Cloud Atlas

The reason we love a song usually has to do with longing: for a person, a time, a way of life. That is why my teenage songs have stuck by me. Back then, I did hardly anything but long. This yearning led me to doggedly pursue music and unreasonably identify with what I liked. Jonathan Lethem memorably described this phenomenon in his 2012 essay about the Talking Heads: “I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.” This way of thinking might now seem as quaint as a gramophone, but it points to a significant cultural loss. As Carrie Brownstein notes in her recent memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, the work of hunting down what you loved was once a way to find who you loved, and who you were. Brownstein writes: “The seeking was tactile, the process of discovery more arduous but also highly interactive. And that effort really grounded the learning into contexts, chronologies, and histories.”

In the twenty-plus years since the time Brownstein describes, the way we discover, listen to, and share music has changed dramatically; the abundance of free tunes online has disintegrated those contexts and scrambled those chronologies and histories. We are at sea, often overwhelmed. And a sense of anticipation, of yearning, seems incompatible with music that is instantly available, inexpensive, and unlimited. How do you long for a link? It’s tempting to turn nostalgia into a cranky theory of decline in which a trillion songs, shuffled through tinny laptop speakers and crummy earbuds, all start to sound the same. But that view is misguided (and self-defeating), because, like the many tracts about how the Internet is ruining us, it assumes we are incurably passive. All the arduous activities Brownstein fondly remembers are still available to us, as are many unforeseen options. We still have agency. The question is what we do with it.

Ben Ratliff, a music critic who has written extensively on jazz, takes up this question in his new book, Every Song Ever. He observes that many of us respond to the Internet’s vast song catalogue by burrowing ever more deeply into our bunker-like comfort zones, listening to a handful of albums we’ll take to our graves. But he wants us to listen better, to more—and not listlessly. He advocates “a strategy of openness” that starts with a new critical language: “repetition,” “slowness,” “audio space,” “density,” “linking,” and fifteen other Ratliff-coined musical terms, each of which he devotes a chapter to exploring.

Melody, tempo, genre, and other such dusty concepts are rarely mentioned. Instead, Ratliff’s “reasons for engagement” are subjective and based on everyday experience—we all know what repetition and slowness feel like. He has a knack for articulating how a song works, and he uses his imaginative categories to forge connections between songs that, at first, seem to have little in common. Sharing these connections is his main tactic for getting us to hear differently as we listen along (he supplies playlists for each section). In a chapter about “speed,” he moves freely from Bud Powell to Franz Liszt to D.R.I. to Jerry Lee Lewis; in one about “density,” he covers Outkast, Beethoven, Big Black, and Chaka Khan (among others). Listening to Chic’s “Everybody Dance” as an example of “repetition” rather than “disco” places it on a new plane. The main riff, a triangular rising-and-falling figure, calls to mind the repetitive motions we make daily—walking, breathing—and the song’s small variations become more apparent. (“Repetition” also banishes the tropes of Studio 54 to a mercifully faraway place.) You notice that James Brown evokes something similar in “Ain’t It Funky Now,” as does Steve Reich in Four Organs. Ratliff writes, “Over fifteen minutes of [Reich’s] piece, you come to know the chord in many implications, just as you come to know the major-minor atmosphere of the James Brown song.”

Ratliff riffs on these roomy and associative categories like a learned record-store sage, at once a ranter and a crowd-pleaser. He pulls in anecdotes about music history and pop culture, and is just as likely to allude to Family Guy as Harold Schonberg. But he seems happiest writing in a mode of philosophical reverie, tossing and turning pet theories, meditating, testing metaphors, hot on the trail of epiphanies and breakthroughs:

The single note can create a risk. Because the listener may struggle with it: Am I going to allow this to happen? Is my intelligence being insulted? I came for a meal; this is only the starch, or the stock, or the salt. Is this kind of playing a lack of generosity or intelligence on the part of Johnny Ramone or Arsenio Rodríguez . . . ? Or is it the opposite: that he thinks highly enough of us—he loves this, this is his distillation, and he is truth-telling, trusting we can take it?

It’s to Ratliff’s credit that he asks so many questions, offering a model of music appreciation that feels engaged and expansive. But perhaps the most galvanizing aspect of his project is that it leaves room for the DIY spirit to reemerge. Charged by Ratliff, you can come up with your own ways to listen, making oddly named playlists and listening with a new curiosity. He points out that since Apple, Google, Pandora, Amazon, et al. monitor us so closely, offering taste-narrowing “similar artists” purchases at every click, we ought to defend our sense of taste by searching for what we love with even greater attention. This is more than a matter of principle for him—it is a way to understand ourselves: “Most human beings impose their wills on the world partly with and through music. . . . The way they hear—you can call it taste, if you want—is in how they move and work and dress and love.”


Ratliff’s playlists reveal a delight in mixing sounds that are not supposed to go together: Shostakovich and Chic, Nick Drake and Slayer, Dean Martin and the Fall. But as much as he aims to go beyond the constraints of genre, it’s clear that Ratliff continues to be steeped in jazz. He still longs for A Love Supreme. His prose leaps and swings like a good improviser would, giving Every Song Ever a But Beautiful–style energy, and his passages on jazz are the book’s high points, such as the blow-by-blow account he offers, in the chapter on “closeness,” of the interplay between John Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones on a 1965 live recording of “One Down, One Up.” The further he gets from jazz, the more likely he is to overreach with his pronouncements, like when he says that heavy metal “wants to rule you.” This is one downside to a strategy of radical openness. In our eagerness to affirm and connect, we will sometimes mishear—or underestimate—the glorious noise outside our bunker. In aiming to be a fan of everything, Ratliff sometimes struggles to articulate what’s great about something in particular. If you’re not already sure that Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” is a great song, he might not totally convince you.

These lapses reaffirm the truism that music criticism can’t really capture the feeling of music. That words, as elastic as they may be, are too boxy to convey how a track moves, how it soothes an ache you didn’t even know you had: the way you feel when Johnny Rotten rolls the r in “morrron,” or Kathleen Hanna bends the note in “rebel girl,” or Thelonious Monk jams the melody of “April in Paris” so that it’s humorously cubist. Ratliff addresses this evasive, otherworldly quality in my favorite chapter, “What If We Should Both Want More?: Transmission.” He writes about how “there is an extreme form of emotion in music that transcends specific moods,” which he calls “transmission”:

There are stories of Sufi masters, with divine agency, who use their powers of intent to send energy forth to their students. Students or seekers can feel the power of transmission by seeking to let go of their own existence and perceive the essence of their god. Receiving transmission (or tawajjuh) in the Sufi tradition has been compared to falling into a sea—a pleasant form of drowning . . . It is two things at once: a state of pious selflessness and a beaming forward; the musician’s simultaneous connection to eternity or inevitability—as exemplified by a sound only he can make—and the listener.

When we hear a musician make the sound only he (or she) can make, we move closer to our own true sound, too. All those artists I’ve been a slavish fan of transmit an essence that, while alien in its mastery, feels close to my own. Ratliff’s work reignites our sense of longing for connection, allowing us to roam more consciously through the infinite channels online. We find new sources of energy and essence in places we never thought to look. We listen, as if for the first time, and take pleasure in the search again. We put on our playlists and pleasantly drown.

David O’Neill is Bookforum’s managing editor. He is working on a book of David Wojnarowicz’s audio journals.