Robert Christgau has been getting a lot of flak on the Rolling Stone website for his reviews of (what he deems) ho-hum or poor albums. Most readers’ criticisms centre on the dense, (in Singlish) ‘cheem’ nature of his writing, essentially a complaint that the review is difficult to understand. Well, that brings to mind a Terry Pratchett quote on the problems he has had with American publishers, captured for posterity in The Annotated Pratchett Files:

That seems to point up a significant difference between Europeans and Americans.

A European says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with me?’ An American says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with him?’

I make no suggestion that one side or other is right, but observation over many years leads me to believe it is true.

More difficult to dismiss is the criticism that Christgau’s negative reviews are just, well, off-the-mark – that he has somehow missed the genius at work, mistaken brilliant music for terrible music, &c. For whatever reason, however, I find almost all of his reviews spot on. A sample of negative reviews of artists I like reveal quite clearly that careful listening has gone into that particular album review. The great thing is that he will (for ‘Honorable Mention’ and ‘Choice Cut’ reviews) identify the one or two excellent songs on an otherwise dull record.

Liz Phair’s 2005 album Somebody’s Miracle received one such (B-plus, which is actually not too bad) review.

In pop, when the production’s solid and the voice a little less so, the songs had better be on the money (“Got My Own Thing,” “Table for One”)

And this is precisely the case. Somebody’s Miracle is not very remarkable save ‘Got My Own Thing’ and ‘Table for One’ – the two songs I find myself returning to, especially the latter. A simple but lovely melody, gorgeous classical Spanish-style picked acoustic lines, and a vivid, sweetly-sung account of alcoholism:

It’s morning and I pour myself coffee

I drink it till the kitchen stops shaking

I’m backing out of the driveway and into creation

And the loving spirit that follows me

Watching helplessly, will always forgive me

Oh, I want to die alone

With my sympathy beside me

I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me

Feasting gleefully

On my desperation

I delight in Ms Phair’s lyrical tricks, and many they are, too, like this mid-sentence switch of (grammatical) subject:

I hide all the bottles in places / they find

And confront me with pain in their eyes

And I promise that I’ll make some changes

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