31 SONGS by Nick Hornby (Penguin Books, 2003)
Everyone has their own personal soundtrack but few have the opportunity or desire to share them with the public at large. Why indeed would anybody else be interested in what is essentially a private relationship with the music you have encountered?
Nick Hornby makes no presumption that we will find his own favorite songs innately fascinating but they are just the same. These 26 essays are interesting for what they tell us about Hornby the man and writer. I have no idea why he hit upon 31 as a number but I’m sure he had his reasons.
Having become a little bored with the increasingly contrived plots of Hornby’s novels I appreciated the chatty, unpretentious style he adopts here. In my view he has never topped Fever Pitch, his first published work, and 31 Songs is in the same down to earth spirit.
It is about music in the same way that Fever Pitch was about soccer; in other words, the topic serves as a useful way to contextualize subjective observations about life and popular culture. There are plenty of sharp insights on how our tastes change as we get older and particularly touching are the essays in which he talks about the pain and pleasures of fathering an autistic son.
Hornby was born in 1957 so is just one year older than me. This collection of essays was written when he was in his mid 40s. I have a theory that the music that you are into at the age of 18 becomes a reference point for all your subsequent listening habits. In my case this was Punk Rock but this didn’t seem to have the same impact on Hornby. His choices are mainly in the more conservative genres of folk, commercial pop, singer-songwriters and classic rock . With a few exceptions he chooses quiet ballads and mature love songs over rebel songs. I’m grateful to him for introducing me to Ani DiFranco’s touching breakup song You Had Time.
In this context, Patti Smith’s Pissing In The River and Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop are probably his most radical selections. The latter is linked to Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough and is the best essay in the book. In it he concedes that while Suicide’s track is impressive and disturbing his broad taste is for something less extreme: “I need no convincing that life is scary. I’m 44 and it has got quite scary enough already – I don’t need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency”.
He likes Teenage Fanclub and other feel good music which is designed to console, move, cheer and uplift the listener. They are not the songs I would have chosen but that’s not a criticism . This is the kind of book that encourages celebrities and nonentities alike to think about the songs that changed their lives. Read it and see if you can resist the temptation to make your own list.