In his introduction to I'll Take You There, critic Bill Friskics-Warren promises "to gainsay the logocentric tendency" of most rock writers, and listen beyond song lyrics to what the music has to say. He's set himself a hard task, and while he isn't always up to it, that's only because it's tough for a gifted writer to leave words entirely behind. I'll Take You There weaves together a series of essays about rock, punk, pop, country, techno, rap, and soul musicians whose work eases—or even pushes—listeners out of their own bodies, toward heaven, toward other people, or toward oblivion. Friskics-Warren offers an infectious appreciation of Van Morrison, New Order, Johnny Cash, Sly & The Family Stone, and Sleater-Kinney, explicating their gifts as performers and returning, inevitably, to what they have to say for themselves.
Sometimes his faith in their words gets him into trouble. Friskics-Warren puts too much stock in the spiritual quests of Madonna, which impress him in ways that U2's similar public anguish apparently doesn't. And though he smartly considers Eminem as part of a soul-sick trinity with Iggy Pop and John Lydon, he credits the rapper with more self-awareness than he's likely due. It's also a little odd that Friskics-Warren bemoans Mekons' lack of commercial success without acknowledging the extent to which abrasion plays a role in the band's music. It's especially odd given that when he covers artists with a broader populist appeal, like Bruce Springsteen and, again, U2, he seems to consider their massive audiences a strike against them. By undervaluing the phenomenological aspects of some of these careers, he often misses the transcendent, communal pleasures to be had in enjoying a hit record alongside millions of other people.
Of course, if I'll Take You There's arguments were shoddy, they wouldn't be worth contending. It's because of Friskics-Warren's patient probing that I'll Take You There is as disputable as it often is. His last book, Heartaches By The Number (co-written by David Cantwell), followed in the footsteps of Dave Marsh in elucidating a single song's power to transform the soul. This new book has Friskics-Warren aping Greil Marcus, applying academic techniques and an enthusiast's eye to popular culture. His passionate descriptions of how the music of Public Enemy and Moby works to shock and hypnotize becomes transcendent just on the page. At the least, I'll Take You There is like a sublime literary mixtape, designed to get snatches of "Caravan" and "Family Affair" hopelessly stuck in readers' heads, until they're transfixed anew by their deep spiritual promise.