For three days I’ve been fervently enamored with the 1997 album Tri Repetae, by the electronic duo Autechre. How I lived 41 years on this planet without hearing it before is a little strange, especially since I’d been so close to discovering it through natural means; over the past 15 years I had bought, completely blind, three of Autechre’s albums at random from record stores. They ranged from puzzling to pleasant.
I might have decided to leave it at that, except over the weekend I happened to ask a record store owner for an Autechre recommendation. Chiastic Slide had been too scattered and musique concrète for me, I told him, while Oversteps had been too mild. I wanted something in between, and so, $27.85 later, I drove 60 miles back home with the album that took me 20 years to discover and which I would immediately play six times in a row.
I thrive on these “hard” ways of discovering music. I have a self-inflicted condition which dictates that if I haven’t put in some sort of investment into finding music — monetary or otherwise — I value it less. I still make cassette tapes, partly for the required attention to detail which connects me tangibly to the music therein. I track down hard-to-find copies of old records by musicians because I want my search for their music to rival their search for its creation. I have never once listened to a playlist compiled for a streaming service, because that’s too easy. If I’ve put in some work to find music, I’ll get more reward.
I admit that in a world where almost all of the world’s commercially released music is available at the tap of a finger on a small black device in my pocket, this is a very limiting way to listen to music — and that may be the point, foolish though it may seem.
A smarter way of listening can be found in Every Song Ever, a new book by Ben Ratliff, who for nearly 20 years worked as a music critic for the New York Times. Ratliff embraces the instant availability of music and, rather than sorting it into genre — or worse, algorithm-based, activity-focused playlists like “Morning Jog” or “Chill With Friends” — posits an approach to sorting the internet’s endless supply of music based on a different set of characteristics.
Each chapter of Ratliff’s book deals with an aspect of music that traverses genre and era. The first chapter, on repetition, explores James Brown’s reliable funk alongside Steve Reich’s hypnotic phasing. A chapter on slowness deals with the Flamingos’ molasses-like doo-wop hit “I Only Have Eyes for You” as well as Sleep’s stoner-metal opus Dopesmoker. When discussing speed in music, Ratliff turns to both an 18th-century piano sonata by Domenico Scarlatti and a live show from 1984 by hardcore thrash band D.R.I.
There’s a built-in thrill to the variety here, and several times in reading Ratliff’s moving descriptions of these pieces of music, I had to set down the book to consult my own record collection for songs I’d heard many times already, or YouTube for the ones new to me — for once, I wanted the endless supply of music at my fingertips. But even more thrilling is when these quantifiable aspects of music in the book give way to more abstract measurements. Virtuosity. Sadness. Memory.
In this, Ratliff’s strategy is a sly one. Just as he pulls the reader in with a simple concept like tempo before musing on more complex themes (music being “powered by its search for membership,” for one), he dangles a recognizable song and then draws a connecting thread to an obscure one. A chapter that opens with a deep look at the legacy of the famous drumbeat to “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, leads to Barry Manilow, and then the Clash, then the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, then Duran Duran, Bill Evans, Pablo Casals and Kanye West.
By Every Song Ever’s end, genre is a futile construct. Overall, the effect of finishing the book reminded me of spending long hours in dark video arcades as a teenager, and stepping out into the world afterward with a rearranged concept of the city. Is a ninja attacker approaching from behind that bush? Can I ollie over this handrail? Shall I take cover from the space invaders behind this electrical box?
Which is to say: I hear music differently now. It may wear off, like the lingering filter from video games did. But just as I still do for The Jazz Ear, another worthwhile Ratliff book about listening, I can see myself years from now pulling Every Song Ever off the shelf to consult during spans of jaded disinterest. I might also cue up an album I’ve never heard before — like Autechre’s Tri Repetae — on my phone, instead of waiting 20 years to discover it through convoluted, lengthy means.
There’s a hoary maxim about life being 10 percent what happens, and 90 percent how one reacts to it. Too many books about music concern the former. Every Song Ever works as a chapter-by-chapter toolkit for listening that readers can use for a lifetime.
Ben Ratliff appears in a ‘guided listening’ event, playing music and discussing ideas from ‘Every Song Ever,’ on Sunday, March 19 at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. An author reception follows. Details and more info. here.