A Response To Alexis Petridis – How To Write The Perfect Album Review

Journalistic criticism isn’t our usual forte but a recent article by Alexis Petredis in The Guardian has riled Alex, and he felt compelled to write a response.

Alexis Petridis, The Guardian's head Rock and Pop critic and editor of GQ magazine

Last Wednesday Alexis Petridis had an article in The Guardian giving advice on writing album reviews. Whilst I’m sure that I could learn a lot about style following much of his sound advice he hit a particular nerve of mine in his line, ‘I’m not big on close textual reading of the music in a major-triads-in-12/8-time sense’. I find the general lack of actual detailed and engaged criticism in the music press to be deeply frustrating. Music reviews in large swathes of the press tend to consist of base subjective response and flowery metaphors. The 38 word review of PJ Harvey’s latest album quoted from The Express by Petridis is at the bum end of this trend. It’s more space-filler for a bad newspaper rather than an actual review with any actual criticism. Music, like any other artistic medium, deserves genuine criticism which in turn requires considered and close reading of the sounds (the text) themselves.

I believe the need for a clarification of the critic’s role is heightened by the changes in the ways we receive, think about and collectively respond to music brought about by the internet. Petridis rightly points out that the role that music critics used to possess of advising readers whether or not an album was worth the time or money has been largely undermined by the immediate availability of music on the internet. Why should I bother reading a review telling us whether or not it’s worth seeking out and listening to an album when in the amount of time it takes to read the review I could find, and start listening to, the album and start making up my own mind about whether or not it’s worth my while listening to it?

Of course, a good source of recommendation and collation is becoming ever-more valuable to help you pick your way through the deluge of content on the internet. Scott McCloud’s blog is indispensable in navigating the world of webcomics. However, whilst recommendation is still part of the critic’s role and The Guardian’s output, it hardly the entirety. Although The Guardian does highlight individual artists and bands a sizeable chunk of their weekly music insert is devoted to reviewing and criticising the week’s releases.

I don’t think Petridis follows the implications of the internet on the role of critics to their conclusion. Set against a backdrop of crowdsourcing and a myriad of music blogs the critic needs to justify her role as distinct and apart from the sheer mass of online opinion about any piece of music. If an album review is just the critic’s opinion why should we pay it any more attention than any commentator on a Guardian album review?  The ludicrously short Express review lambasted by Petridis basically consisted of, ‘I didn’t like it’. This basic expression of personal taste explains, and to some extent justifies, the common online response of, ‘I never read reviews. I like what I like and critics like what they like’.

So the role of the critic should not be and is not to simply state a subjective opinion. Instead the (professional) critic can only justify her continued existence by embodying her role as an informed voice that can offer alternate and insightful, close readings of the text. Obviously subjectivity can never, and probably should never, be completely excised from any review. However, a critic, in order to justify their authoritative position, must be able to qualify their opinions by actually appealing to the music. A statement along the lines of, ‘the feel of Beach House’s song Better Times is one of a hazy, half-remembered summer’s evening’ is vague and unsubstantiated in comparison to ‘a sense of hazy uncertainty is created in Beach House’s Better Times through the use of vocal reverb and the unexpected chord of A flat, in the chorus, stepping outside the key of B flat major that has up to this point remained unchallenged.’

The use of technical language, such as this, does bring with it several problems. Talking about B flat keys and A flat chords could well be charged with being alienating. I recognise that very few people have had the training in western classical harmony that I have. However, any amateur music making, whether it be learning an instrument in school, learning songs on a guitar, playing in a band or making music on a computer, is likely to give some level of technical literacy, although the forms that technical knowledge can take are as wide as the myriad ways in which people make music. In my previous example I could have just said, ‘an unexpected chord’ and gotten most of my point across (although I could have also spent a lot longer talking about the specific effect of that particular unexpected chord rather than any other unexpected chord). Even if we do consider harmonic detail to be too alienating, there are plenty of other aspects of music, such as texture, timbre, tempo and (to some extent) rhythm, that do not have the same sort of technical language surrounding them, which critics can appeal to in their arguments.

Another potential problem with a greater degree of technical language in criticism might be that it leads to a dry, academic and fundamentally dull style of writing. Whilst I’m not sure that this necessarily is the case, even if it was I would be willing to sacrifice a stylistic finesse for a more substantial and genuinely critical content. Above all else, including stylistic concerns, an album review should be meaningful.

Alex would like to thank Jack for his help and advice.

3 thoughts on “A Response To Alexis Petridis – How To Write The Perfect Album Review

  1. I agree with your sentiment that a fully-fledged critic needs to justify his/her continuing existence as providing something more than saying I don’t/do like such and such. However, your appeal to the technical does not really work. You attempt to provide the critic with an authoritative voice through his/her understanding of music and yet you immediately acknowledge that the general audience will not have the technical understanding of music in order to appreciate what the critic is commenting on. Therefore, the critic has to water down their technical assessment of the music to a much more mundane assessment of saying that they like such and such because they’re doing something slightly different/interesting.

    This puts you back in the swathe of existing criticism out there at the moment. Almost all good evaluations of an album/track/artist look at why they’re interesting and different, in a sense that is accessible to all. Your appeal to technicality is one that I feel comes to nothing once you have to accept that you cannot use it to its full extent and the fact that it is already used in its more accessible form already.

    A critic can only really add something of value when a reader comes to trust the opinion of the critic. Then the critic is able to convey something meaningful to the reader and this can come through stating that ‘such and such’ sounds like ‘the Artic Monkeys on crack’ or that ‘such and such’ sounds amazing because of a specific timing that they use. Different readers have different expectations and views that they use to evaluate a critic based on how the critic assess various pieces in the eyes of the reader. That is how a review is meaningful in my opinion, not because it delves into the technical.

  2. I’m glad you mentioned that accessibility is important, as Petridis does, too. Namely:

    ” Few people buy the Guardian just to read the album reviews [… which is …] why I don’t assume much background knowledge on the part of the reader – I want the review to be accessible to everybody…”

    Essentially, all you’ve done in your post is latch on to one sentence of his piece, choose to ignore the rest of it, and then attack yourself, as @phil mentioned.

    I was hoping that this might be an interested, measured response to Petridis, but it comes across as an arrogant, self-important – and somewhat teenage – attack on a far better writer.

    • The piece maybe turned out to be a bit more adversarial than I originally intended, it was in no sense meant to be an attack on Petridis, the undoubted better writer. And I know I only focused on one particular sentence, I did this quite self-conciously. Petridis’ article gave me a way of framing my argument, which I was planning to write about anyway.

      Your’re right, accessibility is a problem. However, describing music doesn’t have to be inaccessible. For instance, in Joe’s latest post, he writes ‘[Debauchery’s Blood God Rising] does nothing new, just what it does do it does damn well, that slow bass drum in the chorus pounding on your skull like a sledge hammer, before going double speed.’ He describes one aspect of the music in clear and simple terms that anyone could understand before going on to talk about its effect.

      Harmony presents more of a problem in terms of accessibility, admittedly. Talking in more general terms, like ‘unexpected chord’ or ‘simple harmonies’, does go some way towards a middle ground. However, a fair amount of (western) pop music, like my Beach House example, still relies on the western tonal system for its harmonic effect and so the terms used to describe that system are, I believe still useful in accurately describing a musical device.

      Some shared background knowledge, or at least common experience, will always be necessary in talking about music. This is true both in using technical language or in using metaphors. Using a flowery metaphor can be just as inaccessible as any technical term, if it ends up being so ornate that it becomes meaningless.

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