Part of the ongoing series of pocket-sized album appreciations known collectively as 33 1/3, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats does something completely different with music criticism when he turns his pen to Black Sabbath's 1971 record, Master of Reality. The series features single album considerations often by names in the music business, record critiques by those who make records themselves instead of drooling fanboy loveletters or too cool for school sneerfests by the likes of the Pitchfork roster. To be sure there are non-musicians among the writers, but there is a heavy lean in the direction of art appreciations by artists.
Thus readers could learn what Colin Meloy of The Decemberists thinks of The Replacements' legendary Let It Be. Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue (as well as The Mountain Goats) provides his disssertation on Armed Forces, Elvis Costello's third album. Care to read a detailed appreciation of The Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique? Dan LeRoy, the Director of Literary Arts at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, has got it covered.
While some authors cast their criticism as semi-autobiographical how-I-fell-in-love-with-this-record reminisces and some give the history of the album's creation, what Darnielle has done is what he does best. Providing slice-of-life vignettes of troubled characters and various people on the edge of cracking throughout his musical catalog as The Mountain Goats, here Darnielle has framed the analysis of Master of Reality in the voice of a teenager locked inside an adolescent psychiatric center. Roger Painter, our narrator, is writing in a journal as an exercise for one of his counselors, Gary, and his goal in the first half of the book is clear: convince Gary to let him have access to his Walkman and his heavy metal tapes.
Like all good authors, Darnielle does little to satisfy our hero's desires which allows Roger to get into ever more involved explanations of what each track on this album means to him. Consider this passage from Roger's description of the song "Sweet Leaf"
Imagine that you are a man from space! And you don't speak English and you never heard of weed, and you landed in California and the first person you met up with took you to his house and said, "Hey check out this band." And then he played you "Sweet Leaf." In my opinion, the man from space would hear that song, just the crunchy guitar sound and those bass notes, Geezer Butler is the best bassist it sounds like his strings are made from lime jello salad, and he would start banging his head! Because the riff on "Sweet Leaf," that is something anybody could understand. ANYBODY.
While this is by no means sophisticated lyrical parsing or chord progression analysis, what Roger gets at in his troubled way is the deeper meaning of the music, the meaning underneath what you hear when you put on the record, the meaning of what you feel when you hear music. Darnielle is trying out a tricky device in this way, attempting to put complicated thoughts into the words of a mixed up kid, trying to draw out the emotion of music without letting the mask of his character drop.
In another place Roger writes:
But this is the thing about you guys and music here. You think that all we are doing when we listen to our music is either looking at the words like they were the bible for us, or looking at pictures of the singer like they were Jesus. It is not like that at all. When you guys talk like that, that's how we know you are stupid and growing old has made you crazy. Because: music is like a whole world, and there are words and pictures and sounds and textures and smells probably, OK I didn't actually mean that I just got carried away.
And there's that lovely moment at the end when his self-image of cool stops Roger and he has to pull back, to keep up the veil of who he is. But then, feeling that something about what he's saying is True in a real fundamental sense, he plunges on:
Albums do have a special smell though. Old ones smell different from new ones. Anyway you gotta know what I mean about this! It's like when you sing "Row row row your boat," do you really only focus on the boat and rowing it? And think "Wow, this is a song about some guys rowing a boat, fucken awesome!" No of course not. Only if you are totally weird do you think like that. When you are singing, you hear the song, the part that is more than words, and is also the feeling of just the notes in the air, especially if you are singing it in a round with a bunch of other people. We used to do that in my kindergarten. You hear a mood which is way higher (not "high" like that, come on) than the words, it is always sort of floating above the words. And that is why bands like the Beatles can be popular everywhere, even where people do not speak English, where to them the Beatles probably sound like trained monkeys trying to talk.
You begin to see as the story progresses, not only that putting down on paper what he thinks about the music is therapeutic for Roger, but that the deprivation of music or art of any kind is a considerable mistake in such a setting. To be sure, Darnielle is on the kid's side in this argument despite his own time on the other side as a nurse in a rehabilitative hospital of the kind he writes about here. He understands inside and out the power of music to soothe our souls and his sympathies lie with the artists and the fans.
In a sense, Darnielle's choice for album isn't inherently as important as the story he's telling, which is likewise not inherently important that it's about Roger Painter specifically. It is about generations of kids misunderstood by their elders, condemned for their tastes which ultimately prove to be less threatening than suspected.
To go back and listen to the metal of my youth is a memorable trip accompanied by a feeling of "what were they thinking?" The "they" in this case being those who believed Poison or Metallica was going to turn their kids into bloodthirsty Satanists who would stab parents in their sleep. It is these kind of parents who are responsible for Roger's incarceration, and Darnielle has told this story before in the song "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" from All Hail West Texas, the last of his lo-fi offerings. This second take allows a much more thorough exploration of what music means to the teenage years which I'm sure most readers will remember all too well. The passionate absorption, the avidity for any tidbit about the band, the hours and hours spent burning up batteries and wearing out record needles.
The book shifts halfway through, ending the first half with Roger being shipped out of the psychiatric hospital to the State hospital for the infraction of sneaking into the nurses' station to retrieve his Walkman and Master of Reality. The second half finds Roger working as a fast food manager. We pick up his life ten years later and learn about him from where his story left off. Having recently moved out of the house he shared with his now ex-girlfriend, Roger finds his old hospital journal and decides to complete it. Decides to finish telling his old counselor Gary just what the album meant to him, and more importantly to describe how his life has turned out since last they met.
Master of Reality bristles with a barely restrained rage, the first two pages reading in repetition "FUCK YOU ALL GO TO HELL." When this exact anger returns in the second half there is something almost triumphal about it but still enraged. The rage in the second half is makes the first half's anger look small in comparison for now it has something tangible to point to to mark loss. Rage for the loss of his childhood based on other's fear and misunderstanding, rage for how limited his life now seems as a result of all the "counseling" he received and, almost as importantly, rage for just how little those who were tasked with helping him listened and actually helped.
As an unconventional approach to musical appreciation as this is, Master of Reality is a love letter to not just one album but to music as a whole. One can find that release from self, that absolutely necessary escapism in metal or jazz or folk or symphony records. What is important, Darnielle is saying, is the moment when transcendence takes over and you almost cease to be earthbound. High art or low makes no difference whatsoever.
Through Roger Painter, Darnielle has told a story that for the first time in my reading experience, despite many marketing claims to the contrary, can actually stand alongside The Catcher in the Rye for a moving portrait of vulnerable, funny, disturbed and misunderstood adolescence. It's a powerful and disturbing piece of work, instantly recognizable in its characters to those of us who lived through the eighties when such hysteria seemed to run at a fever pitch.
You could almost consider what's been done here as an entirely new form of criticism, a Newer New Criticism in which fiction is used to get at larger truths about a piece of art, much in the way New Journalism set reporting inside a more narrative based framework. Despite never having been an Ozzy fan in my life, I felt an almost urgent need to hear Master of Reality as a result of one (fictional) person's love. That's the power of art, that connection of person to person, soul to soul.