I received three books from Bloomsbury’s 33⅓ series for Christmas, and since Master of Reality is the only other published book written by extraordinary human being John Darnielle, it was the first one I sunk my brain teeth into. Each book in this series is a prolonged look at a particular album, but the particulars beyond that point are left to the individual authors taking part in the project. Nonfiction is generally the rule of thumb (whether via the oral history of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or the series of interviews that make up Piper at the Gates of Dawn) but Darnielle chose to go the route of fiction. A young boy in 1980s Southern California is committed in a teen psychiatric ward and is made to keep a journal, which he uses to explain Black Sabbath’s album Master of Reality to the head of the unit in hopes of convincing him to give back his Walkman and tapes (or at least Master of Reality).
It’s an unconventional choice in a series composed mostly of rock-geek music journalism, but it works remarkably well. I listened to the album twice before reading and once again after, but the book would stand up fine without, although I’d strongly recommend a listen at some point; ,t does add something to the reading experience. Listening to each track as it’s mentioned would be really interesting… someone should do that and get back to me).
The voice of Roger (the boy in the psych ward and our narrator) is fully realized; it’s a nuanced perspective at an intelligent young person who is unmistakably a young person, not just a 34-year-old YA author living out their teenage fantasies from the blunted hindsight of adulthood. Roger is young and undeveloped (and dark) in those critical ways that make him believable and that set off his intelligence and his perception. Longtime readers of the blog know that Darnielle can write a troubled young male like no one else, (go read Wolf in White Van) and since he also spent some time working as a nurse in places like the one where Roger is being held he’s developed a special understanding of how they worked, as well as a deep rapport with and understanding of the kids who were sent there (go listen to The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton). When the story shifts forward ten years as Roger revives his correspondence with the head of the psych unit the narrative voice changes. Roger is still intelligent, still damaged and still unmistakable Roger, but he’s lost that frenetic chaos that typifies a certain kind of youth. He’s just as perceptive, but calmer; he can step back and see things better. His perspective on Black Sabbath has changed in an important way, as well.
The book gets across a good idea of the nature of the music in question, but those considerations take a back seat to the examination of who needs an album like Master of Reality and why. It’s amazing to read as Roger looks back ten years down the line and sees why he needed Black Sabbath so badly, why Master of Reality specifically had such a magnetic draw. This book isn’t going to tell you anything about the kind of amps Tony Iommi was using or get you inside the producer’s head, but it does examine why music that might not be the best music objectively is the best and most important music to some people and why that’s so goddamn important to understand.