New as Foam, Old as Rock

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track: Objects & Essays, 2012-2018 BY Ian Penman. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions. 240 pages. $18.

The cover of It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track: Objects & Essays, 2012-2018

Pop critics are a sensitive lot. We fret about not being taken seriously and our heroes not getting a spot in the marble. Somehow the economic downturn hit us hardest, click-horny editors happened only to us, and the corrosives of social media burned us worst. And yet! We dropped into this foamy chaos of our own accord, this liminal gig with the lightest of accreditations and a very short stack of traditions to deform, or defend.

At least some of this sense of insult is a response to real tendencies. Over the past fifty years, the music critic has gently shifted in position, from antagonistic foil to antagonized employee. Musicians, our new bosses, tweet back, certainly more than novelists or directors (David Simon aside). Critics preempt hard tackles by @-ing out warmth. In return, the PR team hands out permissions both real and imagined. You’ve always been so supportive of our artists. You write fair, good content. And, still, writers get checked. In September, when NPR critic Ann Powers wrote a chunk of true insight about Lana Del Rey, one that constellates her with Maureen McGovern, Cypress Hill, and Elena Ferrante, Del Rey decided to complain about Powers making the case that Del Rey’s shifting personae reflect “America’s dream life.” On Twitter, Del Rey, whose birth name is Elizabeth Grant, addressed Powers and said that “there’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” “The bloviant soft-rock bing-bong has logged on,” I thought. There is nothing less natural than entering a recording studio! Baking up spicy personae is Del Rey’s finest modality! Oh Lana we like you get up.

It’s not super complicated, at the level of fact. Del Rey seems to think “persona” implies fakeness. The larger question, of what pop critics do, is happening in a slightly fearful environment. The idea that an artist can make work hardy enough to survive vigorous critical discussion now seems out of the ordinary, rare, even. The clapback is not; as with Twitter’s most famous user, bad behavior works. Tantrums and pile-ons move the movement. After their Twitter exchange, Powers went on NPR (the radio station) to say more nice things about Del Rey, somewhat validating her Twitter outburst.

But Del Rey did take Powers seriously enough to respond. Maybe the froth is healthy, the anarchy benign. It’s possible! Powers brings three decades of experience to bear on the music in front of her, almost weekly. She’s got one of the last full-time, front-facing gigs, and the scarcity is no joke—there are more good writers than ever and few jobs. But she’s there, and the gig is there. And the music, that flux cake, is there to write about.

Changes over time do not suggest the loss of a golden age. Plenty of dipshits had staff-writer positions in the ’70s and ’80s. Oodles of musicians would have been publicly stupid on the daily, given the chance. There was simply more money in the machine for magazines and alt-weeklies; and, without an internet, newspapers had a remit to cover the local and live. Artists rarely had control of their careers. This arrangement was not just—it was simply the structural shape formed by another set of economic relations, with different assholes running different parts of the stadium.

Lana’s tangle with Powers is also part of a tradition, a callback to a time when an artist might publicly dip a critic’s pigtails in the inkwell. In 1965, Bob Dylan immortalized a “Mr. Jones” by telling him that “something is happening but you don’t know what it is.” That was Melody Maker jazz writer Max Jones. Whatever Dylan thought of magazine writers in general, he named a whole-ass song after this man. In 1978, Lou Reed released a super-baggy live LP called Take No Prisoners, on which he referred to Robert Christgau as “some asshole in the Village Voice,” and asked the crowd if Christgau was “a toe-fucker.” In 1985, Sonic Youth released a live version of their song “Kill Yr Idols,” renamed “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick” for a giveaway single. Even a non-Freudian will sense the cathexis. And in 1982, Britain’s theoretical disco loons ABC named their debut album, The Lexicon of Love, after a review written by Ian Penman.

Cover detail of Prince’s Sign o’ The Times (Paisley Park, 1987).
Cover detail of Prince’s Sign o’ The Times (Paisley Park, 1987).

Penman, a Londoner now forty-two years into the game, doesn’t seem discouraged by the lack of music-writer jobs, choosing to carve out his critical space by riding a different rail. The “ageing rake, charity shop revenant, cat butler, prole snob, lay analyst, scrivener” (per his Twitter bio) has just released his second essay collection, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. Beginning at New Musical Express in the ’70s and continuing through work for The Wire, Tatler, Arena, The Face, Uncut, and Harpers & Queen, Penman has maintained his enthusiasm for the task of redefining cultural literacy. Most recently, as a contributor to the London Review of Books, he has found a way to be a music critic (more or less) under another roof. His twenty-first-century style is infinitely richer and more spangly than his early, spasmodic work (which was necessary, then). Like Powers, Penman isn’t much scared of punching upward, which isn’t necessarily the case for a younger writer who’s never had the encouragement to wild out.

When Penman’s first book, Vital Signs, came out in 1998, there seemed to be some ambient publishing need to make a bad-boy brief for him, as if his early days at NME—where mildly academic phrases presented as transgressions—were the essence of who he is. “Heaven, via Hell, and back,” is Julie Burchill’s overheated cover blurb. Aside from one misbegotten stunt-reporting piece involving Penman smoking crack, this isn’t a helpful way to think of that fizzy book, or Penman. My guess is that the tough-guy marketing was some off-gassing from the carpet of ’90s Britain, everyone important and famous and high.

In A Hidden Landscape, his history of English music magazines, Mark Sinker wrote that “two things had drawn me to the music-writing of that era, the weeklies in particular: its opinionated mischief-making humour, and the sense of young people travelling by touch, learning as they went.” He referred to Penman’s early criticism for NME as “autodidact urchin-play.” Penman’s ability to absorb and sweat out French theory made readers “feel inadequate in the best way,” writer Marcello Carlin said.

Penman rattled readers with his references to Barthes and a fair amount of stone-cold nonsense. His live review of ABC playing the A-Z Club, the one they quoted, makes no mention of their music or appearance. “ABC, of course, are so upset by the errors of the Lover’s discourse, which is of course a crash course in Truth (and therefore in self-deception). The A-Z blackened and blighted ABC’s spry rage.” If you did not know how good the band’s poly-blend soul-disco was, this would not get you any closer to it. Penman, later in the review, shows his hand. “I could be descriptive, but where would that take us? Back. I could deny, but then, you have your spies. I’d rather destroy, move on and enjoy.”

In the early ’80s, pop criticism needed the destructive more than the descriptive. In a 2014 essay for Pitchfork, Simon Reynolds wrote that “pretty much all my expectations of what music writing could be, and should be, were shaped by exposure to NME as an impressionable and hugely impressed youth.” Whether or not NME’s heyday is overvalued in general, what Penman found, specifically, were connections between bands, ideas, and ways of living. Penman moved through the ’80s and ’90s with his bundles, a generalist in culture, a song man more than a noise man, and a generally light presence. In the course of forty-six short chapters in Vital Signs, he covers Norman Mailer (“a freeloader in the tetchy world of ideologies”), curry (“Eating as arm-wrestling, group bonding and anal eroticism all in one go!”), condoms (“both forlorn and juvenile”), and dozens of artists. Penman is a solid riding partner and a careful wanderer, not nearly as polemical as histories make out.

Penman’s resting rhythm is a waltz, and he’s finally put out a book that reflects that. It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track collects eight book reviews originally published in City Journal and the London Review of Books. It is, in sum, about musicians of the black American musical tradition: James Brown, John Fahey, Donald Fagen, Charlie Parker, Sinatra, Prince, Elvis. It’s also fantastic. The first chapter is the odd man out, Penman arguing calmly with Richard Weight’s book on mods and mod revivals, a satisfyingly granular scan of British man culture’s wriggling recursions. It doesn’t go with the rest of the book, but I love the specificity of these cultural slices. (“By the time of the first Mod revival in 1979, the once omnivorous sensibility felt moody and shopsoiled—a Mod Airfix kit, complete with decals.”)

After that we’re off into a packet that’s much more coherent than seven reviews strung together. These musicians are forces that Penman has spent a lifetime thinking about; his book happened to pass through the doors of some reviews, and has come home. He’s chosen heavily documented, difficult, stained men. There is no shortage of information, opinion, hagiography, debunking, and spastic worship around Bird and Elvis and Sinatra. Fahey is slightly lower on the horizon and Fagen will probably rise. Prince is at the beginning of a fresh exegesis that will likely not end soon. Penman is wading into the crowd here, a critical community in the midst of dismantling Important Men and decorated soldiers of the stage who threw away entire people in favor of work, much of it minor.

Start with the Sinatra chapter, if just for the satiny writing. Penman’s Frank is a “working-class, Italian Catholic, faux wiseguy” who tweaked the “subtly hierarchical class system in America.” His Sinatra is an “unshowy” singer, “deeply submerged, and hard to touch.” His song readings were “closer to a kind of resplendent anonymity; he never makes things too obvious, italicizing what he thinks the listener ought to be feeling.” The lyric was where the hardness lived; the settings, the reverse. Sinatra’s records qualify him as “one of the original ‘ambient music’ theorists” because he was “one of the first musicians to see the long-playing album as an opportunity for sustained mood music: a pocket of time focused entirely on one defining concept or tone.” With Nelson Riddle’s string arrangements, Sinatra found the heartache in every dream home and then sang the doors shut.

With Charlie Parker, Penman is equally juicy with the sound, isolating the (not immediately obvious) fact that Bird is legendary but not for being easy to listen to. “Parker’s song was resolutely unsentimental, a sometimes harsh, hurtling thing: he put all his seducer’s wiles into his life, not his music. So why does this spiky, astringent music touch so many of us, still?” Penman notes later that Parker’s saxophone playing owes more to pianists than other horn players, and that it reflects “echoes of his father’s tap dance and later clickety-clack train-bound times.”

You know Bird, but do you think of him sounding like a train and a piano? Penman makes the familiar seem like something we simply hadn’t looked at properly before. What’s more familiar than Elvis? And still. “In one photo Elvis looks sordid and leering; in another, pure choirboy. From snap to snap you pick up all kinds of unlikely lineaments: native American, Mexican, butch 1980s lesbian. The effect is hard to pin down—polymorphous instability?”

Sometimes his reviews of the known simply reset the table. In “The Question of U,” Penman runs his fingers through Prince’s entire career. Having Prince’s early career put back into the frame of racial signification is helpful right now. “In 1981, Prince was an uncomfortable reminder of what lay under the global Good Old Days schtick of the kohl-eyed Stones: an ambiguously inviting/inciting body of colour.” Prince is a conundrum Penman tries to solve, so he asserts that Parade is the “apotheosis” of “the whole 1980s catalogue” and that Sign o’ the Times “doesn’t really hang together very well.” England is a helluva country! Penman is strong on late-career Prince records: “music like a recycled version of an old, old religion, no room left for any outsider’s fresh interpolations.” When he reads Mayte Garcia’s memoir, he doesn’t have the fanboy need to fight the truth, and allows that there may have been an “undiagnosed pathology” at work with Prince.

Penman identifies John Fahey as a careful historian, able to draw out the classical music buried in the blues, a fact obscured by his later fans. James Brown, well—James Brown he has some trouble with. “Brown had his own code for this hypnotic way of playing off the beat: he called it The One.” Eek. “The one” is common shorthand for the downbeat, the first beat of any measure. Later in the chapter, there’s a different but equally daft mistake. When discussing the importance of James Brown records in hip-hop, Penman defines “breaks” as “the never-bettered short-order alchemy of drums, bass, guitar, and horns.” Breaks are, in fact, a break from all that. Breaks are the drums, just the drums, with maybe another percussive element, and that’s all. These are not minor errors.

This is not unusual in the history of pop criticism. Popular music is still treated by critics largely as a cultural symptom, an abstracted layer of epiphenomenal activity rather than a fully developed and systematic practice. Pop is a screen onto which theory and politics are projected, usually to the good. But pop is also a practice, at least as rigorous as skateboarding, which would more likely demand fact-checks. This kind of chummy oopsie error comes likely because everybody knows pop music, while knowing almost nothing about how it’s made.

There could be some formalization, but what if that really took hold and people were forced to learn about “the one” and “the breaks”? Ew! It could routinize the job and ruin it all. I don’t want a world without the existing Ian Penman or the next Ian Penman (who will most certainly not be named Ian). The foam needs to stay unsupervised and bossless. There is room for Penman’s majestic shpatzir and Ann Powers’s corner-store inclusivity, and all the new writers traveling by touch. Whatever they come up with will not resemble NME or Twitter or the New York Times when the barrel turns over again. There is no map for music criticism. Never needed one. Never will.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in New York.