Alexandra Coghlan

Half-heard truths

His exploration of the human voice and its special place in our lives would be remarkable even for one who’s not partially deaf

If you’ve ever had a text or email thread spiral wildly and unexpectedly out of control or clocked a couple having a blank-faced argument in Tesco or a mother remonstrating with her toddler even though you couldn’t hear the words exchanged, then you understand the importance of the human voice. Command of tone, timbre, pitch — the how, not the what, of communication — is at once the most natural and instinctive of skills, common to every infant and its parent, and the most fetishised, finessed and, of course, monetised. A whole industry, and a lucrative one at that, exists to transform the human voice from tool to product, from nature to nurture, from prose to poetry.

Nick Coleman’s Voices aims to analyse that process, to ask why some singers set the emotional truths stored away within us vibrating, teach us who we are and change us even as they do, while others merely dazzle and divert, their songs slipping through us without ever touching the sides.

The book’s subtitle, ‘How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life’, establishes the investment that Coleman, a former pop music critic and journalist for NME, Time Out and the Independent, has in the question. But the full extent of his very personal stake only really becomes evident in the epilogue. Overnight in 2007 Coleman lost all hearing in one ear. When, in 2012, his other ear also suffered a near-complete loss, he found himself cut off for many months from sound, something he describes as a ‘necessity’ of life, no different to air or water.

This experience of loss and alienation was elegantly explored in Coleman’s previous book, The Train in the Night, and it’s perhaps with a view to avoiding old ground that he withholds this crucial information here until so late in the day.

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