From Brett Anderson’s interview of rock critic Robert Christgau:
Brett: Do you gain something as a critic by doing a profile? I mean, I know you said that you, I’m thinking over the years you have written profiles, I recall a P.J. Harvey piece that I admired a great deal. Are you growing as a critic by hanging out with artists? Can you gain any insights?
Robert: Of course you can. But usually you’re also corrupted by them.
Brett: In what way? Because it’s harder to say what you think?
Robert: Because they’re your friends and you don’t want to make them feel bad, or they’re your sources and you don’t want to wreck them. It can be either, and both are corrupting. And I mean, I used to find when I went out on the road with somebody, I had to wait a week before I could even calm down and write the piece, because I knew for that first week, I’d be too nice to them. And so no, I think, I mean, no. I don’t think it’s a good thing for a critic to hobnob with artists. Now, when I need a piece of information or want to get insight at a certain thing, I do my interview. And there’s a piece in my Harvard collection [“Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno,” published by Harvard University Press] about Sam Phillips and Ira DeMint, both of whom were ex-Christians as am I, I grew up in a fundamentalist family.
There’s much to ponder in the interview: the utility of reading comments, whether the young should pursue rockcrit, whether business schools have a clue how to handle what “we” in the post-journalism biz call “content management.”
Robert Christgau’s rediscovery of Saint Etienne was one of the year’s best surprises, thanks to the smashing Words and Music by Saint Etienne, one of the year’s best. A search for trinkets as gorgeous as “Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi),” “Who Do You Think You Are,” and even the comparatively gaudy Paul Van Dyck collaboration “Tell Me Why (The Riddle)” led me to a stack of uneven albums.
But I found twenty songs worth relistening to for the sake of an ILM poll:
1. Who Do You Think You Are
2. Mario’s Cafe
3. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
4. Heart Failed (At the Back of a Taxi)
5. Tell Me Why (The Riddle)
6. Lose That Girl
8. Pale Movie
9. He’s on the Phone
10. Conchita Martinez
11. When I Was Seventeen
12. You’re In a Bad Way
13. People Get Real
15. Boy is Crying
16. Join Our Club
17. Mr. Donut
18. Burnt Out Car
“If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness sake don’t be pretentious about it,” growled Robert Christgau in 1971. He’s right about “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” my vote for worst song ever released by a Beatle, beating impressive competition from a couple George songs because “Uncle Albert” was actually a number one hit and still gets airplay. The other ringer, “The Back Seat of My Car,” takes five-plus minutes, watery guitar, and strings to describe a lover’s lane grope. This isn’t tantric sex — this is staring stoned at a birthmark on Linda’s shoulder while she impatiently calls his name. Worse, it seems to have inspired Eric Carmen’s early solo career.
The rest of Ram is good, although no masterpiece. Paul McCartney never made a solo masterpiece. I wish critics would stop acting like he did or why it matters (we know why it mattered in 1971 but we outgrew flares too). Like I wrote recently, his best solo record consists of however many tracks you can fit in a CD-R or iTunes playlist. Ram isn’t as good as Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Flowers in the Dirt, or even my beloved Press to Play, but it’s not much worse, which is the key to understanding Paul’s solo years. It has one great track whose maneuvering between the ephemeral and the essential is so sly that I’m tempted to overrate its creator: “Eat at Home,” a gnarly, surly, ecstatic ode to cunnilingus that also doubles as an affirmation of domesticity. The guitars — by Hugh McCracken and Paul himself — sound fabulous. Linda’s addled harmonies, as usual, are crucial. The other keeper is “Dear Boy,” in whose Paul falsetto and basic piano chords a rebuke transforms into the gentlest of finger wagging without softening its pain.
The rest have tricks you’ve heard before and will again. “Smile Away” and “Monkberry Moon Delight” boast a lot of yelling to signify Paul’s spontaneity. A sequel to “Another Day” if he’d written about the contours of the rest of his working day, “The Heart of the Country” is concise as “The Back Seat of My Car” is bloated. “Too Many People,” Ram‘s barmiest moment, is a riot. Although it’s supposed to be “about” John and Yoko because we’ve read all the biographies, a stoned-to-the-gills Paul just sounds paranoid, decrying people going underground and reaching for pieces of cake over a magnificent loping bass line. No one in 1971 had the imagination in 1971 to sound this functionally illiterate. “Let Me In,” “I’m Carrying,” and a series of doodles about dragonflies and mud on Red Rose Speedway would follow.
I’m going to act as if The New York Times Magazine story and Ann Powers‘ and Christgau’s reviews didn’t exist. Impossible to review M.I.A.’s MAYA in a vacuum, though. For one, vacuums trap light and emit no sound, and MAYA does no such thing. Her loudest, splashiest album, M.I.A. absents herself from agitprop a while to concentrate on felicity. Take “XXXO,” a mangled, stuttering cousin to a Debbie Deb or Lisa Lisa freestyle hit, no more or less “meaningful’ than Kala‘s “Jimmy,” yet its density suggests otherwise. The lyrical semaphore here adduces a surrender to the noise-making possibilities of collaborators Blaqstarr, Rusko, and Derek E. Miller, a move which in turn liberates her from expectations she couldn’t possibly meet. MAYA plays like an album full of “Bird Flu”s and “Bamboo Banga”s strung giddily together. The heart of the album is the middle stretch between “Lovealot” and “It Iz What It Iz” — fuzzy, loping variants on Arular‘s “Pull Up the People” in which the bustle of the arrangements mitigates the fuzzy, loping banality of one of her guiding principles (“All I ever wanted was my story to be told” ) but reinforces the strength of another (“I fight the ones that fight me”). Her voice is indistinguishable from scratches, distorted guitar peals, vocoders, effects pedals, and other synthesized doohickeys, the culmination of which is “Teqkilla,” M.I.A.’s “The Great Curve,” the thick, surging Talking Heads song climaxing with David Byrne’s strangled admission, “The world moves on a woman’s hips!” M.I.A. offers “He got 99 bananas but he ain’t my boo.” The closet she comes to a manifesto is the Suicide-sampling “Born Free.” She’ll throw this shit in our faces cuz she’s got something to say. You know the old joke: that’s what SHE SAID. And the subtext was S-E-X.
Browsing in the music section of a since defunct superstore called BookStop (the logo was an actual stop sign) in the fall of 1992, I found a canary yellow paperback by one Robert Christgau, a collection of reviews the author published in the eighties. I flipped to the entries on two of my beacons, Peter Gabriel and Crowded House. “Dismayed” is an understatement. On Gabriel’s So:
Gabriel’s so smart he knows rhythm is what makes music go, which relieves him of humdrum melodic responsibilities but doesn’t get him up on the one–smart guys do go for texture in a pinch. Like his smart predecessor James Taylor, who used to climax concerts with the clever macho parody “Steamroller,” this supporter of good causes reaches the masses with “Sledgehammer,” which is no parody. Where is “Biko” now that we need it more than ever?
On Crowded House’s eponymous record:
Art-pop is like the dB’s and XTC, when a fascination with craft spirals up and in until it turns into an aestheticist obsession. Split Enz was an art-rock band gone pop–sillier, crasser, more full of itself–and Neil Finn’s California-based trio dispenses only with the silly. Hooks you can buy anywhere these days, and for directness you might as well apply straight to Bruce Hornsby–beyond the occasional hint of guitar anarchy, this is product for sure
I quote these in full because I want to stress the impact these coiled, sinister sentences: the mixture of aphorisms (“rhythm is what makes music go”), the disgusted aside (“hooks you can buy anywhere these days”), packed allusion. I was only slightly aware of the overwhelmingly positive responses to these two albums in 1986. Offended, puzzled, fascinated — my responses evolved quickly. Reading him I sensed a kindred spirit. He had mastered a tone. To his endorsements of the Go-Betweens, the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work, Luna, John Prine, and De La Soul I owe a great deal. So did this typically understated, unspoken lesson: don’t be afraid to explain why a work morally offends you; it doesn’t mean you’re to the right of Ralph Reed. Above all his Consumer Guide columns are fucking entertaining as hell.