Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #76 Kid A

For some reason, I've never really stopped to think about the relationship between music and time. Really, my failure to think about this relationship is a bit odd, surprising even. After all, as Marvin Lin points out in his well-researched, beautifully rendered exploration of Radiohead's Kid A, music is made of time, is time. Music notes themselves--not their placement on a staff, but their shapes and sizes--are nothing more than symbolic divisions of time. To be fair to myself, I know I'm not the only one who hasn't made this connection until now. Many people haven't. And why not? Perhaps because we take the relationship for granted? Or maybe thinking about the relationship between music and time seems like it might be kind of like thinking about the relationship between ice cream and milk--in other words, the connection seems so obvious on the surface that there shouldn't be much to talk about.

Of course, that's not the case or Marvin Lin wouldn't have written such a compelling analysis of Kid A, and I wouldn't be reviewing his book right now. To begin with, I should point out that Lin's entire book isn't about time. Lin does a nice job of balancing an exploration of the album's various contexts, including downloading culture, politics, band dynamics and, capitalism, to the point that, while his conversation of time is certainly the most compelling, Lin sells us on the notion that Kid A is a creature of its contexts. Such a bold assertion might be hard to swallow for some--in particular anyone who champions the notion that great art is timeless--but Lin convinces us so thoroughly of both the timeliness and timelessness of Kid A that the question becomes moot. And what...wait...what just happened there? Ah, of course--see, this entire book is about time but we don't always know it.

Even when Lin isn't explicitly writing about something like music's attempts to subvert linear time by complicating rhythms and challenging traditional song structures, he's writing about the album in its time, and how we have come to understand the album through time, and perhaps most importantly, how spending time on the album can be transcendent.

Lin's book is, without a doubt, a top-tier entry in the 33 1/3 series. Were it not for a few missteps--too much retreading of the talked-to-death Napster years, and an oddly misguided (but well-intentioned) paranoid rant about genetically modified foods--this book could have rivaled Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste for the "best in series" crown. As it stands, Lin's inventive approach to music and time is still one of the series' more compelling entries and one of the few that sent me to the library to track down some of the books and articles quoted within.

Although, a note for the future, Continuum--a works cited list would have been pretty helpful this time out. Why'd you leave us hanging?

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