Perfect Review Whatever

Perfect Sound Whatever is James Acaster’s account of his life in 2017, a year of stress, both personally and professionally, from which he took refuge in hundreds of albums released the previous year. As he accumulated these albums he built evidence for the humorous assertion that 2016 was the greatest year in music ever. But the humour hides a deadly serious intent to persuade you that 2016 really was the greatest year in music ever.

As chance would have it, I spent 2016 working my way through Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums of all time, a project culminating in a list of sixty favourite tracks posted on my blog. So I was always going to love the idea for Perfect Sound Whatever. But did I end up agreeing with this claim that 2016 was the greatest year in music? In answer I would like to mention the time when James has a late night snack in New York. He buys lasagna, heats it up, tucks in with a serving spoon and is disappointed. Later, drunk and desperate he turns to the now cold meal and discovers a magical transformation in its cold creaminess, with crispy bits around the edges. A few days after this gastronomic transfiguration, he tries to recreate the experience with another portion of the same lasagna, using the same oven and the same fridge, only to cook up a disgusting, chilly mess. The one variable in this experiment was the fact that James wasn’t drunk the second time. So, the moral of this tale is that there are two things to consider in judging the music of 2016 – the music and the person listening to it. James was going through a turbulent period in his life, and times of trouble can bring with them a kind of hypersensitivity. I recall very clearly listening to Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick when my father was seriously ill. Every tumbling note from Ian Anderson’s flute sounded like bird song. The Victorians used to say that hunger is the best sauce, and hunger for comfort is sometimes better than Hi-Fi when it comes to music. I think something similar happened to James. Sharpened awareness collided with a lot of good music, which turned out to be as delicious as that first serving of cold lasagna. But was that meal objectively delicious, or subjectively tasty? As George Harrison said in Savoy Truffle, “you know that what you eat you are, but what tastes sweet now turns so sour.”

So I don’t agree that 2016 was the best year in music ever. But my reservations don’t take away from James Acaster’s musical journey and what it meant to him. James, as most of us do at one time or another, felt lost and alone in 2017, and in those times music can be a saviour. From humanity’s earliest days, music has been a way of bringing people together, to work as a team. We see that in all kinds of music from sea shanties and marching tunes, to delirious sing-alongs with Blur at Glastonbury. Of course one lot of marchers can clash with another, so it makes sense to join not with one exclusive crew or marching band, but with the music of humanity in general; and James is very good at throwing himself across all kinds of musical frontiers. Along with hilarious accounts of wretched interactions with healthcare professionals, and disastrous dinner dates with sociopathic women, this musical eclecticism was the most attractive aspect of the book for me – a welcome antidote to the present political situation.

James was an occasionally grumpy, but mostly charming companion who thanked me for reading his book on its final page. The only thing I would suggest is that he is the sort of person who when in the grip of an enthusiasm is affronted if the world does not share his passion. There is a generosity here, and something more difficult, a sense that James’s experience should be everybody else’s. Perhaps the ability to go on your journey, whilst letting others go on theirs, is an equally generous approach. I think, to be fair, there is an acknowledgment of this in the book’s title, Perfect Sound Whatever, taken from a song by Jeff Rosenstock. A perfect sound can also be ordinary or imperfect. No one person, and no one time, has a monopoly on perfection.

Perfect Sound Whatever is an extremely funny and often moving book, with great suggestions if your music listening has become stale and in need of a shake up. I really enjoyed it.

The Nuances Of Seeing The World In Black And White

Terry Pratchett’s Dodger tells the story of a Victorian tosher, a practitioner of a now lost profession, which involved searching through London’s sewers for money or valuable items dropped in the streets above. The book is loosely based on historical reality, with our tosher hero meeting many famous Victorian celebrities – Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, the civil engineer Joseph Bazelgette – Pratchett taking historical liberties to get all of these people together at the same London house party.

I think the book was most interesting in those sections that make you think about truth. This sounds academic and high falutin’, but really is better thought of in the heated context of tabloid news. At one point, Dodger, trying to smarten himself up for a meeting with his new friend Charles Dickens, goes to a barber for a shave. Unfortunately he chooses Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street as his barber. Sweeney turns out to be a former soldier suffering from PTSD, who has killed a number of his clients. Dodger, realising that the man is deranged, relieves him of his razor just as the police arrive. Dodger sees that Sweeney is ill rather than evil, but Charles Dickens in his role as journalist, explains how a nuance-averse public likes to see the world in black and white. So when Dickens writes the incident up in The Morning Chronicle, Dodger becomes a hero to Sweeney’s villain.

Charles Dickens, of course, portrayed a character called the Artful Dodger in his novel Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger lives with Fagin, a Jewish man who runs a group of youthful pickpockets. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger also lives with a Jewish man, the clever, artistic, cultured Solomon. So what’s going on there? Perhaps Pratchett’s quiet message is that the real Charles Dickens would have had to rewrite events somewhat for public consumption, just as he did in that imagined scene with Sweeney Todd. The real Dickens would have to make an ambivalent Dodger, who finds valuables people are silly enough to lose, into pickpocket Artful Dodger, who is much more clearly a criminal. The real Dickens might also have to work with a prejudiced, stereotypical view of Jewish people, so that Dodger’s Jewish mentor, a decent, kind and cultured man on the run from European prejudice, becomes miserly, sneaky Fagin.

This was the aspect of Dodger I found most interesting, the idea of truth filtered through the sort of writing that people will accept. Even the book’s modern narrative voice, seemingly immune to the prejudice of the past, has its limitations. This voice is far away from the events it describes, and muddles those events to get, for example, famous Victorians at the same party. At one point Buckingham Palace, seen through the eyes of light-fingered Dodger, becomes a “target rich environment,” a jarringly modern phrase. So this Pratchett narrative voice is just another point of view, not the truth.

I enjoyed all these thoughtful elements of the book. Less compelling was the plot, particularly in the second half, when it becomes a tale of derring-do in pursuit of justice and the love of a good woman. Overall, Dodger is a kind of Victorian melodrama meets modern YA adventure, infused with fascinating reflections on how people filter the world through what they read.