Sunday, July 12, 2009

I seem to have a love/hate relationship with Xgau. The good, first: what I like about him, compared to most other music writers, is his interest in looking beyond the mere surface of things, and putting things into some historical context. Fawning praise is definitely not his most common reaction, and even when he does praise, it's usually quite measured. This is good, because it makes it clear that truly great material (A/A+) is released quite rarely. Related to this, he's also really skeptical and near immune to hype, sometimes seeming actually hostile towards towards those he perceives as doling out unquestioning or insincere praise. These are good qualities in a reviewer, but the most essential is of course the writing: without it, opinion counts for naught. Stylistically, Xgau has it down: pithy and to the point, moving away from the obvious and trying to say something that helps frame an album in a larger context. All this I really approve of, because it's tiring to read reviews that merely list tracks and say whether they are individually good or not. His reviews don't try to be comprehensive because they see no need to be: information like the context of the band coming into the album, picks for the best songs on the album, and definitely the details of individual songs, are easily discovered from innumerable other sources. The reviews take it upon themselves, as I see it, to provide the one unique thing they can: namely, offering a critical judgement on the work. And he's definitely capable of writing the occasional classic line, which sometimes becomes intertwined with my mental map of an album; for example, his reviews of Moondance, Grievous Angel, and The Velvet Underground.

I say all this to make clear that when I sometimes say I hate him, it's a hyperbole, foremost, but it's also not blind distaste. Indeed, I find that the reasons in the first para somehow pronounce the faults I list below. With that disclaimer in mind, there are at least two things that get on my nerves. First, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way, it's hard to figure out what his reviews mean sometimes. For all my praise of the style and philosophy of his reviews, there are times when they tell me very, very little about the records in question. Obviously this might be because I haven't read or thought enough about music to decipher his references, and so this isn't really an "objective" criticism; nonetheless, it's a pretty serious one! With the positives from the first para in mind, I don't want to join the legions of people who claim he is intentionally obscure to show off or to seem superior; my sense is that he assumes the audience is smart enough to understand him. Still, slightly more guidance to the reader would go a long way towards making his reviews must-read. As you might expect, this point is especially frustrating when the album is rated poorly, yet I think it's pretty good; I'm very curious to find why his view is so different, but sometimes I am just left puzzled. Which brings me to point two.

The second issue is that we sometimes have a profound difference in tastes, pure and simple. Why this riles me up sometimes is because the criticism comes from someone given to critical thinking, and cannot be readily dismissed as idle ranting. Maybe worse yet, one gets the awful fear that the fellow might be right. But fundamentally, I just disagree with some of his judgements of what makes music good. There's no point being coy about specifics, so let me name some: Henry's Dream, for a start. To weaken my case, I should say that it's not my candidate for Cave's best album lyric-wise. But the condescension in his quotes of Cave admirers is unwarranted: come on, you can't paint us all as an insipid mob who would swallow anything with shades of high-art just to appear sophisticated. At least in my case, admiration of his ties is only in addition to the quality of the songwriting. And yes, fans and critics do have this odd distrust of high art except when one of their own has a connection to it ("classically trained" is frequently cited as a badge of honour), I'll admit. But I doubt that any Cave admirers are suggesting that his lyrics are poetry in the classical sense of the word, and if they are they're hardly any different to the legions of fans of Bob Dylan or Paul Simon or Leonard Cohen (oops! :-)). If one digs further, there is the unflattering portrait of Cave as a "death freak", which is too simplistic, and so on and so on. In short, I think he's simply wrong on Nick Cave. Most recently, there is the review of an AR Rahman best-of. Doesn't make much sense, but if it implies what I think it implies, namely that it's just pleasant means war. (Marginal kudos to him for reviewing the thing, though.) And finally, there is the infamous A- review of SouljaBoy which I don't feel knowledgeable enough to comment on too much. (My instinct tells me it's bogus, but you never know.)

Of course, one might ask what the alternative is: the legions of reviewers on Web 2.0? I prefer Xgau. I like having people who, first, definitely know more than me, but also have a verifiable and consistent take on popular song over a long time period. I like reading people like myself to give suggestions on what to purchase, say, but for analysis that goes beyond what CDs are worth buying, I would go with a good journalist. Which I would have to say Xgau is, despite the criticisms detailed above. In summary then, while there are times he leaves me fuming, I see him as a very important critic; should he influence an upcoming music journalist whose writing avoids my subjective criticisms, that would be simply wonderful.

(By the way, on reflection, the moral that I seem to have derived from writing this piece is: perhaps it's wise not to get too worked up about music reviews. Music fills that role quite nicely.)

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