The British music paper NME wasn’t always the limp joke (“Rock Is Back!”) it is now; back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it owned. Chalk it up to punk and post-punk exploding in the U.K. at the time, but another key to NME‘s success was a cadre of young writers, not least among them Paul Morley, who made music journalism—not just music—seem strange, beautiful, and vital. The articles and the music that inspired them appeared to be part of a single messy and thrilling creative process. In Morley’s case, he literally did participate in creating pop music, as a founding member of the Art of Noise and later in his work with Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Morley revisited his earlier life in 2000’s Nothing, a heartbreaking memoir built on interlocking tales of the suicide of his father, and of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. This U.S. release of 2003’s Words and Music also rests on two cornerstones: slick pop goddess Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room. Add to this loopy but admittedly neat conceit that you’re zooming in a futuristic car (Kylie’s driving) through the history of popular music, or rather, a canon of latter-20th-century cool that, to Morley’s credit, he helped establish in the first place.
Words and Music often reads like a ’70s concept album—brainy, high on whimsical ideas, occasionally overblown (“I am the greatest rock-and-roll writer in the world,” he writes, tongue only half in cheek). As writing, it’s more prog than punk, right down to the difficult time signatures (inside baseball about the music critic game) and intricate guitar solos (densely packed footnotes, riffs on everyone from Missy Elliott to Kraftwerk). There are also many soaring moments of release, provided that you endure the tension-building noodling it takes to get there.