Joined-up Listening: 12 questions to ask of albums


Having been asked to write a list of questions for reading novels (I ended up with a not very succinct 20), Lars Dahle asked me to do the same thing for albums. Actually, to be fair to him, he asked me to do both at the same time, but I’ve been slack and not got round to doing the latter until now. Hopeless, really. But anyway, here goes. This time, I managed to be a bit more disciplined, and came up with 12 questions to ask.

As I say in the introduction, one of the problems these days is that the idea of an album is becoming looser and looser – in fact, over the last 100 years or so, the way we listen to music has changed radically every couple of decades (give or take) – and with the invention of a new medium for transmitting, broadcasting and selling music, the form has had a considerable impact on the contact (whether through timing constraints, sound quality and ease of listening).

So now that we have file-sharing (legal or otherwise), mp3 purchases and thus the ability to create one’s own playlists, many see ‘the album’ as decreasing in importance. Still, it is clearly the case that artists are currently sticking to this format – a collection of songs lasting anything between 35 and 70 minutes. I’m interested in trying to discern what thinking brought these songs together in the particular order they are presented. I suppose you could call this a canonical approach!

Of course, most of the time, the vast majority of people listen, and listen again, to music because of its mood, energy, resonances and associated memories. And that is totally reasonable and fair – there’s absolutely no point in downplaying the sheer enjoyment of music. But I can remember when I first started listening to the words of songs – I think I can even remember the song!  I’m pretty sure it was Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland (from the 1975 Born to Run), a song on an epic scale that demands more than superficial engagement. I remember one of my teachers (a latin teacher, no less!) even comparing it favourably (while acknowledging it to be on a far lower intellectual plain) to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. That may well be a contentious opinion, but it certainly woke me up (as an innocent teenager, some years before my conversion) to the serious intent of a huge swath of what can too easily be dismissed as pop-culture. It was not long after this that I started listening to both the music AND lyrics of U2 – but therein lies a whole other story!

So my purpose in writing these 12 questions is to help people to foster what we might call joined-up listening – taking an album’s form, music, lyrics and construction as an integrated whole where possible. For serious artists certainly appreciate it when people take their art seriously, especially when they go beyond the simple ‘nice tune’ response (although most would give their right arms to write ‘nice tunes’!).