You can probably tell I can be a bit verbose. Single tracks of music became enormous landscapes. Don’t know the band? No problem. I can spin a yarn a mile long about how I came upon the song, where I was when I found it and where I am while I’m listening to it, who it reminds me of, what colors it feels like, what old memories come to the surface when I hear a part at a minute and a half in. You’ll still be reading a paragraph about a song long after it’s stopped spinning. And whether or not that’s the way I’m supposed to use language to spread my love of music, it’s just the way that I’ve come to express it. I wonder, often, about what it feels like to be on the other side of that conversation; what does it read like when I’m writing long-form about a three and a half minute pop song that sounds like the last three I had on the mix. Does it come across like haughty masturbation? Does it feel like someone who’s lost their sense of fun when it comes to the simple joy of checking out bands? Does it feel pompous, instructive, like I’m telling you how to listen to it without letting you take it at your own ease? Does it suck?
The 33⅓ series has long interested me because from the outside, it seems like they have taken some of the great records of our time and turned them into thinkpieces, given someone a typewriter and let them loose to unburden their mind with all of the kaleidoscopic concepts they’ve had while listening to those records obsessively. At some point many years ago (was I still in NY?) I purchased three of them:
- Sigur Ros’ ( )
- Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew
- Radiohead’s OK Computer
These are three records that I was obsessed with at the time (and happily still am) and wanted to get my fingers deep into the muck of another brain surrounding those albums. What were other people seeing? What were they feeling? What were they dreamjournaling as they circumnavigated the crystalline lakes of Svigaplatan? What thoughts were shaking loose as they allowed their mind to careen through the electric improvs in Studio B? Who was the dystopia erasing as nameless governments blackbagged depressive posh Londoners? I was fascinated to know that someone [else] could write a small book around 100 pages long about a single record. Not only did I want to be able to do that, but I couldn’t wait to experience that.
In fact, in a tweet this April while considering trying to do a deep dive on a record, I named Fairweather’s If They Move… Kill Them, Deftones’ Saturday Night Wrist, and Paulson’s All At Once as albums I would have loved to do the work on, though I dropped the bag and never wrote more than a brief outline for 2 and didn’t start the 3rd. — I’m working on my follow through.
Finally embarking upon this book I was a little beside myself, a little excited to take a walk through someone else’s mind on a subject I was deeply passionate about. OK Computer has slowly raised to a top 3–5 record of all time for me, and it’s been a slow process, but it really has shaped the way that I not only listen to music, but also how I understand that opinions on bands and music aren’t static. Opinions will change and grow and alter, especially as you let small runs in a song fester in your brain, especially as you dissect the little parts you hate so much that you end up loving them. Sometimes you just aren’t ready to love it.
I promised I wouldn’t make this about Radiohead and I wouldn’t make it about OK Computer. I knew I would make it about myself. But I promise, I’m bringing it back around to the book itself.
I will say that what I expected from this book and what I got from it is very, very different. It has [temporarily] changed what I expect from the 33⅓ series (so much so that I’m nervous to read others?). This book is written in several parts. Of the 114 pages, 47 of them (roughly 41%) is written about the difference between CDs and LPs. This is fairly interesting work, as much of it illustrates the thought process between putting a collection of songs together on one ‘release’, and how the physical engagement of flipping a record can change how an album is digested. It speaks on about the length of tracks getting a bit more liberated because there was more temporal space on the medium, which also possibly led to songs being bloated beyond capacity. I found much of this fairly interesting, especially considering this is the type of thing I would have voluntarily chosen to read about… except this was a book about a specific album. At least that’s what the cover and the title and the premise led me to believe? It wasn’t until towards the end of the chapter (page 31, 65% through this chapter) that Griffiths begins to draw the band into the discussion, 8 pages of those 31 (rougly 25%) are just pages of lists, one of the lists (2 of 8 pages, another 25%) being just bands and albums that Radiohead was into at the time of their creating the record. So a piece of a slice of a sliver of a fraction of this first chapter was a pretty cool piece of what I expected from the book. I figured, HEY, I’m not a critic, I’m not a musician, I’m just a media-obsessed person looking for some creative joy… maybe this chapter is not for me. Couldn’t wait to dig in to the chapter that promised breakdowns of the songs.
This chapter was probably the one wherein I felt the most out of my depth since reading text books back in school. This made me look at a record I deeply love, a record that I believe I know in such a strange and alien light (not in a good way) that I almost felt guilty for liking it the way I have. That I almost felt like I was playing with something ALL WRONG. I have a feeling that if me and the author sat on a stage and were posed the question, “Why do you like OK Computer?”, as I talked about my answer, he would think that I was a small, small child with a 1920s train conductor hat sitting in a toy locomotive that spun around in a tiny circle and I would be hooting CHOOO CHOOOO again and again. His writing made me feel small. And worst of all, the biggest crime of the thing… I never got a sense of love, endearment, joy, enjoyment, respect or appreciation of what the band created.
This book talks about the music on the record the way that engineers talk about jet engines. Everything that the author expressed felt to me like he was breaking down each song into its constituent parts, stripping the humanity from every note and every choice with a chemical thinner, mansplaining what it means to Like a track. What’s more, his journey through the record is a calculated and scientific one finding no bridge into emotion. He makes the band sound like brutalist architects making decisions that are suited for capacity, for function. There is no devotion to form. There is no inclination towards creativity or personhood. I would go so far as to say this book is written by the very Karma Police that Thom Yorke is warning about. Behind these words is a man so frightened by the glow of emotion that he carries around an extinguisher and a bullhorn to both soak the flames and scream at those who tried to huddle around it.
I’d heard of insufferable Radiohead fans for as long as I’ve heard about insufferable Tool fans.
This is worse than I expected.
I give you a quote which sent me into such a mental tempest that I had to put the book down for a good half hour:
There’s still every need to learn how to read music: not being able to do so is another indication of the lazy, slobby aspect of computer- and tv-centered life,which also plays straight into the hands of scummy, dumbing-down capitalists.
I will definitely be reading the other two 33⅓ books that I have but if it gets to the point where I find the writer uninteresting or borderline offensive, I’ll definitely put down the book and lock away my admiration for those who can write this way about something that I love so deeply. I can’t imagine that a piece of art which changed my perception about the world so completely, that has the ability to slowly guide me through a deep, dark place, that feels so intuitive and beautiful and emotional and creative… I can’t believe that the piece which I experience is the same thing that Dai Griffiths experiences. And I can’t believe that he has a book out in the world, that he has 114 pages of bleak, mathematical, lifeless words on a subject which I find to be a modern marvel.
Love what you love to the finest of its parts. Open each shell, run your finger across every pore, get your fingers deep into the soil.
I don’t recommend this book to anyone.