The Interplay of Elements

Ian Penman, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 182pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910695876

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Writing about music has been the tall order and the short straw in appreciation of the arts since the advent of aesthetic theory. For elusive reasons, music signifies at deeper levels than such as can be captured linguistically, making the act of articulating its effects as fraught an enterprise as hanging ectoplasm on a washing-line. Where it speaks in its own overt languages in compositions for voices – 'Spem in alium numquam habui', 'O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!', 'E lucevan le stelle' – it might appear to offer a more obvious route of ingress to the analytic word. And the lyric protocols of popular song – 'Ain't got nobody', 'Every day is fine 'cause my baby's mine', 'Can't seem to go on now my baby's gone' – are as directly eloquent as the motets, chorales and arias of earlier eras. There is still, nonetheless, a sense of the precipice when it comes to saying what it is they do.

In pop, what distinguishes this attempt from the jobbing and blogging journalist's grist is its awareness of the music's structuring levels. By this I don't mean its different phenomenological aspects – 'it works on so many levels' – but the varying discursive contexts through which one becomes acquainted with it. At the surface, the official positioning of a song by the industry represents the way its manufacturers intend you to respond to its latest product. Beneath that, there is the technical armature on which it is built: the instrumentation, mixing and other production techniques, the vocal textures (what Roland Barthes called the 'grain of the voice'), the keys and times and rhythms of interest to all musicology. And then there is the level at which what we hear in music is what speaks particularly to our emotional status, the tidal swells and recessions of pure feeling by which it takes on the duty of earning the hearer's allegiance, a constantly transmuting fascination, something weirdly near to love.

'[M]usic really can give us a sense of something like home,' Ian Penman writes in the introduction to this anthology, before revealing that he was listening to the ridiculously under-noticed soul interpreter Bettye LaVette while writing it. But how to alchemise this sense into written expression? With this question, something like a manifesto is set out: '[H]ow to be serious without being pompous, how to be simultaneously complex and seductive, how to give a hint of your own flaws and passions without being boorishly or presumptively autobiographical.' This will involve hearing, as Penman does, the interplay of elements in a recording, not simply the nuts and bolts of its construction, but the tonal nuances, the gaps and imperfections, the growl and croon and yawp of voices, the blowing of horns and trumpets, in many cases of material so familiar that readers may be presumed to have imbibed it with maternal lactose, and yet seduced into hearing it afresh by the printed word.

Those who, like Penman, came of age during pop history's second act, may entertain dim memories of the New Musical Express of the 1960s, an industry organ full of puff-pieces, in love with showbiz, razzle-dazzle, the Biblical truth of press releases. My earliest copy of its year-end annual contained an interview with Jimmy Savile, entitled 'How to succeed without really trying'. From the dissidence of the hippie era, and through experimental and heavy rock in the Seventies, it nurtured increasingly daring styles of reportage until, with the punk explosion of 1976, it was perfectly fitted to document an industry in turbulent reconstruction, the lip-curl of rockabilly rebellion turned to venom-spitting apoplexy. This was where Penman's career began.

As late Seventies post-punk flip-flopped into the style-bedizened early Eighties, two predominant strands had emerged within music writing. One was a fiercely partisan, assertoric roistering much given to the categorical utterance, a ranting we-shall-fight-them-on-the-beaches that descended from pop's early sartorial tribes to the trench warfare of the Pistols epoch. The other was a more reflective idiom, often formally playful but equally serious in its intent, unabashed at borrowing neo-academic references for the purpose of going deeper into its topics. Under this latter head, Penman quickly emerged as one of music journalism's more sensitively attuned thinkers and responders. The present collection, culled and elaborated from recent review-articles in the London Review of Books and New York's City Journal, represents the full fruit of those first impulses.

Penman is not only adept at what the Frankfurt musicologist Theodor Adorno called 'structured listening', the ability to hold the totality of a musical work in mind while being minutely aware of its details at the micrological level, he is also acutely proficient at the sympathetic tone. The subjects of these essays may be consensual enough – Sinatra, Presley, James Brown, Charlie Parker, the Mods, and others – but there is not even a hint of playing to the crowd in their discussion. In this sense, it becomes genuinely beside the point whether the reader likes the artist in question or not, not because Penman takes anybody else's response for granted, but because there are always things to learn, to notice, to smile about, when one sets one's tribal affiliations to one side. Here's what I mean:

‘How can something so feathery and frosty and rapt still cause such deep shock? . . . Yes, it contains a sense of hard-won joy – but also sharp overtones of siege and fear, loss and regret. If [it] was a specifically modern achievement, it's in part because the players were unafraid of the deafening silence at the edge of their sound. There were darker, more jagged emotions under the elegant façade, something beyond hot trends and cool shades.’

That description is of a 1959 album, widely considered one of the classic manifestations of its genre, that happens to bore this listener rigid. Reading its analysis in terms of style, emotional thrust, formal innovation and historical reception achieves the effect of rendering one's own antipathy of taste not irrelevant – there is famously no accounting for that – but of setting it in a broader context.

One of the best pieces here, 'Swoonatra', contains a passage on the 1955 album In The Wee Small Hours. Penman enjoys the sleeve image first, its bachelor-pad period detail, the semiotic jetsam of LPs and magazines, Deco clock and brimming ashtray, 'an Eisenhower-era retouch of Dürer's Melencolia‘, before he listens again to its muted cascades of strings, its 'beatless languor', 'glancingly light, but anchored in deep pulls and purrs of bass', the subdued sotto voce of late night. He acknowledges the maestro's all-but-imperceptible surrender by degrees into the romping bombast of male menopause, the five decades that turned an undernourished Italian-American boy into the chortling tub of self-regard that emerged from a limo at the Albert Hall stage door in 1992 when, resplendent in steel-grey syrup and lobster-thermidor panstick over a violet bomber jacket bearing the plaint, 'I wanna go home!', he shook hands genially enough with a small straggle of stage-door johnnies. The implied attitude of Sinatra's 1940s recordings, a tender fatalism that sought out the cloudy side of every summer mood – 'nothing but blue skies, from now on', as though to remind its hearer that there has long been an alternate meaning of 'blue' – mutated into the piss-and-bourbon dyspepsia that allowed him a guttural retch in the chorus of Tony Hatch's 'Downtown' on Strangers in the Night (1966), just to let us know the contempt in which he held the song. It's all there in Penman's lyrical lens before you have even logged on to YouTube.

The final piece here, expanded from a 2019 LRB article on Prince, is a transcendent work of mingled celebration and lament. It charts the darkening personal psychology of an artist who spent a decade (the 1980s, roughly) producing callisthenic eversions of pop song, funk jam, gospelling and balladry before subsiding into the sterility of hysteric self-assertion – 'My name is PRINCE! My name is PRINCE!' – in a world turning immune. Referring to the two formative disastrous appearances Prince made as undercard to the Rolling Stones in LA in 1981, Penman writes knowingly, 'He would never again play bottom in this kind of power snuggle'. And yet there is nothing prurient here, no tasteless touch. Instead, we could productively return with him to the peculiar threnody, 'Sometimes It Snows in April', which closes Parade (1986), or the sloppily sewn patchwork of heterogeneous styles that constitutes the great double-album Sign O' The Times (1987), where the Halloween wailing and hallucinated pitch-scaling of voices on 'If I Was Your Girlfriend' bend the song's sexual politics through the agonies of self-awareness into the throb of plain desire to produce one of the strangest and spookiest hit singles of that terrible decade.

These truly are essays that, as the writer hopes, will reward periodic revisits. As somebody once crooned, nobody does it better. Meanwhile, the next book, we are promised, will be a long-intended monograph on Billie Holiday, plans for which have been maturing nicely, like brandy in the cask, over decades. I hadn't thought I'd need to read another study of Billie. The mental shelf is rearranged to take one more.
Stuart Walton is the author of An Excursion through Chaos; In the Realm of the Senses; A Natural History of Human Emotions; Introducing Theodor Adorno; Intoxicology; and a novel, The First Day in Paradise.