Sound vs. Vision?

Steven Ward, in this brief comments thread, conveyed disappointment with Simon Reynolds for not (or anyway, for barely) mentioning music in his NYT Bowie review. I concur that it’s a problem because one simple question is never answered for me, which is why are people getting excited (faux-excited?) about this particular Bowie record now? Today, in Burning Ambulance, Phil Freeman reviews The Next Day, and fair to say, I think, that his piece exists at a 180-degree remove from Reynolds’s. That is to say, Freeman’s review is entirely, I mean literally almost first sentence to last, about what is happening in the music — the way it sounds, what various players are doing, etc. — with zero concern for the Bowie context, and indeed, little concern for any context outside of the music itself (I say “little,” because the review reads like an argument of sorts, for “feat[s] of instrumental interaction,” and Freeman does draw some comparisons to other musicians).

Freeman’s review never mentions clothes or hair. Reynolds’s review says nothing about how the drums are mixed. I find both approaches wholly unsatisfying, to be honest, though I’m hesitant to say that either approach couldn’t work. I’m curious how other people feel about all this; it’s a pretty fundamental argument, one that’s been taking place in music criticism for a very long time, possibly forever. As a reader — or a writer — do you gravitate towards one approach or the other?

9 thoughts on “Sound vs. Vision?

  1. As I reviewed mostly hip hop records, it was important to include a discussion of the music within the social context. I couldn’t talk about David Banner w/out talking about Mississippi, or T.I. without talking about jail time. Even with Ke$ha or some hipster funk band, there’s part of how they present themselves and a social context to it that informs the reader about what they are going to hear. If I did something on EDM, it was more difficult to talk about anything other than the music or the mix.

  2. You know me Scott. I’ve always been a music/sound guy. I want my reviews to tell me what the music sounds like. Writers I love that do that well: J.D. Considine, Robert Palmer, Chuck Eddy (although Chuck is great at boiling down album lyrics into short, goofy bursts of direct back and forth converstaion), Jon Pareles, Tom Moon, etc.
    Although I also like lyric guys like Paul Nelson and Anthony DeCurtis too.
    Whcih brings me to my point — I agree with you Scott. There needs to be some balance. A little of bit of career context/lyrical content would have been nice in Phil’s review. But I still prefer Phil’s review to Simon’s.
    For Bowie musical sound/context/career/songs, etc. I think the Marc Spitz bio from a few years ago is tops. (BTW I’m inthe middle of reading the new Spitz rockcrit memoir Poseur right now and I plan to report back to the site as soon as I wrap it up) It’s good. It’s interesting. But i’m in the middle and Spitz has started his music writing career yet. And it’s 1993 or something.

  3. Of course I mean Marc Spitz’s music writing career has NOT started yet half way through the book.

  4. The first thing I’d want in any David Bowie album review are good jokes. There’s a place for discussion of the music, too, but good jokes are a must.

  5. Thing is, my piece isn’t a review. It’s not intended to be. It’s a piece, pegged to the release of a new album and, just as crucially, to a giant museum retrospective of Bowie’s non-audio aspects + book, looking at the arc of his whole career, his influence and legacy, and speculating on where he might be in his life/career right now. All in something like 1700 words. 42 of which went on redundant Mr’s, as you pointed out in the previous post.

    (On that subject,I too would rather dispense with the Mr’s/Ms-es. But I think the NYT’s logic is that it is their overall newspaper style to refer to people, after they’ve been introduced in the story, as Mr or Mrs or whatever. That applies to news reports, business stories, and arts criticism alike. For them to dispense with that rule in the case of pop culture could be construed as a form of disrepect or demeaning.)

    On the subject of describing in detail what musically occurs in a track, well, there is an argument that this is less relevant than ever now that everyone can hear for themselves. The album was streaming on iTunes before the piece was handed in. And other newspapers rushed out their track by track insta-reviews within hours of its being available to them the previous week. If you want to find out what the record sounds like, before you buy, it’s not hard.

  6. Fair enough Simon. I thought it was a review. I still would have had a graf or two about the music, but I understand your brief was different than that. Good point about the music being online but I still like a piece/review to give me a sense of the music. I’m probably in the minority on that though.

  7. Hi Scott –

    Should my choice be limited to those two examples, I’d go with Freeman’s approach, though I fully understand that Reynolds’s review is not strictly speaking a review, but a piece.

    However, I think there’s a vast difference between a review and “describing in detail what musically occurs in a track”. Countless people I know consider music criticism a thing of the past precisely because nowadays anybody can listen for him/herself, and make up his/her own mind. But music criticism doesn’t stop at description, of course: it also traces musical connections, – something which the average reader is usually not equipped to do.

    Hope it makes sense.



  8. Good points all around, and thanks Simon for clarifying.

    Funny thing about all this is that, as a reader, I admit, I totally fall more on the context side of the argument (while acknowledging that it’s a false dichotomy to begin with, some people write musical description in a mesermzing way, etc.). As a writer — a music writer who chooses not to write much about music anymore, partly for this reason (I just have no idea anymore where to go with it) –, I usually fall back on something closer to the musical side of the ledger. It’s easier to try and write about an object sitting in front of you than the world revolving around you, and I’ve never been adept at the latter (which is maybe why I’m so attracted to writers who do that well?).

    Still… as Phil says, jokes are key. My biggest beef with criticism these days is probably fear of silliness, fear of fucking around. But that’s another matter.

  9. Good discussion. I loved Phil’s review. In my own review I tried to be the guy who farts in front of the queen, and I like to think that even if my review had been good instead of mixed I would have still been irreverent.

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