Interview with 33 1/3 Series Editor David Barker

Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of music books is reminding music listeners why the album is still relevant.

Video may have killed the radio star, but the mp3 isn’t going to put the album on the endangered species list. At least not if Continuum has anything to say about it. At a time where the ubiquity of the iPod shuffle and file-sharing have revitalized the life of the mighty single, Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is reminding music listeners why the album is still relevant.

Each book in the series is dedicated exclusively to one album, ranging from obscure classics to more usual suspects by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Although the series didn’t set out to make a statement for the album’s longevity or to serve as an elegy to the form, series editor David Barker acknowledges that “in a strange way it’s become both those things. We’ve definitely caught people at the moment in time when there’s a certain nostalgia for the album format — although I don’t think it’s as doomed as many make it out.”

These pocket-size books redefine and describe some of the various soundtracks to our lives: they’re Cliffs Notes for the clueless, daily fortification for the initiated, as well as a timely introduction to the albums that for whatever reason have yet to hit your heavy rotation list. From the surly Velvet Underground and Nico to the lesser-known In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the books are rife with esoteric and engaging facts that’ll make you look smart when you recycle them in conversation.

For example, you can read up on David Bowie’s coke-induced paranoia during the recording of Low, a period that was accompanied by a fascination with Aleister Crowley and the Nazis. Also included in that volume is a breakdown of Bowie’s layered references to kabala, black magic, and Crowley in the lyrics to the song “Station to Station.”

The academically minded publisher Continuum traded in its school uniform for hipper gear back in 2003 when, inspired by a series of books they had published on contemporary novels, they switched the subject to music. Both series were conceptualized by Barker, who “thought it might be fun to apply that model to individual albums, but to let the writers have a lot more freedom.”

This philosophy is reflected in the diverse approaches the authors take to the albums they cover. The author’s personal relationship to the album grounds the narrative in some books (Sign ‘O’ the Times), while others focus on the music to the exclusion of all else (OK Computer). The text of OK Computer borders on the academic — it was written by a musicologist at Oxford University after all. Wildly different and vastly entertaining is the narrative in Velvet Underground and Nico that vividly recounts the elements of brilliance, arrogance, and luck that bred the album.

The “factional” novella written on The Band’s Music in the Big Pink has provided one of the most experimental narratives in the series so far — author John Niven recounts the true story of how the album came together via the fictional narrator, Greg Keltner. While real events provide the book’s framework, the social milieus documented within blends the line between reality and the author’s imagination.

But some fans aren’t interested in creative embellishments, they want the straight facts: “I’ve been genuinely surprised by the vitriolic reaction some people have had to the Music in the Big Pink novella,” says Barker. “It’s one of my favorite books in the series — I just find it very moving and wonderfully evocative. So the fact that a lot of Band fans have had such negative reactions to it has depressed me, really.”

With beloved albums such as these, there’s a fine line between didactic explanations and overanalysis. And even though In the Aeroplane Over the Sea author Kim Cooper is extremely conscious of not forcing her interpretations upon readers, at least one reader she spoke to skipped her track analysis out of fear that it would somehow mar the songs’ meanings. Still, the naysayers haven’t dissuaded Barker from allowing other authors to take on albums in daring ways. The lineup that was just announced for release in 2007 and 2008 includes a “cover book” of PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, which will feature a series of short stories written by Kate Schatz, with each story corresponding to a song on the album.

With the six books set for release this spring, including books on the seminal Daydream Nation and Dolittle, and the latest announcement of 21 more before the end of 2008, the collection is set to nearly double in size. The choice of albums covered has as much to do with the album as with the pitches received, and the list of forthcoming titles offers another eclectic mix. “We did try to mix it up a little, too, in terms of what we’ll be covering. I love the combination of (for example) Tom Waits, A Tribe Called Quest, Lucinda Williams, Celine Dion, The Magnetic Fields, and Throbbing Gristle. It’s not to everybody’s taste, but we’ll get some great little books out of it.”