In today's climate of inescapable pop culture and media "stars," the first-person narrative in criticism is a lost art. Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton's thoughtful, groundbreaking new/literary journalism of the late '60s has yielded to an endless parade of some of the most banal navel-gazing imaginable. The most recent mind-numbing offense was Tom Sinclair's Led Zeppelin profile in Entertainment Weekly, where Sinclair scored a rare personal interview with guitarist Jimmy Page -- and proceeded to write about sharing a ham-salad sandwich with Page and described the interview as "an event so impossibly cool you hope to one day actually have grandchildren just so you can tell them about it." And that was just the lead.
So it's easy to see how the arrival of Nick Hornby's Songbook could inspire a sense of dread. Hornby's an eminently talented writer, the music critic whose classic debut novel High Fidelity equated relationships with record collections and mix tapes. He showed he wasn't a one-trick pony with the equally warm novel About a Boy, but Songbook's premise -- Hornby writing personal essays about his 31 favorite songs -- sounds like a marquis writer being unashamedly self-indulgent.
In the first essay encapsulating Teenage Fanclub's "Your Love Is the Place That I Come From," Hornby explains his rationale behind Songbook: "There's a Gipsy Kings song that reminds me of being bombarded with plastic beer bottles at a football match in Lisbon, and several songs that remind me of college, or ex-girlfriends, or a summer job, but I don't own any of them -- none of them means anything to me as music, just as memories, and I didn't want to write about memories. ... I wanted mostly to write about what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs."
Using that framework, Hornby shows that his music criticism chops haven't withered after mainstream success and Hollywood movie deals. Using Paul Westerberg's simplistically beautiful journeyman's piano solo in "Born to Me" as his hook, Hornby extols the meaning and virtues of a great solo: "My favorite solos are the ones that somehow show that the soloist has felt the song, words, music and all, felt the song and understood its very being, so that the solo becomes not only an imaginative reinterpretation of it, but an articulation of its meaning and its essence, like a piece of brilliant practical criticism. And sure, that is what solos are supposed to do, but most of them are at best an imaginative reinterpretation of the melody line; very few of them give the impression that they want to engage with the songwriter's soul."
But make no mistake: Songbook isn't necessarily about music criticism -- surprisingly, it's a remarkably heartfelt collection of writing that uses music as a springboard to life's big questions: love, death, family, work, and points in between. Yes, Hornby deftly flashes his dry Brit humor in places, but he never comes across as petty or self-indulgent. Instead, his musings on topics like collaboration (Badly Drawn Boy's "A Minor Incident"), conglomeration (Mark Mulcahy's "A Self Defeater") and self-consciousness (The Velvelettes "Needle in a Haystack") are honest and probing.
As a result, what Hornby ultimately pulls off is a literate autobiography of sorts. By clearly illuminating his point of view, whether he's discussing diverse artists such as O.V. Wright or Aimee Mann, Hornby gives the reader a clear window into his life and its corners light and dark. One of the book's most memorable passages is his essay on edgy art and Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop," a brutal 10-minute blast of industrial noise with lyrics describing a father who murders his family and then commits suicide. The song meant one thing to Hornby when he was in his 20s; now it holds an entirely different meaning:
"Me, I need no convincing that life is scary. I'm forty-four, and it has gotten scary enough already -- I don't need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency. Friends have started to die of incurable diseases, leaving loved ones, in some cases young children, behind. My son has been diagnosed with a severe disability, and I don't know what the future holds for him. And, of course, at any moment there is the possibility that some lunatic will fly a plane into my house, or a nuclear power plant, or attempt to sprinkle something into our water supply or our Underground trains that will turn us all black as our kidneys shrivel up in our bodies. So let me find complacency and safety where I can, and please forgive me if I don't want to hear 'Frankie Teardrop' right now."
The journey to that realization -- and all of Nick Hornby's Songbook -- is a hell of a lot more interesting and important than ham-salad sandwiches.
- The vintage handwritten mix-tape cover of Nick Hornby's Songbook capture's the book's huge heart.