Thanks to Seth Combs for this flattering piece about the series – and thanks to Matos for being a far more coherent interviewee than me.
BEYOND ‘I DIG IT’
33 1/3 books explore why we love the albums we love
by Seth Combs
With album sales down for the fifth straight year and digital singles being downloaded by the billions, the time seems ripe for doomsayers to bemoan the decline of the album as art and the eventual return to the pre-’60s era of homogenized LPs with less killer, more filler.
But, really, not much has changed in the last 50 years. For every epochal recording, there are consistently thousands more that just plain suck. Bob Dylan’s Saved isn’t good by any measure, and Ryan Adams doesn’t need to release an album every other day. Ultimately, however, they both serve a purpose. They make the Blonde On Blondes and Heartbreakers of the world that much better.
Farmers perfectly captured the sentiment ages ago with the observation that “a pig’s gotta eat, but he’s gotta root through some shit first.”
“As a format, [the album still] works,” says David Barker, editor of the 331/3 book series. “If you put out an album of 10 damn good songs, that’s gonna get you noticed more than, ‘Hey, here’s a new track—you can put it on your blog.’”
Started in 2003 by Barker and Continuum Publishing, the 33 1/3 premise is simple: Take a classic album and write a short book about it (120 pages or so). The books are small, individually unique and cheap.
What started as an initial, small run of six books has now grown to more than 30, with titles ranging from classic mainstays (The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds), cult favorites (Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea) and those of debatable worth (Jethro Tull’s Aqualung). The authors are music critics, college professors and musicians.
“Every book is different from each other in tone, in scope,” explains Michaelangelo Matos, who wrote the book on Prince’s Sign O’ the Times. “I really like the fact that it’s such a variegated series.”
It is these literary nuances that make the books more than just overly ambitious liner notes. Some, like those about Neil Young’s Harvest and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (by Sam Inglis and Franklin Bruno, respectively), read like encyclopedic period pieces.
If you’re a casual fan of the album in focus, the approach works sublimely. But it’s when the authors get personal that the books really shine. The slightly autobiographical nuances in Matos’ Sign, Joe Pernice’s Meat is Murder and Daphne Brooks’ Grace, give the feeling of intimate, perhaps even drunken, conversation. Matos uses almost a third of his book to recount Prince’s large influence on his own Minneapolis upbringing.
Reading someone else deeply examine why they love a song or album that you, too, adore goes beyond nostalgia and reverence. When done well, the 331/3 books take a visceral love for a certain piece of music and make it palpable. They provide a context and casual shape to what most people can simply describe with pointed statements like, “Man, I fucking love that record,” such as when Matos explains that Sign O’ the Times served as a gateway record in his life. “It was really the record that opened me up to a lot of the things that I’ve come to like since then,” he says.
If you’re the sort who reads the music section of an alternative weekly, then most likely there are a few albums that do the same for you. And if there isn’t already a 331/3 book on it (and the album isn’t, say, the new Ashlee Simpson joint) then there’s probably someone hard at work on it. It’s a devotional sort of writing that might be best thought of as a literary renewal of vows.
For a full list of titles, visit www.continuumbooks.com.