Recently, a colleague on a mailing list noted something about a Pitchfork review. For a recent reissue of Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill album, the record was anointed with an 8.4 rating. However, the same record got a 7.2 rating from Pitchfork when it originally came out in 2004. What’s up with that? Similarly, each new edition of Rolling Stone‘s record guides has starred ratings which give some older records a better or worse rating than they’ve had in previous guides. It’s an old problem in the review biz we’re talking about here.
First off, everyone changes how they feel about certain records over time. A record that we’ve loved years ago might be meaningless to us now and similarly, a record that we scoffed at might now hold a special significance for us. Also, some records might vex us a little as we go hot and cold on them- for me, that happens with Wire’s first two albums, where one day I love Pink Flag and another day I think that Chairs Missing is a much better record.
Another thing to consider is that music/social history has a way of changing the whole perspective about an artist or a record. Does everyone who listens to Smith feel the same way about him before and after his death? Similarly, does that effect the work of Nick Drake or Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, not to mention a guitarist named James Marshall or a Texas singer named Janis or a Brooklyn rapper named Biggie? Even something like a car commercial can lead people to re-evaluate the career of Nick Drake- when Volkswagen used “Pink Moon” in a commercial, his sales soared way beyond what they had ever been before and many new fans suddenly took notice. Also, think of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” — the song (about a terrible flood) was part of his 1974 album Gold Old Boys, but it took on special meaning after Hurricane Katrina.
Of course, a review, even for a major publication, is in the end one writer’s opinion, even though by default, it stands in for the decision of the publication itself. One of the rare exceptions was when a controversial record would come out (i.e. Coltrane back in the ’60s or Liz Phair’s major label debut reviewed by three writers in the Village Voice), more than one reviewer would weigh in. Most publications don’t have the space/pay to afford them that luxury anymore, sad to say. Nevertheless, how often do you find that in online publications and zines otherwise?
It would be nice and refreshing for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and other places to acknowledge their changing attitudes towards certain records but then again, it ain’t fun to acknowledge any kind of problem with authoritative judgments like that, is it? (one exception is Robert Christgau, who’s rewritten reviews in his record guides, noting his original grade/rating and occasionally discussing his different viewpoint)
It also leads to my point that despite having some good writers there (i.e. Philip Sherburne) and the fact that they’ve built themselves up well into a powerful part of the music media biz, Pitchfork is known for single digit integers, aka their record rating system. As such, they might wanna be careful when handing out numbers.