How I Write Album Reviews, Part 2

April 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

Read Part 1 here in case you missed it.

Last week I lambasted several common approaches to album-review writing that are ineffective at describing a great record’s glory. Today in part 2, I’ll describe more about where I’m coming from when I write, as well as some prompts for your own inspiration. It’s not enough that I discuss how NOT to write if I don’t offer a better alternative instead.

I’m very fortunate that a lot of the observations I make about my favorite records just come to me while I’m listening to them (frequently, on long train rides where you can listen to the whole thing without stopping). I hardly ever struggle to write reviews, and in a way it’s already written before I set pen to paper. And it really is pen to paper. I go analog when I write (fancy pen and book with quality paper) because it encourages me to make sure my writing is worthy of those materials. I even find that as I write one sentence, the next few start to formulate naturally before I’m done with it. It’s something that doesn’t happen as often as when I write on the computer from scratch. Yes, it means I have to write the review twice (once in pen and once to transcribe it electronically), but to me the quality control is worth it.

Obviously, you don’t have to do that. Plenty of writers will say they work better in front of a screen.

But whether you’re sitting in a bar or coffeeshop with your book or banging away at your laptop in your room at midnight, here are some prompts and some common topics I like to discuss if you’re at a loss where to start:

Where was I when I first heard this?

Did a friend lend it to you?

Does it bring you back to a period of history or a special time in your life?

Who were you in love with?

What were you struggling with?

Did the album cover catch your eye? Did the band say something unusual or thought-provoking in an interview?

Did you rediscover it after forgetting about it?

Where was the band? This is especially good if you’ve been listening to them for a while and you’re immersed in their discography.

How has their impact on you or your view of them changed?

Did they do anything differently? Any noteworthy lineup changes?

Did you catch them on tour? If so, what did they say about the record onstage when they talk to the audience?

Is it a concept record?

Experts only: What does it mean for both the band and it’s fans?

Bottom line here is that a fine record really is an experience, so you should describe it as such. Remember, you’re writing as a labor of love, so have fun with it!

Once I’ve decided where to start, my general approach that I believe separates HOM’s reviews from others takes hold. Two words, and two words only, are my guiding principle…

Build Up.

“What does that mean,” you ask?

A lot of critics are excellent writers, but will choose to use their talent to rip a release to pieces, spending more time pointing out every deficiency than on praising the good parts. I don’t like to do that, even if I think a record is subpar.

Let me give you an example. I once sat down with someone to give a first listen to the latest Pelican record (I was a new listener; she had been a fan for years).

Barely a minute had gone by when her commentary started:

“Recycled and crappy.”

“They should’ve changed up the riff 10 measures ago.”

“I can already tell this is going nowhere.”

And this was all before the first song had ended!

I get it. You don’t want to have the blinders on, be in awe of your band, and label it, “Best album ever!” after one spin. And you shouldn’t! But come on. Don’t take out that kind of jaded-ness on the band. If you’ve really tried and you just can’t, skip it and listen to something else. Maybe you’re just not in the mood.

Mind you, I’m NOT saying you should ignore parts that were subpar, or that you should refrain from expressing your opinion if you really think they missed the mark. This doesn’t mean you exaggerate or talk something up if it didn’t meet your expectations. Just strive to be fair and don’t do personal attacks. Judge it on its own merits and be honest.

When I write reviews for HOM, I tend to spend much more time discussing what they got right, and it’s especially important when discussing an underrated or oft-overlooked record in a band’s discography. That’s what I mean by “building up.”

You DO want your readers to listen to the album, don’t you?

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