The esteemed British music writer and editor, who has experienced intermittent bouts of deafness, explores the meaning of singing, how it works, and his relationship to some of the last century's most important musical acts.
[Coleman] has the knack of summing up a singer with an epigram that makes the listener thrill in agreement ... the fact that the book offers no overarching theory of anything besides Mr. Coleman’s taste and obsessions comes as a relief ... The comparison of asynchronous voices with similar intent of delivery and tonal quality proves to be a genuinely exciting approach. It transcends the moment and aims at the essential: This kind of glimpse is the Holy Greil (Marcus) of rock writing ... But Voices spends too much time clearing its throat, and much of the author’s connective material—whether it’s a monologue on his middle-class British accent or a lengthy Eddie Izzard-ish digression on how post-nuclear-holocaust ants might approach the playing of rock ’n’ roll records (seven pages on that)—feels like the workshopping of comedy routines ... But Mr. Coleman is right about so much ... every reader and listener is rewarded.
Your mind starts to reel as if you have just spent a few hours being hit over the head by the collected works of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The narrative advances in fits and starts, fragments of autobiography alternating with overviews of music history that are wrapped up with summaries of albums that serve to illustrate stylistic trends ... After 80 pages of this sort of thing, you might be tempted to give up and go back to wandering around Spotify. But it’s worth persevering ... Coleman is very sharp ... there is another important theme, although it does not emerge until the final section ... [his] sudden hearing loss and tinnitus ... It reminds me of Oliver Sacks writing about how distant strains of Schubert coming out of a stranger’s window snapped him out of the depression that had settled on him after the death of his mother. Coleman’s journey, long and tortuous, has taught him a similar lesson.
Sometimes his descriptions of the sound and the effect hit the target perfectly ... Expanding the definition of 'voice,' there’s also a chapter on jazz instrumentalists. This gives him an excuse to suggest that jazz musicians work so hard to perfect their skills in order that 'they can never be caught out with nothing to say'—which is amusing, if not really profound. Much sharper is his observation that 'rock music, as constructed by the Rolling Stones for the British audience and then a wider international one in the 1960s, was … an account of an experience, not an appeal to the heart' ... you can hardly blame Coleman for occasionally letting his ideas and enthusiasm run wild. Many of his readers will find their enjoyment of the book extended by the need to keep getting up and finding the record he’s writing about, or perhaps locating it via Spotify—but that’s not really the same thing, is it?