Having been asked to write a list of questions for reading novels (I ended up with a not very succinct 20), Lars Dahle asked me to do the same thing for albums. Actually, to be fair to him, he asked me to do both at the same time, but I’ve been slack and not got round to doing the latter until now. Hopeless, really. But anyway, here goes. This time, I managed to be a bit more disciplined, and came up with 12 questions to ask.

As I say in the introduction, one of the problems these days is that the idea of an album is becoming looser and looser – in fact, over the last 100 years or so, the way we listen to music has changed radically every couple of decades (give or take) – and with the invention of a new medium for transmitting, broadcasting and selling music, the form has had a considerable impact on the contact (whether through timing constraints, sound quality and ease of listening).

So now that we have file-sharing (legal or otherwise), mp3 purchases and thus the ability to create one’s own playlists, many see ‘the album’ as decreasing in importance. Still, it is clearly the case that artists are currently sticking to this format – a collection of songs lasting anything between 35 and 70 minutes. I’m interested in trying to discern what thinking brought these songs together in the particular order they are presented. I suppose you could call this a canonical approach!

Of course, most of the time, the vast majority of people listen, and listen again, to music because of its mood, energy, resonances and associated memories. And that is totally reasonable and fair – there’s absolutely no point in downplaying the sheer enjoyment of music. But I can remember when I first started listening to the words of songs – I think I can even remember the song!  I’m pretty sure it was Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland (from the 1975 Born to Run), a song on an epic scale that demands more than superficial engagement. I remember one of my teachers (a latin teacher, no less!) even comparing it favourably (while acknowledging it to be on a far lower intellectual plain) to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. That may well be a contentious opinion, but it certainly woke me up (as an innocent teenager, some years before my conversion) to the serious intent of a huge swath of what can too easily be dismissed as pop-culture. It was not long after this that I started listening to both the music AND lyrics of U2 – but therein lies a whole other story!

So my purpose in writing these 12 questions is to help people to foster what we might call joined-up listening – taking an album’s form, music, lyrics and construction as an integrated whole where possible. For serious artists certainly appreciate it when people take their art seriously, especially when they go beyond the simple ‘nice tune’ response (although most would give their right arms to write ‘nice tunes’!).

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Caroline

    This is so helpful! Thanks for all the thought that went into these questions – so we can be discerning of our choices!

  2. Steve Turner

    Just looked up your link re 12 questions to ask.
    I presume this was for the purpose of getting a general listener to think more widely about the music they listen to. When I talk to students about reviewing albums I always say that they need to place the album in the context of the artist’s career (is it a progression, more of the same, backward glancing, treading water…?) and then in the context of the music scene today (who are they aligned with, who are they competing against, who are they influienced by…?). Then I get them to describe the music but not using musicological terms, pick out highlights and summarise.

    I would probably have added something about production and packaging, although packaging is no longer as important because people don’t see artwork when downloading. Are the lyrics important enough to be printed? Are there pointers in the credits towards heroes, heroines, charities etc? There could be a question about what the listener thinks this music was designed for. Some music is made for parties, some for playing in cars, some for relaxation, some ime to inspire, some to rouse the populace. Never Mind The Bollocks is a bad dance record. Saturday Night Fever is poor propoganda.

    Do listeners think a knowledge of the thoughts of the creators are important in order to understand the record or does it stand completely on its own? I’m sure that when my son Nathan hears Revolver he hears something completely different to me because I remember the world in which it was created, the ancipation surrounding its release and the comments of John and Paul.

    One of the hardest things to evaluate philosophically is the music itself. It’s easy to say whether we like it or not, whether it has been executed with expertise or not, but harder to detect whether a worldview is contained in the sounds themselves. To take an extreme example, is the freneticism and extreme volume of black metal an unspoken articulation of anger, frustration and a ‘will to power’ or is that just my interpretation of it within my western cultural experience and knowing all the baggage that comes with black metal? What a listener in Mongolia, Peru or Chad feel it commuicated the same attitude?

    A pertinent question for Christians might be to ask where they think a particular record features in the ongoing battle between the forces of light and darkness. Is it a major player, or is it just something to entertain those on the home front?

    Lyrics, of course, often aren’t the first thing to strike you about an album. I’ve listened to records for years without even wondering what they’re ‘about’ because the words are used as additional instruments rather than a means of conveying information.

    It’s a very worthwhile thing to do to get people to think about what they consume in culture. Why should we be less careful about what we put in our minds than what we put in our bodies?


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