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Book Review: Perfect Sound Whatever

Alex Thompson reviews the latest offering from comedian James Acaster, a deep dive into the music of 2016

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Image Credit: HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, 2019

2016 was the year I really got into music. I’d been a music fan for a while but 2016 was when I got compulsive -  the obsessive googling of ‘Greatest Albums’ lists, the constant listening to and researching of new albums and when I first began to write about music. It was when I went from casual fan to full blown nerd and devoted far too much of my time to scouring Pitchfork, Youtube and Spotify to try and take in as much new music as I could.
Unbeknownst to me, so was James Acaster.

Unlike me, Acaster has channelled all of this knowledge and research into a hefty new hardback book Perfect Sound Whatever, a deep dive into the music of 2016 and its impact on the comedian’s life. It’s a brilliantly niche idea that delves far deeper emotionally and thematically than the initial premise might initially suggest. In an interview with previous MUSE editor Andrew Young, Acaster described how this idea came about; “Perfect Sound Whatever is about me getting obsessed with all the music that came out in 2016, why I got obsessed with it, and why I bought so many albums that came out that year. It’s me reconnecting with modern day music and using it as a way of feeling better. ''
Beginning at a self described ‘low point’ in the comedian’s life in early 2017, the book follows his journey of healing and self-reflection through music. As Acaster feels at his very lowest, he takes solace in the music of the previous year and begins to eagerly digest as many projects as possible, ending up with over 500 albums from that year.

The albums themselves are superbly chosen and dissected. There’s obvious critically acclaimed choices that form a starting point to the project, with Frank Ocean’s incredible Blonde, Beyonce’s Lemonade and David Bowie’s Blackstar being the initial focus. There's also a whole lot of bizarre and ‘wacky’ experimental or underground records that pop up throughout the book as well. Of course there are. It’s James Acaster. Alongside Turkish political punk rap (Anarchist Republic of Bzz) and endlessly looping prog albums (Nonagon Infinity), there’s a rock record featuring mainly recorder (Surface To Air Missive's AV), a gritty metalcore album themed solely around Ned Flanders (Okilly Dokilly) and a whole host of other weird and wonderful musical gems. He’s clearly done his homework, the book itself is packed with deep cut albums that would make even make even the most hardcore music fan bemused. It’s an impeccably curated collection, spanning an enormous range of genres and styles and I found myself constantly making note of obscure albums or artists that intrigued me.  If you didn’t think Acaster could deliver such a detailed and varied review of 2016’s music - think again.

His prose is equally impressive, Acaster is clearly a man who’s read an awful lot of music reviews and seems to have no trouble churning out Pitchfork/Anthony Fantano-esque descriptions that never seem to get dull. As someone who’s been cutting his teeth at music journalism over the past few years, this is not as easy as it sounds.

It’s not just the well written and well researched content that makes Perfect Sound Whatever so enjoyable, it’s equally down to the wry turns of phrase and instances of humour peppered throughout. Sentences often carry the playful rhythm and cadence of Acaster’s stand-up and a whole host of ridiculous anecdotes make it brilliantly funny and entertaining memoir. From stories of shitting himself in an LA steakhouse to the constant jabs at fellow comedians Nish Kumar and Ed Gamble, there’s enough comedic elements to please Acaster’s core fanbase who might otherwise be alienated by the unrelenting barrage of obscure albums.

It would have been easy to just stick a couple of funny anecdotes amongst some music reviews and call it a day but arguably the greatest strength of Perfect Sound Whatever lies in the melancholy and bittersweet elements. From breakups to breakdowns, Acaster opens up about depression, anxiety and suicide in moments of stark and endearing honesty. These moments never feel forced and come across as truly honest depictions of mental health, devoid of hyperbole or any kind of ‘misery porn’. There’s feelings of inadequacy, recessed guilt, self-loathing and regret that pop up across Acaster’s narrative, something that will doubtlessly resonate with many readers.
Each moment of sadness or melancholy is tied to an album or song, each link feeling substantial and natural, never forced. Whether it’s angst and guilt leading into the bitter punk of PUP or musings on mortality segueing into Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, music seems integral to Acaster’s emotions and self-reflection. It’s at this point I realised why Acaster had chosen music to frame his narrative.

Perfect Sound Whatever is more than just a curated collection of albums, what makes it so brilliant is the endless parallels Acaster draws between music, emotions and personal experience. It’s a memoir entangled in a music book, each album having some distinct impact or vivid memory linked to it and more often than not, some hilarious or bittersweet anecdote. Just like his Netflix stand-up special ‘Repertoire’ framed around being an undercover cop is a vehicle to talk about his messy breakup, Perfect Sound Whatever is a vehicle to open up about a challenging year.

On a more personal note, there’s a lot that hit home for me in Perfect Sound Whatever. 2017 was a really rough year for me and music and comedy became the two places I found comfort. Seeing Acaster discuss his struggles and relationship with music so openly really resonated with me and I’m sure will connect with many others.

In short, there’s a lot to love about Perfect Sound Whatever. Whether you’re reading for the music or the comedy, whether you’re a hardcore music fanatic or a fan of James Acaster, there’s something for everyone ( although admittedly it works best if you are both).  Perhaps it’s the connection to my own experience of the music of 2016 that makes the premise so compelling or maybe it’s the universal appeal of music as a transformative force - either way it’s a brilliant read.

And yes, 2016 was probably the greatest year for music.
A well deserved 5 stars.

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