A veteran New York Times critic, Ratliff here goes beyond the focus on jazz in his previous books (The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, 2008) to explore the consumption of music in its widest variety and availability.
This is the critical equivalent of a series of mixtapes, the playlists compiled (now on computer rather than cassette) to share favorite music and to illuminate and entertain through juxtaposition. Streaming and downloading have made just about everything available to just about everyone, for better and worse, as programming algorithms strive to give listeners more of what they like rather than push them into unfamiliar territory. Urging “a strategy of openness” and offering “a spirit in which to hear things that may have been kept away from you,” the author proceeds to analyze common elements—sadness, silence, intimacy, density, virtuosity—among musical performances and styles that aren’t often considered to have much in common. At the end of each chapter is a playlist of the music covered. The best essay, “Blues Rules: Sadness,” is as startling as it is provocative, meandering its way to what might typically be considered blues through the haunted mortality of Nick Drake, some Mozart, and then proceeding to Slayer and Black Sabbath. One senses that the author could write a whole book on heavy metal: “it’s all inverse gospel, and the code for listening to it is as complex as gospel’s.” Other essays are all over the musical map, but it’s fascinating how Ratliff can bring a fresh ear to such familiar music—making the Beatles the centerpiece of a chapter on “Closeness” while the Rolling Stones are their polar opposites in the power of “Discrepancy”—and how inviting he makes some little-known music sound, particularly when everything is so available.
A collection of essays that makes unlikely connections that will encourage music fans to listen beyond categorical distinctions and comfort zones—though reading the book feels a little incomplete without the listening that should accompany the experience.