Fallow Heart: The Mechanics and Ethics of Album Reviews

Preamble: Fretwork

This piece happens to be one that I’ve been circling like the skittish second-hand of a tightly wound watch for more than a calendar year, (far before Fallow Heart was a glimmer in this sorry ol’ patrician’s monocle) and I dearly hope you’ll pardon the delay. I’ve certainly touched on it before, (check the Everyone’s a Critic post, for example,) but I don’t feel that I’ve adequately expressed how troubled I’ve been when it comes to the album review process. Initially, after I was finally allowed the proper elbow-room to take a swing and articulate my impressions, this turmoil came as a tremendous shock to me. Like most civilians, I was an aggressively opinionated punter and also like most, I tended to assume that my judgement was—for whatever reason—more precious than that of my peers. I mean, for starters I was a writer, man; forever several chapters into penning some book that I was bound to ultimately desert. I’d had a couple of bits of poetry published… I was always staring searchingly towards the horizon from my window seat at some coffee shop, playing a  super low-stakes game of chicken with holy inspiration. Plus, I’d fronted my own metal band and then went on to play in several prog and pop outfits afterwards, (always flying the flag of course; always the sore-thumb sporting the Genghis Tron or the Ulver t-shirt.) Who could possibly be better equipped to rake some middling troubadour over the coals? Who else had the damn gravitas to craft such vital commentary? (Hint: loads of people actually; fucking scads of them.)

There’s hardly anything more natural than to have a visceral reaction to art; we’re programmed with zero satiation or budgeting for beauty. When we feel wracked by those currents of repulsion or of attraction, when that shiv of fascination gallops through us and passionate opinion comes to boil within our chests we naturally desire to confess our judgement to one and to all. People need to know how the creation in question fared after being forced through the sieve of our holy prejudices and preferences. Right? Actually, no, chief, not really. Your encounters are entirely your own and they’ll never be precisely reproduced, try as you may to manipulate another into appreciating a work in the same manner.

To review a piece of music is an egoistic exercise; it has to be, right? And no, of course, ego isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. In Latin, the word simply translates as ‘I’ and it’s from that lonesome perch that the reviewer must access a work in order to determine its worthiness. And presuming the reviewer composes with clarity and has a keen enough grasp upon the subject wriggling beneath the glass, the final review’s audience can in good faith fathom that subject’s worthiness or otherwise. I guess. But… it’s still just opinion we’re talking about, isn’t it? And what if my opinion could be utterly and entirely qualified as correct or righteous and I -sheathed in my righteousness- deem an album unworthy? Does that really mean that there aren’t inherent, fawning zealots of the release in question who could find joy in the work despite the unquestionable fidelity of my judgement? No, it does not; thank god.

So it occurred to me that talking to other journalists about their individual approaches and philosophies regarding the album review process might clarify things. I reached out to a handful of Decibel contributors as well as to a pair of veteran journalist/tastemakers who I greatly admire, (becoming initially acquainted with them in the old Metal Maniacs rag as a kid.) However, in my desire to skirt any potential echo chamber I wanted a musician’s perspective as well, and happily, I was able to pin down several who were game to discuss the topic from the opposite vantage point. Toss in a label head along with a press agent for good measure and the dialogue’s marvelously close to splintering at the seams. But each and every participant squandered a tremendous amount of their time on my neurosis and offered wickedly penetrating insights, ergo I intend to include as much of their wisdom here as I reasonably can.

Though I probably sound like I’m still weaving myself into friggin’ sheet-bend knots fretting over the subject, it ain’t actually the case. My concerns regarding the process have largely abated -in part owing to the long distance therapy session that I quasi-unintentionally devised. (Actually, Decibel’s own Joseph Schafer offered me one simple piece of advice that’s served to buoy me in this arena ever since.) What small discomfort I may feel these days when sizing up a review’s target relates far more to spirit than to ethics and it goes like this: Because opinions, (however reasoned,) establish mental and emotional boundaries they can stymie expansion and exploration. Put another way: opinions are the blemishes of past impressions and by their nature serve to redirect us from the present, back into that same, familiar cubicle where everything’s precisely as we left it and there is nothing left to explore. Spirit insists on boundlessness; it fucking hates cubicles. But a review must hinge—in part—on prior experiences and that mire of prior experiences belongs to ego, a creature ever pinioned to the rear view mirror.

I’ve ultimately found meaning in the review exercise and can only hope that something of my output’s offered a kind of value to someone other than my bloated checkbook, (as you’ve correctly presumed, music commentary generates mad f-ing paper.) Still, as I’ve detailed the concept of this work to friends, casual acquaintances and otherwise, I’ve been encouraged to hear my old concerns parroted back to me again and again: You know, I’ve always wondered, what’s even the point of music criticism? How can someone reasonably levy a score on an album based on mere opinion? What gives you the goddamned right? (We’ll get to all of these, but don’t bother expecting cut and dried summations. Expect instead to appreciate the process more greatly and to understand your own biases more intimately; believe me: that, my friends, is enough.)

“You’re so creative,
  with your reviews,
  of what other people do.
  How satisfying that must be for you.”

—David Bazan, “Selling Advertising”

“(I should) transliterate this like some hierophant,
but I’m not sure I should or I’m sure that I can’t.”
—Forrest Pitts, “The Cannon of Christ and Venery”