Just like your favorite bands might drop an album that feels like a contractual obligation or a general swing-and-a-whiff, music critics can suffer from the same malaise. Previously commended by The Niche for his review work on The Cars, Alfred Soto must’ve gotten a “But why me?” kind of assignment or a one-hour-turnaround time for his review of Speedy Ortiz’s newest, Twerp Verse.
The pre-review blurb had me intrigued with its mention of “hidden hooks” – Where did they put them? Too deep in the mix? In a secret bonus track? In the liner notes? I had to know more! But let’s take a deep dive into the first paragraph of the review for a solid indication of some fundamental issues:
“Sadie Dupuis has a knack for flipping the aperçu into self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Merriam-Webster defines “aperçu” as “an outline” or, probably more to the point, “an immediate impression.” My personal aperçu is that the use of an obscure French term in the first sentence of a piece on a Massachusetts-bred indie rock band’s third album is *most likely* not going to help readers on their way to comprehension. Even after the 80% of readers who’ve never seen the word before have looked it up (and assuming 20% of American indie rock fans know the word is a bit generous), they’re still left with a sentence that’s going to need some incredibly potent clarification: turning immediate impressions into self-fulfilling prophecy? It makes my brain shake like it’s been hit by a devilish SAT question.
So, can we have some examples? Master Soto then tosses out the following lyric: “I’m blessed with perfect pitch / I waste it on songs you’ve never even heard of.” Now my brain’s really twitching. Presumably the comment about perfect pitch is the illuminating impression, so wasting it on these songs is the self-fulfilling prophecy? Maybe if they hadn’t hidden all of those hooks, her perfect pitch could’ve brought all the ears to the yard, I suppose.
Soto continues: “Even better is: “You hate the title but you’re diggin’ the song,” which isn’t actually prophetic because you can praise without equivocation Speedy Ortiz’s flair for the splendid title […]”
So his “even better” example undercuts the back half of the equation that I’m still trying to figure out? Oh well. I guess we’ll just breeze past the “aperçu is to self-fulfilling prophecy as blank is to blank” brain-teaser then. Probably not worth the mental effort, or the first paragraph of a review. How about the actual music? The paragraph concludes with:
“Tense, knotted, suspicious of climaxes, their third official album is the right album at the right time for them.”
Three fairly apt adjectives to describe the music, followed by a statement letting us know that the release of this album during this particular release week was not in fact a mistake. (Sorry, Father John Misty — Your “accidental leak” does not qualify as being “The right album at the right time”!) One would expect the rest of the review to illustrate why this isn’t the wrong time for Speedy’s newest collection. One would also find themselves greatly disappointed.
The issue here is the organization and flow of ideas, which can easily make or break any piece of writing. Paragraph Two, foregoing any explanation of the album’s timing, attempts to dig into the songwriter’s supposed new-found clarity; however, it fizzles out into a brief exploration of how the lyrics contain a multitude of inept men. Any given sentence seems to be an island surrounded by impassable seas of critical uncertainty.
If the reader has made it this far, Paragraph Three leaps to how challenging the album’s music is in what might have been the core of the entire piece. If P4k would allow for one paragraph reviews, this could have been it. Completely disconnected from the preceding two paragraphs, #3 makes the illuminating point (the aperçu, if you will) that this hook-loving band has a tendency to use rhythmic quirks or vocal riffs as an alternate version of a hook. Still, Soto stumbles with sentences like “Suspicious of hysteria, Dupuis is content to repeat the title as if it were a mantra, not a hook.” There’s really no telling what being suspicious of hysteria has to do with crafting or hiding hooks. Also, how “suspicious” IS this album? That makes two references to the band being suspicious of things (Climaxes and hysteria? Both highly suspicious in the Victorian Age, at least), which is something that could’ve been edited out if this piece weren’t in a seeming mad rush toward publication.
(Also, as a tip to Pitchfork so it can be fixed: the review tries to link to a YouTube clip which would have hypothetically given us a glimpse at Sleater-Kinney’s influence on Speedy’s “You Hate The Title”, but it leads instead to a “This page isn’t available” placeholder. Better to just write the name of the Sleater-Kinney track, which many Speedy Ortiz fans would likely know off the tops of their heads, sans giving YouTube more clicks and channeling people away from your site. We know how to find their music if we want to.)
“So,” the final paragraph begins, as if everything had been leading up to this inevitable revelatory summation, “while Twerp Verse offers no tune as stick-like-glue as Foil Deer‘s “The Graduates” or Major Arcana‘s “Plough” it offers compensatory pleasures.” This verdict finally brings the album into perspective with the band’s prior releases, all of which have been Pitchfork-approved, but it’s much too little and too late. After struggling through three dense blocks of unrelated and not-fully-thought-out word blasts, I hardly have the energy for a compare and contrast of Speedy Ortiz’s catalog. And Soto doesn’t bother with more than that sentence on the matter anyway. After a brief reference to 2018 Best Picture Nominee Lady Bird, the review ends by essentially saying, ‘Speedy Ortiz albums are for people who like the band.’
I take it that Alfred Soto might not be one of those people.
David C. Casey