Edited by Tom Gatti, ‘Long Players: Writers On The Albums That Shaped Them’, published last month by Bloomsbury, sees 50 authors meditate on the albums that changed their lives. Andy Childs reviews, finding both frustration and inspiration.
I’d guess we all have at least one, and I know lots of people who have several — records that remind us of a particular period in our lives when we were beset by a personal crisis, emotional turmoil, etc and that stamped those times with meaning, clarity and importance. I can’t honestly say that one particular album actually shaped me though, and I had a problem believing that any of the albums discussed in this book had a similar effect on the writers here.
It’s a pity about the misleading subtitle because the basic idea behind the book is an excellent, if not wholly original one. New Statesman deputy editor Tom Gatti has assembled the eclectic music choices of 50 well-known writers — novelists and music writers mostly — as a way of giving us a sometimes all-too-brief glimpse of the instances when crucial moments in their inner lives and their musical tastes collided. The notion of investing life-changing meaning into a particular record and having the emotional honesty, musical sensibility and literary talent to thoroughly analyse and articulate that meaning seems to me to be a perfectly valid and interesting way of writing about music. On face value it may sound like a simple excercise but it’s a surprisingly difficult balancing act to achieve. When it works it can be revelatory and inspiring. When there’s a degree of personal reticence or lack of original musical engagement it can be frustrating and unsatisfactory.
So not surprisingly, with this many contributors, the individual pieces here are rather uneven in quality, content and length. In general, the submissions I enjoyed most were the few that were more than a couple of pages in length (the most notable exception being Mark Ellen’s succinct and joyous homage to The B52’s — no intimate revelations expressed here though, just an appreciation of ‘a charming slice of theatre, the irresistible soundtrack to an imagined world whose allure never fades’), and those that eulogised albums I wasn’t familiar with, such as Jonathan Coe’s intriguing article on Neil Ardley’s A Symphony of Amaranths. Rachel Kushner’s essay on Mother Juno by The Gun Club is another favourite piece, as is Colm Toibin on Give A Damn by The Johnstons, and David Mitchell’s 6-page piece on Joni Mitchell’s Blue stands up well alongside the flurry of recent plaudits to celebrate the 60th anniversary of that album’s release. But alas too many of the contributions here seem to me to have an off-the-cuff quality to them — more suited to a magazine spread in Mojo, or perhaps more fittingly The Word (if it still existed). They are all well-written of course — you would expect nothing less from writers of the calibre of Clive James, Daisy Johnson, George Saunders, Sarah Perry, Ben Okri, Olivia Laing, Neil Gaiman, Will Self, Lionel Shriver, and Ian Rankin. The list is extremely impressive — but I just felt that some of the articles were less than revealing of the writers’ characters and less than forthcoming about the reasons that their particular chosen records meant so much. There are several allusions to mental health crises, romantic complications, and in Will Self’s case a specific drug problem, but the majority of pieces read like wistful, even sentimental, recollections of a time in their lives when music meant more to them than perhaps it does now.
If this is all sounding slightly negative I really don’t want it to be. At best this is the perfect bed-side table read — one to dip into at random and ponder while you drift off. And I would think and hope that it could be the first of an ongoing series and that this could be the prototype for a more heavyweight, fully realised version of a great idea; more fully-examined, substantial, in-depth pieces that can give us a better understanding of why certain albums resonate so powerfully with a particular period in a writer’s life. Perhaps even a more expansive format where writers could discuss the music in general that has helped shape their lives, in the same way that Radio 3’s Perfect Passions often does. Next time let’s have a 400-pager instead of just 200, half as many contributors, and in paperback selling for a tenner. Now that I could unreservedly recommend.
‘Long Players: Writers On The Albums That Shaped Them’ is out now and available here (£12.99).