sun 26/06/2022

Nick Coleman: Voices - How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life, review - earworms explored | reviews, news & interviews

Nick Coleman: Voices - How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life, review - earworms explored

Nick Coleman: Voices - How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life, review - earworms explored

Music writer who suffered deafness explores the songs that linger in his memory

'Even as a child he had an intuitive feeling for a good song'

Readers familiar with Nick Coleman’s 2012 memoir The Train in the Night will know before embarking on this book that the author suffered the worst possible fate for a music journalist: deafness, a problem (Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss) which began in 2007, had improved somewhat by 2010, declined catastrophically, then partially returned in his “good ear” before a severe sinus infection in 2015 wreaked further havoc.

In the period when he was granted some respite, Coleman binged - he calls it harvesting - listening obsessively to particular singers and songs, “frantically stashing nourishment away on a daily basis in preparation for the proverbial rainy day and the long winter that would inevitably follow, the day when the auditory shutters would slam down for good”.

To anyone, deafness is a depressing and terrifying prospect but to someone for whom music has been at life’s core, a shaping force from early childhood, it seems like a living death. One thinks, inevitably, of Beethoven, who could hear only in his mind’s ear.

By the end of the book, Coleman has experienced vestigial improvement, “between 10 and 20 percent across the frequency range” - insufficient to experience music in any meaningful way. For him, music is a Proustian remembered pleasure. We often talk about having a song “on the brain”, as so-called earworms lodge in our heads, and this is largely how Coleman now accesses music. It is an unhappy thought and many a music-lover would agree with his view that the loss of sight, or even a limb, would be preferable.

So respect to Coleman for continuing to write about music and apologies for not liking his latest book more. I had hoped for (indeed expected) a more cerebral examination of the voice in general and why  particular voices can have such a hold over us as listeners, what it is in the grain of a voice that so affects us. The subtitle - how a great singer can change your life - suggests an objective look at the voice but the book is essentially a memoir about the voices that changed Coleman’s own life: it is subjective. 

Just as the producer’s job is to achieve the best recording possible - the kind of perfection that so grabs listeners like Coleman - so the editor should push the writer beyond the bounds of what he thinks he can achieve. It’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s a better book here waiting to get out.

Essentially, this is a memoir consisting of 10 essays each of which attempts to examine a fairly arbitrary category of music. “Boys and Girls and Girl Groups”; “Vulnerability”; “The Spectacle of Anguish” etc. The opener (following an engaging introduction sketching out a childhood in which singing was “just what happened… part of the everyday fabric of life”) looks at “The Horsemen in the Box” - Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley - who would have represented the end of pop music history had the Cuban Missile Crisis not turned out so well. Coleman bids us imagine that a box of records and an old Dansette survive the 1962 blast to be (re)discovered by armoured ants. The ant imagery is stretched over nine pages. A producer would have demanded: “Cut!"

It’s hard to disagree with most of Coleman’s choices as regards both singers and songs and it’s clear that even as a child he had an intuitive feeling for a good song and that those songs mean something to him still. With panache but with varying degrees of success he attempts to explain why, and he does so across a wide variety of music. He appreciates Janis Joplin’s “sandpaper howls”, described as “an auditory update of Edvard Munch for the post-hippie generation”, alongside the “sumptuous talent” of the Carpenters. “Goodbye to Love” is for Coleman “one of the most heartbreaking pop singles ever made… not a nanosecond of emotional leakage”.

He understands that a key to Roy Orbison’s success - besides his magnificent voice and a “brilliant succession of hit pop singles” - was his vulnerability, personally and in song in a genre (rock) that’s all about invincibility. Orbison’s importance he writes correctly, “cannot be overestimated”.

Mick Jagger’s early work was “singing as terrific vocal Method Acting” as he became his voice. After Exile on Main Street, “what we listen to when we listen to the Rolling Stones is Mick Jagger parodying Mick Jagger doing an interesting bunch of voices”. Coleman finds it “an unedifying spectacle watching Dartford’s finest chug on through middle age into their autumn cadences”, irrelevant and rapacious.

Only Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush are dealt with at relative length, and while Bob Dylan gets short and very specific treatment, such significant figures as Leonard Cohen and Stevie Wonder are mentioned only in passing. With the notable exception of Amy Winehouse, the book’s emphasis is on 1960 to 1990 - as Coleman says, our teenage listening experiences are the most formative.

Many a music-lover would agree with Coleman that the loss of sight, or even a limb, would be preferable.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I'm a quarter of the way through and was wondering how long it would be for an analysis of the voice to appear. Now I know it's not going to appear. The stupid 'ant army' thing at the start of the book almost made me put it down. I should have done.

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