Paperhouse: on reviewing music

If you have the misfortune of living near me, you’ve probably heard me blasting Radiohead’s Amnesiac over the past couple of days. Earlier this week a friend recommended I read a review of the album by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats on his blog, Last Plane to Jakarta. After reading the review, I couldn’t help but listen to the album on repeat.

What I found most striking about his review was its presentation. Unlike most, Darnielle’s review was posted in 10 segments released over the course 2001 and 2002, with each song considered individually. Furthermore, he did not consider Amnesiac in terms of OK Computer or Kid A, the band’s two most critically acclaimed albums.

I often find myself reading — and occasionally writing — music reviews that insist on looking at albums from a very fixed perspective. These reviews subsequently evaluate albums in terms of a band’s legacy and aesthetic, as opposed to looking at an album for what it is: a self-contained collection of songs. Darnielle’s review makes a point of showing how this former method obfuscates the gravity of an album and can end up portraying a masterpiece like Amnesiac as a castaway B-side collection.

Even though Darnielle’s review is over a decade old, it remains relevant to the current state of music journalism. Much of today’s writing is stale, hackneyed, and more concerned with legacy than with legitimate journalism. Darnielle’s particular style of in-depth musical analysis is not the most conventional model for how music journalism should be. However, it models critical, independent thought — a trait that all music reviewers should aim to reflect. While the legacy and cultural relevance of a band is important in its own right, music journalists should not allow these aspects to overshadow their evaluation of an album’s quality.

(Originally published in The Tartan)