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. The evidence really boils down to the fact that lots of albums were released and James Acaster liked many of them. And the thing about the comic approach is that you can say it was all a joke anyway, when the background of personal trauma and the dedication to 2016’s music, all suggests that the premise of this book should not be dismissed as a joke. 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.