How to Write a Record Review

It all starts with the listening, of course, ideally multiple times, ideally multiple ways: passively (play the record while you make fudge, grout the tub or knit a sweater for your cat) and actively (sit and really listen to the record, distracted only by occasional glances at its liner notes or maybe the artist’s website, so you know what the singer’s saying, and who’s playing what where). You hear different things when you listen different ways.

Once you’ve digested the disc in this way, but before you set pen to paper, it’s time for analysis–both internal and comparative. Internal analysis has three elements. You can label them past, present and future. Or you can label them objective, subjective and speculative. The past/objective analysis puts the disc in context, explaining from whence the artist came and how the record to be reviewed fits in terms of the artist’s known history and existing body of work (if there is one). The present/subjective analysis is your very own spin on what the artist has accomplished with the disc in question. This is the heart of the review–and don’t let people tell you that subjectivity is a bad thing here, since at the core, a record review is a subjective assessment of how you feel about the work. The future/speculative analysis provides your take on where the artist might go next, or how music in general may change as a result of the artists’ success or failure.

Comparative analysis is designed to give the artist’s work context and meaning in terms of other artists or sounds with which your readers might be familiar. You can compare your artist to other artists, so listeners who are unfamiliar with the disc you are reviewing can get a sense of whether they might be interested in it or not. Or you can compare your artist’s music and lyrics to those of other poets or songwriters, or even to non-musical sounds, movements or emotions. It’s helpful to not be needlessly obscure here, particularly if the record you are reviewing may be well of the beaten popular path itself.

Once you’ve listened and re-listened and organized your analyses, it’s time to write. Note well that music criticism is one of the most cliché-heavy genres of journalism, and do your best to steer clear of stock buzzwords and catch phrases. Create your own imagery whenever possible, rather than relying on imagery you might have read in other reviews. If you’ve read something once in a record review, it’s probably been used a thousand times before you encountered it.

It’s better for guitars to sound like a rain of metal locusts or for drums to sound like a muffler dragging beneath a tank than it is for them to them “jangle” or “thunder,” for instance. Avoid intellectual sounding, but typically meaningless, manufactured words involving the prefixes “retro-,” “proto-,” “neo-,” “aggro-,” “post-” and “trans-.” Likewise the suffix “-esque.” Steer clear, too, of “seminal” and “erstwhile.” Use “eponymous” at your own peril.

After you’ve written, it’s not a bad idea to tweak and tighten: music listeners and readers are notoriously short-attention-span types, and they’re not likely to read deeply into a long review unless they’re already deeply interested in the record you’re reviewing, in which case you’re just preaching to the choir.

When you’ve got your review as lean and elegant as its going to get, then it’s time to publish, since a review is nothing more than a diary entry if no one else reads it. Of course, you may not have a print outlet, but that shouldn’t stop you from sharing your views with others. So put your reviews on your blog. Or on somebody else’s blog. Or e-mail them to your friends. Or bundle a bunch of them together (or with reviews by your friends), go to Kinko’s and make your own ‘zine. Or send them out to media outlets in the hopes that they might actually get some traditional print exposure.

However your do it, it’s important to get your thoughts and words about music out into the public domain if you’re serious about wanting to review records on an ongoing basis. Before you know it, people will begin to incorporate your thoughts when making their own decisions on musical acquisitions and investigations, and at that point, you’ll be well on your way to being able to market yourself as an expert critic of music.

Happy listening . . . and analyzing, writing and publishing!

About J. Eric Smith
Executive Director, Salisbury House Foundation.

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