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Rick Moody stumbles into the hazards of critical dabbling

On Celestial Music
Rick Moody
Back Bay
439 pages

It sounds unkind to say so, but what you get out of the novelist Rick Moody's collection of his writings on music will depend on whether you're invested more in music or in Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm.

I'm not complaining, as people often do, that first-person voices are intrusively self-indulgent. The whole point of criticism is for a writer to intercede between artwork and reader, and ideally to illuminate all the sides of that love triangle. Critical memoir is one of the forms closest to my heart, as practised by writers from Walter Benjamin to Geoff Dyer. Moody is at his best in these 13 essays, published in magazines and journals from 1997 to 2010, when he's most unabashedly autobiographical.

Neither do I mind in principle a celebrated writer taking on a new field. This isn't a case of Jay Leno writing a children's book just because he can. I agree when Moody says in his introduction that the worlds of literature and music naturally collide because they both call for keen listeners to cadence and tone. Many musicians attempt prose or poetry, and many writers are avid amateur players, as Moody is on guitar: One of the most winning pieces here is a diary of a summer music retreat in which he feels out what unites and separates him and the pros.

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It's rare, though, for literary writers successfully to cross the in-between territory of music criticism. In his novels, Nick Hornby is marvelously insightful about how pop music imbues people's lives. But he loses some of the wry irony with which he observes his protagonists' passions and prejudices when he writes about his own.

Moody's more Yankee, Gen-X-brand anxiety can set off sympathetic tremors when he's on solid personal ground. The best essay here may be the weirdest: The Pete Townshend Fragments is the 50-page reaction of a lifelong Who fan to the 2003 charges (eventually dismissed) against the singer-guitarist for allegedly possessing child pornography.

Moody's resulting forensic investigation of Townshend's life, lyrics and short stories is a fraught errand a professional critic might avoid. But besides being a great Who piece, it becomes an obsessively empathetic inquiry into whether we love art in spite of its makers' moral flaws or, in some essential way, because of them.

Moody has written movingly, especially in his 2002 memoir The Black Veil, about his sobriety and his religious faith, and those un-rock 'n' roll traits make for refreshing views on the drunken decline of the Pogues' Shane MacGowan (The Problem of Impairment), the oddball Danielson family band (How to Be a Christian Artist) and whether there might be music in heaven or perhaps divinity in song (the title essay).

Like many critical dabblers, though, Moody is too tempted by polemic. He lacks practice at questioning his tastes, at approaching music outside his comfort zones and at discerning whether the rhetorical steeds he wants to saddle have long been dead horses. So he misses the heights of the hurdles.

What could have been a vivid account of recovering his teenage ardour for prog-rock, right to the outer Jethro Tull limits, bogs down in tiresome tropes about "guilty pleasures." An otherwise fine piece, recalling a favourite 1992 show by New York jazz band the Lounge Lizards, is cheated out of charm by the dozen banal "propositions" that frame it (e.g., "that spontaneity is to be highly prized in the concert setting"). And his needle-sized points about indie bands Wilco and the Magnetic Fields get lost in haystacks of fannish detail.

An out-of-place 50-page recap, The New York Underground, 1965-1988, was likely fine for the non-profit educational textbook that commissioned it. But here it feels rushed, reductive and redundant compared to the many terrific books on the subject, such as Will Hermes's recent Love Goes to Buildings on Fire.

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And I don't know where to begin with Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines. Moody's concluding, 60-page diatribe on the "soullessness" of electronic music begins by demonizing 1970s synth-pioneers Kraftwerk, goes on at baffling length about Depeche Mode and then puritanically attacks all techno as drug-rape music – the downside of his supposed 12-step wisdom – and as crypto-fascism, crashing en route into every white-male-rock-dinosaur cliché there's been since Donna Summer. I kept hoping Moody was faking me out: Where's the twist ending? Is there no punchline?

Such blunders aren't inevitable. Moody's peer, Jonathan Lethem, for example, has written wonderfully about music in both fiction and non-fiction, including a great Rolling Stone profile of James Brown just before the Godfather of Soul's death, and a new critical memoir about Talking Heads' pivotal Fear of Music in the 33 1/3 series of short books on albums.

But Lethem makes it obvious that, like many of his characters, he's always been the kind of pop-culture fan who also immerses himself in the debates, puzzles and ephemera that surround it. He knows the ecosystems of Planet Criticism well enough not only to sort the edible mushrooms from the poisonous, but to spot the magic ones when the moment's right. It's no sin that Moody is less well-equipped. But it's a shame he didn't have better field guides along (yes, I mean editors) to make for a more worthwhile trip.

Carl Wilson is the author of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a critical memoir about art, snobbery and Céline Dion, also in the 33 1/3 series.

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