Perfect Sound Whatever, by James Acaster | Book review by Steve Bennett

Perfect Sound Whatever, by James Acaster

Book review by Steve Bennett

James Acaster’s second book covers the same annus horriblis as his current, brilliant tour show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 – but with more about the music of 2016. A lot more.

The comedian argues, controversially, that those 12 months represented the best year for music ever, and set about buying every great album from that time that he could. In the end, he ended up with 366 of them, one for every day of the year.

Superficially this could be seen as a Gormanesque challenge, even if going on Bandcamp and clicking ‘buy’ is notably less dramatic than, say, flying to Australia on a whim to meet a namesake.

But what Acaster makes explicit is that this obsession, originally an casual diversion, grew to become all-encompassing as he found himself in an increasingly fragile mental state. 

In 2017, a relationship ended, he was dumped by his agent, and the demands he set himself as his career blossomed all took their toll. Collecting music from the previous year was a project he could focus on to try to alleviate the long nights of the soul in lonely hotel rooms after gigs. And he’s well aware of the symbolism of looking back to a time before everything turned to shit, even reuniting his youthful band as part of the project.

The personal story is an honest, unaffected, poignant – and, yes, entertaining – first-hand description of how even the apparently successful can be going through tough times. He was clearly lost in the world, with sad reminders of a situation he’d rather not be in at almost every turn. 

Some of the anecdotes – including a bowel malfunction in a Los Angeles steakhouse, the braggadocio of lads trying dangerously hot chilli sauce in a restaurant and  turning on the Christmas lights in his native Kettering the year after Lindsay Lohan fell through – are more naturally suited to comedy. But other stories grip because of their frank nature.

Perhaps understandably, during his quest Acaster found himself drawn to musical artists who had similar issues, whether he knew that at the time or not. Perfect Sound Whatever introduces each musician at a pertinent point in his own emotional roller-coaster.

However the sheer volume of the acts he brings into the book is daunting, especially for those who don’t share his voracious appetite for seeking out something new. 

For Acaster is not buying Now compilations or Little Mix’s latest. One of his chosen albums was recorded for an art installation about pollination and involves improvised drone noises over the sound of a beehive. Another is an experimental album recorded in a South Pole research centre by a duo called NænøcÿbbŒrg VbërrHōlökääsT. And there’s the album from a New Jersey teenager that had sold only seven copies when Acaster downloaded it. Talk about ‘I was into them before it was cool…’

Even less wilfully esoteric choices include a fusion of Ethiopian music, hard rock and jazz; a punk album by a Swedish rapper and an Afrofuturist concept album from an experimental hip-hop group about a slave astronaut. The adjective ‘experimental’ pops up quite a lot here.

There are certainly plenty of recommendations if you’re looking to expand your musical tastes, though it’s possibly an overwhelming amount of choice as one obscure artist after another makes a fleeting appearance, with a bit of biography, context and praise before moving on. It becomes a bit of a blur as each avant-garde character is introduced with all their backstory – never to be heard from again.

But Acaster is clearly passionate, informed and articulate about his eclectic musical tastes. Perfect Sound Whatever is perhaps the longest application form for a job at BBC 6 Music ever written. Somebody give that man a show..

• Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster is out now on Headline, priced £20. Click here to order from Amazon for £13.04.

Published: 12 Sep 2019

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