Reviews

Songbook by Nick Hornby

Mitch Pugh

A glorious and long overdue celebration of popular music.


Songbook

Publisher: McSweeney's Books
Length: 147
Price: $26.00 (US)
Author: Nick Hornby
US publication date: 2002-12
Amazon
"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."
� Nick Hornby

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.