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Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life – review

Aretha Franklin
‘Offering sisterly advice’: Aretha Franklin in the Atlantic Records studio, New York, during recording sessions for The Weight, 9 January 1969. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What do we want or expect from a voice, someone else’s voice, a stranger’s voice? After nine months of deafness, documented in his 2013 memoir Train in the Night, Nick Coleman realised he only wanted to hear voices that would “nourish and sustain” him. He found nourishment in the heightened naturalism of 60s girl group records, exemplified by the Shangri La’s’ Mary Weiss and the Marvelettes’ Gladys Horton, and in Aretha Franklin, who became a more personal prop for him, offering sisterly advice. Whenever he put a record on, he was always conscious that his hearing might go again, at any moment, and maybe this time it would never return.

This urgency gives Voices a slightly claustrophobic feel. The book covers the rock era, and Coleman has a varied enough palate to appreciate “the weird disturbance wrought by Suzi Quatro” as well as more familiar and predictable names like Dylan, Jagger and Lennon. He’s not afraid to go out on a limb and throw his arms wide for effect, so Little Richard’s voice is “the most exciting sound in the world”. Neither is he afraid to venture into synaesthetic descriptions, as with Elvis Presley: “This sound is like burnished gold; it shines”. The notion that Kate Bush’s voice “fills the sky like weather” is quite beautiful.

Coleman is very good in his chapter on John Lennon, noticing the “kindness” of his singing on Nowhere Man; even though Lennon was singing to and about himself, it’s nonetheless affecting. Every Lennon song acted as a different window on to his life, and Coleman singles out 1963’s This Boy and 1970’s My Mummy’s Dead, a cruel contrast in intensity but a revelatory one. He has a lot less to say about Mick Jagger’s voice, though he still spends a whole chapter wrestling with its authenticity, and which voice is the real Mick. Speaking of the Stones’ mid-60s singles – including Get Off of My Cloud, Paint It Black and Ruby Tuesday – Coleman says “not one of them is a truly great record in itself”, which beggars belief. Where Voices often falls down is in its inability to separate great bands and great singers – Jagger’s tough voice may work perfectly within the Stones setup, bouncing off Keith Richards’s riffs and Wyman and Watts’s rhythm section, but is fairly ineffective when isolated.

Coleman believes that emotion is more affecting when it doesn’t make a spectacle of itself – unsurprisingly, he shuns The X Factor as being “to true singing what keepy-uppies are to football; a measurement of the ability to show off”. Janis Joplin, with her bawling voice leaving no room for nuance, also gets short shrift. Instead, he loses himself in Van Morrison’s “Caledonia soul”, and the singer’s ability to attack songs as “the edge of a spade chops into a sticky clod” when he needs to, or to growl low like a lion, or even to do a pub singer impression of Louis Armstrong if that’s what a song like Bright Side of the Road requires.

John Lennon in New York circa 1973: ‘Every Lennon song acted as a different window on to his life’
John Lennon in New York circa 1973: ‘Every Lennon song acted as a different window on to his life.’ Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

With those singers who predate his musical consciousness, Coleman is less generous. He imagines alien ants in the future listening to a 1962 Dansette record player that somehow escaped nuclear obliteration in a world where the Cuban missile crisis had a different outcome. It “only has good records in it”, entirely made up of rock’n’roll, so there’s no room for crooners like Perry Como or Dean Martin. Even putting my own partiality to Martin’s Sinatra-produced Sleep Warm album aside, it’s disappointing to see these singers dismissed as “crapola” in a book on the human voice. He describes Frank Sinatra as “the totem of an alien faith”, something to admire but which he finds unrelatable: “Why can’t I feel anything myself? What is wrong with me?”, he asks. This is a very good question, but unfortunately Coleman doesn’t explore it at all. Is the impact a singing voice has on an individual all about personal taste? Or are there physiological factors that mean we hear voices differently?

Some of his language seems stuck in a previous era, like his overuse of the word “horny” – call me a prude, but I really don’t think it’s appropriate when you’re talking about Roy Orbison. Especially when Coleman has the skill to then compare Orbison’s unique mix of gentility and dread to “a cup of tea trembling on a saucer”. He sees female soul singers as more relatable than “the Big O”; these were the voices that helped him through an East Anglian adolescence.

He is intensely fond of Gladys Knight, the most unexpected voice to be discussed in depth, but even then it is her oldies-radio favourite Midnight Train to Georgia that he focuses on. I would have plumped for her masterly performance on Help Me Make It Through the Night, an essentially masculine song, which she inverts by sounding genuinely lonely; it is a shiveringly intimate and involving performance, but is quickly dismissed here as easy listening. Coleman’s subjects are essentially canonical, and Knight is about as leftfield as he gets. You find yourself urging him to dig deeper into his personal preferences – exploring the impact of the Associates’ extraordinary Billy Mackenzie, for instance, who is passed over in a single line, or his teenage muse Suzi Quatro – especially given that his hearing problems might mean he never gets another chance.

• Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life by Nick Coleman is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

This article titled "Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life – review" was written by Bob Stanley, for The Observer on Sunday 14 January 2018 09.00am

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