From Karen Carpenter to John Lydon, a book explores the timbre of stars' singing, writes James McNair
Singing their praises: the power of the human voice
You’ve heard the phrase “You had me at hello.” Well, Nick Coleman nearly lost me at the start of Voices. Chapter one includes an extended riff in which the author imagines an ant colony, sole survivors of a nuclear attack, listening to and differentiating between records made by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and others. It’s a bizarre inroad to an otherwise brilliant read.
“In Elvis’s voice the ants will hear manifest destiny,” writes Coleman, with a strange certainty. But do ants understand the concept of destiny? And how did these creepy-crawly DJs get the vinyl onto the turntable in the first place? Thankfully, Coleman’s gift for creative thinking proves infinitely more rewarding further in, and you soon forgive him his daft ants conceit. If an imagination as fruitful as his just occasionally runs aground through over-excitement, so be it.
The veteran music writer’s 2012 memoir The Train in the Night was an acclaimed and affecting document of his troubling battle with sudden neurosensory hearing loss and tinnitus. It also explained why he has so much invested in grateful, always ruminative music-listening.
Voices picks up that thread, exploring the popular music vocal performances that have meant so much to Coleman for so long, and which continue to sustain him while his one “good” ear intermittently relays something like normal hearing to his restless, music-ravenous brain.
The worry for Coleman, it’s clear, is that complete deafness might one day isolate him, bringing down the shutters on the voices of Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, Prince and countless other singers he adores. His record listening today, Coleman says, constitutes “the sort of obsessive-compulsive activity that dignifies squirrels,” ie “storage”. He is engaged in a kind of mental archiving against the worst possible case scenario.
Throughout the book, Coleman is adept at nailing the essence of his most-cherished singers with a well-turned phrase. The sumptuous voice of tragic ’70s crooner Karen Carpenter “was as warm, open and inclusive as a kindled hearth on a dank afternoon”. Mick Jagger’s early-era Rolling Stones voice is “a sinus-y cipher of teenage energy, lust and chutzpah”.
The singing of Rod Stewart, meanwhile – so comforting to the young Coleman that it felt like that of the brother he never had – is “so highly textured, so fibrous that the illusion was sometimes created that he sang chords – not single melodic notes in linear sequence… ”
That Rod observation is particularly acute, but so is the controlled-rocket-launch metaphor which Coleman uses to discuss David Bowie’s extraordinary vocal performance on Life On Mars: “…shedding redundant stages as it accelerates, gaining height and impetus [it] becomes smaller and smaller to the listening mind, dwarfed in the huge empyrean of the song’s arrangement but somehow still focal… ”
The author knows that, if he is to justify his book’s subtitle, he must show how his favourite singers are not just a constant backdrop to his life, but also entities who help him to make sense of it.
There’s a lovely section wherein he details his 14-month campaign trying to get his teenage daughter and her friends to discuss the “psycho-architecture” of records by ‘60s girl group The Shangri-Las with him. “I have been strung along,” Coleman eventually concludes when his request is repeatedly swatted-off, though never rejected outright. Neatly, this supports his thesis that the cool, sass, and “assertive reserve” of girl groups – and of teenage-girl cliques for that matter – can never be fully knowable to men.
Elsewhere, father to daughter discussions about why dad insists upon repeat-plays of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira in the car prove more profoundly illuminating, and the author leads us to ruminate upon why, exactly, Ian Curtis’s vocal performance on Joy Division’s 1980 album Closer led Coleman’s childhood friend Danny to suffer a panic attack.
Voices certainly goes in deep where certain uncontested class-acts are concerned. There is truly great writing here on such giants as Aretha Franklin and Roy Orbison, both of whom have their artistic and sonic essences distilled down into some hugely insightful prose.
“His songs were like strange 3-D sonic sculptures you could walk around and poke,” Coleman says of Orbison. “You could enter them as you might enter a ghost ride at a fairground. You might be swallowed up in them. Orbison had a sound.”
It’s pleasing, too, that Coleman is just as evangelical and convincing when writing about less technically adept and/or pretty voices. Thus he hears only “love and wonderment” in the “thin and fibrous” singing of quintessentially English avant-psych artist Robert Wyatt, and a strange beauty in the voice of PiL’s John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), regardless of its “neurotic energy” and its obvious disinterest in “the regulating conventions of ‘singerliness’”.
Such sacred cows as Frank Sinatra, though, don’t find their way into Coleman’s heart, even though the author acknowledges Ol’ Blue Eyes’ unimpeachable phrasing. The problem, Coleman explains, is his lack of identification with Sinatra.
“I just don’t have the masculinity for it,” he writes memorably, “the sort that gleams quietly like bronze and is concerned above all things with projecting the reserve and grandeur and sophistication of its own strength”.
Voices is a book that makes you want to compile a playlist of the songs and singers that Coleman gives such a thorough and thought-provoking going-over. It also suggests that a man with badly-impaired auditory equipment can sometimes hear more than the rest of us, largely because his hunger to listen is greater.
But my favourite thing about Voices is the way that it slips in humour when you least expect it. Discussing the merit of the crooned lullaby, Arsenal FC fan Coleman offers this: “I cannot have been alone, I imagine, in spending hours of my life as a younger parent sighing, ‘There’s only one Den-nis Bergkamp’ to my eldest in a vanishingly soft voice, while the fiercely sleepless tot roiled in his cot.”