Listening to music and seeing faces in its fire

31 Songs

31 Songs
by Nick Hornby

I love Nick Hornby. And this collection of his essays about music might be Hornby at his best. Because when it comes to music, Hornby is a true fan, but not the kind of fan who knows it all and lectures on the roots of all music; he’s a fan in that he loves what he loves with great enthusiasm, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

As the title suggests, these essays centre around a list of 31 songs. Not necessarily Hornby’s favourite 31 songs, though they are for the most part among his favourites. Instead he has chosen songs that give him something to write about. So his selection of “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five gives us an essay about pop lyrics and whether it matters that most pop lyrics aren’t the stuff of great poetry (a subject of great interest to me; in fact I wrote my dissertation on it). I was happy to find, as a fan of Ben Folds, that Hornby’s decision on this matter doesn’t affect his belief that “Smoke” is “lyrically perfect”, and he adds a fascinating postscript:

“It’s possible that this sort of craft goes unnoticed because ‘Smoke’ is just a song, in the way that ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Something’ weren’t just songs. The young men who wrote them were also, unwittingly or not, in the process of changing the world…Their songs have therefore become imbued with all sorts of magic that doesn’t properly belong to them, and we can’t see the songs as songs anymore.”

I found some essays better than others, just as some are more personal than others. There’s a very touching essay centred around “Puff the Magic Dragon” because Hornby’s autistic son responds positively to that song, which is a huge deal when you have a child so severely autistic that he only has three or four words at the age of ten.

Hornby does sometimes contradict himself. For instance, he accuses others of being unnecessarily bleak about the state of pop music today and then makes similar dismissive statements himself. His opening essay says that this is not about songs that are connected with a certain memory, and he’s actually pretty harsh about that as a reason for picking out a song, and yet at least two of the essays are exactly that. I don’t agree with all Hornby’s statements (it’s possibly a product of the time of his writing, but I don’t think the age of the Internet has narrowed musical styles, I think it has widened and democratised them wonderfully), and I don’t always share his taste, but then that’s not the point anyway.

“This book isn’t predicated on you and me sharing the ability to hear the same things; in other words, it isn’t music criticism. All I’m hoping here is that you have equivalents, that you spend a lot of time listening to music and seeing faces in its fire.”

As someone who does indeed listen to a lot of music and loves that moment of being transported by a good song, I really really enjoyed this book. I liked that it demands to be read while listening to music, ideally pop music, which is something I tend not to do, to avoid distraction. Even though Hornby is older than me and we don’t entirely share our music taste, I felt compelled to make a playlist from this book, not of the 31 songs themselves and not of every song mentioned at all (that would be a long playlist) but instead of every song he enthuses about. I used Spotify, so not all the songs were available, but I’m enjoying the results. If anyone’s interested in listening, the playlist is here. But even if you don’t like the look of the song selection (and there is a lot of Rod Stewart on there, I’ll grant you) I still highly recommend this book to any pop/rock music lover.

“‘Caravan’ isn’t a song about life or death, as far as I can tell: it’s a song about merry gypsies and campfires and turning up your radio and stuff. But in its long, vamped passage right before the climax, when the sax weaves gently in and out of the cute, witty, neo-chamber strings, while the piano sprinkles bluesy high notes over the top, Morrison’s band seems to isolate a moment somewhere between life and its aftermath, a big, baroque entrance hall of a place where you can stop and think about everything that has gone before.”

Published 2003 by Penguin. Published in the US as Songbook.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.