Writing in the gloaming I would even call meadow, its scorched-out centre you can probably see from a helicopter, a drone, should you choose the option of aerial photography and remote capture in a time of social distancing. Should you have access to that tech, perhaps in a speculative way; should you have access, the way children have access because they discuss so thoroughly the possibilities, and they do this illicitly into the night. My excellent stenography skills, if we are calling this shorthand, were honed from adolescent hours on Microsoft Instant Messenger, affectionately known as MSN. Any one of us born in that particular bracket of the fin de siècle will understand what it means to spend time in one’s room alone, not quite as in ‘Adam’s Song’, but touching the void through sign-ins, statuses, emoticons, nudges. To live in the delirium of many glimmering windows. I wanted to call you up from my bower, listening to ‘Lime Tree’ on repeat because it carries me away; I wanted to call you up, but could I bear to put down my pen for this. You will never know if I am writing or typing; ‘this kind of thing’ bears no performative ellipsis. Had I known anyway what you would say, as someone who needs access to their own face to talk, something is coming away for free. We have been watching each other watch our own expressions: as with emoticons, each manner of the face feels curated. Some of us collapse on the phone. In the fractal reality of self-isolation, I divvy up zoomy contingencies of speech. When was the last time I talked without seeing my own face. Deleuze and Guattari argue that faces ‘define zones of frequency or probability’: the face ‘constructs the wall that the signifier needs in order to bounce off of’. Hoping to give you a meadow — multifarious and mysterious plenty — I yet give you the wall or the screen. A zoomy contingency that you are happy, that you had signed out of the chat. Against it I file down my voice to its lower registers, taking the edge off an earnestness. If you could measure the frequency of sleep, perhaps architects of the dream-state would salve the true riddles of twenty-first century expression. I wanted to call you up with a slow, perfected drawl, relay how I was hanging upside down from my bower. How I imagine the song to end is a very beautiful flower, floating down the river, but that is only how the song begins. It really ends with a daydream, ‘now that living is no good’, and the singer is lost and found as they enter the woods, barefoot like a child. Why am I telling you all this, barefoot like a child, now that I cannot tell the woods from the trees in my nameless life. And Coleridge sings, this lime tree my prison, my prison / feels like prism. If a wood haloed the meadow, if a moat, if a liquid loop — arboreal, molten, stupid. Walking in the scorched-out meadow an hour or more to be here, sometimes dreaming of this place, needing to be here — no longer a meadow for having been burned. What occurred to ruin the centre. I want to bounce, bounce, bounce with it. All my friends active now and forever. I stumble on the grammar of an instant; are you online, are you online in the meadow, I am calling you up to say this. I am checking-in, the way people used to on Facebook. What is the name of this place? The meadow goes undocumented. What is the probability that your face means the shape of a grassland, a patch of unruly narcissi, a noticing gesture that I would say I have been here before. At least in dreams. Someone is trying to brand the meadow. In quarantine, my old longing for those messaging days recurs. We all talked on that singular platform, confessed under pseudonyms, and ever since I have been lost in the trees of each channel — their foliage concealing the one true thing. Someone is trying to sell the meadow. Infinite recursion of memes and secrets and finance. There was a purity to MSN, something about its frequency. Namelessness. You see what I mean? Sometimes in the poem, I mean the scorched-out cindering middle of the poem, you take grace enough to say fuck it, hiya, wait, no, I can’t hear you. You hold ‘us’ in brackets. If I could timestamp the start to end of that, like debt. One time C. messaged me on Instagram to ask what is really meant by the gloaming. What time of day was this asked, did that matter? I think gloaming would be different at four in the morning to noon; but what did I give as reply? A quick skim of the platforms comes up with nothing. Besides, soon my battery will die in the old archaeology of dissolving thought. There was a purpose in calling you up for this, and now ants are crawling all over my notebook. Nothing has touched me for weeks. I want to say I have a lascivious craving for seaweed flakes, tousled hair, disco kisses, regular breakfasts, offline status, cetirizine, romance and saffron cakes. I have been touching nothing; lately asking myself what is it we do that makes us fruit. The blossoms are stirring on Montague Street. And you click and collect, you drag us backwards. I know that faceless, somewhere you construct the wall. Last night I ran down Great Western Road, my Spotify shuffling back to ‘Adam’s Song’, ‘Tomorrow holds such better days’. I felt burdened by the days inside the days, their seeming neon-fold, ‘the time goes by’ in the flicker of your eyelid. Because my eyes are screen-burned, hot-taken, hypothetical, exhausted; because my eyes looked too long at the meadow. Its torrified heart reduced to this logo. Because your eyes held green astride creamy lindens, to only open the same elsewhere, ‘No sound is dissonant which tells of Life’, etc. I was overwhelmed by the sweetness of power chords, the lines about apple juice spilled in the hall, harmony, the burden of a loss the size of adolescence itself. St. John’s Wort doled in the morning, soft-bitter ersatz taste of the sunlight and sensitive. I have no heart for war but air. How did I get here, on the brink of my phone battery’s untimely death, filling my notebook in the moonless April? Otherwise it would happen, haze, my father posting endless on his wall, unbeknownst to the standard quota expected on the book of the face. This feels so banal and yet I am telling you the grass is beautiful, endless, strange. Marigolds cluster around glitching trees, impossible to reach. If I could I would give you a pool of marigolds. Only just realised pool is loop backwards. Yellow and / I drag into blue and backwards to call you. I’m sorry I’ve been listening to ‘Lime Tree’ again — it’s just that this song came out in 2007, I was only fourteen, yellow + blue make green, I was starving and ever since then I’ve thought of this story. Something you could cut out from inside you, could burn from the meadow. A little kernel of narrative you tap with your tongue and your teeth, you give to me slowly. I want to leave the message to assure you, ‘It’s done’. Would you know I was talking about the disease? I was coming down from my bower, coming down, breezeless and sleepy, wishing I could call you up and quote the line, ‘Don’t be so amazing / Or I’ll miss you too much’. I wish I could climb through a window to see you, smooth myself right through the glass. Could I miss what I had not yet touched, in April’s middling haze of something receding. All those years you had told me to eat. Oh you know and you know and you don’t. Remember those hours? If we could give them back, little gifts of death, as Derrida says, like an ethics. It’s only me. I’m sorry if calling freaked you out from inside the machine. What I wanted to say was, it made me ecstatic, on GWR, zoomy the song and the voice and I could see Venus so bright in the sky. And the sky was rich as ganache, thick filled with more sky; Matty would say like chocolate, or saffron, or debt. Such a spooky ecstasy! (<3) The calorific night…I write you this so as to cut into it, hazy, reflecting, give you a slice of my dreams. Whatever anyone says feels charged with history, so I want this to be utterly redundant, depletable, delectable, careless as crossing the road without cars in the city that now never wakes or sleeps, but only deletes. The adventitious device, zoning close to us, is taking a photo. Is this a kind of labour. There are such archives beyond access they try for. Here, I will be always the small green light in lieu of a meadow, the lyrical unfinishing of cringe to know this. A breath I took / You can just call me up.
These Piscean days, I lose whole mornings to night. I spread every hour like butter to sleep, back to the melt-world with its length which is only the sentence, dripping at the end of the knife a line. These nights are nothing! Paragraphs are so conceptual and I am always failing to come inside them. I wake up to ill-formed texts and forget my dreams. ‘There is a type of daydreaming that can foretell the future’, Jenny Boully says, ‘a type of dreaming that explains why nothing is being written’. Nothing gives itself up this way. In the diner, pressurised to justify something of which I have nothing to say, I took my leave of the mirror. I watch butter drip from the knife that is poised on a plateau. Honestly, I would eat truffle fries with Deleuze any day. He’s like, ‘what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and even rarer, thing that might be worth saying’. In saying nothing, I dream my days and nothing gets written. It is a process but nothing gets written. Yes you can take the menu away.
As nothing happens, indistinguishable figures surround me and my space key sticks. The mark between will melt in your mouth. Some of the figures make violence, they bear what I can’t say of the happening. They are dripping with the fat that won’t hold language. So I am struggling to say this to you. I had this beautiful dream of the world’s oasis, its heart, not the world’s but you know whose, what that dream belonged to, what heartfreak is it the dream contends. When you cut the knife in the middle and it melts all the rainbows around it.
Truffle smell is just vapourised rhizomes, baby.
A refuge cove, pastel-hued in some new time before dusk and dawn that was not night, unnameable, not even twilight. I feel it is a word only islanders know. I was swimming so freely in this cove, my soul was archipelago, and I knew it was the end of the world, breakfast, not the cove but everything breaking up, it was happening, at long last, and we were so calm. We were so calm in our pieces. Disaster is archipelagic these days. The other person was asking me questions, confused, and I was saying it is only that things will change, and you knew and you knew, like Nico. It all breaks up. Can I convey to you the beautiful feeling of the water, which always continues? How I touched that chalky rock like it was a planet, how I said (being spoken) it is told to believe, the scales are disordered; if we keep touching the rock it only can happen. The water surrounds us smooth as cream. The sea level rose around me; I felt rosy, I knew I wasn’t the only one — I couldn’t wait to feel truly atomic, after all. The violent figures would extinguish each other, I won’t say like love.
Have you heard Grimes’ new album? For me, it is more like, I felt so light I could fall above earth, like angels descending. We might catch each other on the way. Our wings would stick, like my hair in your glasses.
After the end of the world, like the single annihilation of a mountain, bmbmbm, a kind of love that eats you from the inside out. A love without purpose. I read this satirical piece in The New Yorker which goes something like, but what about when there aren’t many fish in the literal sea? What then? Is there an app for that? Someone keeps scrolling for other expressions
…and the fish will catch you back 🙂
The scene in my dream was like the one in Antonioni’s Red Desert, where she swims around the turquoise bay, she is so bronzed and this is the lightest moment, the music, before industry almost. Childhood’s idyllic shelter is water.
I wonder about the shelter of water. What is it to swim and not actually swim, from my perch in the city, a milky white cat at the end of my bed? You end the things you say with salt. Chalkmatter colours my black leather shoes. It only snowed or almost snowed; they salt the roads so poorly. At the end of The Topeka School, revolution just is the kid doing asphalt sketches in front of the cops. I read that book by an early winter, on the old Virgin, heading north. The full spectrum of my psyche swings between two types of moon: the black cat and the white, the lunatic cappuccino continuum. miaow / miaow / miaow. It is a foamy thing, otherwise slender, dusted w/ safest chocolate stars. I could mew for a future, should it work. I sleep through the pickets; I am wracked in guilt, I wake with a cold full of head.
Why don’t you tell me a story? Why not yesterday’s?
Reality is bladderwrack. My dreams are thickening; they scent so hard.
It is mostly, surely — I’ll tell it properly later — that the story has to come out backwards. You pull the child safely away from the water, you unravel the knotweed ribbons of time, you tweeze a poison stem from my lips. Why would you? I had forgotten the cove was an island, a place to be always alone. Robert Pattinson pulls the kelp from her belly. Why would you let her fall in love with the water? You can have these luscious, indulgent memories, salt spray, and still be unsure as to who they belong. This is our state of it now. How long had I lived in nature documentary, ambient music, instead of the freak of my heart? The freak of my heart was a golden foam. The island was upside down; its bowels were dripping into the sky, there was so much lava, gold-dripping lava. The sea all warm with thermal energy. The sea gone almost gold. I go to see a movie about the smallest glacier in the world, and Iceland is a word I cherish like fruit.
So eerie, only the splash her legs make slicing the water. There was no sound.
Two types of cat, they eat up my thoughts like golden commas.
It was between what I wanted to say. It was covered in gilt and leaf. Before I slept, thinking the unsaid is a tan line and surely if I took off these clothes you would see it, crinkling frost of gold, how the not-saying had burned the skin of my chest and back, how it was all there, so plain and white, negative scripture — what I had covered. If you could insufflate the measured lines, excoriated pores of deepest carat. Shame is expensive. Whose fault is that violence? The moon-cats, white and black, they blame the sun. The scratch little hieroglyphs from the skin of my arms.
It was the interruption of a ship. A wreck. I fell for it. She leaps off the rocks of her refuge cove. She fucks up, walking through the park in tears. It is only Monday. The ship is a ghost. What do we mean when we say ‘alone’? It sailed away to a moonscape, burning. The child wants to know what that also means. Eudaemonia. The ship coming back, as it always will until the end, which is the after we’re in, we’re ever.
I want us a mountain. The strangest isolated music, whose voice was all. I dreamt somebody was threshing corn, impossibly on the side of a mountain. There was an operatic howl from the sea. I could feel these landscapes start to collapse, this deep impending heat, inland and littoral, which would surely explode on a note I couldn’t reach.
The rocks resembled faces. I found my inlet. The rocks like flesh.
‘Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent’, writes Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain, ‘But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible. But paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled’. Am I afraid of this fulfilment?
Every hour a transparency you catch on not-sleeping.
Brain function down by infinite percent.
Pareidolia is a symptom of material contingency. My transparent success of walking this back to air, a bodiless gratification, ephemeral as rainbow. It’s coming around. In time, to erase like a tan line, missing the call of a thought.
The train goes north to Aberdeen, and I want to keep going, to go as far as Inverness then west — so painfully do I miss the summer, the midges around the loch, the rich excess of Highland rain. We took photos at the mirrored curve of the road. The crazed church cat, wild heather and car rides, rice cakes. Now the light is pink on granite, there is snow on the hills.
That break I took, listening in the corridor; ‘How to Disappear Completely’. Labour’s psychic debt is a cup of tea. And why are the blossoms here already?
There’s this line by Karen Dalton in ‘Remembering Mountains’, ‘Do you think the seasons change? / Without your heart’. It’s a miracle when they do, and I hear Sharon singing it, and I love the name Sharon. I can’t stand the sight of snowdrops and crocuses, when colour still hurts because it throttles towards the overlap of the year, a loop I won’t complete. I wear it necked. They used to say I look like her. ‘Are you dreaming?’ asks the song, and I wish I was, as if I could sleep, and it is five in the morning of a Wednesday, indigo light / cheap lager, and I am watching Joan Baez on the BBC. It’s Edinburgh, 1965, and the crowd sing along in the chorus, and she is so beautiful and soft, the chords familiar, ‘O the summertime / is coming’ and I can hardly bear it, the fact of this five in the morning and the promise of leaves, long hair and warmth. Angel Olsen: ‘If it’s alive, it Will’, ‘So That We Can Be Still’. My heart among strangest cacti trembles. Whose purple heather belongs to the mountain? Her voice will carry me through the morning light, the screaming gulls, the missing sea. My cousin gives birth to a boy. And I melt on the blue I wake up to / in this flat that isn’t mine. And when the others sing along Joan murmurs, that’s beautiful.
What are your favourite books to read? I used to think, I used to think…
Everyone watches in such stillness and awe. ‘I watch you grow / from a child of shimmer’, Julia Holter sings on a fragile, chiming version of one of Dalton’s songs, ‘My Love, My Love’. What belonging does the shimmer really want? It feels like the loneliest fragment, plash of a fountain, so significant. As I write this, it’s starting to snow: rich flakes of not-snow, the long and melt of it.
Remember when the world seemed plenitude. She was 24, her voice a soprano hillside, ribboned with crystal.
Dude, the river is a drum machine.
There is an era I long for.
When the rabbit appears, is it like Donnie Darko.
When the rabbit appears, is it like in Donnie Darko.
I guess I could never get the physics.
I always felt too meta.
When the rabbit gets away.
‘Knowing another is endless’, Shepherd intones, ‘The thing to be known grows with the knowing’. I don’t exist apart from the knowledge of others. Somehow that’s soothing. Like never really knowing what you know of me, and not to know that. I give little pieces to the sun, like wine gums of soul. The sun could chew my life to its sugar and cinders. It gives me a tan line. I think about solar panels installed in the desert, a solar forest, a solace. Send a stupid text like, all of the funk is cherry coloured. Waft between; what bleeds of a middle, you press the knife in. They were playing it in the restaurant, ate to eight, and I knew this would happen forever, and I knew it had already happened. Black stuff gushing straight out from the centre. The bookings cease behind Billie’s lashes. She gets up to eat her ocean fish and the sky is an ocean eye, skinned by a knife.
Angelina, I had written so long — I wanted you to show me how to wash windows, like in the Pinegrove song, or how to paint the walls pink like in Betty Blue, or how to be painted that smutty colour of being extinguished. You would pull the ladder away. There is a ladder scene in a film you say is super beautiful but I haven’t yet seen it.
Bright Eyes are coming back! Spotify has a playlist called lofi love. I have seven unread messages; I keep deleting the apps, choosing colours to flush the hours, wishing I was outside if I felt less ill, changing skins, crying in public —
The republic of crying in public! The spun out sky is another seduction. I took notes, returning to Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate. I was particularly struck by her use of the word ‘encradling’. It seems this is something a cat can do. There is a fountain made of glass we cry beside where we used to make wishes. The secret is the fountain is a harvest of tears. In the dream where me or the girl was clung to the rock (who is she) and I knew that in touching the rock I would survive the end of the world. My paw on the rock, I would promise. Well the rock was whittled and polished and shaped, and now it’s a fountain. ‘The harm will come’, Boyer writes, ‘it never doesn’t’. We only cry beside it, cradling kittens. This is so metaphorical, he says in the movie. We can’t cry exactly inside the harm; it would be like trying to trace your own flesh with a cloud… ‘for the harm may also be like an entry in the encyclopedia of what has not yet been written’ (Boyer). Shamefully, I am still more interested in wishes than knowledge, even if the knowledge would allow me to be.
A waste of paint!
An elixir of less!
A precious index!
Watching the figure skaters twist and snap their ankles on ice — temporality of wishes — love that spark snap kick when they leap and pull each other backwards, forwards. Some of them are infinite flowers. Halo selfie in lieu of sleep, so graceful I dream of the tessellating rainbows. Watching The Love Witch, Spinning Out, Parasite, Ismael’s Ghosts, The Lighthouse.
These Piscean days are strange and excessive. Spread rainbows from the jar by your dreams and remember the all-night messaging, the synchronised falling asleep two coasts apart on autoplay, other Aprils. You look cute without glasses. I get ID’d at Sleazy’s, give the bouncer my whisky to borrow. He’s like, ‘Good night?’ and foolishly I tell him of the day, one sip on the train. That is not what he meant. I go to Aberdeen and back. I read the whole of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume in one go. In the novel, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse has a theory that ‘life could develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the earth itself constantly emits a corrupting gas, a so-called fluidum letale, which lames vital energies and sooner or later totally extinguishes them’. So his theory is trash or whatever, but what if I am scared of the earth inside me? Mum, did I really eat mud as a kid? I gathered petals from roses and watched them float in a soup bowl, calling it rosy cologne. I love the bit about developing an angel scent, so ‘good and vital’, what happens towards the end is success. I am scared of the invented theory of an earthy sickness, so I eat truffle fries with Deleuze in my dream. I am trying to garner immunity. You have lamed my vital energies! I dab my wrists with liquid tobacco, maple and cherries. I want to seem resistant to the fluidal theory. I want the teeth to sink in my wrist, a taste of pulse. Maybe like Nan I need to get close to the mountain, melt with its snow and sleep there. ‘No one is the only one‘. I am totally extinguished. They would dredge me sick from my earthly perch and call me hahaha a virgo. Sleep has its pulse like a feline body of sugar and grass and plasma. Sorry, I’m feeling milky. Sick tidings, bro. What is the odour of fresh-fallen snow? In the library the scent is quiet. When I get stressed, sometimes I experience a phantom olfactory glitch. I smell what isn’t there, this extra-sweet and ersatz presence. What is the scent of a coming storm? Who is behind me? I joke that I can feel it in my breasts, some quip from a movie, bruising me.
Melt-world of the fridge makes ice of this milk. And who would pour it?
There are so many storms of this month you could fill a class of primary children with their names, and they would take off their coats to fly with the wind and in the Red Desert story, its central heartfreak, that was the tale of the kites, to fly by your coattails, his heart murmur that almost broke us. I was sorry to cattily tell you the story. And so to gather up those fish, get caught again, you stay inside the essay.
Pour me a storm? What of language catches.
From the stage on Valentine’s Day, Angel addresses the crowd, my sweet lad, and the dusk flavoured Buckfast on the walk to find you, darkest blueberry red assessed, and the gossip would settle its glitter on song, and we would have cried had she played ‘Sister’, but to fall upon ‘Lark’ was ultimate. As if she were singing Angelina, farewell or washing windows, as if we were singing along in the car and this was the long and winding road to Arran, St Abbs or Skye. We have all these earnest chats about burnout. It’s been a fair while since I’ve seen the moon, or even the news. It snows but doesn’t settle.
Free Love – Bones
Sufjan Stevens, Lowell Brams – The Runaround
Melody’s Echo Chamber – Snowcapped Andes Crash
Sharon Van Etten – Remembering Mountains (Karen Dalton cover)
Perfume Genius – Describe
Weyes Blood – Lost in Dreams
Culte – It’s Too Cold to Be Spring
Joanna Sternberg – My Angel
Joan Baez – Will You Go Lassie Go
Conor Oberst – The Rockaways
Julia Jacklin – Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You
Billie Eilish – xanny
Ratboys – Peter the Wild Boy
Deeper – Pink Showers
The Orielles – Come Down on Jupiter
Disq – Loneliness
Sorry – Starstruck
Kississippi – Cut Yr Teeth
(Sandy) Alex G – Salt
Nice As Fuck – Angel
black midi – Sweater
Hannah Lou Clark – Trigger Happy Kisses
TOPS – Witching Hour
Hatchie – Stay With Me
Wild Nothing – Sleight of Hand
Grimes – So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth
Arthur Russell – I Kissed the Girl from Outer Space
Nekkuro Hána – Loverspy
Tan Cologne – Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico
Bonniesongs – Dreamy Dreams
Bright Eyes – Waste of Paint
Heather Woods Broderick – Wyoming
POLIÇA – Little Threads
The Concretes – Miss You
The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee
HOLY – Heard Her
The Hollies – Jesus Was a Crossmaker (Judee Sill cover)
I remained on the alert to seize those vagrant moments which seemed to me in quest, as a lost soul is in quest of a body, of a consciousness to register and feel them
— Jean Genet.
I’m in a Caffe Nero in Central Manchester, and they’re playing Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, a song I love dearly but haven’t heard in a while. People nearby are talking Italian, Portuguese, French; the coffee smells of a job I left behind. I kept dozing on the train heading south, the way you only doze as a teenager, as if falling asleep was its own laconic rebellion. As if your cares were minor enough to warrant a worldly suspension. There is something bittersweet I can’t name, for fact of the secret and something new coursing through me. I forget to spell, to brush my hair. I check in, and then out. I walk until my feet are sore. Along the canal the water glitters, a quintet of goslings tap at the grass. These shoes don’t fit yet. I’m collecting images for later, holding off the impulse to open my phone. Everything good is a little green light, an almost constancy.
There are bits of wax pastel under my nails I can’t scrape out, the blues and greens. Late at night I sketch mountains, undulating lines that mean something unnameable of time and place. This is where we are when we can’t hold it clearly. I need a selection of scenes. As if you could peel the line from the form. I do this over and over when I struggle to write. It all looks kitsch.
Transferable lines betray their futures.
As though you had to draw to think the drawing hand, the soul behind it. I could drink so much more of this thing that we are. Little symbol of something merlot. We talk of luminous substances, cinema.
I buy a badass topless postcard of Sappho. I do the splits at a poetry reading.
An elderly man from Cumbria relays a potted history of the railways between Preston and Carlisle. He tips his hat to me upon leaving the carriage; I go back to Clarice, reeling.
Suited lads order Carling till everything stops and we slump back into the city.
We do doubles and discuss our thievery; we’re not counting exactly, the hours just melt into amber, slosh after slosh and the sting of it. He says lovely hurt things, plus the syntax of limbs and rhythms. Weeks before, I snap glow-sticks onstage, follow the blue dot flash on the map. April feels sweet and easy. The blossoms are gone from the trees already. We are vaguely north. I want to hand you something precious that can’t be replaced.
We smash his plates at six in the morning, as though the heart were a sacred amphora.
Every few days I flip open Derrida’s Glas at random. I am caught on this gl, this glimmer and glyph. The only good thing we learned on that course was the runes, I see more of the runes in the church in Govan. I want to wrap my hands round a genuine sunstone, we discuss evolution at dusk and somebody is always interrupting us. The weather is clear and mild, like a symbol. Elsewhere I write the phrase, life is just stars refusing to die, and I don’t know why.
“We talked of the sun and moon, of what makes an earnest Instagram.”
I called it good air and used more cobalt to imply the sky. A man on my train resembled Mark Fisher and later I dreamt I asked him a question. Plexiglass demands a certain click. I scrolled on my iPod to find the playlist with all the rainbows, there was this chat of garage shanty and April showers. I tell your dad about the legendary felling of the lilac tree. Sometimes we think in firewood and catch sparks in the kitchen. If you want me I’ll be in the bar…
Cixous: ‘It is as if I were a fish and I wondered: “How can I be too much for the sea? How can I drown the sea?”’.
What is it we said of the question itself. ‘We never die enough’, she writes. Currently obsessed with excess, against lack. I die into the writing and it gets so I can’t even write! But that’s beautiful too, because the not-writing is the veer of the pen that leaks on my bed and the sleep that made it happen. I walked so far it was all I could do. Something turned over with pale deliberation; we had to elide the sea from each scene. And the gulls fell away like punctuation.
The fish drowns the sea with interminable shimmer! ABSOLUTE selenium. It is a vodka taste of pearlescent tendrils, it is everywhere you want to go of the road. We trundle into London at minimal expense. The air is mega.
Out in the dark, I lost the necklace with the ‘M’ on it, the one I’ve had since I was a child. I bore the loss quietly, which seemed to befit initial extinction. Later, I’d buy a watch with a face of pearl to replace it. I saw there was a value in time again.
Sincerely I wished to be a reader of science-fiction, but that was an effect of the store with all the metallic covers, the pop music. And of Messenger, ever. Some things you can’t parse from a future, but certain emotions grant you investment. There is finally something to want of tomorrow.
The day is all pinstriped and sunny, I can’t see through it.
* Scientists are finding shrimps that are laced with cocaine. We’re geared up for anything, they scream in journals. I eat my way through loops, wake shiny without comedowns. Something translucent twangs of the skin.
* I taste a nearly virtual plain, with lavender milk.
* In her poem ‘April 23rd’, Bernadette Mayer writes of a ‘cardinal’. I keep thinking of that song with the butterfly and the dogwood, the shades drawn down. It just appears, almost without comments excepting the greyness. Cixous notes, ‘The things that happen are too beautiful to be written’. This is all true and maybe why mostly the lines elude, or weigh too rich on the page these days. I am grateful for small indefinite phrases that come, and the pretty ones that even sometimes land. You can cry if you find the right canopy.
He wore green velvet.
There is all this tender intuition. The expressions of vanishing in Permanent Green Light. The protagonist who lies in a sleeping bag on this soft suburban lawn, a piñata hanging in the tree above him. Prior serenities of sleeping on trampolines through summery twilight. Blinded we’d swipe at the sky to beat the last of the leaves into tinder. Explosion is what happens to the sun all the time. It’s kind of delicious to think of that, like romance as solarity and the space between us. Measured days and days, held breath.
Dream of Sibylle Baier’s colour-green sweater. It’s made of angora and makes me sleep into the sleep of itself, as though sleep were exactly what you drew about your shoulders. And you did.
They were playing Bright Eyes in Nice ‘n’ Sleazy’s, a good omen if ever I know one. First with your hands, then with your mouth…
* Alone on the stairwell, dropping slips of snowy paper. Enjambed cacophony of the neighbours smoking, and a blue light that isn’t mine, the massive tv I pass each night in familiar windows. I love to be alone in hotel rooms, the soft mood of the light. The endless sense of mirror and sleep. When you played, you wanted to see to touch. I tried to remember the beautiful email, to make it better. Little confused thing, said so simple, sorting papers.
Sometime in April a letter I wrote.
Last edit was seven hours ago and boy can you feel it, a critical hit.
What I drew had no obvious form. I’d stopped bothering to look for permanence. There’s a new kind of ring to the rain, the smell of green leaves and the river’s illegibility. Most extravagant violet marks, a watched ellipsis. Here.
Sibylle Baier — Colour Green
Yohuna — The Moon Hangs in the Sky Like Nothing Hangs in the Sky
Pinegrove — Skylight
Hand Habits — what’s the use
Twain — Solar Pilgrim
Frankie Cosmos — On the Lips
The Bellybuttons — Mannequins, Gr.
Aldous Harding — Fixture Picture
Thee Oh Sees — Island Raiders
Youth Lagoon — 17
Buck Meek — Halo Light
Cate le Bon — Home to You
Joni Mitchell — Little Green
Weyes Blood — Something to Believe
The Cure — Plainsong
Galaxie 500 — Hearing Voices
Four Tet — Teenage Birdsong
Robert Sotelo — Orangerie
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — Planet B
PUP — Full Blown Meltdown
Better Oblivion Community Centre — Exception to the Rule
I was turning all the lights off, trying to mute history. There were several moments in which it felt like things were changing, possibly blossoming for the better. The aftermath stung and went backwards again. There was a song about the M62 I followed briefly, thinking about motorways more generally and something expansive and grey, crossing the Pennines eventually. For a week, I wrote down descriptions of the sky. Mostly they read: the sky today is grey. I then started noting the patterns in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, which often begin with vignettes of the morning:
3rd February. A fine morning, the windows open at breakfast. 6th March. A pleasant morning, the sea white and bright. 26th May. A very fine morning. 31st May. A sweet mild rainy morning. 2nd June. A cold dry windy morning.
Mostly, she summarises the day. There is much letter-writing, Coleridge dining, William writing. Walking, cooking, taking guests. There is a rhythm and comfort to her entries, the circling of Ambleside, the sauntering in sun and air. Days condensed and hours expanded, cute little details in pastoral glimpses: ‘Pleasant to see the labourer on Sunday jump with the friskiness of a cow upon a sunny day’. She sees into the life of things. She inspires me to mark the simple, joyous moments of daily existence. Like walking home along Sauchiehall Street (the nice part towards Finnieston), close of midnight, seeing a couple in each other’s arms, sobbing, the man with a bunch of flowers held behind his back. They were not by any means striking flowers, probably bought cheap and last minute. I wonder what sort of gesture they were supposed to convey. At what point in the night did he decide to buy them; did he attain them from those wandering women who pray upon drunks with their floral wares? Did he cut himself, ever so slightly as he paid for those unlovely thorns? Is love always a form of apology for self? The self when it expands beyond too much of itself, hotly craving?
17th March. I do not remember this day.
It seems irrelevant to say, today is Easter Sunday. Jackdaws torment me in the expensive fruit of a wakeful morning. I imagine pomegranate seeds falling from a pale blue sky. These days unfold with wincing clarity, like the hypnotic drag of a Sharon Olds poem: ‘I could see you today as a small, impromptu / god of the partial’. There are things we are maybe not supposed to remember. As if survival were a constant act of lossy compression. Like a contract between two people, pinkie promise, except one of you has broken it. Has let out the glitches. Your dreams and daily reveries are full of the content you’re not meant to remember. You are clasping this thing as if it might live again, and indeed it might really. It is not easy to simply file away memory. Its particular phraseology of physical pain comes floating to the surface regardless. There are techniques of displacement. Letting yourself shimmer in the wind. It was one more step to be gone again. So every song I went to put on, clicking the laptop, he was like, stop, it’s too sad. When they ask what’s wrong and you’re smiling instead, worrying the edge of your lips into muscles you don’t recognise at all. The room was a singular bottle of beer and a breeziness to other people’s sweetness. They wear lots of glitter and laugh as we did once. They are singing. I feel like the oldest in a test of forever. But anyway this is all only temporary. Things break down but they do not go away.
30th March. Walked I know not where.
I watch a film about plastic in the ocean. They haul fish after fish, bird after bird, prise exorbitant quantities of bottle caps, ring pulls, microbeads and indiscernible fragments from stomachs and lungs. It is quite the display. Hopelessly choking. Seems obscene to describe that deep blue as ever pure again. There are patches of plastic in all its particles swirling. It makes not an island exactly, more like a moment in species collision. Whales absorb plastic in the blubber of their skins, digesting slowly the poisons that kill them. I wrote a story about a whale fall once. The protagonist trains in swimming, in underwater breathing, in order to enter other worlds: ‘This place is a deep black cacophony; you hear the noises, some noises, not all the noises, and you feel the pressure ripple pulling under you’. There have been bouts of sleeplessness this month that feel like dwelling inside a depleting carcass. If every thought dragged with subaquatic tempo. Blacking out at one’s desk into sleep. Forgetting in the glare of screen flickers. I meet people for coffee and feel briefly chirpy, stirring. There are pieces of colour, uncertain information, clinging to the shuddering form of my body. Do not brush my hands, for fear of the cold. I am so blue and when he squeezes my fingers my insides feel purple. The woman at the counter remarked on the cold of my hands. I am falling for the bluest shade of violet. How anyway in such situations I become the silent type as I never do elsewhere. So ever to cherish a bruise as violet or blue. I polish vast quantities of glassware, lingering over the rub and sheen. One song or another as 4.30am aesthetic.
Emily Berry: ‘All that year I visited a man in a room / I polished my feelings’.
The questions we ask ourselves at work form a sort of psychoanalysis, punctuated by kitchen bells and the demands of customers. What superpower would you have? The ability to live without fear of money. We laugh at ourselves as pathetic millennials. I have nothing to prove but my denial of snow, power-walking up Princes Street on the first bright day of the year. The sky is blue and the cold flushes red in my cheeks. But I am not a siren, by any means; I wish mostly for invisibility. The anthem for coming home the long way is ‘Coming in From The Cold’ by the Delgados, feeling the empathy in lost dreams and the slow descent into drunkenness that arrives as a beautiful warning. Like how he deliberately smashed his drink on the floor in the basement out of sheer frustration with everything. The ice was everywhere. As though saying it’s complicated was an explanation for that very same everything. The difficulty of cash machines. Emily Berry again: ‘I wanted to love the world’. In past tense we can lend shape to our feelings. Will I know in a week or more the perfect metaphor for this dread, this echo chamber of grey that longs to be called again? I punch in four numbers.
I covet my exhaustion in slow refrain. There are people whose presence is an instant comfort. There are people you’d like to kiss in the rain; there are people you’d kiss in the rain but never again. What of the gesture of that bouquet? Surprise or apology? The sky is catching the mood of our feelings. Is this a melancholic tone of regret, or maybe an assured and powerful one? I twist round the memory of a mood ring; its colours don’t fit. I photograph the rings beneath my eyes, finishing an eleven hour shift. She shoves rose-petal tea biscuits under my nose but I smell nothing. I watch the chefs at work, caressing their bundles of pastry and sorrow/sorrel and rocket. I climb many stairs and assemble the necessary detritus of another funeral. Sadness requires a great deal of caffeine.
I eat mushrooms on toast with Eileen Myles. I long for the lichens on the trees of Loch Lomond. I sleep for three hours in Glasgow airport, on and off, cricking my neck and drifting in and out of vicarious heartbreak. Lydia Davis is often perfect:
But now I hated this landscape. I needed to see thing that were ugly and sad. Anything beautiful seemed to be a thing I could not belong to. I wanted to the edges of everything to darken, turn brown, I wanted spots to appear on every surface, or a sort of thin film, so that it would be harder to see, the colours not as bright or distinct. […] I hated every place I had been with him.
(The End of the Story)
Must we coat the world in our feelings? What of the viscosity that catches and spreads on everything? There is an obscenity to beauty in the midst of defeat. Year after year, I find myself dragged into summertime sadness. There is so much hope in the months of June and May, soon to dwindle as July runs spent on its sticky rain. The lushness of a city in bloom, all fern and lime, is an excess beyond what dwells inside, the charred-out landscapes of endless numbness—or ever better, missing someone. We covet the world’s disease as externalisation of our hidden pain. Let things fragment and fall away; let there be a sign of change in motion. How hard it is to be happy around depleted friends; how hard it is to be sad among joyous friends. They pop ecstasy and go home for no reason. It is self-administered serotonin that mostly buoys up the souls of the lonely. There were songs from the mid-noughties that now sound like somebody shouting down a coal mine. I want to offer them a smile and a cup of coffee. It’s all I have, the wholesome concatenation of smooth flat-whites.
There is a song by Bright Eyes, ‘If Winter Ends’: ‘But I fell for the promise of a life with a purpose / But I know that that’s impossible now / And so I drink to stay warm / And to kill selected memories’. Winter’s demise in conditional form. Alcohol convinces us of a temporary rush into the future that blooms and is good, is better than before. The drinkers I know have muffled recollections, blotted out mostly by false nostalgia. We covet a swirling version of life in the present, its generous screen flickers, its spirals of affect. We pair off in the wrong. There are days when nothing will warm me up—not the dust-covered space heater, not the hot water bottle, not the star jumps that scratch heart-rates out of the hour. Was it the same sensation, hanging on for his vowels on a hazy afternoon, four o’clock stolen from whatever it was I was supposed to be doing?
Summer, however, is forever. It is supposed to be best. The clocks skip forward.
I learn to riso-print. To work with the uncertain blot and stealth of brighter inks. What results is a marvel in teal and burgundy, splashed with cyan. See it as past with glitters of future.
In a cramped, fourth floor hotel room in Amsterdam, I lay on my bed, leg-aching, listening to ‘Shades of Blue’. Yo La Tengo get it, the vaporous sprawl of the days upon days, days replacing days: ‘Painting my room to reflect my mood’. It is a kind of overlay, the new versions of blue which are deeper maybe than they ever were before. Which lend alter-visions to original blues, the ones you thought were bad before. I see my first IRL Yves Klein in the Stedalijk museum. Words elude this particular blue. It is deep and extravagant and more oceanic than the ocean would dream of. I have no idea what materials or dreams created this blue. Lazuli, sapphires, the pigmented stain of a rare amphibian? It is the steady, infinite eye of the Pacific. It is sorrow itself, the wound of the world. The Earth bleeds blue, not red. It is this kind of blue, a supranatural blue. After the first crisp cold of a new blue day, the rest of the week is brumous and mild. My feet get wet in a cemetery. I learn that Paradise Valley is an affluent town in Arizona, and not in fact merely a Grouper album. I drink mint tea all week to detox, then stay up all night when I get home. The gin sodas sparkle within me for days, but I’m feeling guilty.
The canals are parallel, the streets are winding. There are neon and fishnetted girls in windows, drolly sipping mysterious drinks. Their eyes are heavily lined. Nobody is looking. The air is warm and spicy at night. The tourists admire displays of various erotic paraphernalia; I take pictures of the lights splashed gold on the water. They say if you get to know the place, you can really settle into a meandering layout. A guy at work supplants my name for ‘Marijuana’. I wonder if ever I’ll be someone’s Mary Jane, and what that means in the long run. Feels like a Green Day song. Marijuana, they’ll say, Marijuana I miss you. There are pockets of Finnieston that waft forever between early summer and fullness of June; evenings hung by the scent of a stoned hour poised on forever. I stay sober. I think of the river, the people and dreams it steals. The world crystallises with ridges of cold, so I must sleep beneath sheets in my click&collect coat. Blue-fingered, shivering.
Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ has been lingering on my mind: ‘Consider that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us’. I keep writing out line after line, just for the sake of avoiding full stops. I’m not yet ready for that singular compression, even as it strikes in its simple beauty.
There was the massive, narcotic blue of the sky from the airplane. A blue you can cling to. A blue you descend through.
Lana Del Rey: ‘Blue is the colour of the planet from the view above’.
Pop singers these days are attuned to new scales. That Bright Eyes song opens with a whole lot of static and children shouting, rasping. It is like watching some black-and-white film in a museum, shudders of war or monsters in every low boom and flicker. There are ways we strum ourselves out of the mourning. It’s okay to be enraged and frustrated. Oh Conor, how I love you: ‘and I scream for the sunlight or car to take me anywhere’. So when things fall apart, fray at the edges, I’m thinking of myself as a place, a location elsewhere, ‘just take me there’, and the ridge of my spine is a highway that ends where the best palm glows afire by its imaginary desert. The curve of my neck and uncertain horizon, something of all this skimming around by the brink of etcetera. What else do I have to say but, ‘it’s gonna be alright’, not even realising when I am quoting something. It is hot here, adrift on this sofa, then cold again.
The walks grow ever more indulgent, Mark Kozalek humming in my ear. I think of all his familiars. I think of my younger self thinking of all his familiars. Is it cats or is it women. How many supplements do we make of lust?
The day afterwards, it’s best to drink again. Grapefruit is cleansing. You can order whole pitchers but I choose not to. A certain suffusion of gossip and horror, ice cubes crunched between teeth to ease up the gaps where I’m meant to speak. I see Hookworms play the Art School and they were incredible: they were a rush they were eons of dizzy vigour and sweetness, the music you want to surrender to. I stop giving customers straws with their orders. It snowed again. I wasn’t drinking; I was wearing green for Paddy’s Day. I was so tired my eyes felt bruised. I keep dreaming of islands, motorbikes, exes; broken tills and discos. The flavour of these dreams in surf noir; like even in the city it’s as if a tidal pull is directing everything. I don’t mind being sucked away into nothing; I don’t mind feeling the impulse of a pale blue dot. At least in my sleep. A good collapse. The order of pain is reducing.
29th June. It is an uncertain day, sunshine showers and wind.
This week I will find a hill for my vision. New forms of erasure. I see myself boarding a train.
[I wrote this a while ago, back in April and long before Oberst’s recent gig at the ABC which frankly deserves an essay in itself. I wasn’t going to post it–it’s possibly super cringe-worthy–but hobbling along on the last leg of my dissertation it felt imperative to get something positive out into the world.]
It’s possible that I first discovered Conor Oberst and his (un)merry band Bright Eyes in that most prosaic of millennial ways: via a LimeWire download, a MySpace page, some cloud-space long since lost to the ether. I found myself burning the songs on my iPod, where they sat uneasily alongside my favourite embarrassing emo bands, with an excitement almost spiritual. If The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan was the first album I ever bought with my own money, then I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was the first album that took me truly someplace else. It seemed a statement, a declaration of pure being; its very title rattled my too-thin bones. I listened to it and suddenly I understood my mother’s love for country tunes.
I came to the record a tad late, two years after its release, but it felt like it had been around forever. I’d never heard anything like it. There’s the first song, ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’, with its initiating slurp of soda, its meandering narrative about a woman who finds herself talking to a stranger on a plane as they plunge to their deaths in ‘the largest ocean on planet Earth’; the way it kickstarts into a rollicking country tune, a song for the woman’s imaginary birthday. The way those chilling lyrics about capital punishment, guns, technology and death could be set to this upbeat, catchy melody; it gets me every time. I used to go on long walks and it was springtime, the lambs out in the fields around the Ayrshire town where I grew up. I remember feeling so damn sad my ribs ached with it, but there was still the daffodils and the chickens, the bright green grass too green for my eyes. Something about the song captured that tension of sorrow and sweetness so well. It’s almost a paean to the demise of everything; a reminder that we all must die, that we daily kill each other and ourselves just by being alive.
Believe it or not, this realisation can be liberating. Oberst ironically celebrates the ‘wonderful splash’; his father ‘loads his guns’ while his mother ‘waters plants’. The whole song has this duality of birth and death, regenerating. A search for the sublime, for the next realm: ‘we must run, we must run, we must run’. The song begins with this image of the plunge, but refuses an easy, explainable ending: ‘we must rip out all the epilogues in the books that we have read’. It’s how I felt about life. I wanted that transcendent pull into another realm, but I didn’t want it to be explained or over;I wanted to prolong the possibility of that ending as much as I wanted it altogether. The oceanic imagery extends to the very ‘city buses’ which are ‘swimming past’ as the singer wakes up: ‘I’m happy just because / I found out I am really no one’. Isn’t this the liberation? That we can be fragments of matter, anonymously lost in the waves, the churn, the world’s strange, all-consuming waters?
The thing about Bright Eyes is that often they’re slapped with the emo label, but emo doesn’t have to mean a fetishised stylisation of sadness and suicide, the old ‘cut my wrists and black my eyes’ favoured by bands with alliterative names (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne Heights). Here, mixed with the pastoral invigorations of country, emo is just a cleansing of pain. There’s something so spiritually pure about that image: ‘death will give us back to God / Just like this setting sun is returned to the lonesome ocean’, the way the bright tones of those chords lick joyfully around it. I would listen over and over again to this song, obsessed with the way Oberst tells the introductory narrative with his lightly pensive intonation, the way of a storyteller in a bar addressing ardent listeners. From then on, I was hooked. I needed Oberst’s lyrics to tell me the tale of my own soul; it was a kind of immersive, boozy, eye-opening religion.
It sounds cliché and dramatic but at fifteen, sometimes it takes music to encourage you to live. The songs on I’m Wide Awake are often wistful, world-weary, lilting in their tales of disconnection, war, lovelorn mourning. You can read them easily against the context of the Iraq War, of Oberst’s utter disillusionment with the Bush administration, the yearning for something more than the era’s obsessive consumerism, cheap culture, ersatz spectacle: ‘on the way home I held your camera like a bible / just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth’. I was struck by so many images: ‘and just when I get so lonesome I can’t speak / I see some flowers on a hillside, like a wall of new TVs’. The way he captured a poet’s Romantic perception contaminated by the fresh plastic and metal of postmodern society. A disenchantment with the world of things. I started experiencing the world with this layered, visionary quality. Maybe everyone else got their earliest fix from Sylvia Plath or the great nostalgic sorrow of F. Scott Fitzgerald or gut-wrenching movies about the decay of dreams, but before all that I had Bright Eyes.
At the heart of the album is ‘Lua’, a plaintive story about the lonely connectivity of New York City, the revolving door of gluttonous nocturnal parties followed by listless and painful mornings. The minimalist strums of an acoustic guitar accompany Oberst’s warbling voice as he documents the little quotidian moments which keep him going: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversation’. It’s a ballad about everyday survival, though draped in the cold indifference of society, the freezing streets, the strange truth that ‘What was normal in the evening / By the morning seems insane’. On the worst days I used to walk around the back of my school listening to this, trying to work out the story it told. I wondered who the girl was, the one who looked ‘skinny like a model’, who kept ‘going to the bathroom’. Was she an addict? Did she make herself sick? Was she pregnant, deranged, confused? The song itself felt bulimic, rendering that rhythm between excess and bareness, the indulgence in oblivion that only really leads to the blank reality of the morning after, the moment after the binge and purge when yes you have to sit there and deal with yourself. I liked the easy way the singer relates to the girl, ‘Well it takes one to know one kid / I think you’ve got it bad’. I thought of old cowboy films, a sort of loose camaraderie amongst the lost and fallen. For a while, I lived in black and white. I wasn’t quite ready to see the sparkling hillside flowers, the ruby of wine, the yellow bird, the blue Atlantic Ocean. I wanted cigarettes, vodka, darkness and the strange clarity of water amidst starvation. This was a formula I knew and loved, though gradually it broke me.
I’m Wide Awake taught me ways to feel whole again. To actually see these beautiful, ruinous, distant landscapes and the lives within them: the ‘New York skyline’, the promise of ‘explosion’; of howling weather, ‘sorrowful rain’, the ‘high rise’ from which glory can still be sung (and this is all from just one song). It was all about letting yourself go to the moment, realising you’re alive, wide awake, somehow open to the world. Feeling yourself caught between the media that consume you, ‘Looking for something / To open my eyes’. I prised myself from the shell of self-hate and had a good hard look at the world. It was hazy, it was a little blurred at the edges. I wanted to fall in love in the way that makes you realise that everything before was blindness; I wanted to drive ‘all night’ to meet someone in the morning. Maybe I didn’t, not then, not really. I guess I fell in love with something else. I fell into the voice, the images, the stories. It was like all the heartbreaking narratives of death and loss and regret that ever existed came together at once in one song. I thought about my friend who lost her dad quite suddenly to cancer and the girl I knew online, aged nineteen, who nearly died curled up with a heart attack from not eating; I thought about all the people I loved but could never quite get to.
‘The end of paralysis / I was a statuette / Now I’m drunk as hell / On a piano bench’. There’s this awesome catharsis to Oberst’s music, the way his voice breaks into a wail or a shout, how the rhythms come crashing down around him. It’s that sense of crumbling I could suddenly relate to. Crumbling into drunkenness. Feeling so liberated you could wrap your arms round someone who felt warm and strong or run across the abandoned racecourse at night or sit on the last train home crying freely because why not, why not? The only people around me were old men, alcoholics—just as lonely as I was.
This is an album haunted by a foreign war, by the tale of the midwesterner’s broken New York fairy tale, by figures of love and pain and despair. The raspy edge of Oberst’s voice is beautifully complimented by the lovely croons of Emmylou Harris and Maria Taylor, by sweet acoustic arpeggios and the occasional burst of raucous, full-band blues. There’s an impulse towards oblivion that leaves the singer feeling stranded on land, longing for the freedom represented by just leaving. The songs are self-aware, referencing the pains and tribulations of music itself, the travelling songs that document our basic human scream for change and connection, bound by a misplaced longing for love and home and belonging. Again and again I go back to it, sifting the songs for those threads of emotion that tease out the sorrows of past and present. I go back to it and each time am startled by some new image that catches my eye, some wisp of despair or moment of joy. Lines like ‘The sun came up with no conclusion’ are poetry, pure and simple. I find them invading my everyday life, drifting on by like advertising slogans, flakes of paint, little flares of pure colour that give sense and purpose to the world.
Oberst has gone solo now, riding on the back of some solid albums. I finally got to see him live back in February, at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The last song he played was ‘At The Bottom of Everything’, the only song that people got off their seats to dance to. I’m not sure what that says about the current state of the universe, but I think it’s something to do with that melancholy joy, the power of music to remake our sadness into something collective, rousing, powerful. Our need for that intuitive connection, the thing that transcends the text message, the inane commentary of social media, the ubiquitous trills of our smartphones. The thing that makes us want to screech our heads off at the absurdity of everything, the way Oberst does on the album’s closer, ‘Road to Joy’. Listening from the balcony, I pictured my teenage self, wandering those fields; as lost to history’s indifference as the girl that’s writing this, looking out at a city street. It’s a strangely liberating feeling, feeling the nowhere of now.
Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric
What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.
Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.
Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability. However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.
Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.
Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?
Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.
You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.
On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.
Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.
I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.
Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.
But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico”. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.
Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.
But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.
Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.
America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.
A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.
But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.
My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.
My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).
One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.
Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.
It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.
One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.
I’d be lying if I said the highlight of this month was anything other than seeing the glorious Laura Marling perform at the ABC, flanked by her full band. My expectations were extremely high (I’d waited a ridiculously long time to see her, basically 8 years) but somehow she managed to top them, stepping onstage with a billowing white dress and that ethereal voice that held the audience in precious, adoring silence the whole way through. Even the weekend drunks saluted her with respect. She played most of the new album and some favourites from the past, from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Once’ and ‘Rambling Man’. Marling is one of those artists who I truly ‘grew up with’, in the sense that I followed every album as it was released over the last decade; I can pinpoint certain moments of my life in relation to her songs. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m 23 now and she released Once I Was An Eagle at my age. Every day this inspires me to try and do better. Often I fail.
I also had the pleasure of attending the BBC6 Music Festival By Day at Tramway on Sunday, which was really lovely. Father John Misty was resplendent in his usual theatrical, sarcastic glory; Baloji were really fun & great performers; the folk bands were lovely (especially King Kreosote and his endearingly well-handled technical mishaps) and I rather enjoyed a wee chat about the Glasgow label scene between Gideon Coe and Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels.
In March, we were blessed with three full days of actual perfect sunshine. There’s something so striking about a sunny day in Glasgow. You forget for 10 hours that most of your life is lived under greyness and misting rain. I always think of that Frightened Rabbit lyric from ‘Fun Stuff’: “the city was born bright blue today“. It’s a simple line but it carries that sense of wonder, stepping out the door feeling warmth on your skin.
I sat in the park bare-sleeved, reading. The next time I was in work somebody genuinely said I looked tanned. That’s a result, I must say.
(no mention of deadlines please…) => I wrote an essay about memory, technology & the body in Beckett, Ali Smith & Don DeLillo while listening exclusively to Burial and it was sort of a transcendent, spooky experience.
February was barely a slice of time, I mean, really. Give me enough light to lift at least half the shadows from my eyes. The music choice has been mostly sort of electronic delicious indie mixed with a major nostalgic yearning for old Bright Eyes songs. Conor Oberst @ Queen’s Hall was incredible, he has this amazing spitting energy and this lust for a good tune and a rant and a celebration of that moment where it’s just a voice, a guitar, a bitter harmonica. GoldFlakePaint did an amazing interview/feature piece with Conor that’s definitely worth reading–quality music journalism is all over the place if you look! As for the gig itself, there were too many highlights to mention. The cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’ really hit home hard, because yeah it’s true, sometime in history they decided that folk are gonna keep making art regardless of the money. So that’s the destiny, the open road of void and maybe possibility; I guess it’s still the tip jar that keeps us going…God though, that duet of ‘Lua’, that’s enough to live on for at least a week ❤
I’m currently in the process of reviewing Nav Haq’s RAVE: Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture, so expect a ton of acid house in next month’s playlist…
Phoebe Bridgers/Conor Oberst
The Ediots/Pleasure Bent
The Felice Brothers: Jack at the Asylum
Manchester Orchestra: Architect Beck: Ramshackle Bright Eyes: The Big Picture Lomelda: Brazos River Little Comets: Common Things Pinegrove: New Friends Conor Oberst: A Little Uncanny The Staves: Tired as Fuck Half Waif: Severed Logic The Japanese House: Face Like Thunder Happy Meals: If You Want Me Now Arthur Russell: The Platform on the Ocean Lana Del Rey: Love LCD Soundsystem: Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up
December: I was sitting in Botanics and an old man started talking to me about ancient ash trees brought over from America. I went to Edinburgh for a day and collected my thoughts among the dead bracken and cracked seedpods in the Botanic Gardens. I carried a Christmas tree home over the bridge on Great Western Road, wrote thousands of words and lay on my floor listening to Bjork and dreaming of fairy lights, the superimposition of each glow and glare over imaginary cityscapes half-borrowed from mid-noughties video games. People gave me mixtapes for Christmas which I’ve cherished with care and reverence, loving even the tracks that skip. I carried enough plates to make my wrists hurt, spinning trays and polishing glasses to a proper sparkle. I threw glitter over things until they started to change, remembering the eyes staring back at me and the way the music would fall through the catacombs of darkness, all the while forgetting the beauty of that drunk feeling. Knee socks, lipstick, tequila, lost garlands. Wrapping things in holograms, I hope for another decent year with all these magic people.
Laura Marling – Soothing
Neutral Milk Hotel – The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
Hippo Campus – The Last Snowstorm of the Year
White Baer – The Tide in My Lungs
Sibylle Baier – Says Elliott
Fionn Regan – Lines Written in Winter
Bright Eyes – When the Curious Girl Realises She is under Glass
There Will Be Fireworks – Your House Was Aglow
Minor Victories – Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard)
salvia palth – i was all over her
Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July
Kirsty MacColl – A New England
Max Richter, Ben Russell, Yuki Numata Resnick – Dream 3 (In the Midst Of My Life)
Suzanne Vega – ‘Marlene on the Wall’, Suzanne Vega (1985)
Partly to blame for my writerly obsession with long, m-beginning girls names (Meredith, Meredana, Marianne), this song was one of the first tracks that brought me to music – brought me to music in the sense of listening to it and discovering something new about the world through it. It’s a story of a dangerous and probably ill-advised love affair, told through an impression of symbols; the singer urges the listener to ‘observe the blood, the rose tattoo and the fingerprints on me from you’. The line between desire and violence blurs here and there’s something about Vega’s cool, whispering voice: an intimacy that is at once conversational but also steadfastly aloof, refusing the self-aestheticising of vibrato and instead fixing itself on the delivery of its sharply observational lyrics. In an age where big, operatic voices dominate the popular music scene (think Adele), Vega’s vocal style seems comparatively and indeed curiously fresh. When she returns, angrily, to the chorus, there’s a real, mesmerising venom to her delivery.
The song was on an acoustic compilation CD I’d nicked from my Mum’s car and I used to play it over and over again, my nine-year-old mind trying to make sense of the song’s darkness; its ‘danger zone’, the urgent guitar strums and insistence on silence – ‘don’t talk about it later’. By successfully striking the experience of ambiguity in desire, twisting pop’s conventional picture of love to one more sinister, Vega draws you in and in again to her characters. Who’s Marlene? What does she mean by the wall? Who are the soldiers, and the ‘things I cannot see’? I still have no idea.
2) Bloc Party – ‘I Still Remember’, A Weekend in the City (2007)
Like a Roald Dahl novel, rife with endearing surrealism, you sink into this story of young love with a queasy mix of confusion and warm familiarity. The guitar riff that kicks in with all its clarity is a comfort, even now, listening back almost ten (!) years later, and the song lilts between the energy and languidness of longing. The relief that comes when Kele Okereke breathily sings that first line, ‘I / I still remember / how you looked that afternoon / it was only you.’ It’s a love that touches on the unspokenness of queer desire, the possibility of falling for your best friend: ‘we left our trousers by the canal / and our fingers, they almost touched’. It’s almost Blakean in its very pure, stripped-back articulation of innocence: ‘you said “it’s just like a full moon” / blood beats faster in our veins’. It’s draped in childhood nostalgia: ‘and on that teachers’ training day / we wrote our names on every train’. With all these images, you can’t help but remember such experiences from your own youth, those simple days and strange feelings.
When the song builds up with the thrashing drums and the insistent refrain, ‘I still remember’, all the campouts and nights out and beach drinking and endless hanging out come flooding back. Okereke’s love exists now only as a metonymic collection of details, sentimental objects and memories: the playgrounds and rooftops, park benches, school ties. There’s a terrible bittersweetness to the song, its sense of regret, of unrealised, forlorn desire: ‘You should have asked me for it / I would have been brave’. Sure, the album came out in January 2007, but in a way it’s a song for autumn: the aftermath of summer holidays, the return to school, the always problematic sense of fresh beginnings, of leaving a certain era behind. The golden haze of nostalgia, and all its futile longing. The dissolution of that final shining chord.
In my head, it’s inextricably tied up not just with my own adolescence but with that even earlier exposure to frustrated love. I think of the ending to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, with Mary’s endless stories, the ‘quantum leap’ that is love’s realisation, her talk of negative capability and the unravelling of Proustian memory, decades deep from a piece of marzipan; then Lyra and Will, after so many adventures across several universes, admitting they love each other, their first kiss like the taste of the ‘little red fruit’ and then the devastating revelation that they love each other and yet can literally never exist in the same world and live. I remember vividly sitting on my bedroom floor on a Sunday night, picking flakes of paint from the floorboards, anxiously devouring the last of book of the fantasy trilogy that had consumed both my summer and winter and feeling this weird immenseness of sadness and relief all at once. I think it’s the expression that counts; the only overcoming of such feelings. That’s why Bloc Party’s song’s so good. It’s cathartic.
3) Belle & Sebastian – ‘Dress Up in You’, The Life Pursuit (2006)
For me, The Life Pursuit is one of Belle & Sebastian’s most obviously ‘chamber pop’ albums, it’s lush and glossy and upbeat, featuring vocal contributions from both male and female members of the band. Its production is shiny and the mood (for once?) is cheerful.
Probably not surprising that the song I picked is one of the album’s most melancholy, however. We can all relate to ‘Dress Up in You’, in a way. It’s a song about jealousy, about our problematic relationship with the friend that always dazzled, the one with a ‘beautiful face’, that was always destined for great things, while you were stuck back home, ‘knitting jumpers’ and ‘working after hours’. There’s a bitterness to the song’s tone but at the same time the relaxing cadence of the piano riff and the upliftingly sweet horn solo keep the sadness in check: ultimately, the song’s message is one of admiration. The ‘singer in the band’ paints a vision of her friend, the one who ‘got lucky’, who forgot about her, as a beautiful idol: ‘if I could have a second skin I’d probably dress up in you.’
We’ve all wanted to be someone else at some point. It’s probably part of the human condition that we’re mostly doomed to be dissatisfied with our own skin, to long for where the grass is greener, where there are airplanes and style and ‘the essence’. What I love about this song is its contradictions: the bitter lyrics and the sweet music, the sense of absolute friendship (deals signed in blood, understandings, love, the sense of missing someone so much they give you stomach pain) and jealousy/resentment, the contrast between stardom and failure. It carries them off perfectly and there’s a satisfying relief in the way the song closes with the rallentando leading into ‘they are hypocrites, forget them / so fuck them too’ and then all those carefree la la la la las, harmonised lovingly with the accompanying brass.
It’s a song that reminds me of sitting up till 5am on friends’ sofas, passing round the laptop and its weighty iTunes library, drinking the dregs from a bottle of gin and feeling a bit miserable for ourselves but also kind of paradoxically content with the feeling of discontent.
Notably, it’s also the song that plays over the credits to Stuart Murdoch’s film, God Help the Girl, and I like that the film’s ending is pretty open, just like the outcome of the song—does the friend become an actress? Is she a success or a failure?
4) Frightened Rabbit – ‘Poke’, The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
2009 and 2010. Two winters so cold the roads and rivers froze over; so cold we wore coats in our classrooms, the heating system of our leaky-roofed Victorian school building packing in in tandem with the collapse in temperatures. These years all a blur of computer screens and studies, of long walks round town and into the hills with friends. I had tickets to see Frightened Rabbit at the Barrowlands in December; I was in school, reading Sylvia Plath for my English dissertation, when from the windows of the computer suite I saw the first flakes of snow, falling from the sky like a promise. They came thick and fast and soon everything was draped in white. Something inside me soared, even with the sad knowledge that the trains were cancelled. I couldn’t go to the gig.
At parties, we would mockingly sing the words to each other: ‘poke at my iris / why can’t I cry about this’. Sometimes we’d mishear the lyrics. We wanted a reaction from each other, perhaps, a way of making sense of that weird desire to be poked in the eye, to be stilted from our drunken reveries. Or maybe it meant something deeper, weirder. Maybe that was our own ‘brand new language’, a semiotics of stupid expressions and warbling voices, the way we’d brush up against each other’s hands as if we wanted to hold them.
‘Poke’. It’s an elegy of sorts; an elegy for the disintegration of a relationship, the frustration of striving for closure, caught between an animalistic need for freedom and that enduring residue of whatever was there before: ‘Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone? / And we can mourn its passing / And then bury it in snow’. It’s that wintery, rural Scottish numbness, the refusal or even inability to admit feeling – ‘Why can’t I cry about this?’. There’s the tender, Burns-like romanticism of this love – ‘it’s got lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon’ – kicked viscerally in the teeth with all that suppressed violence that we bury in the darkest dullness of our relationships: ‘Or should we kick its cunt in / and watch as it dies from bleeding?’. Scott Hutchison’s poetic, sometimes growling croon is softened in this song, even as he refuses to hold back on the emotion, it unravels perfectly in the expression of paradox that governs the end of a relationship: ‘But I hate when I feel like this / And I never hated you’. The sudden severance of that connection that was almost familial, blood-strong in its longing. The interludes where Hutchison sings his Ooooohs with that perfect, withdrawn sorrow are like the movements of the sea over the steady rivulets of the guitar picking. I always wanted to be able to play this song on guitar. It sounded so simple and sad and pure.
5) Wild Nothing – ‘Paradise’, Nocturne (2012)
I used to do double shifts most Saturdays and Sundays and it was a grim affair without the aid of some good music to brighten the restaurant where I found myself pacing endlessly, lifting plates, taking orders, polishing glasses, picking litter and leaves off the floor, scraping candle wax off tables, dusting the gantry, moving zombie-like between tables with the same forced fresh, maybe fragile smile.
My friend Douglas would bring stacks of CDs in and leave them for me on the bar top while he was away working in his section. In the midst of sensory deprivation, I would pore over those CDs like they were exquisite treasures (which, fuck it, they were). For one, it was lovely to find someone else who shared my passion for the actual tangibility of the compact disc. The sleeve and the notes and the design printed on the disc itself. I liked the sheen of plastic, which felt solid in my hands. It was 2013 and Douglas had a music taste that ranged from the up-and-coming heroes of alt-pop (Grimes, Lana Del Rey) to the more left-field and experimental/electronic; looking over those CDs reminded me of the world I had missed while immersing myself in nothing but literary theory podcasts and James Joyce audiobooks for two years solid. Now there was Bjork, Angel Olsen, Poliça, Wild Nothing.
I asked to take a few home to borrow, mostly based on my attraction to the album artwork and the titles of songs. I’ve always been drawn to song titles and artwork, probably because I am literary-minded but also because I love it when artists actually pay attention to building up a particular aesthetic that’s appropriate to, or even spins a whole new meaning on, their music. I love thinking about how the title of a song changes everything. It’s weird because I find it really hard to title my own work, but I guess that’s a common problem…
Anyway, one of those lucky albums was Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, which is a blissful array of buttery, colourful dream pop songs which mould together as perfect as the lunar cycle. The standout track for me is ‘Paradise’, a five-and-a-half-minute ambient starry-eyed disco epic which, if the album is meant to sort of capture ‘a sleepless state of mind’ (hence the album’s title, Nocturne), is that moment when the endorphins kick in and you reach that precise state of euphoria that occurs when you have not slept for say 40 hours solid. Maybe you’re travelling, airborne to distant lands. Maybe you’ve been boozing through the night and morning. Maybe you’ve just been on your feet all day and are reaching the 11th hour of your shift…
For me, this is sort of The Cure drenched in pastel tones; the meticulous crafting of those dark synths and celestial reverb; Joy Division staring into the refracted galaxies of a crystal ball that would predict a brighter future. Jack Tatum’s voice here acquires a much stronger, more sonorous quality than on most other Wild Nothing tracks, and there are definitely Ian Curtis comparisons to be made here. The mood perfectly balances its bouncy drums, uplifting synths and twinkly 80s guitar riffs with a controlled and almost majestic lyrical delivery which is rather melancholy in theme, the refrain ‘love is paradise’ framing most of the song, as if striving to reach some sublime point where paradise would be reached. If you check out the extended version online, with Michelle Williams doing spoken word in an interlude section, there is a definite sort of Allen Ginsberg/Beat generation vibe to the lines, moving to a sort of transcendent rapture: ‘The past was folded up and in the twinkle of an eye / and everything had been changed / And made beautiful and good’.
The song overall feels like a spiritual and spatial journey; it fades and builds and comes to fade again. It never indulges in elaborate solos but instead maintains its vibrant rhythm that moves between liveliness and a kind of soporific haze of drums and sparkling guitar and synths. Listening to it at work, for those five-and-a-half-minutes I felt weightless, bodiless, up in the air; free from the cutlery and crockery and bells tolling endlessly from the kitchen…
A song that you carry with you somehow, that’s so engrained in your brain as to never leave you, each chord and lyric sedimented with years of memory. It’s a fragile song, sparse as a deciduous tree in winter. It’s a song about wandering, the dislocated sense of not exactly inhabiting the world, but somehow just drifting through. It’s a paean to solitude: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversations / with the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection’. It explores the thinness of reality, the sheen of ‘polish’ that in the morning ‘looks like shit’, the false love sold in the evening, which by the morning ‘won’t exist’. It’s a candid admission of human frailty, the mercurial nature of our emotions. It’s a specifically metropolitan song: you have a sense of Conor Oberst’s warbling voice as he wanders the streets, lost protagonist in his solipsistic sadness. Yet the song spreads outwards, as a commentary on the human (or at least a generational) condition, a not-quite nihilistic exhaustion with the world – ‘we might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain’. We flit from one thing to another, our desires will oscillate as sure as the moon’s phases. Everything seems ‘so simple as the moonlight’ but no amount of incantation will render solid this refrain.
Thematically, the song is about addiction, depression, the everyday vacillations of sensation contained in a morning and evening. The random party at ‘some actor’s west side loft’ and the flask shared on the train, the person addressed who looks ‘skinny like a model’ and keeps escaping to the bathroom, ‘always say you’ll be right back’. In body, the people in the song waste away as easily as the time that contains them, surviving off coffee and moonlight and imaginary conversations.
Oberst, lyrically, is a genius at paradoxes and parallels and expresses them in a way that offers them as explanations or gestures of understanding which never quite satisfy but at least leave us pondering: ‘But what was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane’. The opening line, ‘I know that it is freezing but I think we have to walk’ so clearly establishes the tone of the song, the jar of realisation – we’re both forced upon this journey, nobody’s going to give us a ride – that it could be a line from a Wallace Stevens poem. It’s a cold song, whose play of end rhymes only half hit home – ‘walk/loft’ ‘off/gone’ – leaving us always longing for something more. No closure can be reached: the song can only end with the circular repetition of ‘so simple in the moonlight’, a childlike rehearsal of the beauty which cannot kill the complications of adult life, the self-destructive habits which inhabit the song’s lyrics.
In third year of high school, I used to listen to this every lunchtime, lying in the playground by the P.E block, feeling so light and empty, the world dissolving around me in a dull cacophony of kicked footballs, shrieking games and called-out names. It was a mysterious adult world, the one contained in that song, but I almost felt I was already there, dissolving what was left of matter.
[There’s a lovely version Oberst recorded with Gillian Welch for the album Dark Was the Night (2009) which gives it a flavour of melancholy Americana, a greater sense of dislocation, fusing the urban setting and Oberst’s minimalist delivery with Welch’s distinctly lilting, country voice and all its resonance of the prairie].
7) Muse – ‘Citizen Erased’, Origin of Symmetry (2001)
It seems insane to think that this album was released fifteen years ago, but maybe the timing was appropriate. There’s something uncanny about it: the paranoid, political and often surreal lyrics, howling soprano, bloated distortion of electric guitars, as if the music were forcing us to release the visceral eeriness and indeed grotesque weirdness of a reality that tried to cloak itself in the fairytales of gameshow tv and the financial greed offered by a fresh new century…
‘Citizen Erased’ is visceral, beautiful; at once tender and full of fury. It renders the experience of someone living in a fucked-up political state, the striving for freedom and confusion over what it means to be human, to be a person, at all. The thrashing drums give way to a thickly buzzing bass and the yearning swirls of screeching electric guitar solos. The song builds slowly and softly but the choruses are huge and operatic, with Bellamy’s distinctive wail crying out: ‘For one moment / I wish you would hold your stage / with no feelings at all / open minded / I’m sure I used to be, so free’.
The experience of this song is one of purification. You are exposed to music that is violent, lashing, angry, but like any good narrative, there is a turning point, a calming of the waves. The music becomes almost ambient. The key changes and Bellamy’s voice returns to its melodic, delicate expression, accompanied by ripples of piano and the fuzzy, spacey twanging of distorted guitars: ‘Wash me away / clean your body of me / erase all the memories / that will only bring us pain’. I’ve always felt purged somehow after listening to ‘Citizen Erased’. I think it chews you up a bit then leaves you, disembodied, drifting along the final tributaries of its current, back to a place of imaginary origin, more peaceful and pure than the harsh world it renders…