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

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Nick Coleman’s analysis of pop’s most thrilling singers brims with joy and well-turned phrases, but doesn’t dig deep enough

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 believes that emotion is more affecting when it doesn’t make a spectacle of itself

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