Good Reviews vs. Bad Reviews

Calamateur

“Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters.”
- Dave Eggers

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you already know I released a new album this year called ‘Each Dirty Letter‘.

You can listen to it here:

The album received many good reviews, all of which I’m very thankful for. You can read some of them here.

It also got some pretty bad ones, and in the interests of transparency, honesty and commercial suicide, I think it only seems fair to let you hear both sides of the story.

So how about this one for starters:

“A breezy collection of no thrills pop…limp and pedestrian….far too often do the songs get bogged down in sentimental slush…”
- The Skinny

Or how about these kickers:

“If you’ve lost your heart to a girl in a woolly cardigan then this album is the perfect paracetamol to add to your iPod’s pain killer collection. Otherwise, it will probably leave you cold.”
Bluesbunny

“…too many of Calamateur’s songs are stillborn acoustic meanders. Too often the tunes limp along without focus…”
Halesowen News

“‘A Bad Friend’ sounds clunky and out of place in what is otherwise a cohesive album and ‘Sad and Lonely World’ is so slow and repetitive I defy anyone to not skip tracks through sheer boredom.”
- Red Hot Velvet

And my personal favourite:

” Each Dirty Letter is so wet that even Mumford & Sons take turns to dunk its head down the loos of Folk-Rock School. Lead single “Banoffee” is as sickly sweet as its name suggests, trotting out a whole slew of trite lines and clichéd couplets. Elsewhere there’s the James Blunt-alike “Honestly” and the none-more-grey “Testimony”….the album reaches its nadir on the frankly embarrassing “A Bad Friend”….criminally anodyne.”
- Drunken Werewolf

Ouch!

But wait a minute…

Red Hot Velvet think ‘A Bad Friend’ is “clunky and out of place”, while Drunken Werewolf thinks it’s “frankly embarrassing”?

But didn’t skiddle.com describe ‘A Bad Friend’ as “the strongest track” and say “It is the more personal moments like this that make Each Dirty Letter an engaging album”? And didn’t Americana UK say “the simple solo acoustic charm, and regrets of, ‘A Bad Friend’…gains strength in its sparseness”?

Hmm.

Red Hot Velvet also say “‘Sad and Lonely World’ is so slow and repetitive I defy anyone to not skip tracks through sheer boredom.” But Americana UK think it’s ‘masterfully restrained”, while my good friend Dave Saunders think’s it’s the best track on the album.

Huh.

Both Drunken Werewolf and Crack in the Road directly compared my songs to that of James Blunt’s. Well, no one wants to be compared to James Blunt. After all, he did this:

Ugh.

But then the Scottish Sunday Express said “(Calamateur) belongs in that small band of clever singer-songwriters who write sharp, beautiful songs (Ed Harcourt, David Ford, Tom Macrae to name a few) but are destined never to reach the heights of stardom that infinitely less talented people like James Blunt have achieved.”

OK… so, uh, now I’m confused. Who’s right here?

When it comes to reviews – good or bad – the temptation has always been for me to let the value of my music be defined by what another person thinks of it. At my worst, I’ve allowed the value of my very self be defined by one person’s singular point of view.

So if I read a great review I would be as high as a kite, because I felt worthwhile and important. Conversely, if I read a bad review I would feel useless and foolish.

There was a time in my life when bad reviews like the ones above would have crippled me creatively and, to an extent, emotionally. Thankfully that’s no longer the case.

After all, whether a review is positive, negative or indifferent, it will only ever be one person’s opinion. Taste in music is purely subjective. I don’t believe there is such a thing as good music or bad music anymore – there is just music that you either connect with or you don’t. Music you like or dislike.

The very idea of having refined musical tastes, or thinking your taste is better than another’s is, to me, laughable I’m afraid.

Of course, there is the odd exception to the no good/bad music rule. For instance:

After having read all of these bad reviews, I realised I hadn’t actually listened to my album for a long time. So I put it on and remembered just how much I love it; how proud I am of the songs themselves, how I think everyone who played on it did an amazing job, and how Iain Hutchison pulled it all together so brilliantly.

I’ll admit it’s polished, it’s sentimental and it’s not anywhere near as rough, experimental or lo-fi as my previous outings. But that’s how I wanted it to sound. Some people will be disappointed about that but, to paraphrase my friend Steve Lawson, if you want to hear a glitchy, lo-fi, indie guitar record that all the hipsters will like… please, by all means, go and make it yourself.

So, I’m glad of the good reviews and that people are enjoying the album. And I’ll read the bad reviews carefully to see if there’s any criticism worth taking on board – a lesson I learnt after reading this recently:

“You should listen to feedback but you don’t have to take everything you hear as being absolute truth….Not all feedback is given with sensitivity, but we can still learn from it…We need to learn to listen to what those people are saying and overlook how they’re saying it. Not all feedback is given with good intentions, but you can take what is helpful and leave the rest.”
- The Heart of the Artist by Rory Noland

So what will I do next? It might be another album just like ‘Each Dirty Letter’, with the same producer and the same band playing on it. Or it might be a self-produced solo acoustic album. Or it might be a collaborative EP with Iain Morrison. Or it might a double album of acapella scat singing (probably not).

I don’t honestly know yet, but I do hope that whatever I make next is better than what went before. And while I might listen to what other people have to say about my music, and sift through it all to see if there’s anything constructive or helpful in there, I won’t let another person’s opinion define what I make, who I am or what I do.

I’ll leave you with the wise words of a man who’s been doing this a lot longer than I have:

“I’m afraid to say that admirers can be a tremendous force for conservatism, for consolidation. Of course it’s really wonderful to be acclaimed for things you’ve done – in fact it’s the only serious reward, because it makes you think “it worked! I’m not isolated!” or something like that, and it makes you feel gratefully connected to your own culture. But on the other hand, there’s a tremendously strong pressure to repeat yourself, to do more of that thing we all liked so much. I can’t do that – I don’t have the enthusiasm to push through projects that seem familiar to me ( – this isn’t so much a question of artistic nobility or high ideals: I just get too bloody bored).”
- Brian Eno

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7 Responses to Good Reviews vs. Bad Reviews

  1. Richard says:

    I make a distinction between “good” and “positive” reviews, and “bad” and “negative” reviews. For instance, I think you can have a good review that is extremely negative about what you’ve done. A good review should give the reader some idea of what they’d hear if they were listening, and ideally (especially if the reviewer is good and her voice is familiar to the reader) a reader should be able to tell from the review if they would like a record *even if the reviewer hated it* and vice versa. I would guess that from an artist’s perspective that same review could be deemed to be an unpleasant, but useful critique. Perhaps the songs really are mining already over-familiar territory, or are experimental for the sake of experiment and at the expense of melody, or whatever the negative review might say.

    A poorly written positive review, on the other hand, is something you hope people won’t read because you’re scared they’ll think your record is dumb too…

  2. Hey.

    Though not directly analogous I think this analysis of application reviews on the Apple app store is pretty illuminating. http://www.marco.org/1111087530

    What Richard says is pretty spot on too.

  3. calamateur says:

    Richard – I agree with everything you say. Thanks for copying this in from your previous email and for proof-reading my post :-) (I know you love your emoticons)

    quiethyperbole – good link, thanks. Looking forward to reading your blog.

  4. lynn says:

    I love your honesty in putting this post up. And at the end of the day, if you sit back, look and listen and are proud of what you have created – well, that makes me think you are in good company with at least One Other!

  5. Steve Lawson says:

    Excellent bloggage, sir.

    i think the Eno quote is key here – the debt of gratitude that can be imposed on an artist by listeners who thought ‘we liked that, why have you changed it this time?’ is pretty powerful. It also leads to some pretty disastrous music, as witnessed to by the musicians making it. I’ve seen so many ‘history of the band’ docs where they talked about the follow up to their biggest record being mired in the pressure for a repeat performance…

    And as Richard so wisely says, positive reviews can get it completely wrong, and negative ones may, on occasion, actually enlighten. But wading through the shit to get there is really tough. I’ve had hyperbolously great reviews that I still think missed the mark by miles… their reasons for loving what I do just aren’t present in the process or as far as I can tell in the outcome… weirdness.

    So I make the music I love and invite people to be a part of it if they too find something in it that works for them. I’ve intentionally not submitted anything for review or radio from the last few albums I’ve released. the radio I’ve had has been DJs getting excited and asking for it. The reviews I’ve had have been people who love it choosing to write about it. I’ve not really seen any notable dent in my sales as a result :)

    You have carved out a sound for what you do, and have stretched genre-notions of what that sound should be to breaking point. It’s all you but utterly defies categorisation. People are not going to get that. If they like your scratchy lo-fi stuff because it’s scratchy and lo-fi, of course they’re not going to get the slicker stuff. But the magic of your music is you, not the container. I have every faith you could do a record of instrumental ukulele music and it’d still have your soul through it like a stick of rock.

    Keep doing what you do because you can’t not do it. it’s all fabulous xx

  6. calamateur says:

    Thanks Lynn and Steve.

    Steve – Wow, not sure what to say. Thank you. Some of the background to this is that because this album is the best, and most commercial, thing I think I’ve done so far I wanted to make the best effort I could to promote it. Being stuck up here, not gigging much and also being the worst salesman in the world, I decided to pay a PR company to do a 3 month campaign. It’s been an eye-opening experience and the radio sessions, airplay, interviews and reviews have all come from that. I don’t know if it’s had much of an effect on sales but I’m still glad I did it. The sessions and interviews have been fun and the reviews will hopefully come in useful in the future. Thanks for your kind comments and your encouragement over the years. Now I’m off to buy a ukelele…

  7. Rachael says:

    As someone who runs a music reviews website, it’s worthy of noting that bad reviews often get the most hits, thus raising publicity for an artist. I certainly don’t always agree with the opinions of my writers, and they don’t with me either.
    I get emails every day from readers telling me they disagree with a review (positive or negative). Sometimes I agree with them, but I wouldn’t edit a review because of that.
    Oftentimes, bands and readers forget that we (music websites and magazines) have a job to do as well. And of course the feedback we get can sometimes give us that high or sink us to wondering why we bother!

    A very interesting blog; as already noted in previous comments, your honesty is admirable.

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