“I am deaf,” writes Nick Coleman, longtime music journalist and author of “Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life.” “[N]ot completely deaf,” he continues, “but I am very deaf. One ear has no functional hearing in it at all. … The other one has some hearing in it still but is afflicted with what clinicians define as ‘severe hearing loss,’” the result of a sudden neurosensory burnout.
For Coleman these last few years, sound has thus meant pain: auditory hallucinations, debilitating migraines, sustained anxiety. It has meant loss and loneliness — an evaporation of peace and memory. It has come and gone, visited and vanished like some untraceable comet in evasive maneuver. And in Coleman’s latest book, it’s a force that demands attention.
With “Voices,” Coleman continues the work of his previous memoir, “The Train in the Night,” in which he focused on the physical and psychological distresses created by his sudden illness, using writing to rewire his connections to the world and its music. In his latest, Coleman extends this project, focusing on the human voice’s dynamism across a catalog of primarily late-boomer recordings.
Divided into 10 essays, the book covers pop vocal standouts including the laryngeal grind of Suzi Quatro, the timbral acrobatics of Margaret O’Hara, the purgatorial wail of Patti Smith and the gentle quaver of The Kinks’ Ray Davies. Coleman’s book argues a central point: “voices do not exist merely as emblems and symbols of our lives,” but rather “are vessels — carriers, vehicles, safety deposit boxes — in which we deposit our profoundest, most elusive feelings for safekeeping while we proceed with the tricky procedures of life.”
Unlocking those voices as archives of personal and communal feeling is thus the core aim of Coleman’s book: to examine oneself through sound, to hear oneself refracted through the voices of one’s heroes — and to do so while one has the chance.
Most everything written in “Voices” was composed when Coleman’s hearing had improved just enough to enable a return to the rock, soul and R&B records that most moved him as a young musicophile in 1960s-70s East Anglia. The immediate goal: store up as much musical knowledge as possible before losing hearing entirely.
The effort resulted in a personal survey of a varied corpus. In his essays, Coleman writes on the impact of Led Zeppelin, Dexys Midnight Runners and The Shangri-Las — on their effects on listeners like him, working through self-constitution alongside the identitarian uncertainties of postwar England. He reflects on how Marvin Gaye’s voice came to evince a soul “as teeming as the universe itself”; how Aretha Franklin’s phraseologies could “create the illusion that time is both elastic and, when occasion demands, static”; and how Karen Carpenter’s “flowing legato phrasing” could leave melodies suspended in mid-air, “as if finished, for you to contemplate at leisure in memory.”
And yet it was the voice of John Lennon — or rather, his array of voices — that most arrested Coleman’s attention: for Coleman, Lennon’s voices “aren’t contrasts in style; they’re facets of an emotional landscape. Not masks but revelations — of new faces, new feelings, new angles on the tricky experience of being alive.”
This multiplicity is key. For just as there are many Lennons, so too are there many Colemans: at least one for every record, and even more for every decade.
Sometimes, though, finding language for excess — finding vocabularies for voices always “brimming with stuff” — is difficult, even risky. Some experiments are successful; others burst into flame (i.e., “Joey Ramone’s voice was the cry of a fat baby seal stranded limbless on a floating ice shelf, abandoned by its mother.” And still others, however well-measured, emit noxious fumes, like the grating rendering of TLC’s “aesthetic” (“take this wit-choo on the way out the door, homeboy, ’cause we are the ones in charge around here”); the antique proclamation that “everything jazzy that follows ‘A Love Supreme’ only counts really as an afterthought”; and the absurdist point, in the opening essay, that had the Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in nuclear war, it would have meant “No Beatles, no Stones, no Animals or Yardbirds,” etc.
And yet these missteps, glaring as they are, actually feel central to this book’s achievement: the celebration of grain, roughness, imperfection, lo-fi and, really, any sound at all.
In Coleman’s situation, removed as he is from sound’s embrace, to hear any voice is to find brief respite amid neural cacophony. It’s to press an ear to a wash of muffled color, to a wall between you and “audible life.” And so to hear the voices you grew up with — the fighters, the crooners, the screamers, the singers — is to appreciate the degree to which your self-concept is built from the truths of others. A song worth singing today, amid so much.
Jonathan Leal is a writer and musician from the Rio Grande Valley. Currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is also a 2018–19 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic with the National Book Critics Circle. Twitter and Instagram @jonathanjleal
“Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life”
Counterpoint: 288 pp., $26