Twenty years ago I was asked to go to a record company HQ to listen to a new release by a major artist. They’d decided they could no longer send out review copies in case those advance copies found their way to a radio station. They put me in the control room of their most enormous studio, put the DAT (remember them?) in the player and retreated, leaving me alone to appreciate the splendour of the rock and the majesty of the roll.
It didn’t sound very majestic at all. Rather than call the record company person back to ask “does this sound all right to you?”, I scanned the thousands of buttons and faders on the massive desk until I found a toggle switch next to the tape player. I moved it from “mono” to “stereo”. That was better.
Just the other day I was asked if I’d review a new album by this same artist by going to the record company HQ for “a playback”, which is increasingly the form with big name acts. I said no, not just because I can’t bear the fuss but also because it’s no way to form a proper impression of a record. That you can only do when you’ve lived with it for a few weeks and calculated how many times you’ve found yourself reaching for it, which is the only true measure of worth.
There’s nothing wrong with doing the kind of track-by-tracks the music papers of the 60s used to do (“track three is an uptempo dance number with John singing lead”) but too often today’s critics try to pretend they’ve reached a conclusion which time has simply not allowed them to. Because they don’t feel confident enough to lay into a record they’ve only heard a couple of times they will tend to come back with something overly respectful and non-committal, which isn’t a lot of use to anyone. It probably suits the artist’s ego. Artists like making records but they’re mortally terrified of putting them out because that involves Judgement Day and playbacks ensure that day isn’t too judgemental. The “playback” ceremony also restores to the PR the High Priest role that the internet has robbed them of in most other respects. They like that.
I read reviews for their entertainment and enlightenment value. If I want a "verdict" on much-ballyhooed, maximum security albums such as those by the likes of Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen I'll find it in the columns of Twitter a month after release.