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AT LEAST once a week I listen to Earth, Wind & Fire's "That's the Way of the World", often in the car. I sing along, moved every time by the falsetto crescendo: "Plant your flowers and they GROW!" and gripped by a single guitar note which comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere and ought to add nothing but upon which everything depends.
It's the mark of a good song that such lyrics carry themselves off as pure rather than plain silly, oxygen rather than helium. It's also important that I cannot explain how that note works. On this front, Hornby cites Dave Eggers, whose theory is that we listen to songs until we've figured them out.
Nick Hornby's modestly presented collection of short essays about songs includes a number of other insights. For instance, that if we go on listening to a song, it loses its associations, its first place. I was struck by how true this is, except in the case of Earth, Wind & Fire who still take me back to a flat over a shop in Essex and a white shag-pile carpet. If that sounds a bit sordid, I'll have you know that, like the foursome who stand around listening to Otis Redding in Jim Cartwright's Road, the unforgettable fact is that nothing happened, we just listened.
In 31 Songs, Hornby does something far more interesting than bang on about his greatest hits; this is not Top of the Pops plus one. Without shying away from personal associations, he seems to have chosen each to make a point about pop.
One is that a song like Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" can know how an Englishman who has neither porch nor screen-door nor convertible, feels. Hornby calculates that he has listened to this track 1,500 times: "just over once a week for twenty-five years, which sounds about right, if one takes into account the repeat plays in the first couple of years". It's as if he has allowed the song to choose him in the same way that, as he says here, it was Anne Tyler rather than Kerouac or DeLillo who really spoke to him when he began to write.
Hornby is not afraid of the word "perfect". He recognises the sensation and does not discriminate. He knows how songs seep into our consciousness, here Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like a Bird", which he pre-empts by saying that of course a lot of pop is inane but sometimes you hear something and it drives you "pleasurably potty". This made me think of Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You", which I can't stop humming now, and want a copy of, even if it does have what sound like budgerigars on backing vocals.
The adventure of music lies in not knowing where it might lead. Rod Stewart led Hornby to Bobby Bland who took him on to BB King and the Chess label - a music buff's three steps to heaven. The conversation that one song has with many others is part of the joy of music, as it is of any art form, and Hornby makes the astute observation that a bad band has often not been listening: after all, Yes and Genesis only referred back as far as Pink Floyd.
Hornby doesn't listen to a lot of classical music or jazz. It is pop, broadly defined, about which he is passionate and which he explains so well. He is relaxed enough to allude to Andrew Wyeth, Walter Pater, Gramsci and even God - whom he imagines as "a …