Sunday, December 18, 2016

Grown Up All Wrong (1998)

Rather than his own joking self-appellation, the "Dean of American Rock Critics," I tend to think of Robert Christgau more as the Pete Rose of American rock critics. That's for his capsule album reviews, which now number well over 12,000 and counting. And even though I'd bet Rose makes it into his hall of fame before Christgau makes it into his, no one else has accomplished anything like it. Still, I think I get more of everything I like about Christgau these days in his longer pieces, as found in this oversize encyclopedia volume collection from the turn of the century, which feels like a summary statement. It's as thoroughgoing an exercise as one could hope for from the man with perhaps the most catholic tastes in all rock, pop, and beyond. He brings a useful perspective to Elvis Presley, casting him as a literary hero. He has one of the best single paragraphs I've ever encountered on the Beatles (short form, he can't quit you). And there is nothing at all specifically about Bob Dylan. Certain points of his taste are blind spots for me I already know about: the New York Dolls, Loudon Wainwright III, and some others. More often I appreciate the insights. His piece on James Brown, when I first read it years ago, opened the whole world of Brown to me, or somehow emboldened me to explore deep into Brown's strange and massive catalog. Christgau's Nirvana sendoff isn't any more flinty than it needs to be, and hits a good many notes. And the pieces about African music represent an interesting shift in his voice, more evangelist than anywhere else in his writing, and obviously researched with backstories and context because he knows his readers are unlikely to bring it themselves. As it happens, this fights a little with another instinct of his, which is to be the casual wiseacre smartest guy in the room catcalling from the sidelines, an impulse that runs to some excesses here in spots. That's in his capsule reviews too. He can't help himself. He goes out of his way to insult people by name—academics he doesn't trust, various taste makers, and sundry other figures lodged in his craw. Notwithstanding, it's a great bunch of thoughtful essays, even on artists you might not care that much about. He cares, and he's here to tell you why, and that's just infectious enough. It's a big book but worth going through slowly and carefully—among other things, more opportunities for list making and further shopping / streaming considerations. A consumer guide, you might say even. Christgau thinks so hard and so clearly about what he hears that he has the ability to make me think differently about things I've heard all my life, like James Brown.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. The namecalling is a literary tic in criticism, no? Marcus, Marsh, Bangs, etc. Kael. JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. Etc. Worn like a badge of honor. Not that it can't be distractingly annoying, I know. Nice review.