Artist: Best Coast
Album: California Nights
Critic: Sam Moore
Publication: Drowned in Sound, 2015
Writing Disorders: Ambiguity Sickness
Sam, on my menu bar there’s a tab called “Writing Disorders.” I wrote it when I realized that most flaws in poorly written music reviews could be distilled down to a few bad habits. Let’s talk about the one called ambiguity sickness.
Folks will show that sickness in a couple of ways. First, they can write things that ping profound on the outside but ring hollow on the inside like “an enjoyable album that asks few questions and gives few answers.” Or they can do what you did: hedge strong statements with words like “maybe,” “almost,” or “perhaps.”
Let’s talk about “perhaps.” You’ve got a fetish for “perhaps,” Sam:
“…something perhaps lost in the quicker, chord-led numbers”
“perhaps the most remarkable moment”
“it perhaps should have opened the record”
“but perhaps the most promising of all…”
“its placing on the record (8/12) is perhaps intentional”
Three of those came from your last paragraph — your “conclusion,” since you wrote an essay for English class here instead of a spirited personal opinion. Normally conclusions are for confident summations of argument, not for waddling around with your pants down. And “perhaps” wasn’t even the whole bag:
“maybe 15 or so years too late”
“it almost determinedly proves”
“they could almost be accused of plagiarizing themselves”
It “almost determinedly proves”…so it doesn’t determinedly prove. They “could almost be accused”…so they couldn’t be accused. Sam, you’re not going to convince many readers when you keep admitting you have no clue what you’re arguing. And it’s not like this weak sauce was slathered on fat buns of fine writing. Look at the second sentence of your introduction and note what I highlighted:
“Led by the charming Bethany Cosentino (her Twitter account is worth a follow if you’re into eavesdropping on friendly exchanges with Hayley from Paramore) and ably assisted on guitar by the much quieter Bobb Bruno, you might remember their 2010 emergence, spearheaded by their carefree, California dreamin’ debut Crazy for You.”
That’s a long, confusing sentence. Eighteen words separate two people on either side of the word “and.” And for what? So you can say that one musician on Twitter interacts with another musician on Twitter? So you can imply that it’s so much more important than naming the second half of a two-person band? That’s confusing and disrespectful.
I didn’t get the impression you even listened to this album, Sam. When you weren’t waffling, you were shoveling tangents onto your intro, frittering away space on describing how others view this band and their past releases, how other people’s opinions have been divided on their music and the singer’s lyrics. Even in the midst of giving “your” opinion, you still shoveled:
“there’s a nagging feeling that…California Nights isn’t going to blow too many people away with its mostly familiar-feeling content”
Instead of daydreaming about what others thought or might think, why not just write what YOU thought? Isn’t that the whole point of music reviews, to give opinions, YOUR opinions? You don’t have to wait for your turn to speak in a music review — the whole thing is YOUR TURN. Otherwise what’s the point? To preserve the historical record in case an artistic apocalypse wipes out music but spares the clutzy descriptions of it? That’s a depressing future.
One more thing, Sam. You spent an awful long time on perceived weakness in Best Coast’s lyrics. You called them “largely meaningless” and asked readers to “stop cringing for a minute,” quoting some lines for evidence. Critics seem to labor under the assumption that simply transcribing someone’s lyrics and printing them in quotes or italics makes their existence as “good” or “bad” poetry self-evident. I think that’s baloney, not only because most music critics are lackluster writers themselves but because art is neutered when it’s cut off from the intended sensory environment. I don’t think Courtney Barnett describing a house looks any more profound than Bethany Cosentino describing her California nights when they’re transcribed without context, or that Kanye’s raps blow Towkio’s raps out of the water on paper. It’s the delivery, the timbre, the vocal swell with the surrounding music that makes them memorable or relatable, not the words alone.
Imagine if writers went about describing the other musicians in bands that same way. Say I wrote this about a guitarist:
Her stunning “E, A, F#, F#, E, F#; G, B, B, C#” riff played affrettando as “quarter, eighth, sixteenth, sixteenth, eighth, dotted quarter; half, quarter, eighth, eighth” is the greatest thing ever.
I don’t think that makes “quality” obvious. If anything, it makes music sound staler and more ridiculous. And since you already muddied your argument by burying your own voice in other opinions, I think a better solution would have been to write how certain lyrics affected YOU, the listener that matters here, not the strength or weaknesses of the words printed naked by themselves. Did lyrics about loss touch you because of a breakup or passing of a relative? Did words about fleeting summer love stir your own poignant memories? Maybe I’m in the minority here, Sam, but reading a writer as a human being affected by the music he loves or unmoved by the music he doesn’t is a far more rewarding experience than reading what you wrote here.
So what’s the cure for ambiguity sickness? That’s for you to discover, but start with some planks. They’re good for the core, good for the confidence. You need to find a stronger voice, Sam.