A few months back, the Daily Express took it upon themselves to review PJ Harvey’s most recent album, Let England Shake. They must have noted that it had been hailed elsewhere as not merely a good album, a highlight of an already stellar career, but an important work that underlined the matchless power wielded by a unique artist uncoupled from musical trends, determined not to repeat herself, in an increasingly homogenous and repetitive rock and pop world. Understandably, they clearly put their best man on the job, the better to unpick Harvey’s dense mesh of musical influences and literary and historical allusions for the benefit of their immigration-fearing readership. “You might not be able to pick her out of a police lineup, but there’s no lack of respect for PJ Harvey,” he opened. “The album moves away from her usual style, but let’s just say it’s not our bag. 2/5.”
Of course, the Daily Express isn’t the first place you’d look for an in-depth examination of a cutting-edge experimental rock album, but these 38 words seem indicative of a wider malaise. There’s no doubt these are lean times for professional reviewers of records. The job was once freighted with importance, a vital, mediating link between artist and audience. Today, it’s been battered by both the rise of illegal downloading, which some would argue has negated the need for reviews at all – if you want to know what an album’s like before release you can probably find out for yourself – and the fear caused by declining circulation: at least one major music magazine is fairly obviously engaged not in reviewing albums, but in trying to second-guess what their readers are going to think about them, terrified of causing offence, which seems to be spectacularly missing the point.
I think that’s a shame, partly because writing album reviews is my job, but mostly because I think music is important: it deserves to be discussed and evaluated properly, and no one’s come up with a better way of doing it. The rise of the internet may mean there’s no such thing as a definitive album review any more, but that doesn’t matter: frankly, the more people discussing and evaluating, the better. That’s why it’s exciting that on the Guardian’s music website, as of today, every reader is invited to have a stab at writing a review of pretty much any album ever made. Around threemillion albums each now have their own page on the site – and whether a critic like me has reviewed it or not, the invitation is there for you to do so. As the critic Anthony Lane once pointed out, a review has only ever really been the first line of an argument.
That said, I’m not sure how much advice I can offer about the actual writing of reviews. I’m pretty certain the more you listen to an album before you review it, the better – repeated exposure to music sharpens your opinions, whether good or bad – and the more you research an album or the artist who made it, the better: the most arcane tangential fact can sometimes illuminate your understanding of it. Beyond that, I wouldn’t for a minute suggest that anything I do as a critic should be viewed in a prescriptive way. I’m not big on close textual reading of the music in a major-triads-in-12/8-time sense, because I tend to view an album as more than a purely sonic experience. Whether you think so or not, your response to an album is often influenced by things other than the actual sound of it. But I think one of the greatest books about rock music ever written is the late Ian MacDonald‘s astonishing anatomical study of the Beatles’ oeuvre, Revolution in the Head, which is so reliant on close textual study that it comes with a glossary of musical terms attached.
I write a lot of jokes into my copy, partly because I find the world of rock and pop music unfailingly hilarious, as arenas full of ridiculous people doing ridiculous things are wont to be, and partly I’m very aware I’m writing for a broadsheet newspaper. Few people buy the Guardian just to read the album reviews, which means you’re dealing with a lot of what you might call passing trade, and one way to lure passing trade in is to try to make them laugh (it’s also why I don’t assume much background knowledge on the part of the reader – I want the review to be accessible to everybody, regardless of their familiarity with the artist being reviewed). But my favourite rock critic of all, the great Jon Savage, almost never writes jokes, despite being one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. He views writing about music as a serious, almost academic business, although – if you’re planning on going down that route yourself – it’s worth noting that all his seriousness and academic study is entirely in service to communicating the simple pleasure of listening to music: he makes you want to hear the records he writes about, whether good or bad. That might be the only real rule there is in rock criticism. That, and don’t dismiss the new PJ Harvey album in 38 words.
Over to you …
What do you think makes the perfect review? Tell us in the comments below. Then look up your favourite albums and start writing reviews of your own.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.