Sasha Frere-Jones's evolution as a writer and musician with the deceptively casual intelligence that marks all of his work.
Shuttling between his first year of life (1967) and the year he wrote the book (2020), Earlier is a glorious sequence of moments, a record of the experiences that set the shape of a life. Frere-Jones's prose floats between clinically precise fragments and emotional impressions of revelations, pleasures, and accidents. It's a book about how lives happen and sensibilities form.
As fellow music critic Alex Ross observes, “It is weird to write a book about yourself, as this book is well aware. Gazing in the mirror is not mass entertainment. Sasha Frere-Jones, a writer of nonchalant, rope-a-dope power, drops the illusion of self-knowledge and instead offers up a kaleidoscope of memory shards, faithful to the chaos of inner and outer worlds. Earlier is funny, cool, raw, wise, and secretly sublime.”
Begun in 2010, Earlier was completed at the request of Deborah Holmes, to whom the book is dedicated. Holmes is the mother of Frere-Jones's two boys, Sam and Jonah. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 2020, Holmes died in January of 2021. Earlier is the last book she read. Frere-Jones says, “Deborah was the most enthusiastic reader I've ever met. She read when she wasn't doing something else, and that never changed. She asked me to write this when we met, in 1990. I am sorry I made her wait so long.”
Sasha Frere-Jones grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. His play, We Three Kings, was recognized by the Young Playwrights Festival in 1983 and performed at The Public Theater. He completed a short film called The Take in 1986. His first band, Dolores, completed two albums in the Eighties, and he is a member of Ui, whose work is available through The Numero Group. Frere-Jones plays with Body Meπa, who record for Hausu Mountain, as well as Calvinist and Fellas. He has written about music and books since 1994, and lives in the East Village with his wife, Heidi DeRuiter.
Earlier feels like more than a memoir, more than an essay—almost more than a book could possibly hold. An expansive, hilarious, self-searching tribute to mortality and attachment and care and loss. Full of empathy, seemingly effortless, compulsively readable. Frere-Jones, who is always best, at his absolute best.
Elvia Wilk, author of Death by Landscape
Earlier is a gorgeous, prismatic memoir. It is an aching, inventive piece of memory work, lit by the universal light of grief. Its generosity and vulnerability are both contagious and humbling.
Catherine Lacey, author of The Biography of X
As a reconstruction of an incomplete life, a memoir in moments shuffled out of any chronology other than that of emotive and mnemonic affinities, Earlier ends short of the middle, when the author is twenty-one. He leaves the reader, like himself, stranded in time: what's next? There are no great lessons here, no disguised entreaties that the reader would be better off if he or she were more like the writer. What there is is a craft learned over decades, now applied to those moments, so they sing. As from less than 100 words on an Elvis Costello show (“I am sitting in the absolute back row”) from 1980: “It is two hours of pure force and connection, bit to bit, hook to hook, idea to idea.” A reader might end up feeling the same about this book.
Greil Marcus, author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century
This book, an account of Frere-Jones's coming of age, is marbled with illuminated time capsules of the New York 1970s and 80s, but it's not nostalgia. It's highly personal, an artful self-examination that floats, hovers, glows—and never wallows—on a pad of acute pain. I found it mesmerizing to read.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers, and Telex from Cuba
Sasha Frere-Jones's autobiography-in-snapshots, with its artfully scrambled chronology, is a portrait of the artist as a young slob, undergoing a whole-body education in life. The shocks of recognition are universal, the specifics of the learning unique and fruitful. The book is so intimate and conversational it practically reads itself.
"If you love music, you have to fight for it," a former New Yorker pop-music critic writes in this slim, engaging volume... Haunted by the deaths of his father and his first wife, along with his struggles with mental illness and alcoholism, Frere-Jones excavates his life's triumphs and failures.
The New Yorker
Sasha Frere-Jones is an institution of music criticism in an era when music critics are no longer institutions.