Ratliff astutely diagnoses the psychology underlying this state of affairs. “In many cases, having rapidly acquired a new kind of listening brain—a brain with unlimited access—we dig very deeply and very narrowly, creating bottomless comfort zones in what we have decided we like and trust,” he writes. “Or we shut down, threatened by the endless choice. The riches remain dumb unless we have an engaged relationship with them.”
An “engaged relationship”—what’s that? Well, you know: Active listening. Open listening. The kind of listening that happened more often when switching from an unfamiliar song back to an old favorite wasn’t so frictionless—when the unfamiliar song had cost you $16.99 and a trip to Tower Records to acquire, and the old CD was gathering dust somewhere under your bed. Ratliff has 20 suggestions, mostly good ones, for how to achieve this level of engagement in a world overflowing with new and strange, and instantaneously available, sounds. He reminds us, as he proceeds, of how urgently we need adventurous critics like him at a time when the notion of musical discovery has been appropriated by tech companies and sidelined in the chase for clicks.
In concept, Every Song Ever can’t help but evoke the stereotype of the High Fidelity record-store clerk enamored with the obscure yet conversant in the popular, and prone to over-the-top displays of his expertise. Each chapter comes with a playlist, many of which might seem like parodies of eclecticism. One hopscotches from Beethoven to Miles Davis to the rap duo Outkast to the ’80s punk band Big Black to the salsa troupe Sonora Ponceña. Yet Ratliff plumbs his mental library not to show off but to show how you, too, can be this omnivorous. He wants to offer all readers a way to appreciate, even love, songs that no right-functioning recommendation engine would ever put in their earbuds.
The 20 ways to listen promised in the book’s subtitle are more like 20 elements to listen for, and in a sign of Ratliff’s democratic aspirations, they are not terms from music theory. Rather than obsessing over time signatures or chord progressions, he suggests paying attention to “general associative qualities that have to do with the actual experience of listening.” A few of those qualities are easily understood and derived from nonmusical life: repetition, density, speed, slowness, sadness, closeness. Ratliff creates terms for others, including transmission, wasteful authority, and memory and historical truth.
Many of these phrases are concretely defined, brilliantly analyzed, and widely applicable. In one of his best chapters, Ratliff makes “stubbornness and the single note” his theme, probing the musical phenomenon of playing the same tone over and over. Think about the guitar solo in the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”: one tone stabbed out 64 times, evoking a malfunctioning electrical line or a phonograph needle stuck in a groove—something you have no choice but to pay attention to. Ratliff argues that whether it’s Johnny Ramone or Neil Young or Thelonious Monk or Drake, a musician uses such moments as “a form of resistance or play—or resistance as play.” Or, more plainly, as “warnings, or challenges, or alarms.” This is a true insight that’s useful: a starting point for decoding songs across all sorts of genres, like a word that’s common to multiple languages. Ratliff sharpens the point by drawing a contrast with his definition of repetition, discussed in an earlier chapter that explores how James Brown and Kesha and Steve Reich all bewitch listeners using the same, steady method. “Repetition puts a spell on you,” Ratliff says. “The stubborn note takes a spell off you.”