In my most recent addition to the collaborative essay project, I mentioned that analysis and assessment of a work of art on its own merits is what defines critique.
It’s not easy to turn your mind to music criticism when you’re reading literary, theatre, film, or art critics. Very few music critics are held in high enough esteem – generally speaking – to warrant a place amongst the literary canon of a country. Much to my discomfort about where the “powers that be” place music (let alone rock or metal specifically) on a cultural scale… which is kind of beside the point.
Anyway. Here are FIVE tips to get your critical juices running. Enjoy!
1. Listen to the album as though it stands alone.
This means, “forgetting” that it comes from a discography of works. Ignore the fact that the band who released it might have been around for twenty or thirty years. Put completely out of your mind what you thought of their previous release, or the label that they’re on, or who produced the album, or where it was recorded, or fucking anything.
Listen to the album for what it is: a singular recording, in a singular instance, of a particular genre. How does it hold up, against itself… musically?
2. Listen to the album taking into consideration its lyrics, artwork, and construction
Read the lyrics, pore over the artwork, consider the construction of the album: its song lengths, how the songs are written, why the musical construction is good or bad. Consider the song sequencing: is it good, could it be better, could some intros be dispensed with? What could have made it a steller piece. Remember, you’re still thinking about the album as a singular entity.
3. Listen to the album again and write down everything you hate about it.
Once you’ve done this, get a beer, or a cup of tea, or sit with your notes and a smoke, and consider carefully – away from the recording! – why those points are points that you don’t like. How much of what you don’t like is personal taste? How much is expectation? How much has got to do with the album itself?
Set to one side all of the points you don’t like that are extraneous to the album (expectations, personal taste, personal quirks, politics, whatever). You might want to draw on them later.
Now, consolidate the points that you have that pertain solely and exclusively to the album as a singular entity. Remember: an album is a package: music, construction, production, lyrics, artwork.
4. Listen to the album again and write down everything you love about it.
As before, once you’re done, take a break, and consider – away from the recording! – why you like those things. Again, set aside everything that comes down to personal taste, expectations, etc etc.
Consolidate the points that pertain exclusively and solely to the album as a singular entity.
5. Compare your notes, now make some more notes.
Leave the album turned off unless you want to check something.
When you set them side-by-side, your notes will tell you very clearly whether, on a global scale, you like or dislike an album.
What you have to do now, is sketch in further notes, but keep them kind of separate if you can. Separate sheets of paper, separate files, whatever. How did the release make you feel, as a listener? How did it make you feel, as a critic? What would improve the release, and why? Did the band try anything that didn’t work, and how do you know that it didn’t work?
Then get further and further away from the release.
How was the production? What’s the artwork like, and how does it make you feel about the album?
Where, in which subgenre, does the release sit? Where, in the band’s overall history and stereotyped subgenre, does the release sit? Is there a conflict, and why does it exist, do you think? Bring your intelligence to bear on these notes! Give yourself some credit. Can you compare the album to the band’s other works, and why or why not, and are you willing to admit it if you can’t? Can you research them? If you can, go forth!
Importantly: don’t give yourself a deadline. If you have an editor screaming I need this in 24 hours! (ahem, I was guilty of that with my writers), ask them if they want a shitty review or a decent critique. Chances are, unless they have labels screaming in their ears, they’ll wait.
BONUS POINT 6. Start to pull your notes together.
If you want to be considered a critic and not a run-of-the-mill reviewer, you want a distanced, sparse critique. You want to be able to assess the piece of art on its own merits, so write your review like this. Keep your language simple. Leave your arrogance, pomposity, big words, fandom, geekiness, and attitude at your front gate. Speculate about the “global” level stuff if you want to, but do it after you have already assessed and critiqued the work.
If you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to write a very nice little essay, that has a story to it. You can bring your notes together with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That story might be of your experience of the release, pure and simple. It might be of your experience of the release, in the context of your experience of the band itself. It might be a story of production, where you want to highlight the production values of this album, and feel you can do it better by telling a story in which this album is the protagonist.
You don’t have to stick to one structure in a good critique. The best are mini essays. The best tell stories. The best engage people.
The worst are full of gush, rank albums out of five or ten, give us very little information, and pat themselves on the back. That is what a reviewer does. You want to be a critic. So start thinking like one.