Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Philip Ball, Sebastian Faulks and Francesca Beauman.

Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball

In this week's New Statesman, John Gray enjoys Philip Ball's "light and graceful prose", which provides an "absorbing" cultural history of "anthropoeia" -- the project of artificially creating human life. Ultimately though, Gray finds the book's argument "self-defeating" as he attempts to "demythologise our thinking about humankind's place in the scheme of things", replacing one metaphysical myth with another.

Writing in the Guardian, Manjit Kumar praises Ball as a "skilled practitioner of the book-length essay", who can also be "wonderfully succinct". Ball's "thoughtful" book presents the reader with a "fascinating and impressive cultural history of anthropoeia".

Jim Endersby in the Telegraph concludes that the book is both "beautifully written" and "deeply intelligent", tracing a complex subject matter with "exemplary care and clarity."

Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson discusses Sebastian Faulks's examination of literary theory in relation to the novel, which accompanies a new BBC series. Seeking to "kill off" the modern practice of biographical criticism, Faulks falters and merely offers much "bloggish rambling", disastrously mixing "shot-in-the-dark literary history" with "unsubstantiated" critical assertions, so that "the most frequent sight in the book is of an author out of his depth" in this "spirited, if not exactly eloquent" work.

According to Katy Guest in the Independent, the book "works well as a history of the novel and its uneasy relationship with society", but Faulks's attempts to "diagnose characters" are misguided. When Faulks gives a "robust and lengthy legal defence" of Alec d'Urberville against a rape conviction, Guest doubts whether this constitutes a "useful form of literary criticism".

Writing in the Financial Times, John Sutherland finds that, though "Faulks's easy-goingness is one of his book's charms", the unfortunate inclusion of "unnecessary blemishes", "too many bloopers" and authorial "looseness" disfigure it. Drawing attention to a glaring mistake about plot detail made by Faulks in his discussion of Austen's Emma, Sutherland declares that "any A-level candidate committing this kind of elementary error could kiss goodbye to Oxbridge". Nevertheless, he concedes that it remains "readable, entertaining and well conceived".

Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: a History of the Lonely Hearts Ad 1695-2010 by Francesca Beauman

Francesca Beauman's history of matrimonial advertisements fails to live up to its promise, writes Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer. Most enjoyable are the "quirky snippets" from 18th-century pamphlets, some of which show that "the list of desires and requests was dominated by financial rather than romantic considerations". An example from 1759 demonstrates an "extreme" mercenary motive: "A young man wants a wife with two or three hundred pounds; or the money will do without the wife." (Cadwalladr notes that this gambit worked and "he got the money"). However, as Beauman examines the ad in contemporary times, an unsatisfactory "glibness" prevails and the "narrative is patched together."

Contrarily, Melissa Katsoulis in the Telegraph discovers a "perfect little history" of the "surprisingly long story" of the lonely hearts ad, a "lively account" full of "fascinating" detail. Katsoulis notes, however, that as Beauman approaches the present day, she is reluctant to "delve into the twilight world of adult contact mags that many readers would find of considerable academic value, especially if accompanied by illustrations".

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.