Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jimmy Connors, Jonathan Sperber and Sarah Churchwell.

The Outsider: My Autobiography by Jimmy Connors

The no-holds-barred autobiography of the notorious, yet talented tennis star. The book charts his rise from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ to Grand Slam glory. It is an unflinching account of life at the top and his journey there which has divided critics.

Tim Adams at The Guardian is unimpressed: “The Outsider has little of the tortured introspection of the best example of the genre, Andre Agassi's Open, or the self-aware wit of McEnroe's Serious. In its place is an examination of a legendary American pugnaciousness, which veers often, authentically, into boorishness or sentimentality.”

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Lattman also compares the book to Agassi’s “groundbreaking” memoir. It does not fare well. Lattman contends that the book does no favours for Connors, doing nothing "to dispel his reputation as a narcissistic, selfish loner.” He goes on to quip that the book is “in many ways, like Connors himself: irreverent and amusing, but not very ­likable.”

Julian Hall at The Independent is more positive: “I guarantee that after reading Jimmy Connors' autobiography you will want to pick something up and smash it. A tennis ball to be precise, and in a good way, not in a fit of pique.” For Hall The Outsider is best described as “a conversational and occasionally coy memoir.”

Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

An account of the life of Karl Marx which seeks to place the revolutionary thinker in a human context and distance his humanity from the polemical machine that emerged from and surround his work.

Tristram Hunt, writing for The Guardian, worries that to “distance him from present controversies about globalisation and capitalism... risks a predominantly Atlanticist perspective.” Sperber places Marx in perspective as a journalist struggling with the intellectual trends and social issues of his time, a task which yields “a compelling and convincing account.”

A review in The Telegraph by Ben Wilson heralds Sperber’s book as “refreshingly free from the dogma and partisan passion which bedevilled discussions of the great man,” and goes on to praise the detail used by Sperber to animate Marx’s education, upbringing, development and love life, saying “Marx breathes in these pages.”

For Jonathan Freedland at The New York Times, the Marx who emerges from Sperber’s account “will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics.” Freedland feels that in contrast to his stature, the man himself is far from the “timeless Marx,” and speculates that were he alive today, Marx “would be a compulsive blogger, and picking Twitter fights with Andrew Sullivan and Naomi Klein.”

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

In this document of social and literary history, author Churchwell rests The Great Gatsby on its possible real-life underpinnings; the 1922 murder of a wealthy Episcopalian minister and his down-at-heels mistress. Critical opinions differ on whether this construction holds up.

In his appraisal for The London Review of Books, Thomas Powers remains skeptical. He writes that “Churchwell might have justified her approach in either of two ways; by telling the Hall-Mills story with full treatment of the human drama,” or by arguing convincingly that Fitzgerald followed the case. He cedes Churchwell neither point; of the first strategy, he says “she treats the case more like a running joke,” and of the second, he simply sees no strong argument to claim that Fitzgerald was paying attention and that her thesis is, at best, “a weak maybe.”

Writing for The Guardian, Robert McCrum decides that Churchwell’s literary investigation “has come closer than most to unpicking the enduring mystery of Fitzgerald and his evergreen masterpiece,” and further praises Careless People as “a glittering diamond of brevity less than 60,000 words long.” He cautions that “the problem with forging a cast-iron relationship between life and art is that it can become absurdly reductive.”

In his review for The Telegraph, however, Nicholas Blincoe says of Careless People that "it rewinds the years and allows the reader to appreciate again just how well he reflected his times." McCrum is ultimately drawn in by the literary values inherent in Churchwell’s storytelling, though, and decides that “Churchwell’s decision to link them would seem preposterous if it did not work: it underscores again the essential messiness of the times, while providing a narrative structure to her patchwork account of the age.” 

Connors autobiography does nothing "to dispel his reputation as a narcissistic, selfish loner." Photography: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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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.