How Do You Even Write an Album Review Anymore?
The album review may be dead, but online opinions are flourishing. Can 18th century Scottish philosophy help lead the way?
Photo by Nolan Allen
The other night I watched the movie Ninja Assassin, an English-language martial arts film in which at least ten people get their limbs chopped off onscreen. The acting in the movie is pretty shaky, to the point that I was absentmindedly checking my phone whenever somebody wasn't fighting somebody else, and for the life of me I couldn't tell you what the plot was (other than that it involved ninjas, who were also assassins). Nevertheless, as a martial arts film enthusiast, I found Ninja Assassin nothing short of fantastic. The titular ninja assassin in played by the South Korean pop star Rain, who spends the better part of the movie fucking people up with a kyoketsu-shoge, a Japanese weapon made up of a chain with a knife on the end. The kyoketsu-shoge offers Rain the opportunity to dispatch of his enemies with balletic grace, spinning and ducking with rhythm and flamboyance while evading swords, throwing stars, and at times bullets. Still, I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that bursts of gratuitous violence strung together by stilted acting and a paper-thin plot doesn't necessarily add up to the average moviegoer's idea of a good time.
After I cheered while witnessing Rain's character waste the film's ultimate villain by developing magical powers at the last second, I started wondering what would happen if I were tasked with reviewing Ninja Assassin. Would I, writing from the critic's stance of ostensible knowing objectivity, assume the voice of God and project my admittedly niche opinions upon the masses, leaving my readers ultimately annoyed at me for knowingly recommending a movie that many of them would hate? Or would I put my own feelings aside and trash this ridiculous and insane movie that I enjoyed, thus discouraging people who might similarly appreciate it from ever checking it out? Or would I openly admit my biases and minimize my role as a critic, hoping to simply write something that might entertain the reader and offer them an opinion that they could either take or leave?
Even though I'm someone who derives a significant portion of his income from telling people what I think about stuff, I'm still somewhat skeptical of the entire enterprise. It takes a certain haughtiness to assume your take on a thing is the correct one, and I often struggle to reconcile my own feelings about an album––something that's informed by my unique life experiences and perspectives––with reaching a judgment that I believe will best serve my reader. A person's reaction to music is ineffable, and it's really, really hard to reach into the ether and make your reactions, uh, effable. That's become even more difficult as the internet––and perhaps to an even greater degree, the smartphones and tablets that followed it––has fundamentally changed the relationship between critic and reader. Since it's now overwhelmingly possible, and maybe even common, that a person can read about an album while simultaneously streaming it, the critic must operate under a whole new set of assumptions when writing.
Broadly, these changes have led many people to question the continued relevance of the album review, and by extension the critic. Why waste words telling the reader what a band's drums sound like when they may very well be hearing those same drums for themselves? The writer who puts in the time going to shows, digging through crates, and poring over liner notes can't necessarily claim to have any more facts on hand than the one who spends a few hours of savvy googling before sitting down to write. It's no wonder that, as my colleague Dan Ozzi wrote last year, given the shifting economic realities of online music media, that music criticism "has become a veritable trash pit of amateur opinions and toxic discourse." The questions of what function a review is supposed to have become even more complicated in this context.
Generally, there are two types of reviews. One is the type you used to see in the backs of music magazines, short little things to give the reader a sense of the music and then offering some sort of judgment as to whether they're worth picking up. The other is less prescriptive, instead trying to place a piece of music within some sort of greater cultural context to make a greater point and further the reader's understanding of whatever they're dealing with. Of course, it's never been that black and white in the real world––Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" is written with more artistry and pure entertainment value than most works of discursive criticism, in part because Christgau is a very good writer and most writers are not very good at all––but now that all music is basically free to stream or a physical artifact to be collected, these two forms have merged more than ever. Pitchfork is a great example of this: The little numbers on the reviews essentially function as a "Listen/Don't Listen" barometer, while the actual reviews below them are much longer and more in-depth than the capsule reviews, however well-written, you'd find in an old issue of SPIN. My instinct is that the ideal review might be drifting toward something that draws together the usefulness of both formats, pushing aside both the surface-level analysis of the capsule review and the writerly self-absorption of the more essayistic review.
Music isn't being assessed or analyzed as much as it's being used by a website or writer to position themselves as standard-bearers of a certain aesthetic or mindset.
So far, though, that hasn't exactly happened. A third, more current mode of reviewing, particularly when it comes to records by popular artists, is one that is directly in conversation only with fans of that artist. It's either positive, and reaffirms their opinion that their favorite is great, therefore getting lots of attention and shares, or it's negative and meant to "make a splash" online. Good writing can still be produced within this sort of binary critical mindset, but more often than not it does the artists being written about a disservice, reducing the work to a stand-in for a headline-worthy idea. The music isn't being assessed or analyzed as much as it's being used by a website or writer to position themselves as standard-bearers of a certain aesthetic or mindset.
In the 1700s, a now extremely dead philosopher named David Hume pioneered the concept of the standard of the "ideal critic." Despite having never listened to Lil Yachty, SoundCloud Rap, or even a single Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Hume had a pretty solid idea of what makes a good critic: "Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice."
In other words, Hume thought in order to be a good critic, a person must possess a deep knowledge of their subject matter, the ability to use that knowledge to hold a work up to others in the same general wheelhouse in a nuanced manner, and make judgments within the context that the work originated. A critic's viewpoint should not serve a commercial purpose as much as it should help their reader make sense of what they're listening to. Far too often, critics make judgments with the intention of reinforcing the brand of the outlet they're writing for, or even worse, their own "personal brand" that might help them stand out among a sea of other critics jockeying for attention online. But the ideal critic mentality doesn't really give a shit about the form a review comes in, and it presents an opportunity for "taste" to exist not in an absolute sense but instead within the milieu from which a work originated.
Gore Vidal once wrote that, "A critic, to criticize, must, very simply, have standards. To have standards he must pretend there is some optimum against which like creations can be measured." Given the internet's ability to give a voice to people whose communities and identities have classically been underrepresented in traditional media, the optimum to which Vidal referred––i.e., "taste," a concept far too often unconsciously coded along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, economic/educational status etc.––is being interrogated and dismantled like never before. Criticism on the internet has the opportunity to reflect the multitude of optimum standards that can exist and help everyone connect with the music they love, which is really more important than faux-objective notions of "good" or "bad" or "worth your money."
Recently, I experienced similar feelings to those of watching Ninja Assassin while listening to in•ter a•li•a, the newest album from At the Drive-In. The band's 2000 record Relationship of Command is one of my favorite albums of all time, and after I pressed play on in•ter a•li•a opener "No Wolf Like the Present," I immediately felt the same rush I once experienced when listening to "Arcarsenal" from Relationship, a record whose frantic pace spurred me to speed-walk two miles to work every day for an entire summer. That reaction alone, which sustained throughout the entirety of in•ter a•li•a, was enough to make me love it, but it's hard to pretend there aren't problems with the album. Lead vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala is missing the histrionic intensity that was once his signature, and he's no longer counterbalanced by secondary vocalist/guitarist Jim Ward.
Regardless of what my "fan brain" tells me, my "critic brain" knows that in•ter a•li•a is not necessarily the best point of entry for someone looking to get into At the Drive-In or their dual offshoots, The Mars Volta and Sparta. Despite my unabashed fandom, I found myself nodding along to Ian Cohen's fair but by no means complimentary assessment of the record on Pitchfork. The review, heavy on context, functions as the gentle pull of a shepherd's crook, guiding neophytes backwards in time to the work of the band's earlier work and that of its sprawling offshoots, until a listener might be armed with enough love for the band to enjoy in•ter a•li•a as a work of what Cohen rightfully tags as "fan service." At a time when there are more ways to tangibly appreciate an artist's work than ever, this strikes me as an appealing approach, a review less as a verdict on a piece of music than as a guidepost in art's endless journey of learning more.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.