Rob Sheffield’s debut memoir, Love Is A Mix Tape, combined the heartbreaking story of becoming a widower at 31—his wife Renée suffered a pulmonary embolism—while the alternative music scene that included Pavement, R.E.M., Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and others burst through to the mainstream. Sheffield effortlessly bounced from waxing poetic on music to scenes of falling in love with the woman who would become his first wife to the crippling grief he faced in the aftermath of her death. His follow-up, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran, went back to Sheffield’s adolescent years in the ’80s, dripping heavy with nostalgia for critical darlings and bubblegum trash, but without the laser focus of his debut. Turn Around Bright Eyes, Sheffield’s third book, coheres even less. It’s an essay collection loosely tied together with karaoke, singing, and the author’s refutation of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote that “there are no second acts in American lives.”
In 2000, Sheffield moved from Charlottesville, Virginia to New York City, and got hooked on karaoke with friends. In a parallel narrative to this infatuation with performing live, Sheffield drops in bits of relationship history with his now-second wife, Ally, a music-obsessive astronomer who he met while on a trip back to Charlottesville where she was working as a DJ. It’s a back-to-love story in miniature, and Sheffield digs into their connection through their shared karaoke experiences. The dual infatuations mirror each other, as Sheffield grows more obsessed with both, hopping around in their history, intertwining first dates, long nights singing song after song, and a rather obligatory account of living in New York City post-9/11.
But aside from Sheffield’s journey back to life and romantic satisfaction, the karaoke link drops out in favor of longer tangents. A chapter on Rod Stewart opines at length on aging through liking, hating, and eventually becoming like the “Maggie May” singer, but doesn’t tie this appraisal of Stewart back to karaoke. Similarly, Sheffield’s trip to Rock N’ Roll Fantasy Camp for a Rolling Stone assignment—right around the time of The Simpsons’ “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation”—touches on knowing he has a weak voice, yet being entirely unembarrassed, and the ability for karaoke to allow people that brief moment of rock fantasy any night, anywhere. These diversions always dovetail back to talking about vocals or Sheffield’s evolving sense that experiencing love again is still possible in some way, but the circuitous route to the book’s central conceit gets tiresome.
Sheffield’s chapters on his parents and the singing heritage of his Irish family frame his infatuation with singing despite having little talent in a more storied lineage. But aside from some rote history that would turn up in any cursory Internet search, Sheffield doesn’t adequately engage with the proliferation of karaoke since the late 1980s or the larger implications of its ubiquity. This is more memoir and essay collection than pop-culture history book, and the umpteenth theory on Lennon and McCartney’s songs about women doesn’t play the same as an experiential essay of singing The Beatles at karaoke would.
Sheffield’s writing style is breezy, relaxed, and, most significantly, positive. He’s at his best when singing the praises of something he really likes, regardless of its popularity. But Turn Around Bright Eyes lacks the focus that gave Love Is A Mix Tape such sneaky gravitas and heart, and it doesn’t dig deep to find newer theories on such well-trodden artists like The Beatles and Rod Stewart. He carries traces of the Cameron Crowe era of Rolling Stone, openly admitting to wanting to make artists feel good about their work, but he also hasn’t quite caught up to the Internet age of music criticism, which is continuously searching for something on the cutting edge. Though Sheffield writes about his life since 2000, his sensibilities remain nostalgic for a period of time that has been written about to death, and the lack of new observations is starting to show.