Waxing on tracks

Nick Hornby gives readers new ways of hearing old favorites.

Obviously, novelist Nick Hornby loves pop music and understands music collectors. He's also no slouch at writing. But his combined powers still aren't sufficient to make an exceptional book about music itself, or so Songbook would appear to show.

Hornby's 1995 novel High Fidelity brilliantly used record collecting to explore how people fetishize in order to avoid the messiness of life. As almost anyone who has ever lovingly slid a rare album into a plastic sleeve knows, High Fidelity nailed that culture perfectly. So it was a natural idea for McSweeney's Books to commission Hornby to write about his favorite songs, the result of which was first published in a limited-edition volume last year and is now reprinted for mass consumption with five new essays.

In the introduction, Hornby asserts that Songbook is not a book of music criticism. Instead, he sets out to write about the ways songs have touched his life, working these experiences hard for greater meaning.

Smart move. Hornby's manna-generating lies closer to observation than analysis. The best essays here are the most personal — the one, for instance, on how Gregory Isaacs' reggae cover of "Puff the Magic Dragon" garners the intense interest of Hornby's autistic son.

Still, the fruits of his observations too often wither when set against the canon of pop-music criticism, such as it is. When discussing Ben Folds' "Smoke" he notes that music doesn't spur social change any longer, something noticed by Robert Christgau a decade ago. Musing on Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker," Hornby bemoans how in our growing sophistication we forget that rock music is all about simple direct pleasures — the late Lester Bangs' lifetime beat. About Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Outside Your Window?," he even drops that hoary platitude of how the "best music connects to the soul, not the brain." At least he didn't opine that music is "food for the soul."

Music critic heavyweights, like the stylistically constipated Christgau and the hyperbolic Greil Marcus, could nick some lessons from Songbook on how to more gracefully stage their ideas. But what they understand — and what Hornby misses — is that a book about pop music should define some moment in the form's turmoil of styles. Short of that, it should point the way to new music, or at least to new ways of hearing old favorites. Songbook struggles on these counts, instead simply reading like an exceptionally well-written e-mail from a music-loving mate. Pleasant, though hardly compelling — except to those completing a personal collection of Hornby titles.

Joab Jackson writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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