Early 1990s, northwest corner of Nebraska.
That’s when and where I grew up, when and where I started selecting my own music. The first part was unavoidable, the second part surprisingly difficult. Unless you’re from an equally empty part of the country, you might not understand just how hard learning about new music was in that time and place. I’ll tell you quickly.
The music store nearest my hometown was 60 miles away. The next closest music store was in a mall another 200 miles down the road.If you wanted to buy Illmatic in 1994—which I very much did—you either drove or waited for it to show up in the Columbia House catalog where, finally, you could order it for something like $17.95 and wait a few more weeks. Outside of Omaha or Lincoln, there was almost certainly fewer than 20 copies of Nas’s debut album available at retail in my home state.
This environment made music magazines—Spin and Rolling Stone mostly but occasionally The Source—very important to me. This was how I learned that Nas dropped the rap album of the year in 1994, that Pavement and Portishead existed, that everything wasn’t always so hard to attain elsewhere. Album reviews were everything.
Until they became nothing.
Eventually I left, went to college, moved to the East Coast for grad school. I went to the world I’d been reading about and the reading became less vital. Read music reviews—or anything for that matter—long enough and you’ll start to notice the patterns, the same turns of phrase, the common syntax, the shortcuts taken to meet expectations of how a music review should read.
Once you notice these things, there’s no forgetting. Every album review started to sound the same. Reading them became unbearable. Despite the carefully wrangled and wrought efforts of reviewers trying to describe a sound—“gone are the cheap garage guitars of Band X’s debut album, traded in for a synthesizer and a Swollen Pickle resulting in a sweaty stew of New Gaze/Shoe Wave anthems”—the discussion of music didn’t resemble the experience of listening to music at all.
Until Lou Reed decided to write about Yeezus. Allow me to be the 10,000th person in the past two days to tell you to go read it.
The appeal here is more than just the critically adored rocker reviewing the critically adored rapper, though that’s certainly a good enough pitch on its own. The real values is in how Reed talks about the new Kanye West album.
Here’s how he describes the album as a whole early on in the review:
People say this album is minimal. And yeah, it’s minimal. But the parts are maximal…Such an enormous amount of work went into making this album. Each track is like making a movie.
Plain and good. It takes a musician, and probably an accomplished one at that, to truly make a statement like that ring true. Reed offers that insider’s perspective throughout. Here’s another example:
Still, I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they’ll think it’s beautiful. When I did Metal Machine Music, New York Times critic John Rockwell said, “This is really challenging.” I never thought of it like that. I thought of it like, “Wow, if you like guitars, this is pure guitar, from beginning to end, in all its variations. And you’re not stuck to one beat.” That’s what I thought. Not, “I’m going to challenge you to listen to something I made.” I don’t think West means that for a second, either. You make stuff because it’s what you do and you love it.
But this review really starts landing punches when Reed can’t help but share his experience listening to the album. He writes that the strings outro to “Guilt Trip”, barely 20 seconds long, is “so beautiful, it makes me so emotional, it brings tears to my eyes.” The guitar solo at the end of “Hold My Liquor” is described as “devastating, absolutely majestic” (emphasis his). Lyrically, “New Slaves” just elicits a “wow, wow, wow” (again, emphasis his).
So what makes all of that fairly plain language better than the most expertly crafted and considered critical sentence I used to rely so heavily upon? It’s that Reed simultaneously seems like he hasn’t thought about the album at all while having clearly thought about it a great deal. There’s room in this review for ideas and emotion and that’s a rare thing.
I didn’t expect to like Yeezus, but I loved it on the first listen. It’s divisive but divisive in the way that only cements it as a classic.
Lou Reed’s review of that album, however, might be even better.