Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

January 29, 2019

[Q] Since early on in your writing, you've made explicit distinctions between "Major" and "Minor" artists. Can you elaborate on what, for you, makes an artist fall into either category? Is there a third category of "Non-Artist" or something similar? And can someone move between them, falling or rising? I think of PJ Harvey, who you deemed major back in the '90s, but since Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea doesn't seem to have done work that's impressed you very much. -- Patrick Brown, Denver

[A] Major and minor aren't mathematically precise terms (and also not terms I'd set apart by capitalizing). Nor do I use them in any consciously systematic way, though they're the kind of trope a critic can slip into unawares. Certainly many artists who arrive as major lose their mojo--run out of conviction, find themselves incapable of freshening up ideas and virtues that once took us by storm. But since you mentioned Harvey, I looked back at those reviews and saw that with her I'd imbued the term with more meaning than is generally advisable but in her case makes sense. Harvey has put out two records I gave a full positive review since 2000's superb Stories From the City. But as regards one of them I also say she isn't major anymore, because she's lost so much emotional generosity. To put it another way, as of 2011's pretty good if overpraised Let England Shake she's on her way to becoming a crank. And as of 2016's Hope Six Demolition Project--which because she's such a talent still merits a *--she's rendering moral judgments there's no internal evidence she has any right to. I hope she recovers.

[Q] I noticed No Age's Snares Like a Haircut was ranked outside your top 20 even though you initially gave it an A. Assuming, based on the ranking, it's no longer an A record, what changed your mind? -- Stephen Roberts, Newfoundland

[A] Let's not get anal here, guys, and I do mean guys--in my experience, women just don't peruse lists in this kind of detail. Finalizing the Dean's List is a job--it's anything but tossed off, maintained throughout the year and then substantially revised on the basis of close to 100 percent relistening in December. But although my grades are remarkably stable--most critics' opinions fluctuate more--that doesn't mean they're set in stone: quite often A's dip to A minus and vice versa and sometimes A minuses fall off the Dean's List altogether. As it happens, the No Age album was one I bought early, found kind of dead and neglected, was surprised when it rose into high A minus territory as I prepared the relevant Expert Witness, decided at the last minute had to be a full A despite my early misgivings, put aside again, but in December found resisted enough to re-entry that I concluded was only a high A minus after all. In the future, as I relisten some more, my Dean's List responses and judgments will shift some more--last time I played the Hinds I thought it was probably too high on the list.

[Q] How often does it happen that you want to review an album but keep changing your mind about what grade to give it so you never publish a review? Is indecisiveness or changing your mind about whether/how much you like an album a frequent occurrence for you? -- Jinkinson Smith, Atlanta

[A] The basic answer to this question is never, but in part that's because the "want" in "want to review an album" is a self-fulfilling concept. Basically, the only albums I "want to review" are albums I like a lot. It's circular. It is true, however, that when an artist I've praised in the last makes an album I feel is weak (Robyn, say), I'll try harder to see where it stands on the */**/*** scale, if indeed it does, and once in a great while I'll begin to hear more compelling virtues in it as I do. Sometimes, too, I'll give up on a well-reviewed record only to return to it again later when the critical consensus gathers mass, especially if the album would meld well with something else I'm writing about. That happened not long ago with Soccer Mommy, which I thought would make a good conceptual fit with the Mitski I'd put off because I thought that despite its evident value (A-? B+? ***? wasn't sure) conceptualizing Be the Cowboy was going to be a challenge. In the end, the Soccer Mommy album I'd put aside after multiple plays in the spring turned out to sound about as good--better, actually--in a complementary way I thought made for an EW that hung together especially well as a whole. I don't require that of myself, but it's nice when it happens.

[Q] I remember Robyn's previous work has won your very optimistic opinions, but her new album Honey didn't appear in your Dean's List of 2019. Have you listened to it? I'd love to hear your thoughts. -- Yang, China

[A] I love Robyn, as the essay entitled "Dancing on Her Own" in Is It Still Good to Ya? explains at length. But Honey's huzzahs mystify me. The Robyn of 2010 was some kind of miraculous songbird, while the songwriting on the mildly charming Honey doesn't approach what she seemed to roll out so effortlessly on three successive albums eight years ago. There'll be an Honorable Mention sooner or later. But meanwhile let me provide you with a tracklist that made one great album of the three, which I left off the book version for formatting reasons. I called it Robyrt's Robyn. 1. Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do; 2. None of Dem; 3. Dancehall Queen; 4. Dancing on My Own [Radio Version]; 5. Get Myself Together; 6. Hang With Me; 7. Call Your Girlfriend; 8. Stars 4-Ever; 9. Indestructible; 10. Cry When You Get Older; 11. Include Me Out; 12. Fembot; 13. U Should Know Better; 14. Criminal Intent; 15. We Dance to the Beat; 16. Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa.

[Q] Because of a lengthy work commute, these days I do most of my listening within the cramped environment of a Toyota Prius C. After sixty years of exposure to loud music both live and recorded I'm starting to notice a little high-end hearing loss, and as someone who listens to even more music than I, I was wondering if you have similar issues, and what, if any, precautions you take to protect your hearing. -- Jeff Callahan, Flat Rock, North Carolina

[A] I haven't had a serious hearing test in 20 or 25 years and should schedule one when I'm done with my arthritic knee and my aging prostate and the elbow I fucked up when I was 10. But last time I did have one, expecting the worst because I was still going to a lot of live music, the audiologist told me my ears were exceptionally sharp. I concluded later that this was partly because I did so much close listening--deciphering lyrics, distinguishing between instruments--that my score on a test that worked by requiring me to register shifts in volume and pitch reflected learned skills as well as physical aptitude. That said, I have none of the usual old-man hearing symptoms--playing the TV loud, not registering my wife's questions, etc. And the fact is that most of the live music I attend isn't especially loud and never was--if it was, I usually stuffed tissue paper in my ears. Similarly, I almost never play music loud at home and never block out ambient sound when I use earphones (never buds). Thinking about it as I write, I can detect a very slight ambient ringing in my ears. Testing them would be a good idea. But they've held up pretty well. I can think of two music critics in my cohort who need hearing aids and never want to join them.

[Q] Hey Robert! I play in Deer Tick and just wanted to thank you for all of the thoughtful reviews. We are fans of your words. -- Ian O'Neill, Providence

[A] Just for the record, as someone who never imagines musicians should be his friends--it happens occasionally and friends are too precious to turn down out of an excess of caution, but it can get sticky--I really appreciate it when this kind of thing happens. Note that I dismissed two of Deer Tick's three most recent albums, though I liked the other one a lot. Thanks, Ian--I'm glad you care, and glad you can tell I always try to tell the truth as I hear it.