Music is Underrated

Listening for the Future, by Charlie Bertsch

Charlie Bertsch begins the illuminating introduction to his new book Listening for the Future by posing a question: “What do we ask of popular music?”

Einstürzende Neubauten, in a nutshell. Rome, 2017.

The book, which collects music reviews he has written for The Battleground, attempts to answer that question.

The effort is in some ways also the answer. Bertsch asks a lot of popular music. He asks different things of different artists and works, and by the end of the book, we have a strong sense of what he, at least, asks of music.

But he goes on in the introduction to note that most consumers “do not ask more and are confused by those who do. And they are not likely to wonder what popular music asks of them”.

Charlie Bertsch recognizes this but firmly places himself on the side of those who ask. He describes “a tension between those who use music as a way of deadening the impulse to seek social and political change and those who use it as a way of amplifying their dissatisfaction with the status quo”.

If you are the sort who skips introductions to more quickly get to the “good stuff”, I encourage you to read this one. Because in 30 or so pages, Bertsch supplies the context for the reviews that follow, writing cogently about popular music and its place in our social and cultural lives.

And that context is not just social; Bertsch uses subjective response in his criticism. Thus, “it feels important to acknowledge the specificity of an experience in my life and the impact it has had on my perception”.

Listening for the Future resembles a memoir, or perhaps a journal of the pandemic years, because Charlie Bertsch informs his criticism with his personal experiences.

Writing about Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C.’s album A Hero’s Death, he connects the repetition of the phrase “Life ain’t always empty” from the title track to events in his own life, much as many of us as listeners derive inspiration from pop music phrases that take on added meaning as they insinuate their way into our brains.

(It should be noted that Bertsch prefaces each review with its own newly-written addendum. In the case of “A Hero’s Death”, we learn something about the personal in the new material, and that illuminates the subsequent review.)

Once you’ve read the introduction, you are ready for the reviews, which appear in chronological order. There is nothing to prevent you from hopping around, seeking out artists you like; it’s how I often read these kinds of anthologies.

Think of it as the reading equivalent of shuffle play. This explains how I ended up reading the last review, on The Buzzcocks, before I read the other reviews.

Bertsch also turns chronology into history.

When he writes about Matador’s reissue of the Gang of Four’s catalogue, for instance, the reissue appears chronologically in terms of its release, but the music Bertsch analyzes comes from an earlier time.

This gives him the opportunity to give historical context to the subject matter.

And when Charlie Bertsch discusses a new release by German industrial music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, he draws on their forty-year history.

Throughout the book, Bertsch is always placing music not only in a broader cultural context, but also within the specific history of the artists.

Charlie Bertsch makes a strong case for what he calls “the pedagogic quality of records, the ways in which they help us to hear more and hear better.”

It’s a strong case, but I’m not entirely convinced. Given a choice between a record I like and a record that is good for me, I’m always going to choose the former. (Of course, the ideal record is both likeable and good for me.)

It strikes me as a fundamental approach to art, as creator and as audience: is a record better because the artists intend a pedagogic quality, or does that quality get in the way of a record’s greatness? (Again, the two aren’t always mutually exclusive.)

Bertsch’s piece on the sole American album covered in the book (but released by the British IDM imprint Planet Mu), Speaker Music’s album Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, shows how a mix of avant-garde aesthetics and leftist pedagogy might work together.

Writing about the track “American Marxists Have Tended to Fall into the Trap of Thinking of the Negroes as Negroes, i​.​e. in Race Terms, When in Fact the Negroes Have Been and are Today the Most Oppressed and Submerged Sections of the Workers​”, Bertsch admits “That’s quite a mouthful”, adding, “And you can dance to it”.

Charlie Bertsch’s critical approach is often, for lack of a better description, kind. (Disclaimer: I’ve known Charlie for several decades. He is kind.)

In the opening addition to his review of AurAA by longstanding German electronic musician Ellen Allien, Bertsch admits that “I wish there were more opportunities for critics to confess that a record rubs them the wrong way without seeming to give it a bad review.” But he later adds, “I’m liking the record a lot more now than I did back then.”

That first sentence is packed: Bertsch understands that sometimes a work just rubs the critic the wrong way and that this affects their response to the work, but also wishes he could somehow make that response feel less unkind. And eventually, he manages to make things a bit kinder with his admission that he now likes the record.

This also comes up when he writes about the critically-acclaimed British punk band IDLES:

Ten months later, at the end of a pandemic-tainted summer, their new album Ultra Mono appeared. Because I had a nagging sense of having been a little unfair to the band in my review [of A Beautiful Thing], I made a point of listening to it as thoroughly as I would for a record I was going to review.

It is noteworthy that nearly all of the music Charlie Bertsch reviews in the book comes from Europe. That’s unusual for a book of this kind, as there is a tendency in such work to focus primarily on artists from the United States.

Bertsch’s more international approach is welcomed; he is writing about music that doesn’t always get attention in the mainstream, a great deal of which has always come from Europe.

And while he brings an academic tone to his writing here, his enthusiasm for the music he chooses to write about is clear. It’s the enthusiasm of a fan, with the writing of an astute critic.

Before his essay on Altrove, by Italian hardcore band Tenia, he writes that it’s “gratifying to hear from artists who appreciate the care I take in order to do their work justice”.

This speaks to much of Charlie Bertsch’s work. He takes care to do justice to the works about which he writes, and is happy when the artists can appreciate his reviews.

As we all are. I treasure the time Michael Tolkin thanked me for a review of The Rapture, but I don’t like to bring up the time Jimmy Iovine ripped me a new one for being mean to The Carpenters.

There is much to be said for informed kindness from critics (emphasis on “informed”), and over the years, Charlie Bertsch has served as a strong model for that type of criticism.

Listening for the Future is an excellent window into his work.

Photograph courtesy of Bruno. Published under a Creative Commons license.