A few months back, the Daily Express took it upon themselves to review PJ Harvey's most recent album, Let England Shake. They must have noted that it had been hailed elsewhere as not merely a good album, a highlight of an already stellar career, but an important work that underlined the matchless power wielded by a unique artist uncoupled from musical trends, determined not to repeat herself, in an increasingly homogenous and repetitive rock and pop world. Understandably, they clearly put their best man on the job, the better to unpick Harvey's dense mesh of musical influences and literary and historical allusions for the benefit of their immigration-fearing readership. "You might not be able to pick her out of a police lineup, but there's no lack of respect for PJ Harvey," he opened. "The album moves away from her usual style, but let's just say it's not our bag. 2/5."
Read Alexis's review of his favourite-ever record
Of course, the Daily Express isn't the first place you'd look for an in-depth examination of a cutting-edge experimental rock album, but these 38 words seem indicative of a wider malaise. There's no doubt these are lean times for professional reviewers of records. The job was once freighted with importance, a vital, mediating link between artist and audience. Today, it's been battered by both the rise of illegal downloading, which some would argue has negated the need for reviews at all – if you want to know what an album's like before release you can probably find out for yourself – and the fear caused by declining circulation: at least one major music magazine is fairly obviously engaged not in reviewing albums, but in trying to second-guess what their readers are going to think about them, terrified of causing offence, which seems to be spectacularly missing the point.
I think that's a shame, partly because writing album reviews is my job, but mostly because I think music is important: it deserves to be discussed and evaluated properly, and no one's come up with a better way of doing it. The rise of the internet may mean there's no such thing as a definitive album review any more, but that doesn't matter: frankly, the more people discussing and evaluating, the better. That's why it's exciting that on the Guardian's music website, as of today, every reader is invited to have a stab at writing a review of pretty much any album ever made. Around threemillion albums each now have their own page on the site – and whether a critic like me has reviewed it or not, the invitation is there for you to do so. As the critic Anthony Lane once pointed out, a review has only ever really been the first line of an argument.
That said, I'm not sure how much advice I can offer about the actual writing of reviews. I'm pretty certain the more you listen to an album before you review it, the better – repeated exposure to music sharpens your opinions, whether good or bad – and the more you research an album or the artist who made it, the better: the most arcane tangential fact can sometimes illuminate your understanding of it. Beyond that, I wouldn't for a minute suggest that anything I do as a critic should be viewed in a prescriptive way. I'm not big on close textual reading of the music in a major-triads-in-12/8-time sense, because I tend to view an album as more than a purely sonic experience. Whether you think so or not, your response to an album is often influenced by things other than the actual sound of it. But I think one of the greatest books about rock music ever written is the late Ian MacDonald's astonishing anatomical study of the Beatles' oeuvre, Revolution in the Head, which is so reliant on close textual study that it comes with a glossary of musical terms attached.
I write a lot of jokes into my copy, partly because I find the world of rock and pop music unfailingly hilarious, as arenas full of ridiculous people doing ridiculous things are wont to be, and partly I'm very aware I'm writing for a broadsheet newspaper. Few people buy the Guardian just to read the album reviews, which means you're dealing with a lot of what you might call passing trade, and one way to lure passing trade in is to try to make them laugh (it's also why I don't assume much background knowledge on the part of the reader – I want the review to be accessible to everybody, regardless of their familiarity with the artist being reviewed). But my favourite rock critic of all, the great Jon Savage, almost never writes jokes, despite being one of the funniest men I've ever met. He views writing about music as a serious, almost academic business, although – if you're planning on going down that route yourself – it's worth noting that all his seriousness and academic study is entirely in service to communicating the simple pleasure of listening to music: he makes you want to hear the records he writes about, whether good or bad. That might be the only real rule there is in rock criticism. That, and don't dismiss the new PJ Harvey album in 38 words.
Over to you …
What do you think makes the perfect review? Tell us in the comments below. Then look up your favourite albums and start writing reviews of your own.
Also figuring in the story, which, without the music, would simply be another fantasy about teen-age angst, are Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a strikingly beautiful young woman, who not only is a singer but also understands the Kid's need for love; Morris (Morris Day), a cheerfully lecherous, outrageously vain, zoot- suited rock performer, who lusts after stardom and Apollonia, and other members of such Minneapolis groups as Prince's Revolution, Mr. Morris's Time and Miss Kotero's Apollonia 6.
Though Prince is somewhat less androgynous than Michael Jackson is, everything about him and the movie suggests cross-overs between opposites, or, at least, compromises between different modes of expression.
Prince's music, which lifts the movie without exactly carrying it, has black, white, rock and gospel roots. Prince's background is also mixed. The movie uses all the cliches of the rock concert film, except for the split screen, but it's supposed to be a seriously affecting romantic drama.
''Purple Rain'' is playing in theaters but it demonstrates the skills of the recording industry far more effectively than it does those of movie making. Though its women characters are supposed to be strong and independent, they are suckers for the men who knock them around with brutal regularity.
In one of the dizziest of the film's nonmusical interludes, the Kid takes Apollonia for a motorcycle spin in the country, tricks her into skinny dipping while he, fully clothed, looks on and then, when she tries to climb back onto the bike for the return to town, he maliciously teases her by pretending to drive away. Instead of belting him, as might be expected, she comes to understand his desperate longing for love and his inability - because of dad and mom - to give it. Where is Dr. Joyce Brothers when a kid really needs her?
With the exception of one comic bit based on the old Abbott and Costello ''Who's on first'' routine, ''Purple Rain'' is completely without humor. The only wit comes in the music and in some of Prince's lyrics, especially those for ''When Doves Cry,'' ''Darling Nikki,'' ''Let's Go Crazy'' and the title song.
The offstage stuff is utter nonsense. Mr. Magnoli, whose first theatrical film this is, has seen to it that the movie is so efficiently edited that the story ends sometime before the movie does. This is all right because it allows the movie to close with two successive musical numbers, which, in ''Purple Rain,'' are the only things that count.
PURPLE RAIN, directed by Albert Magnoli; screenplay by Albert Magnoli and William Blinn; director of photography, Donald L. Thorin; edited by Albert Magnoli; music by Prince; produced by Robert Cavallo, Joseph Ruffalo and Steven Fargnoli; released by Purple Films Company and Warner Bros. At the Criterion, Broadway and 45th Street; Gemini, Second Avenue and 64th Street; Art, Eighth Street and University Place; RKO 86th Street, at Lexington Avenue. Running time: 111 minutes. This film is rated R.
The Kid . . . . . Prince
Apollonia . . . . . Apollonia Kotero
Morris . . . . . Morris Day
Mother . . . . . Olga Karlatos
Father . . . . . Clarence Williams
3d Jerome . . . . . Jerome Benton
Billy Sparks . . . . . Billy Sparks
Jill . . . . . Jill Jones
Chick . . . . . Charles Huntsberry
Dez . . . . . Dez Dickerson
Brenda . . . . . Brenda Bennett
Susan . . . . . SusanContinue reading the main story