Tom Gatti’s new anthology has all the hallmarks of a great playlist—the big hitters, the slow burners, the randomness of the selection, the relinquishing of control, the ones you never heard before, the ones forgotten by time. Starting with a superb introduction by Gatti...Long Players is informative and entertaining, charting the evolution of music formats over the past century, while giving glimpses of the cultural predilections and personal lives of the various contributors. Like a book equivalent of Desert Island Discs, the joy is in discovering what celebrated authors choose as their favourite music. The answers are considered, colourful and frequently surprising ... Those contributions that stand out have clarity of expression, something that can be hard to do when describing an aural form ... In this pandemic-riddled age, Long Players harks to good times past and better ones to come, through that most universal of languages—music.
Subjects range from Mozart to Ms Dynamite and the further one gets from the canon, the more enlivening it is. There’s something charmingly idiosyncratic about Lionel Shriver’s passion for the film soundtracks of Mark Knopfler or Rachel Kushner’s urgent sales pitch for the Gun Club’s fourth album. Ironically for a book about albums, Long Players is one to dip into rather than absorb in one sitting. As the subtitle suggests, there’s a heavy bias towards memoir rather than criticism, with only four professional music journalists in the mix ... The epiphanies fly so thick and fast that it’s refreshing when Sarah Hall rejects nostalgia to insist on the perpetual newness of Radiohead’s OK Computer or Mark Ellen celebrates the goofy escapism of the B52’s debut rather than some profound masterpiece ... The brief means that you always learn something about the writer but not necessarily enough about the music ... David Mitchell achieves the optimum blend of 'me' and 'you' by deftly folding a track-by-track analysis into his account of a stroll through Great Malvern in 1987 with Blue in his Walkman for the first time, colouring every step with magic.
The pieces by Mitchell and Saunders are thoughtful about the writing process, and seem like true assessments of the impact of these LPs on their own creative growth. In the case of many of the other writers collected here, though, the claimed epiphanies are harder to digest ... This tone of soaring overstatement is so prevalent in Long Players that you begin to wonder where it comes from, and whether these albums, if they really were as life-altering as is claimed, may have played a part ... It isn’t difficult, in fact, to see a direct line between [Olivia] Laing’s prose and Stipe’s vocal performance on a song like Everybody Hurts: what they share is a sort of forced tenderness, unrelenting and, in the end, slightly dubious. Laing’s voice, like Lockwood’s and Taneja’s, is in a specific contemporary register ... [Daisy] Johnson’s words ring with the familiar sonorities, as well as the jargon, of the rhetoric of personal empowerment. This is a verbal manner that currently seems inescapable: it’s there in the clarion calls of social media activists, in Instagram communiqués designed to bolster self-esteem, and, increasingly, in the op-eds of Generation-Z-chasing media outlets. It’s so rife among the authors here that it’s reasonable to ask how much pop music itself is responsible for its mixture of syrupy boosterism and worn-out lyrical frills. You do worry, reading some of the more emotive pieces in Long Players, about the damage that music may have done to literary writing—to several generations, now, of poets and novelists ... It’s a relief, then, that a handful of contributors remind us what else music can bring to a writer’s repertoire of themes and techniques.