Until recently Ben Ratliff was a music journalist for the New York Times, covering the pop and jazz brief. He was there for 20 years and during his time wrote a handful of books, including Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, which, if you’re a John Coltrane fan, I’d highly recommend. Ratliff writes well and has a very eclectic taste in music. I was intrigued therefore about his 2016 offering, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty.
The premise of the book, as far as I understood it, was how do we listen to music in the age of the cloud, where access to music is unparalleled? Infinite access, as Ratliff points out, ‘can lead to an atrophy of the desire to seek out new songs ourselves’ while recognising the benefits of ‘the powers of the shuffle and recommendation effects.’ I had expected the book, which is actually a collection of 20 essays, to consider this subject more fully. However, the book’s not really about that so don’t be fooled by the preamble you see on goodreads, etc. In fairness, Ratliff himself is clear that the book is ‘about different things to listen for in music’. So, in effect, the book isn’t really bound to the technological era of the cloud.
The 20 chapters take us through those different things, for example, repetition, virtuosity, density, silence, etc. Ratliff rattles off a dizzying array of examples within each essay to illustrate his point, e.g. pointing out the same drum pattern between the Ronettes’ Be My Baby, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey and Bat for Lashes’ What’s a Girl to Do? Ratliff is happy with navel gazing, which is perhaps inevitable when each chapter is an essay on a particular theme. However, the extend of the navel gazing was a bit much for me.
Ratliff helpfully lists all of the tunes covered at the end of every chapter. I can’t listen to music while I read but this is one book where it makes sense to. I discovered far too late that there’s a Spotify playlist of all the tunes listed (search ‘ben ratliff’). So if you do plan on reading this book, then I highly recommend doing so with the playlist to hand. I think that if I’d done this from the beginning I may have enjoyed the book more. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read it and would recommend the book to those willing to delve into an eclectic range of tunes spanning the avant garde, classical, country, metal, latin, jazz, rock, etc.