Prior to reading Rick Moody’s essay collection On Celestial Music: and Other Adventures in Listening, I was most familiar with his novel The Ice Storm. I wasn’t particularly fond of that novel, and it is one of the few cases where I liked the movie version better than the book. That experience with Moody’s fiction as well as the rather pretentious title of this collection didn’t get my hopes up too high, but I knew I had to at least give a chance to a collection of essays that covered acts as diverse as classic rock staple The Who and jazz barrier breakers the Lounge Lizards.
I’m definitely glad I gave this book a chance. Moody writes skillfully about a memorable Lounge Lizards concert, capturing both what the band was doing on stage and what the feeling was like in the audience. The strongest essay is probably “Guilty Pleasures,” which discusses a meeting of a record club the author belongs to where each member decided to bring two songs he or she considered guilty pleasures. He talks about the embarrassment in having to not only admit to liking but having to play a song by his two picks—Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull. (Although he only gives their initials, Moody notes that several prominent writers, in addition to himself, and a well-known painter are in his record club, thus making it potentially embarrassing to share any songs let alone ones he is guilty about liking.) The common occurrence of guilty pleasure music eventually becoming hip again is also explored in the essay as Moody talks about how the progressive rock elements of Zappa and the quiet acoustic music of the Jethro Tull song he shared were starting to come back in vogue. The essay was written in 2005 and his argument seems even truer now with acts like Grizzly Bear and The Decemberists having critical and commercial success.
In a digital age where most any song can be accessed via YouTube it may seem pointless to write about music anymore, but Moody’s insights show that it is still a very worthwhile endeavor.