BOOK

Joyful Noise

by Eric Liebetrau
On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening
By Rick Moody
Back Bay, 448 pages, $15.99
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On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening

Ecstasy is a much-sought but rarely achieved state, an ineffable blend of joy and wonder. For novelist Rick Moody ’86SOA, the author of The Ice Storm and Purple America, this feeling has always come from music. “I could not hide the way I reacted when music was around,” he writes, “whether with tapping feet, or with impulsive singing, or with jubilation more egregious.”

Moody has spent his life chasing that feeling — studying, playing, and above all, listening. More than just a hobby, he writes, music is an essential part of his craft, one that he takes with him to his writing desk over and over again. Moody’s first book of essays, On Celestial Music, is an homage to this force behind his prose, and he attacks his subjects with erudition, wit, and glee. There’s something Whitmanesque in the scope and energy of these essays, which celebrate everything from the debauchery of the Pogues to the skewed tenderness of the evangelical Christian group Danielson Famile.

“Against Cool,” the collection’s opening salvo, sets the tone by considering the narrative possibilities of music through the evolution of the idea of “cool,” a slippery, constantly changing term that, after five hundred or so years of percolating, gained traction among the jazz musicians of the 1940s. In jazz Moody recognizes not only cool’s natural habitat but “a laboratory for the way in which the term gets disseminated: spontaneously, loosely in an improvisatory fashion, as a delineator of passions and moods and styles.” Carried through the ’50s by the Beats, who “yoked Miles and Bird to Whitman and Emerson,” the concept of cool found footing in Jack Kerouac’s feverish accounts of the jazz performances he attended during the travels that formed the basis of On the Road. To Kerouac, writes Moody, cool was “a perfume of the infinite, a wisp of the spiritual, in which improvisation and spontaneity enable numinous predisposition, access to the ether.”

The parallels between prose and song deepen in “Thirty-One Love Songs,” as Moody examines 69 Love Songs, the three-volume album by the Magnetic Fields, almost with an editor’s eye. He winnows the album’s sixty-nine songs to a tighter thirty-one, and adds some entertaining personal notes by recalling his shaky stints opening for the band — as he tells us, an author reading from his work is not always the best lead-in for a rock concert — and giving insight into the Fields’ quirky frontman, Stephin Merritt.

While many of the essays are earnest, “Guilty Pleasures” offers comic relief. Moody writes about the Brooklyn Record Club, a circle of friends who meet regularly to discuss their favorite songs. During the club’s “guilty pleasures” night, Moody contributes tunes by Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull, a choice that forces him to admit his love of the compositional complexities, bombastic presentation, and esoteric lyrics of progressive rock. “Many, many people have called Jethro Tull the worst band of all time,” Moody admits, which is why he is horrified to realize that he still likes them. Even worse, while Jethro Tull no longer tops his playlists, he reluctantly comes to recognize “prog rock” elements in some of the bands that do, including the experimental, digitally enhanced, mostly instrumental bands Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Do Make Say Think.

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