“A couple of times a year I make myself a tape to play in the car, a tape full of all the new songs I’ve loved over the previous few months, and every time I finish one I can’t believe that there’ll be another. Yet there always is, and I can’t wait for the next one; you only need a few hundred more things like that, and you’ve got a life worth living.”
There’s a long list of things wrong with popular music, from the greed of the power players in the industry to the corporate control of radio to the derivative and feckless material that makes up an increasingly alarming amount of major label releases. It’s enough to make one feel like there’s no point to any of it.
Then along comes Nick Hornby with this slender, unassuming book to reassemble pop music’s heart and soul. He envisions a world in which songs appear almost as if by some immaculate conception, their visceral powers bordering on the Divine, and he holds them up (from “I’m Like a Bird” to “Pissing in a River”) for all to see without shame. In an age when it’s hip to smugly scoff at notions like an immortal soul or unifying human consciousness, Hornby embraces it all — and Rod Stewart, too. The result is Songbook, a glorious and long overdue celebration of popular music.
Hornby, of course, is probably best known for another book with music at its heart. The novel and then film High Fidelity, in many ways, is the antithesis to this collection. While Rob and his record store pals were unabashed music snobs, in Songbook Hornby seems to take aim at that very belief system. Dylan-devotion, for instance, is deemed anti-music, something that reinforces the idea that “the heart doesn’t count, only the head matters.” Conversely, the British author marvels at his ability to continually fall in love with the harmless, dreamy and ultimately disposable nature of the three-minute pop song.
The songs Hornby, who was enlisted to write this collection of essays by fellow author and McSweeney’s Books editor Dave Eggers, highlights vary from the usual suspects (The Beatles, Dylan, Van Morrison) to the criminally obscure (Mark Mulcahy, Ian Drury) to the odd and surprising (Nelly Furtado, Gregory Isaacs, The Velvettes). Yet, Hornby meshes them together seamlessly. He moves comfortably and without major tonal shifts from Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” to Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” to Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” In this world, all three deserve their place on the ultimate mixed tape.
In the section on “Thunder Road,” Hornby claims he has listened to this song more than any other in his life — estimating the total number of spins at more than 1,500. And while the song is arguably far from the best he’s ever heard, its “overwrought” both lyrically and musically, it has somehow endured the test of time. Hornby, of course, is not alone.
“Thunder Road” has always had sort of mythic quality about it for American men of a certain age, disposition and regional affiliation. But Hornby, who is British, sees past the histrionics, clichés and cars and identifies its elegiac yet conflicting qualities:
When it comes down to it, I suppose that I too believe that life is momentous and sad but not destructive of all hope, and maybe that makes me a self-dramatizing depressive, or maybe it makes me a happy idiot, but either way, “Thunder Road” knows how I feel and who I am, and that, in the end, is one of the consolations of art.
Hornby’s insightful analysis of the Boss’ classic is followed by a song that predominated Top-40 radio just a few years ago and came via the newest member of the ever-growing ranks of the one-hit wonders. Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” may have garnered a Grammy nomination but the singer was hardly a critical darling. Yet, in the hands of Hornby, “Bird” becomes the epitome of what makes pop music so great. With its “dreamy languor” and “bruised optimism,” the song, even with its considerable limitations, is in many ways a “small miracle,” Hornby says — a few months ago it didn’t exist and now it does.
The collection by no means claims to be an encyclopedia of popular music or even the author’s own “best of” collection. It demonstrates considerable bias (two sections on the band “Teenage Fanclub,” for instance, stick out), yet whether getting heady about the Godly presence on the second verse of Rufus Wainwright’s “One Man Guy” or assaulting the “pop snob’s dismissal” of Jackson Browne, Hornby’s chatty prose can rejuvenate even the sourest of pop fans. For all its wrongs, Hornby makes a convincing argument that music’s infinite possibilities are worth exalting.