of the relationship readers make for themselves with the writer). But there’s also the elaboration of a diagram of juxtaposed values; an extended model of difference, of contrast, of connectivity, of quality arising out of exquisitely positioned plurality.
Let’s unpack this a bit more bluntly. The buried part of the specific juxtaposition-but-one is that the Britney Wars are long won; that she triumphed, actually quite easily (‘Heaven on Earth’ is off the rightly lauded Blackout); and that the commentators who refused to address her seriously on what they imagined was a principle came off looking like idiots, as some of them no doubt ruefully now see. Nothing wrong with being wrong, of course: not least because you get the invaluable opportunity to know what to it feels to be Squires, scorned and forlorn, angrily belting out your prefabricated vindication. For the Britney nay-sayers it wasn’t ‘My Way’, exactly: the preferred standards (off-the-shelf ideas about other people’s reasons liking things they oughtn’t, well or poorly wielded) have names like or fall into phrases like “poptimism”, “post-modernism”, “guilty pleasures”, “music for people who don’t like music”… And the value of the Marcello-Morley approach to a chart placing is that it can point up the weird and subtle mirror-circle at work here. Obviously things they oughtn’t can include waxings by half-forgotten demi-stars in the twilight of their careers; performances irrevocably out of step with “their time” (whatever this means); non-ironic interpretations of quite obnoxious past-times stand-bys… But once you’re furiously mocking people for this reliance on stand-bys, this borrowed authority, well, you sometimes ruefully get to see that this is just what you’ve just been doing. The prickly stubborn defensiveness of the defeated (or the undefeated, if you prefer) seems suddenly shared, by the people who once hurried most to register how they deplored any attention paid to the second-rate. And yes, it’s a horrible corner to find yourself suddenly standing in, as fashion turns, and not everyone is well-placed to power their way back out. Certainly Squires wasn’t.
So, yes, this is just one potential guesswork deep-reading in Marcello’s 50, considered as a frozen narrative of change, of highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, loss and release, and the abrupt jags or gliding jumps between these states; considered as a conflicted field: … and of course to read it this way, to grasp the dispersed intellectual-artistic geography, you have to be patient and generous indeed with records “made the wrong way” (and by extension, with commentary “thought in the wrong way”).
Not that a context of chaotic cultural abundance is at all easy space for a career critic to operate in — having an accurate feel for a very wide range of very different types of things is a hard gig to fashion for yourself, let alone to sustain as a paying career. If we suggest that there’s a formal cultural democracy that recognises that every act or idea deserves its day in court; and — the element almost always denied almost all art — the very best, most cunning, most daring advocate available, certainly it’s always easier to get hired to denounce due process, and to deny, sight unseen, sound unheard, that insight, which is a consequence of encounter, can arise anyway. I don’t know if it’ll make MC’s fortune, but Blue is superbly attentive to the wrong-path craftsperson, broken or damaged by life (their own bad choices in act or style, or just miserable hurtling luck) — and to those fashions in techniques the world has agreed to scorn: and thus to unravelling the rhetoric that seamlessly associates micro-traditions with failure, feeling lame, in seeing ourselves as losers, as confused failures, as victims of the successful enthusiasms of others…
All of which perhaps says more about my passions than Marcello’s. And is an extremely roundabout way of saying that that this is by no means an over-familiar 50. In at least a couple of cases (Floyd’s ‘Apples and Oranges’; Blur’s ‘Popscene’), the artists themselves have attempted to consign their own contribution to oblivion. And because you have go listen as well as read, this book, as an exemplary guide to the art of criticism, is above all about opening yourself; about trusting; more exactly about catching yourself as you distrust, and recognising how pervasive and corrosive that well-nurtured kneejerk can be.
Of course, a more-or-less ironised awareness of the pre-approved quality checklists of others can certainly double-down on the punctum-as-gag: a Gallagher brother’s comments on Jay-Z at Glastonbury constitute the easiest of targets for this book’s likely readers, but this celebration of Mr Shawn Corey Carter’s version of ‘Wonderwall’, cast as rising, raging comedy dementia, recalls some of Marcello’s funniest entries on early-doors ilx… a lovely and innocent pre-lapsarian era to recall, actually.
At other times, he glides off into the delirious disconnect-reverie of images invoked by a song or a voice or a lyric — I’d describe the closing reach of the pages on Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” as inarticulate speech of the heart, if it didn’t seem a bit of a cheek, given his self-aware rigour as a self-editor. Whatever the untweaked serendipity of an entry, this is an enormously carefully selected sequencing, and not just as an elegantly miniature entry-point to the daunting profusion of his daily output as a blogger (for some time now of course supplemented by his wife Lena; to whom this book is also a tribute and a happy mashnote). It picks a very subtly destabilising way indeed into a deep grasp of the eras he’s lived through, as broader conflicted fields more than narrow snapshots: the fading 60s as a delicately knowing revision-reconfiguration of the early Beatles (the Zombies’ ”The Way I Feel Inside’), Motown (Mari Wilson’s ‘Baby It’s True’), Stockhausen (see above) and of course Free Jazz (a track from John Stevens and Evan Parker’s The Longest Night); the 80s very slyly indeed, given how central it is to his own aesthetic and ethos, and how poorly understood it remains (of course he has a great deal more he’ll be saying about Nu-Pop soon enough, and besides, *I* have not yet spoken on this topic sternface winkyface…)
And as for the decade of his loss, his desolation, his rescue and self-rediscovery… the tale of all this last sketched very lightly indeed; largely kept private; the opposite of self-indulgence. Riding all the way from Al Bowlly, a ghost in sepia and witty crooned beige, to T.I. and Jay-Z and Kanye West and Li’l Wayne being hilarious teenage street-corner nobs-plus-ultra in ‘Swagga Like Us’, and the irreducible obnoxious life-affirming yawp of this becoming, as he himself writes, “a towering babble of voices.. where the greatest improvisers of their age take their choruses in succession, … akin to hearing Bird, Rollins, Trane and Ornette soloing, one after the other..”
Fear of music is as prevalent in modern culture — mainstream or dissident — as its simple embrace is deprecated. Avant-garde ears pour nervous scorn on any sign that we’re all more or less the same at root; that we all share feelings and failings; that under the gestures, vanguardists are contradictory mopes and dopes like the rest of us much of the time. Pop-wired ears are all too often primed to guffaw at all ambition, all risk, all departure, all experiment, scoffing at any impulse to settle anywhere but safely within the compound. Common as they are, these dismissive kinds of fears are precisely NOT the dread that haunts Carlin; not at all the unstated unease that gives this book its deep charge. Which is something more like the following: what if the wound is just too deep — not just his own wound, the immediate personal grief and shock that drove him to begin writing in public, but the wound of all the world, the social separation, the deep-embedded ever-aggravated ugliness and will to hate? What if — even if Marcello has perhaps shouldered his way through to a healing — it’s too late and too little for the rest of us?
If this is a book about discovering that love is always still possible, it’s as much a book about about learning ways to listen — delicate, uncertain, stubborn, conflicted, often as thick with resignation as curiosity — which are also ways to trust: unlearning half the anti-listening habits salted into standard lines and critical dismissals, certainly, where trust and generosity are verboten, and despised; where cynicism is endlessly confused with acuity. It’s about elements in music and listening that good critics certainly use, but very often fail to pass on — elements present in music inside and outside fashion, music facing backwards, music facing forwards, music sadly hunkering down in some soon-to-be-razed-and-developed locale, music blithely drifting through the foolish heroic amazed unawareness of new love. Elements musicians recognise in the skill of their bones, from every background and tendency, but decline to discuss, because there isn’t the language — because if there was they wouldn’t be musicians…
When you’re literally fighting for life, you can’t always be checking over your shoulder for how the people in the comfier seats are reviewing your responses: the backwash of even quite small waves of devalution may swamp; may drown. It’s an extremely difficult lesson for the professional reviewer — shrewdly surfing and evaluating broader movements, to cater to the comfortably off, materially or emotionally to internalise: that their casual column-completing quip, the observation their chums and suck-up comments crew all instantly decare “spot on”, may be the ruin or death of someone they’ve never met…
And (just to slot the dragon’s tail back in its mouth) the confidence, the trust, the gamble? Well, it begins at his own sensibility, his (I believe justified) sense of his ability to make transformative connections within musics, small and large, and to exactly express the social and personal import of any given, forgotten recording, or other music-drenched moment. Where he travels with this gift is the journey of this project. Some insist music-writing is pointless, secondary because parasitic: “dancing to architecture” the notoriously philistine phrase. Why not just let the song speak for itself? Well, here are some answers: because we do not know the song; because we do not know where any given song lives; because we fear where any given song leads, and mock at the need to leave our favoured hard-won comfort zones, radical, popular, all safe spots in-between or beyond. The author has a quiet, an almost old-fashioned delivery much of the time, but if this tricks the unwary into underestimating the scale of the daring here, nothing here can ever fully mask or efface or dodge the huge wild gamble at the book’s heart: What will all this avail him (or us)? maybe NOTHING? WHAT IF IT’S NOTHING?. Carlin has reason to mistrust the world at large: it has not always been kind to him… But his trust challenges the fear, all the fears, because it’s his gamble, in the end, on us: his readers; which is to say, the world….