The daylight was like ordering pyjamas off the internet. Light blue. Sky broke for when it rained and the hills were seen as old pornographers watching us pass like gifs. I’m grown into us to reach for the kettle, for the internet, wearing my silks, something’s on the boil and it’s not quite tea. I think of some other season and know it is cornflower, not quite light, not quite blue of dawn because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the dawn. People are buying vintage files to play dialup connection. The old pornographers eat their cameras for warmth. I’ve seen them do it to be secret, fucking careful to be made up in a lovely afternoon with blusher, oranges and Russian vodka. It’s the same thing you lie down for, sometimes lying down because I can’t get a word, or a line, can’t catch or watch. You have to watch it for happening. The daylight was like that, then pulling on silks, moth-fringed, light blue it was like the colour of the internet turned inverse for ‘its’ children. They were still making artillery in the system, so we could sleep here peacefully and not be disturbed by the old pornographers and their bits of camera. The sexual motion / of foliage all up in my software. It wasn’t that we had any tension, there were other kinds of ars poetica, but something’s on the boil and it’s not quite tea.
There were other kinds of daylight the colour of the internet and not the quite blue of this tea. Because sky is making us pass like gifs in such loops as I can’t get a word. The deteriorating resolution of you are not bloodleaf. Because June is super lovely, moth-fringed, pulling on silks. You pass a lot of grasses, long-grown from their natural habitats, watching the drops fall out of the sky for what, for love. I don’t know what shape it is they make on the surface of water, but I watch. The old pornographers were making a nature documentary at the edge of the forest, which was inaccessible, badly rendered. So I could sleep here peacefully, I came out of the shower in cornflower to tell them the best blue spots they could film. The colour of the internet is touching a liquid, then it goes through the lens, fucking slow, so huge, it belongs to this season. Snapped. The tree was just that down the middle, sort of bruised where it had stood, not light blue, lightening out into favourite tone. The old pornographers scolded my aura and told me these pretty white lies. Like. Say your best tree was a willow and we do it lightly, willowy, that’s how I know what tallness is, like pulling on silks in London. It’s the same thing because I can’t get a word, moth-fringed my mouth is pushing up cobwebs. (*) The loop is very beautiful it feels like you are grasses, lots of them exist unmown for hours, how at dawn for the children, light blue, how they enter and trample; only the old pornographers trespass for profit.
Here look at the tiny bird nursing her young which are tinier still, it’s the same thing as knowing it rained and a goldcrest buoyed up on the birdbath, tiny thing, not quite vodka. Because I can’t get a word, there are gilded flakes in my colourless tipple – visceral realists! – like anything we had off the internet, like this particulate stuff that fell from the sky. I want to be fucking careful to light blue the mise en scene of this feeling, tell it slow to flicker. Be made up in a lovely or a line, can’t catch or not be disturbed by the old pornographers, whose interns were cameo sylphs of such beauty as to even sleep peacefully here, or inhabit the air. It was like the dream of Bloomsbury and the supermodels draped over carts that advertised mustard to the masses and it made no sense except mustard can boost your metabolism maybe, yellow it is, so I ride my bike beside them. I’m grown into us to reach tension, summer thinspiration, I dawn because it’s been a long kind of daylight to find this, pulling on silks, dust caps, yolks, some time since the colour of the internet turned up bits of camera. The contact sheet of ruinous cornflowers, raindrops stained; pinned animals appear in separate parcels, how it all looks side by side is not quite vodka. It is yet a shard. Archival. I’ve seen them do it for happening. Warmth. Freedom is the edible mischief of knowing poetry could never. Warmth, warmth is keeping a secret, local to cygnet, melt & forestry slenderness. The daylight blusher made love of your face, I’m fucked.
Sun Ra – Realm of Lightning
Run the Jewels – yankee and the brave (ep. 4)
Spellling – Dirty Desert Dreams
Noname – Song 33
Fleetwood Mac – Storms
Laura Nyro – Broken Rainbow
Connie Converse – Sad Lady
Ratboys – A Vision
Big Star – Dream Lover
Bright Eyes – Mariana Trench
Coma Cinema – Tall Grass
Gleemer – Brush Back
Feng Suave – People Wither
Tricky – Fall Please
Let’s Eat Grandma – Glittering
Soko – Being Sad Is Not a Crime
HAIM – Gasoline
Kelly Lee Owens – On
Tomberlin – Tornado
Slowdive – Some Velvet Morning (cover)
Mogwai – Take Me Somewhere Nice
Bing & Ruth – The Pressure of this Water
Ecco2k – Hi Fever
Lil Peep – driveway
Ashnikko – Cry (feat. Grimes)
Donny Hathaway – I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know
deeper – Pink Showers
Katie Dey – Dancing
Christine & the Queens – People, I’ve been sad
Thurston Moore – Hashish
Ian & Sylvia – Early Morning Rain
Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding
Soft Machine – Why Are We Sleeping?
The Replacements – Can’t Hardly Wait
Songs: Ohia – Didn’t It Rain
Kath Bloom, Loren Connors – Wait For My Love
Lianne La Havas – Weird Fishes (cover)
Phoebe Bridgers – I Know the End
As I was a permanent client of stars, awaiting that moment before contract to fold back, edge of the page that was prior to birth. The sky is that page where everything saucy happens. If I feel ‘switched on’ it’s in fear of the light, scraping cutlery together to start fires with little intention of correct extinguishing. This is just an indulgent way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the spinney where I dropped a whole packet of sour cherry sweets that day after school with the song in my head. ‘Fuck you’ to the trees, like they own me forever. As I was defined by the willow I cried by, circa 2009. You only say ‘fuck you’, truly, to these sorts of vicarious parents, dragging their entrails along the water. They come in plurals; they have to eat each other just to exist. Something Eileen Myles says of a person, they can’t fully flourish till the mother tree falls. What was the one I saw by the golf course, Maybole, spear of the monument? Granite is war is radiation.
Someone replaced their tongue with a leaf of mint. They spoke in sprigs.
Things written in lieu of a nature poem:
- A letter to washing machines all over the world
- The lyrics to ‘Florida Kilos’
- A list of snoring faces
- Imitations of archived Twitter
- Requiem for a useless wedding
- Things I once wanted from the Argos catalogue
- An inventory of much-despised artificial flavours
- Amnesia’s archive of MySpace bulletins
- Plagiarised ‘Daffodils’
- Impressions of Shoreditch
- An amateur walkthrough to ‘Star Light Zone: Act 3’
- Homage to retro screensavers
- Flyers for drugs
- Hieroglyphs of ring-collecting sound effects
- Many novelisable addictions
- Screeds of abrasive html
- Reasons why X should get paid more
- Moderate to good assortment of sexual confessions
___The night in the casino felt like gold was butter, gold bars of the house we were chipping apart from the ingot. We hadn’t spoken in a very long time, so it seemed, galaxies of the year had passed already. In a land where I only reserve soft lyrics, hoard Milky Ways, know nothing of your suffering in that time except what you showed.
Taxidermic language, wrapping up the undead for the accidental. Reels of my body, scented magnolia layers beneath. ‘As for love’, Clarice says, ‘they weren’t in love, of course’. This is ‘The Message’.
Off the train the air was clear, smelled manicured. Click of the tape deck. He scorns me at the checkout, 2:am, buying my lightbulb. I could not live through the night without light. Haggard in Tesco blue he called me a moth and bared his teeth; I smiled and stepped into temperate February. Just flick the switch before you leave, that’s all. I’ll be a while, it’s no use waiting. My 1:09 Transpennine got stuck at Bellshill for hours and hours. I drank with a woman who did not know my name, as I lacked hers; we laughed at the pensioner commentaries, ordered drinks. We learned so much about trains in that time. I arrived back in the grey and longed for LED, Cornish horizons, the shape of his jaw like the edge of a country I might not visit.
It seemed impossible that I would ever fall asleep again. Veers of the wrist[?]
My sick heart is a small blue swollen ball.
In the novel I read there were always these nocturnal women, pacing around in foreign cities. They stayed in hotel rooms but could not last the night, they would slip softly into Parisian spring and trail the streets. It was often Paris, which rose in the back of my mind like something unfinished. It needed rendering. All I remembered was the razoring cold, the leers of buildings, needing to piss for hours and hours. The taste of cow’s milk, morning ache. Sometimes fancying the accordion song, impossible to exorcise.
[ The wreck contained mustard and scarlet, teal and rose.
We wriggled a little. Missed a bit. ]
John Hall: ‘Can’t you see why I couldn’t be doing anything else?’
Tracing such palimpsests of light, we ask of the week a question. Will you stay this mild forever? Little interlude, it’s okay to feel nice for a while. That’s what he said, this is nice. The daffodils are out. Kneading the dough of a belly, I over-sleep each day until the hollows of my eyes smooth into cream. Life is a cheeky rose. Perhaps no one is in love as James on his album. Picture him at the window, clipping the extraneous stems from various houseplants, watching the syrup drip onto the leaves. Think of this synthwise. Maybe that is a loneliness, so absolute in your feeling. Imagine him paring his Joycean fingernails, the man at the window whose name was Blake with a kytten for history. There was nothing so bright as that. You could not say, hailing it, kytten, kytten! It was extra literary. It was sooo much of everything before even alive, hey.
__The kytten was made of milk. It was bound to leak out someday.
We’ve not had a chance at everything yet. We’ve burned it all! At dawn we drank algorithms and the well-bronzed man still kissing away on the fire escape. As if all of this happened, expensive drams and learning the words for variable clouds. We enter the storage facility. Your da, your da, your da sells—That bit where Don Draper gets all misty-eyed over Hershey’s. At the end I’m crumbling a little white cookie, Karen is wailing the way she feels, the inward razoring, and it’s all I can do to remember the bees.
Dyeing my hair with fresh cherries, yayo yayo, yeah they say it’s excess to do this again. She runs the punnet under a cold tap, rubs them clean with her fingers then scrunches them, crushes them luxuriously over my scalp till it all runs down and I’m shining again. There’s a baby at the back of my eye that screams and screams, maybe I pretend I don’t know her. The cherry girl in the bar was trapped in a basket. Lana says nobody dies in Miami! I remember the harsh sunsets of your Playstation 2, smashing ourselves into several pixelated seas. Rank best to worst our beliefs, this night that got away again. We looked up the cheats and looked into the future, pressed x’s and triangles together. I mixed up my consoles, remembering it. A hook, a hook.
It took me six months to write and then I scrunched that mess back into a planet!
Notes from my diary:
Today I’m heading south to learn about trees
I could easily sit in a spoons and weep.
Goddamn stars what am I supposed to owe you! Held sequins in palm to insufflate, insitu. There was so much oil in my salad it looked unethical. Walking through the park at night, say this is balmy, so warm for the season but I don’t want to say unseasonable, and so feel like the narrator of another bored and beautiful New York novel. Don’t like the tonic in gin. Pay without debit; display songs in nested form. There are so many themes up my sleeve! Leave your key at front desk, darling I’m trying to reach it; white lines on the road wherever the silkworms—
Aldous Harding — The Barrel
Julia Holter — Les Jeux to You
Weyes Blood — Andromeda
Todd Rundgren — I Saw The Light
Judee Sill — Enchanted Sky Machines
hand habits — placeholder
Red House Painters — Golden
Big Thief — UFOF
Tiny Ruins — Cold Enough to Climb
Karen Dalton — Katie Cruel
Arthur Russell — Not Checking Up
The Tammys — His Actions Speak Louder than Words
Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it.
— Tim Ingold, ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’
It seems I am happiest now when out in the country. Brought coachwards through Maryhill, Bearsden and north to the Trossachs, warmly we arrive where the air is clear and there are plenty of lichens to prove it. Something relaxes within my chest, the familiar twangs are settled.
On the road, we talk of stories and allusions. There is a cipher in the heart of Scotland and a myth that says more than etcetera. I jokingly call it Rob Roy of the Anthropocene and something makes sense.
October tells a story of all that has happened in summer. The leaves fall like words but never ask for discernment. One of us asks, What is the intention of the wind? It is easy to grasp what the people and the pollen and the tractors are doing. But what of the wind, most aleatoric of weatherly elements?
We arrive here to think through a specific term: Tim Ingold’s notion of ‘taskscape’. This notion brings temporality to an otherwise static conception of landscape: it factors in the performance of all entities involved in a landscape’s conjuring and perpetuation. Birds singing, workmen whistling, the whir of traffic, groan of thunder, sigh of trees. I stir up a whole anthropomorphic cauldron; its ingredients activating each other, bubbling and working. Ingold would prefer a more symphonic metaphor. Everything is performing some task or another, enmeshed in a complex, living system — what Ingold calls an ‘ensemble’ of ‘mutual interlocking’. The ‘taskscape is to labour what the landscape is to land’. To dwell in the taskscape is to enact a form of noticing that is multisensory, a way of attuning that picks up the subtleties of crackle and static within the picture, and in doing so reminds us of (multi-species) sociality, time and life: ‘the landscape is the congealed form of the taskscape […] the landscape seems to be what we see around us, whereas the landscape is what we hear’. Our guide for today’s trip, Dr David Borthwick of the University of Glasgow, presents us with paper ‘frames’ to remind us of this difference between landscape and taskscape, active and passive.
We shoot pictures of frames within frames, we flatten. I try to capture with my phone the green and the gold and the red and the light, but I cannot capture the fullness of surround sound, of medial sense, that makes a taskscape. And even with field recording, where would the motion of the water be? With video, how could the heat of the sun be felt? The smell of carbon coming off the road, and mingling with the forest’s brackish aroma? The burr and clunk of a passing lorry, laden with logs, which was more of a ribcage rumble than anything heard? Is writing able to capture some of that sensory dynamism?
Archaeology, for Ingold, is the study of ‘the temporality of the landscape’. The beat of its rhythms and actants, their play and tasks. Sometimes a taskscape eludes measurable time. The ease of synchrony. It could be time split into multiplicity. The time of the myriad ants trailing over pine needles in infinite fractals, the time of composting, the endurable time of the woman who works in the wool mill, the waitress who serves us coffee. Labour as glitch and repetition. The gift shop has summoned Christmas early with excessive trinkets, each one a throwback to a prior nation, the act of (re)imagining, Scotland the Brave contained on a keyring.
When we linger too long in one moment, Dave warns us we are burning daylight.
But we linger awhile by a grave. ‘Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me –’. Maybe we are mesmerised in churchyards because a slumbering looms beneath us, compelling. What is the work and the sound of death? Is it perhaps Emily Dickinson’s famous ellipsis, the almost-just-so of each fat dash? Is this the punctuated work of dwelling?
The grave belongs to one Robert Kirk, ‘The Fairy Minister’ best known for his book The Secret Commonwealth: a book about fairy folklore, witchcraft, ghosts and second sight. People have placed silver coins on the symbols adorning his grave. There is a currency to this kind of mourning, that blurs into well-wishing. Maybe it is more of a summoning. We learn that Kirk’s fairies were human-sized, tricksy and prone to following us, often as doppelganger creatures with their own mortality. Kirk had set out this alternative ontology, not entirely incompatible with his Christianity. These fairies live off of light, their flesh is comprised of air congealed. Idly I browse Wikipedia for further anatomy: ‘somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight’, their bodies are made ‘pliable through the subtlety of Spirits that agitate them’. The internet weaves stories around the things I am seeing. I click off my phone and instead breathe information in through my lungs, closing my eyes when the light is too bright and catching soft rainbows inside my lashes. These speckles of rainbow are my fleeting sprites, made of air and light and shining.
We ascend Doon Hill through burnished woods to find a shrine. There is a tree in the middle of a clearing where people have tied bright rags or ‘clooties’, along with loom bands, glitter, ribbons and a stray satsuma. Lichenous twigs are piled as offering, pennies and sweeties and conkers collect. We talk about whether these human trinkets make us feel closer to the tree, question our role as observers, the slide between intimacy and distance. The key word here is ‘kitsch’: these are mass-produced items, cheap commodities, remnants of sentiment and transient tourism. I am reminded again of the objects on sale in the Aberfoyle gift shop. Looking upon this kitschy monument, are we compelled or disgusted? Are such human-made objects utterly incongruous with the rustic landscape, or does their presence remind us of how land exists in time, is formed in continuums, assemblages, ensembles of affect and process and change. Dave tells us the last time he visited the tree, it was surrounded by mass quantities of plastic — presumably toys, wrappers of sweets, litter made sacred by fact of arboreal proximity. A sign down the hill says biodegradable clooties can be purchased in town. A problem was identified and the ecosystem of the land and the shrine shifts in tandem. There is perhaps a new aesthetic. Nothing is static, not even a monument. Lichen and moss spawn on a grave, a fly lays eggs inside a lost silk bow.
We admit the brightly coloured things, pastel and garish among the autumn hues, kind of gross us out. But we can’t stop looking. In Ecology Without Nature (2007), Timothy Morton says kitsch
exerts a fascinating, idiotic pull. It is often synesthetic, and it has no power except for the love we invest in it. Kitsch is the nearest thing in modern culture to the shamanic ritual object. Kitsch is immersive. It is a labour of love: you have to “get into it”. It poses the problem of how the subject relates to the object in a striking manner.
The more we look at the tree, the more we feel the pull of millioning time zones: the midges at night that might glow around it, the people who came and went, who took and stayed and left. It is only after we’ve been staring and puzzling the shrine for a while that Dave tells us the story behind it: ‘What if I told you…’. It’s important that this story exists in the conditional; for it too is a part of the taskscape, a melody played among the rest. The shrine began after the Dunblane school shooting, when a local primary school teacher brought her pupils up the hill to this tree, where she encouraged them to lay something of themselves in its roots. There was the hope of some kind of catharsis: a gesture towards memorialisation, to make a hurt world wholesome again. Dave suggests the term, ‘a secular spiritual’. The tree becomes a collage of innocence, of selves in time. When the pressure of being a ‘subject’ is too much, we call to the ‘object’. We want of the tree a longevity denied to others. There is some kind of empathy between species. Does the tree speak back? Here I am in this realm of kitsch and already yearning for a sort of panpsychism, a promise of communion, of relief and immersion.
Dave offers an answer, ‘To bear witness to landscape is to undertake an act of remembrance’.
The shrine began as a response to a deeply human calamity, but I wonder how this would function in the case of ecological destruction. Do people visit flood-sites, ruined forests, the ravaged remains of wildfires, with a similar sense of necessary ‘return’: the elegiac act of imparting one’s sorrow, sympathy and regret? Tying a ribbon to a tree, perhaps with the string of a message — is this part of ‘a new culture of eco-confessionalism’, which Stefan Skrimshire summons in his recent article ‘Confessing Anthropocene’ (2018)? Riffing on Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on witnessing and confession, Skrimshire suggests that: ‘the essence of the ethics of confession is that I never confess for my “self” in that modernist sense, but I always confess the other in me’; when we confess, we realise ‘the other’s desire for forgiveness operating in me’. My urge to lay down a flower, a toadstool, or some other jewel of the wood, is an act of remembrance and witnessing that also admits how such other species speak through me. I recognise the impossibility of asking for forgiveness for ecological crimes that exceed my limited comprehension; I gesture towards the small worlds of these things and how their hurt, their life and precarity, resonates inside me.
Perhaps what we need, in addition to confessions, are spells. I think of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ recent book of acrostic spell-poems for children, The Lost Words: A Spell-Book (2017), which seeks to encourage children to recognise biodiversity, to perform little charms that ask us to notice the beauty of species before they disappear. While Macfarlane and Morris’ work gestures more towards the flora and fauna of the past and present, we might also think of enchantment as an attunement to the kinds of deep time inaccessible within ordinary human comprehension. Cautiously, Ginn et al. (2018) advocate Jane Bennett’s mode of ‘enchantment’ as ‘an uncanny and unsettling reminder of vast forces beyond one’s control. We might try to channel these forces in more or less enchanted ways, but success [in terms of progressive politics] will remain elusive’. Enchantment means noticing material vibrancy, the activeness and collaborative potential of everything in and around us, even while aware of the limits. It means thinking with, and wondering.
So we are still, so we listen. A little chill creeps in. I am grateful for shelter within these trees, the steps of their roots built into the hill. The wool in my fleece, which makes me look slightly sheep, but keeps me warm.
‘Enchantment is not a choice (although receptivity to enchanting experience can be cultivated); it is usually something that arises unbidden’ (Ginn et al.). I suppose we are doing our own work of enchantment, listening to Dave’s tales as we break fresh ground on the Highlands, trying not to think of ourselves as mere tourists — trying properly to see and hear and temporarily dwell.
Is folklore a form of environmental seduction? I listen to the trees, the way the wind speaks through them. I note all my instances of anthropomorphism. Okay, so Rob Roy was blatantly used to sell Scotland to American tourists, and, as a ‘thoroughly mythical character’ in Walter Scott’s fictional depictions, ‘the embodiment in life of all that the Romantic writer seeks in art’ (Leslie Fiedler). I wonder who our heroes are in the anthropocene, and whether they are human, and how we might queer them. If Roy is ‘the very spirit of risk and of the wilderness which he inhabits’ (Fiedler), then who might embody the spirit of global risk society (a la Ulrich Beck), who renders a wilderness once rich now spent and depleted by the actions of anthropos?
I miss when I was little and the woods were full of magical creatures, where now I often just see Buckfast bottles, fire pits, broken glass and other evidence of human activity. Of course the latter was there all along, it is a question of noticing. Does enchantment really have a summoning, interventionist function, stirring political desire, or is it more about consolation?
Maybe the anthropocene demands a kind of imaginary vigilantism? Letting rainbow smoke off into the taskscape, performing poetic intervention. Explode the light of all that action, demand appreciative feedback loops of refraction. This is nature hyperreal and this is it inside me and in you; this is it just as it is, this is why it matters. This is ‘the matter / of all of us mattering’ (Elizabeth-Jane Burnett).
The sound of a distant wood saw does its work. We fold back and descend to Aberfoyle.
Somebody spots this bird or that. Their branchly flitters an interruption, a quaver in the staves of the day, one talk flowing after another. As if to say, we are not gone yet; we are here and we still make sense.
The sun squints into my eyes, makes rainbows. The air is crisp and I crave orange juice, a supply of this light I could bottle, smell of mornings and woodsmoke.
We cruise along Duke’s Pass and make it to Loch Katrine. When I drink Tennents in Glasgow, sipping my yellow tin, I am drinking the water of this loch. Whenever it might taste bittersweet, or clear or cold or good, a remnant of that originary gold is present. To advertise your freshwater source is perhaps itself an act of ecological kitsch, a gesture of synecdoche that craves its place-name, its blue security. But I love it as I love the gold of these mornings. Drinking the landscape to drunk immersion.
There is of course also the light on the water, its scintillations just there, rippling, like someone spilled mercury. Silver and gold, but nothing of Christmas yet. There is a rhythm, just as Wordsworth and Nico both said, there was a pleasure there or then. To push such beauty into past tense. Miranda tells me about wild swimming and I’m already relishing a sort of burn and shudder within my extremities, the plunge of cold which is doing its work, shocking my body.
Clumps of moss, soft & bottle-green hills in miniature
Pale teal lichen
Intimations of meadowsweet
The wires black-taped to rocks (origin & purpose indeterminate)
A fine specimen of birchwood polypore clamped to its tree
A fluffy pig sleeping in the sun
What is the intention of the wind?
Wanting to preserve my tired light feeling, I decide against coffee. Calm as I am, sleep-deprived and attuned to things as though they were already wisps of memory. To make of a landscape only medial presence, and thus richer than if it were grand and static. We can’t look at the gorgeous sweep of the hills for too long, but we stare at the mushroom and the grave and the tree and the pig.
These harvested fields of depleted green, this sense of the real-time seasons.
Dave tells us the legend of Sir Walter Scott visiting the Wordsworths, and being so disgruntled by their continual serving of porridge that he jumped out the window and ran for the pub. I think of Jazzer in the Archers and this archetype of the Scotsman with his fondness for pints, company and hearty dinners. I think of these men as a weird continuum, the overlapping currents of cultural narrative.
Like porridge, the Trossachs are truly nourishing — as in, all your carbs and protein at once. I come back softened yet inclined to wildness. Home to Glasgow, I want to go back and walk and walk. Is this what David Lynch meant by The Return with the new Twin Peaks; as in, this odyssey towards belonging, the wind in the douglas firs, the cherry pie taste of a former present, always already slid into retro?
Rob Roy was also known as Big Red. Before he was co-opted as a folk hero, tartan-filtered & highly masculine, Rob Roy was a shapeshifter, a problematic noble savage. I remember a childhood trip to visit his grave, wandering the moors with my mother and father, unable to find it. Now I can just see it on the internet, but as jpeg the image is spectral, flat and distant, overgrown with ferns and pixels. By necessity, compressed. But in fact it wasn’t his grave we were looking for, but his cave, somewhere along the banks of Loch Lomond. Memory acts in slippage of language. I have invented the moors for my own ecological ambience, adding the wind and the mist, a childhood hunger for the warmth of a car and a packet of crisps. How do we carry our own taskscapes, or is it more that they haunt us, making their overlays of locality, literary story and myth? I don’t think we ever found that cave, and thus how could I confirm that it even exists?
Imaginary outlaws of ecological rupture. Where might we forge a folklore for the anthropocene, in its always unfolding, its gesture towards archival pasts and residue futures?
Ingold: ‘For the landscape is a plenum, there are no holes in it that remain to be filled in, so that every infill is in reality a reworking’.
A porous landscape is the illusion I want, pouring in dreams of milk and honey, preserving Romantic patches of mystery. Is this why people wedge pennies in trees? What are they trying to keep out or in; whose time are they buying?
I used to always be unnerved by the viewpoint symbol on a map: half a sun, half a symbol for buffering. As though the landscape’s vista were beaming out from the person, or beaming back into. Subject and object, difference and deferral. Was each line one of sunlight or current or spirit? What is it really that we’re supposed to be seeing?
So I get home and I take out my phone and skip through the roll of images. So I scroll through my notes. I close my eyes and there are imprints of sound and sense, the warmth and chill, the wind ripping raw my ungloved fingers, the flash of my hair flaring fire in light. There is so much to parse in place-names, these histories in miniature I can hardly manage. Dan Hicks (2016) revisits Ingold’s concept of the task-scape and concludes that archaeology is actually ‘the study of the temporality of the landscape revisited’.
Back in Glasgow, I hold the word ‘Aberfoyle’ in my mouth like a toffee. I’m trying to make it last a long time, hoping it won’t melt.
In Gathering (2018), Alec Finlay writes: ‘sometimes people say and repeat place-names simply because they like to hear them’. I am so ignorant of the complexities occurring within the Trossachs, within this taskscape or that. The delicate filigree of history, literature, tourism and labour. But I hope by merely feeling pleasure, learning the names and lay of the land, listening for its shimmers, I am doing something of the work of dwelling, appreciating, gesturing towards a sense of care, mixing myself with the wind and all of its unknown intentions.
We could make a list of all the places we’ve been, the things we’ve noticed:
‘may these place-names be, once again, useful in the world; may we be inspired by them to remediate the landscapes they describe’ (Finlay).
I fold out a map and think of the future, dotting at random. There is so much I don’t understand. Space is a palimpsest of half-remembered places; sometimes you can’t traverse it clearly. Maybe there are holes, or pores, or fissures. So anyway, you tell a story.
The air is full of spells, and names, and fairies.
Burnett, Elizabeth-Jane, 2017. Swims (London: Penned in the Margins).
Fiedler, L., 1997. Love and Death in the American Novel (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press).
Finlay, Alec, 2018. Gathering (Zurich: Hauser & Worth).
Ginn, F., M. Bastian, D. Farrier & J. Kidwell, 2018. ‘Unexpected encounters with Deep Time’, Environmental Humanities, Vol. 10, No. 1., pp. 213-225.
Hicks, Dan, 2016. ‘The Temporality of the Landscape Revisited’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 5-22.
Ingold, Tim, 1993. ‘The Temporality of the Landscape, World Archaeology, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 152-174.
Macfarlane, Robert and Jackie Morris, 2017. The Lost Words: A Spell-Book (Hamish Hamilton).
Morton, Timothy, 2007. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).
Skrimshire, Stefan, 2018. ‘Confessing Anthropocene’, Environmental Humanities, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 310-329.
And so stripped back to a ballad, the waves makeover their casual gyre. Time passes, it just does. Time is learning to think at new angles, the rules of the slots. There’s a reason we rotate, we go aerial. Her videos started with the road, all flesh and metal. Oil was the ever-hidden well of jouissance; but even in presence it was already filtered, the rutilant skeins of a Hollywood movie, its flickering scenery.
And she’s cigarette breath, smoke-eyed, bronzed and burning a brilliant white.
‘Love’ was notable for its speculative community of lovers at play in lunar waters. Now we have ocean, we have a sea without people; an image presented in clean abstraction. This is not just emotion applied to landscape. The image churns with a white flecked affect, a semiotic excess expressed in waves. Life’s complication a cool hard block; this song is simple. No birds visit here. Close enough to touch again, but then again lifting. Must we ever be heavily-shadowed here?
I break at the rock in search of quartz. To hold out for solar in her wide hoop earrings, glinting gold. It’s so cold in this house, so I look to America.
Articulate feeling in the life of insects. Tiny moths are especially beautiful. W.S. Graham writes close, coming home to his wife, ‘My dear, I take / a moth kiss from your breath’. My best crepuscular species. Release with lyric on-screen, participatory invite. The monochrome softens the present to memory, so every trope is another refusal, ‘no candle in the wind’. I am not telling a story. I am playing a part. There is a hesitancy, a deep breath, a slow glance west. She is so aware of her former effulgence.
Then all of this infrastructure, the wire-mesh fencing concealing our fuckups. Dwell at the edge zone where communities meet. A little light lets in, a sort of high voltage. Our communion is no longer electricity; it flows without fault, but listens for glitches.
(…A woman in the bathroom at work last night cornered me, post-shift with her stories. She told me she was bipolar; she taught me the proper way to breathe. There was an involuntary quality: make of your diaphragm a quiver. She said there was a time when she was the only bipolar person on the island. She screamed out in the shop, buying bread. She told me I was young enough to still go swimming. People kept opening the door on my face. She said she needed a transplant, but I didn’t ask for details.)
The sky is an essay, skimmed of originary silence. The grey clouds clutter a daylight milking.
‘And who I’ve been is with you on these beaches.’
Albert Camus’ narrator in The Stranger, savouring littoral pleasuring:
Marie taught me a new game. The idea was, while one swam, to suck in the spray off the waves and, when one’s mouth was full of foam, to lie on one’s back and spout it out against the sky. It made a sort of frothy haze that melted into the air or fell back in a warm shower on one’s cheeks. But very soon my mouth was smarting with all the salt I’d drawn in; then Marie came up and hugged me in the water, and pressed her mouth to mine. Her tongue cooled my lips, and we let the waves roll us about for a minute or two before swimming back to the beach.
When we had finished dressing, Marie looked hard at me. Her eyes were sparkling. I kissed her; after that neither of us spoke for quite a while. I pressed her to my side as we scrambled up the foreshore. Both of us were in a hurry to catch the bus, get back to my place, and tumble on to the bed. I’d left my window open, and it was pleasant to feel the cool night air flowing over our sunburned bodies.
Desire is a chasing game, the coolness and heat; how proximate it is to lethargy! A gamble we make to enjoy these landscapes, the overlay between beach and body.
‘At four o’clock the sun wasn’t too hot, but the water was pleasantly tepid, and small, languid ripples were creeping up the sand’.
Lana’s last album was lauded as her happiest, transitioning ever from black to blue. But still there were songs about heroin, elegy, the lonely enigma of ‘13 Beaches’. And the closing song so proximate to ‘Creep’ is hardly unshackling. A song first heard on the pro-ana forum, ‘you float like a feather / in a beautiful world’—where delicacy persists distasteful. Precious chord progression matches the rarity, harmonises one of several sighs, the rainbows receding: ‘Their arches are illusions / solid at first glance / but then you try to touch them / there’s nothing to hold onto’. All that is solid, the luminous infrastructure of late capitalism, dissolves. ‘M’ for McDonald’s, drowned in a tidal reply, the yellow suffused in blue. The waves move over the rock again. From this angle, in monochrome, the rocks look like a hunk of meat, a severed heart lost at sea. When the waves calm to a whiteout, silken ocean, they become a selkie skin. A pile of kelp, a remnant piece of PVC, peripheral. All we leave behind in metamorphic identity.
A starlet mythology never settles. They are dressed like children, all ripped jeans and t-shirts. Enid Blyton’s evolving addiction, innocence loses quick on the brink. We know too much already of everything, it gloops like sambuca inside us. Nobody bothers to finish the mystery.
The ambiguous sweetness is oily, narcotic. It falls in fat drops like piano notes, takes our ‘sadness out of context’. My brother in the next room, obsesses in metallic trap beats. Why someone asks me, at ten in the morning of a Saturday, how important is spirituality to you? Waves of pleasure and reward; all over the coast, an opioid crisis. Lacing our dreams with extinction. I feel heavy, although I feel slightly—
They set up the room, my fellow millennials, polishing glassware carefully for the bourgeoisie, while I am in the office, counting other people’s money. We listen to Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, completely out of sync with the skin of this weekend. Only some of us have touched a straight job. We wear out the concept, til it flakes like rain, softening every abrasive material.
Soulfully she sings, ‘I’m your man’. Urge for identity, bodily merging, no need for horizons: ‘Don’t look too far, right where you are, that’s where I am’. After spending her career chasing this man, longing for him in the blue-dark, a starry placeholder, looking down highways immune to an ending, LDR becomes the object of her desire. In lieu of cheap thrills, this shift is one of quiet empowerment. I think of the mobius identities of Mulholland Drive. A recognition of the textuality of thresholds; step into the membrane, make cool with the heat of your distance, colourless. Warmth in the icy, fire-churned wildness. The water looks like Pepsi Cola. And did she not once sing ‘My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola’; and was this not womanly body cast consumer synecdoche, sparkling with chemicals, the cynical poetics of delicious? Diamonds for eyes will never break, except…
We start to think geologically now. Just be, just be. These faltering wedges of mass temporality. Earthquakes happen and so do we. Soft drinks whose flavour will never expire. Rocks that erode in derisive time zones, no longer immune from human acts or experience; species of moth that survive millennia. Butterflies and hurricanes; an ugly shred of progressive metal, scored in the multiplied spike that somebody else deemed gold, a scientist’s quibble. The woman in the bathroom, her shrunken organs; her failed heart lost to impenetrable histories, a ravaged desert of smoker’s complexion.
Here is the rock out at sea, an open direction. Here are the girls and their insects. A tiny wonder.
They play with the lepidoptera by the road; this is a petro-pastoral. Cars pass as LDR sings of her lover lost at sea. Fossils are the song’s ambient economy: the rocks beneath, the fuel in those vehicles. The black water, oily in sunlight, the sweetness.
The rainbow will ghost anything monochrome, oil on water. To kiss in the last light of summer is lucky. Give me your harbour.
Material ipseity swirls, ‘All the things that make me who I am’. Highway adjacency, human and natural history’s collision. A water-wave in unicode. Lana Del Rey in the Anthropocene. Her name is an ever-(re)invention; formerly known as, universal/personal. Lost adrift on the always already. Stuttering within smoothed out to a sweetness, make lyric glitter from shattered rocks and melting ice. Matter. Make it matter. The matter of mattering; be the man, as the man-made only, as merely threshold for desire’s discerning in the crest of everything’s vibrant liveliness. Thrashing waves, lost capital, penultimate travel. Dwell awhile slow in apartment complex, who we are as we are as sailors—lives lived here are intensely temporary, and isn’t that a matter of life on Earth, or life in movies?
Anthropocene evokes numberless chiasmic defence formations and programmable aesthetic relapses to come — easy to cash in with and easy to cash out. What is perhaps more difficult is to remember what it meant and bear it. Engineered as distraction or not, it remains stuck in the world gullet, a limit term, a virtual-war word, evoking an ultimate intersectionality whose historical tractor beam iconically continues to fail. What the hyper-anthropocene breaks open is the historicist principle that nothing matters so much that that thing is the only thing that matters. The hyper-anthropocene quakes this idea, and then falls in line.
*all stills taken from ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, directed by Chuck Grant. Song written by Lana Del Rey and produced by Jack Antonoff.
Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person
Richard Dawson’s ‘To the Sea’ opens with anxious strings, unearthly vocal drones and harmonised chants that carry across a darkening, eldritch bay. There’s a shiver in my heart and a sense of the waves chopping apart what constitutes the sea, the sea, the sea. How much sea do you need for it to be sea? Is every wave an incantation—and if so, whose? What if you took whole eons and chunks of the sea away, would you be left with puddles or rivers? That word that shudders: estuary. When does the sea become ocean? I feel it is to do with a feeling. To feel oceanic is different to feeling the sea. There’s an intimacy with the latter, its intimation of bitter-green waters, childhood memories, tidal flats on which you take off your shoes and wade towards the water. The sea is a mirror for our feelings, but they don’t stay still—you can’t just project them. They change like light; the water answers. The water has its own shanties, stirred up by night tides that lick at the edge of the land less like lovers than knives. A silver kiss of sharpness and silence, a tiredness.
How many times have we apostrophised the sea? Built into it myth, folded our cavernous longing through song and let ourselves out into the blue. The sea is a monster, a tyrant, a Leviathan; the sea is feminine, rippling, birthing and giving. We can never decide. The sea is the unseen foetus of sound in a shell, little figure as portal, an unwhorling. Imagine how its voice would look on a sonogram, the whispers. The sea is a place to blow away cobwebs, to unravel your hair and blink into wilderness. In ‘On the Sea’, Keats urges ‘Oh ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired, / Feast them upon the wideness of the sea’. The sea is expanse, expansive, expanding. We can stand at the edge and be caressed by its urges; the catharsis in that. The elastic edges, islands and coastlands and cliffs that shift and zoom and shrink with parallax. We whisper and the wind carries forth our voices. It’s good to howl at the sea, alone on a beach.
Then there’s Charlotte Smith’s catchily titled, ‘Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic’. The sublime in this poem is born less from the sea itself, the Sussex Cliffs Smith walked all her life, than the ‘giant horrors’ of the man’s madness. A madness glimpsed readily enough by the speaker, at a distance: ‘He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know / The depth or duration of his woe’. His mind is the unseen deep of the sea. If reason is a curse, this state of nature in which the man has found himself can’t be so bad. He can only plunge through his days in a kind of ‘moody sadness’ of unknowing, an eddying through time: his ‘hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies / Murmuring responses to the dashing surf’. This primal communion between man and sea is met with the sensation of legend, adorned with a sonnet’s rhythm and rhyme.
But the sea, equally, is a haunted place for all of us. I remember being obsessed with this Los Campesinos! song at a time in my life when I was stuck in the city with unhealthy constancy, wanting to wail for the blue back home. There’s a burn in your chest, then indifference again. ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think About the Future’ is a song about a broken girl, intimate with and yet distant to the singer, starving herself in response to grief. What could be a self-lacerating song, a depressing lament, is lifted by the strings, the joined-up shouts, the catharsis of those candid lyrics and the way they break into chorus, so loud:
And all you can hear is the sound of your own heart
And all you can feel is your lungs flood and the blood course
But oh I can see five hundred years dead set ahead of me
Five hundred behind, a thousand years in perfect symmetry
The song swirls with the clutter of contemporary culture, our fraught politics and virtual addictions; but it draws towards the deep time of the sea, the abyssal possibilities fringing Britain with mist and grey. What could be a desolate song of dwindling spirit, bursts into that thumping, rousing chorus and the release in that, the release so strong. Waves crashing ahead of you, the splash-backs spitting your face with salt tears so that just to stand there is to have a conversation with the sea, with what hurts in the Earth and might hurt forever in you, but that’s okay. An inhuman empathy; the human washed out of language.
Why is it we need the sea to look ‘just like the edge of the world’? Why is we need the horizon of apocalypse ahead of us? Does love always require the threat of the ending; does death have us thinking of forever beginnings? There is the question of translation. Are we all, like Charlotte Smith’s ‘lunatic’ (she must be forgiven for her eighteenth-century lack of political correctness) just muttering in our pain to the sea? Who will hear us? In Emily Berry’s poem, ‘Picnic’, communing with the sea is like the kinds of communication you do in therapy. Trying to pick out the pieces that make up the story of the sea, the pieces that make up the story of grief, then ‘polish’ those uncertain feelings before ‘a man in a room’, whose ahhs and mhms are perhaps no coherent than the whispers of the sea. Sometimes we just need someone—something—to listen. Sometimes we just need to listen.
Susurrations of the tongue and throat, the vowel sound sweetening eeeee. Sea, sea, sea.
At the brink of most existential crises in my life, I revisit the sea. Summer 2016, I got a train to Cardross then walked a couple miles along a busy road, wildflowers growing in the verges past a cemetery, to Ardmore Point. The smell of the brine was like a drug: this vague area where the River Clyde becomes Firth and innumerable fragments of quartz are washed up on shore, residue of the sea’s mysterious industry. I looked across the water and I suppose I saw Greenock. There is so much of the jagged geography of westerly Scotland unfamiliar to me. The northness of names I have loved since childhood, the west coast forever of fishing villages, port towns, places of old time and tiny ruin: Luss, Arisaig, Applecross, Ullapool, Stornoway, Uist, Portree. A new indulgence in studying maps, mostly for a vague sense of where blue meets green. I have started to worry about sea levels. I keep a vague memory of my mother’s old home in Twickenham, where there are plaques to mark places where the river burst and flooded as high as the houses. The fields near my father’s house in Ayrshire become so easily sodden with water, a sunken valley where sheep sometimes drown. A favourite childhood memory is the single night we camped in Arisaig, and I’m sitting on a rock snapping fizzy laces between my teeth and watching a lurid strawberry sunset. Still I am filled with such sugary imaginings. The sand was so smooth, in the last light it seemed almost a mirror. It didn’t matter that we woke to torrential rain, with that sunset still within me.
I open my sky-blue edition of W.S. Graham’s (Greenock-born) New Collected Poems and find ‘Falling into the Sea’: ‘Breathing water is easy / If you put your mind to it’. I think it is maybe a poem about dying, about the changes in the body, scary at first, a metamorphosis you adjust to: ‘Breathe / Deeply and you will go down / Blowing your silver worlds’. It is a plunge through new emotions, learning how to float in the bubbling eternity you have blown for yourself. Is this a dream? Is this a survival guide for the drowned? When you arrive on the ‘sea / Floor’, Graham suggests, you will encounter a ‘lady’ from ‘the Great Kelp Wood’ who offers you good British hospitality then ‘asks you / If you come here often’. How many times do we pretend we are mermaids as children, harbouring some hope of adoption by the elements. I spread my dreams on the sea like butter on a scone, the way they glimmer in the light then go. Are we recalling some anthropogenic trauma, deep embedded blue and sea green in our genes? In every deja vu there is a song, a half-remembered line with a context long forgotten: ‘Go down to the sea / And tell me what it is that you wanna be’ (Swim Deep). The sea is possibility, maybe; summertimes and sweet jangly, insouciant indie. Singing the greys, the blues, the self in crisis. The backdrop to so many of our deepest conversations, the murmurings melodic. The backdrop to perfect silence. When things went wrong in our house, we’d drive out and take long walks along Maybole Shore. We often didn’t talk; it was the wind in our ears and the kicking up sand and the smell of the salt that cleared the air, that did the work of unspoken feelings. There was the night two friends and I took vodka down Prestwick Beach and talked our lives out and embraced in the drunken rain, the spray of the water. It was so cold it burned the blood from our fingers, but we didn’t care. We were so fucking pure.
Ten minutes listening to Drexciya in your living room and already I feel subaquatic again, 8am on a Sunday. Remember, we came from the sea. Our bodies are so much water and salt; we can hardly process any more of it. Crisping the lisp between here and there and what might drown. I was still a teenager when I sat by the harbour and twisted pink thrift into the plaits of my hair. I’d weave this space into a novel someday, the pain of the land sloshed up in geologic process; again the erosion, the sense of two worlds coming apart as a gaggle of teenagers stand lost in the waves, on the rocks and in water. It would all come to an end this way. I guess the bad techno thudded through every staccato chapter, the fault-lines of pointless dialogue. On a whim, I titled the whole thing West Coast Forever. Its universe was jagged, familiar and strange at once, self-destructive to the point of indulgence. I wrote it because I missed the sea, its harshness. I gave my twin protagonists eyes of green; two halves of what could be. I wanted to think about all the ways we are wild once, to try not to forget it. The sea is a lore we pass onto our children. The rocks we are not supposed to swim beyond, the orange buoys that mark the danger. The lives lost and loves found, the glitchy repetitions; the sand that thickens our mouths like overripe fruit, our words purpling and furring.
Then there are gentler lagoons, bays which float out and away into grander blues. Clear and liquid lyrics, drizzling like moonlight or syrup over some wide and distant surface, the panoramic sea. The finger-plucked acoustic soothes and tells us what to do in its melancholic verse. Cat Power’s ‘Sea of Love’, Julie Byrne’s ‘Sea As It Glides’. I am obsessed with how these songs might sound, crackling and passed down to us over a ship radio, the edges worn away. The uncertain rasp of tuning in. I think of ‘Above the road (Skies of Blue)’ by Fionn Regan, or Johnny Flynn’s ‘Heart Sunk Hank’: antique and between times; recordings on a Voice-o-Graph; all white noise and sparseness, the yearning words. When I was twelve, I spent four days on a little fishing boat, bobbing up and down the Sound of Mull, between Oban and Tobermory. I lived off a Pepsi cup full of pick’n’mix sweets for the most of it, my sugar levels spiking like the rise and fall of the tide around us. Back then, I rarely noticed the wax or wane of silver and night, flesh and bone, blood and milk; I was only just learning to treat my body in cycles. There were very little times in the journey when we couldn’t see land, but Oh the loneliness when it went away.
When the mist came and there was only the greys. I used to play this game as a child, embracing my Pisces moon, thrashing through the waves and swimming out so far that someone on the sand would be shouting me back, roaring my name. I rarely cried; I dealt with my emotions that way. I liked that fort-da play of presence and absence, testing boundaries; the idea that I might disappear and become something other. The running against what resisted. I liked the way the waves licked my arms and thighs and stung me, the sand in my pores still flaking away later when I stood in the shower. The body catches a taste for the other world. It unravels.
All weekend I’ve been listening to Frightened Rabbit, ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’, trying to heal the torn-apart strings of my heart. Ways we deal with loss, chasing the source. Some kinds of plunge are stilling, others sweep you up again and you’re back to before and the shock of it. You think you are okay but then again the sting behind your eyes, like somehow you let the sea in. This song will always feel new to me, a tune coming fresh out of hurt and to burst into something else altogether. There’s the rolling bass and energetic strums and the way the mood changes easy as weather between brilliant and bleak. I watch a YouTube video of Scott Hutchison singing an acoustic version in some courtyard; you can tell it’s spring from the two fire tulips that grow beside his bench. It’s spring like it is now, spring before the sunshine and colour felt wrong. There’s a helicopter flying overhead, so you know the world goes on and there are other bodies drifting into distance. And I miss him. I miss him.
And the water is taller than me
And the land is a marker line
All I have is a body adrift in water, salt and sky
Collapse again and again on the anaphora, the swirling, thirsty water. Who gets to wash up, who is vomiting their life and drying out on the sand and who presses a cool palm to their raging forehead? Why do we have these fantasies of saving someone from the sea? Is it a primitive fear: that we will lose everything we know that way; our life’s loves and possessions dragged away, river to firth to sound to sea. I flick through my Instagram stories this very morning, and my brother is filming the sea with his phone: an hour ago, ten seconds of grey-licking waves. He’s somewhere far away, I don’t remember—Bali, maybe. The sea is a trip-hop ballad, a rippling distance in which the ambient sounds don’t save me from thinking. The sea a great wash of the late 1990s, a millennial curve at the turn of distance. I think I think too much. Didn’t they worry, before 2000 came, that every system would collapse on zero? Didn’t Emily Berry describe the sea’s wee ripples as glitches? I long for the tidal flats and the drag of scavenging gulls in the skies above, howling some song that would save me. What are they hungry for, the circling birds? Arthur Russell is telling me to jump off the platform again; in the glimmer of that cello I can hear the echoes of a seascape blurred, pixelated to grey but alluring still. I plug myself in, deep in the chasms of sonic escape; here it is all wave and wave of shoegaze. The sea glows red before I sleep.
We need to break the waves, we need to break our minds. There’s a cleaving in there, hard as a diamond but liquid if you breathe deep enough the cold salt grey. It’s the saddest summer of my life and where was that aeroplane when I needed it, soft and sweet. Then neutral, oh so neutral; in all oceanic tang the lingering metallic taste. Do you miss me. I miss this. How blue the sea was from the air, so clear! One of maybe five songs I can play on guitar, the simple chord progression kills me still. How close his vocals are to the mic, that loudness an unabashed roar, a unified sound. My guitar strings are so old they sag like kelp strung across rocks deep below and in that looseness there’s a release, a new feeling. A lyric embrace which is the voice rising from platitude in earnest acrobatics and disappearing in a brass solo. The sway of the rhythm, I’m realising now, is a bit like the buoyed-up feeling of being on a boat, or watching the waves side-to-side from the land and finding your body a little seduced by the back and forth. Who is there on the shoreline, who waits? Before it gets dark, when we are still the sweet notes and the swaying trees. Little cross rhythms, a minor key and so far apart in our shadows and secrets. Ocean rain. I won’t say the name, I won’t say anything.
The sea is a darkness we hold under our tongues. Sometimes when I think of it too much, I see myself as a siren. But Oh the cost of screaming in the night. Elizabeth Fraser in ‘Song to the Siren’, haunting and flawless: ‘Here I am / Here I am’. The way her voice curls and shimmers, like a whirlpool coming into itself upon shipless waters, swallowing those foolish enough to break their bodies on the sea—‘Oh my heart / Shies from the sorrow’. In what lick of tide may we assert ourselves. I flip up the lid of my laptop, see the screen, and all is a glorious ersatz blue. A whole thalassic core of thought.
Berry again: ‘If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving would it / seem after a while as if they were watching the sea?’ How do we hold who we love in our vision, crawling at the brink of distance, disappearance? Why do they always become the sea? Why is there ever this scattering, and can that alone be the work of elegy—the between the between, the breezy, the needing?
Let go, for eternity
is too much with us
with us yet.
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.
Yo La Tengo – Shades of Blue
Bright Eyes – If Winter Ends
Iceage – Pain Killer
Tessela – Sorbet
Bjork, Arca, Lanark Artefax – Arisen My Senses (Lanark Artefax remix)
CZARFACE, MF DOOM – Nautical Depth
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Barefoot Desert
Grouper – I’m Clean Now
Sean Nicholas Savage – So It Appears
Snail Mail – Pristine
Little Comets – M62
Manchester Orchestra, Julien Baker – Bad Things to Such Good People
Hop Along – How Simple
Frankie Cosmos – Apathy
Sharon Van Etten – I Wish I Knew
Amen Dunes – Believe
Cornelius, Beach Fossils – The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness
Sun Kil Moon – God Bless Ohio
Good Morning – Warned You
Lucy Dacus – Addictions
The Delgados – Coming in From the Cold
Belle & Sebastian – We Were Beautiful
Mark Kozalek – Leo and Luna
Pavement – Range Life
Firestations – Blue Marble
The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Heartbeat in the Brain
Manic Street Preachers – Dylan & Caitlin
Bob Dylan – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
Crosby, Stills & Nash – Hopelessly Hoping
Courtney Marie Andrews – Long Road Back to You
Grateful Dead – Box of Rain
This year, I tried to be organised. I floated over to Fopp on my work breaks, spent endless insomniac hours trawling music blogs, Bandcamp and rabbit hole Subreddits. Each time a new record came out, I scribbled its name in the back of a notebook. The notebook filled up with to-do lists, scratches of poetry, drawings of flowers and mountains. The flowers and mountains became nothing but lines. I forgot the context in which first I drew them, late at night on some estranged floor of the library. The same purple docs I wore every day acquired more bumps and cracks, splitting where leather meets friction and time. I kicked a lot of yellow leaves. There were rustlings. My list of albums grew bigger.
I kept monthly playlists on Spotify, hurling each track that entered my orbit into one long and incoherent list. Every premiere written, every review or simple tweet, acquired archival significance. These are songs that mean something; if not to me, then to another person, shuffling their collection for inspiration. A significant portion of my summer was taken up by any music pertaining to Twin Peaks: The Return: whether the lurid allure of Chromatics’ hyper-saturated playlists, Au Revoir Simone’s sultry, lo-fi dreaminess, or Sharon Van Etten’s breathless ballad of devastation, ‘Tarifa’. The weird logic of Lynch’s universe started to rip shreds from normality; I was doing archive work and writing for The Absent Material Gateway project and falling through new age webpages, crystal collections, alien sound effects, subaquatic moans and blips.
In all this abyss of otherworldly intrusion, I started to realise that writing can be a technology for tuning to experience beyond the daily; that like music it doesn’t just tell a story but alters your sense of reality. Music becomes and exists as an object—a nexus of affect—glistering temporarily in air and lingering as memory and shapes of tones and vowels. Music causes things to happen, sensations to cling at the skin or the vision. There are so many feedback loops between skin and sound and vision, between the body and its organs—the world within and beyond collapsing.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations, recently, about the trickiness of an end-of-year list. I mean for starters, I haven’t even listened properly to Bjork’s new album yet. I fell into a lot of old music too, drowned out a dissertation summer with comforting nostalgia: Lou Reed, The Delgados, Jeff Buckley, Neutral Milk Hotel and Boards of Canada. But let’s try to keep it fresh. I did a top 15 in 2015, a top 16 in 2016; I guess I’ll keep going this way so that every year I’ve an excuse to write about more records. Lots of tasty, memory-making songs. This was supposed to be 17, but I ended up writing 18, because you’ve got to preserve the remainder.
There’s possibly a correlation between increasing nocturnalism and one’s music taste. Certain music I only listen to when the sky darkens, or when I’m small inside my room. Other tunes require movement; walking or dancing or doing yoga. My relationship to a record is about as mercurial as most of my memories, and as such changes its colour and feeling with every wax and wane of the moon. I like something and then I like it less, or maybe forget it. I’m emotional, then as ever so comfortably numb. Still, some records stick; they wedge themselves hard as candy in the blood. Add several pounds to the heart. I’ll try to write down which ones hit me the most, which ones were just bloody good. But also ones I haven’t written about much yet, which means I picked The Horrors, for example, over Sufjan Stevens, or Courney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s lovely transatlantic jewel, Lotta Sea Lice. There are some records I’ve missed out simply because I haven’t had time to process my thoughts beyond immediate bewildering yassss or wow or what? (Ho99o9, Out Lines, Richard Dawson, Fred Thomas—to name but a couple).
This list therefore, is inevitably limited; its generic reach small, its order somewhat arbitrary (in fact, I decided on alphabet rather than taste this time). But life is fleeting so it’s worth noting down what matters to me in this moment, maybe. I guess it’s just one ripple in the pool of them all.
It’s sometime around March and the semester is finally breaking up and I can breathe again. My friends have all got tickets for the BBC 6 Music Festival which, quite fortuitously, is in Glasgow this year. Hiding behind covers from spring’s lingering morning chill, I watch Bonobo’s set at the Barrowlands. I know my friends are there, but I can’t be, like some kind of disco taking place on Pluto. There’s an energy in the crowd, but also a certain hypnotism, distance.
Migration is a solid, complex, uplifting album. All the collaboration, the classicist exactitude, the yearning gesture towards open territory, startles me like a dream brought suddenly into sharp focus. This is less downtempo than Bonobo’s previous work; it’s not quite the deliciously sluggish, swirling subaquatic glitchwork of Black Sands, nor the slow-building euphoria of ‘Flashlight’.
There’s an ecological vibe stirring under these tracks, not just because of the cover, which depicts a tall char of flame in the centre of a prehistoric landscape, the orange contrasting with smouldering azure. ‘Migration’ is a loaded term in these times, when many of the world’s people find themselves displaced across borders and oceans. These are uncertain times, more so than most maybe, and there’s a restless energy to Bonobo’s record that conveys this well. It’s catchy, percussive, melodic sure; but such qualities lend themselves smoothly to a pensive weight. While Grains’ and ‘Break Apart’ build to reflective intensity, the sense of things disintegrating in painful slow-motion, ‘Second Sun’ and ‘7th Sevens’ are spacious and melancholy, something to drift to. ‘Kerala’ has an earworm club vibe, while ‘Outlier’ feels kinda Four Tet. ‘Ontario’, with its trip-step beat and twinkly cross-plucked strings and keys, has all the background drama of a stressful video game, made sublime by its rhythmic intricacy.
Overall, Migration is escapist, room-filling softcore electronica, but unlike many of its cheaper counterparts, it’s satisfying as well as soothing. There are moments of unsettling, of flight and swell. It’s music to think to, if thought were a circling, undulating, glistering sort of journey. Music to reach higher plains, maybe, but not quite climaxing—comforting instead.
Takeaway track: ‘Grains’
Conor Oberst, Salutations
Does it seem cheeky to include this, given that its sister album, Ruminations, was on my 2016 list? Nah. For me, there’s always room for good old Conor, his infinite bittersweet intimate wisdom which feels forever like coming home. While Ruminations was an act of hermitage, recorded in solitary Omaha during a period of personal doubt, frustration and strain (I imagine the snow rising in tandem with Conor’s blood alcohol content), Salutations feels defiantly social. A salutation, after all, is a form of greeting. Where Ruminations is decidedly introspective, viscerally raw and profoundly sad, Salutations casts these emotions outwards. These are songs you’d sing along to in public too, if this were America maybe and people sang songs other than mangled renditions of ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘500 Miles’ in pubs. Some of the songs are full-band re-workings of tracks off Ruminations, while others are totally new. You can take them as a dialogue between records, between points in your life, or take them simply as they come.
Throughout the album, Oberst inhabits and depicts many characters, those waifs and strays, those broken bodies at the brink of existence. There’s the restless soul with his broken marriage, his expensive penthouse, his drink and his whores (‘Too Late to Fixate’). There’s the dancehall of “sick folks”, the drunk waking up to abstracted reality. There’s the couple who find temporary solace in each other’s adulterous arms (‘Gossamer Thin’) and then the guy with his Old Fashioned, looking out to a wilderness of loss (‘Empty Hotel by the Sea’). At 17 tracks, this album is quite a lot of emotional meat to chew, a lot of references to alcohol to slosh on down like waves of thought. With the help of the Felice Brothers, accordions, electric guitars, choir harmonies and all, the acerbically sad reality checks (“when it’s over I’ll be talking to your grave / you might as well hear what I say”) have a sort of sonorous truth. There’s a lilt, a form of musical acceptance you might not call polished, you might call rising and free. You follow these old country cross-rhythms, follow Oberst’s earnest warble, his poetic talk of snowflakes dissolving on a vacant beach. It’s not the same painful self-extinction achieved on the minimalist, crackling production of early Bright Eyes; this is a resigned but still plaintive facing of the day. I’m not calling it middle-age, because it’s not quite that.
I’ve always been attracted to Oberst’s visual lyricism, but it feels particularly mature here, a kind of precision. He’s referencing Paul Gauguin, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Muir. I pace around a restaurant named after the latter author, rehearsing bright lines in my head while light comes in blurred through the clumsily coloured glass. I look at his eccentric, sorta corny portrait and sigh: “Tried to lose myself in the primitive / in Yosemite like John Muir did / but his eyes were blue / and mine are red and raw”. There’s a sense that maybe in all our blue-eyed dreams for wonder and freedom, we’re facing the torrefied remainders of our pasts instead. We’re finding ourselves trapped in singular hue. Maggie Nelson, in Bluets:
Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly.
The seduction of colour is its own danger. You’ve got to split what keeps you pent up in your singular sorrow: “Burn down the place where I belong.” Let the ashes roll on. Here’s Conor Oberst, a rollicking sort of Southern rock’n’roll track—‘Napalm’—with its cutting sarcasm, straight out of a sharp Desaparecidos punk lyric: “sometimes you need a vigilante / if you wanna get a just thing done”.
In all that bad nostalgia, that obsessive heartache, those country drawls and Georgian howls, roads to Omaha and highways to the sky, to New York city and the brainwashing lure of celebrity, it’s easy to get lost in the beautiful mess: “I’ve lost my true love.” Oberst stomps around, makes a lot of noise, lets raucous instrumentation do a lot of talking when he’s not delivering the witty lyrics. He’s never afraid to warble or strain against himself. It’s cathartic, it’s a touch punk, it’s kicking the cutlery draw on a Sunday afternoon because everything’s going wrong; it’s looking out to a Don DeLillo sunset, blitzed-out orange of the world’s toxic warming. It’s politicians filling their pockets, or tender-eyed friendships in the unspoken world of suffering, tvs flickering. It’s old bars, fat Americana in its thin-boned figurines, an all-embracing tapestry of the personal and political. It’s one big spit in the nihilist void, in the face of Trump; a celebration of all music can do in its coarsest, warmest, most ramshackle form. There’s the jam, the collaboration, the energy. These are songs that tell stories, that reflect, take time on their subjects.
The front cover depicts Oberst lying face-down in a pool, apparently out of it for good. But then lift the sleeve and he’s got the life-ring, he’s being saved, he’s breathing. There’s that ironic play on a recovery narrative, sure, but it’s hardly draped with insincerity. There’s still a weight, a weariness, a distance—as on ‘Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out’, where Oberst sings in second-person.
What gets me the most, however, is the genuine sense of revelation that sometimes unfurls on this album. It’s not surprise at the world’s change, it’s not the extravagant burden of the blues. It’s the traversals of everyday survival and human connection: “sometimes it’s the simple things that make it all okay”. It’s the tentative gesture towards solution, but also the careful refusal of solution’s possibility; a refusal that allows us to look to the future, while remaining okay with only a sketch, a blueprint for good in a world so fast, so materially precarious, it threatens to smudge all of us out before the end anyway: “I’m not content / but I’m feeling hesitant to build / something that’s sacred till the end”.
Takeaway track: ‘Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)’
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Father John Misty is one act I did get to catch at the 6 Music Festival. Alone on stage with just guitar and piano, he cut quite the showman, wowing even a Glasgow crowd into 15-minute silence for showstopper ‘Leaving LA’. I want to hate FJM for being so damn smooth, I really do, but the sarcasm is proper magnetism.
A year or so ago, I wrote about FJM’s metamodernism, that knack for writing about serious subjects with a healthy dollup of irony. Where Misty’s previous two albums were often honed on the personal tales of narcissism and love, Pure Comedy feels societal, expansive. Whether he’s singing about Taylor Swift as some celestial, oracular sex figure, widespread iron deficiency, fluctuating gender roles or a social media troll checking Twitter on his death bed, Misty is ever irresistible. This record is maximalist and grandiose, with tracks stretching as long as 13:12 minutes (not to mention the Leonard Cohen-style endless accumulation of verse). His melodies are pitch-perfect, blending old school folk with that vague Everly Brothers rockabilly and that flawless sheen of a Bublé croon. Lyrically, things get bizarre but remain pretty sharp, surrealist.
It’s hard to work out what music to make in the age of social media, the age of Trump, the age of memes and clinical, cultural depression. How do we negotiate our predilections for cynicism and sarcasm alongside a burning need for some personal, not to mention aesthetic, sincerity? With an eye for quotidian detail and technology gone mad, the sweeping vision of a sage for the age (“Narcissus would’ve had a field day if he’d got online”), Misty has established himself as one of the slickest voices of a generation. His commentary would feel biblical, if not for its self-conscious absurdity. For Misty knows full well his own economic position in this strange churn of capital and madness. Pure Comedy is at once commercial pop at its most frank and tender, its most politically vicious and ambitious. Its most ridiculous. When your lyrics are as witty as Misty’s, who needs the hyperbole of punk—I’ll take an extravagant piano ballad, for once, over a 2-minute testosterone guitar romp.
Takeaway track: ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’
I was working one of those gross and sweaty, plate and pain-balancing shifts at work when a friend on the bar popped his head around the door and asked if I’d heard the new Feist album. Of course I went home that night and listened all the way through, sunlight still flooding rich amber through my window because it was early in the year and everything was flourishing and beautiful. There’s nothing better than someone recommending you music.
Pleasure effortlessly combines early Feist’s light-touch folk with splashes of saturation that feel almost cinematic in impact, yet never take away from the sparse and spacious production. This is a record you’re permitted to work into slowly, like being at a party full of relative strangers and trying to get a handle on little bright bursts of conversation, as everything echoes internally. A record in watercolours. Pleasure is a room full of voices, of memories resounding. Everyone around you is dazzling and interesting, but you’re trying to hold onto some very pure feelings. The result of this oscillation, this tuning between solitude and company, is a sort of flagrant euphoria—the kind you might get from tossing roses upon an empty motorway, or kissing someone wildly in the rain.
It’s always a delight to hear Jarvis Cocker cropping up somewhere unexpected and he’s no unwelcome stranger here. Those northern, caramel tones edgily complement Feist’s quirky feminine shrill on ‘Century’. What first made me think, somewhat warily, of Alain Badiou and overly-complicated philosophical metaphors, became foot-stomping and raucous, with its weird and floaty spoken-word interlude. I’m melting under Cocker’s breathy voice, “almost as long as one of those endless, dark nights of the soul”, descending into a whispered refrain: “the century / the century”. I look back at the 20th century, the meagre seven and a half years I lived in it, and despite all the culture and history I’ve swallowed on those times, they seem dim and mysterious in comparison to the luminous stories that haunt Feist’s album.
Whatever the affair of this record, it’s by no means an easy one. Feist documents the complicated dynamics of a crush or a love with unabashed honesty and vulnerability: “In the same city I hope you’re not / ‘Cause the town has shrunk to the size of my thoughts”. In a way, Pleasure is the beautiful result of time-wasting in the wake of a failed love; it’s the languid, wilting flower that Feist pours her tender vocal honey into, softening the pain with reverb, slowing down time. Making time for yourself, painting your own sunrises. With traditional Feist style and minimalist detail, she captures that bittersweetness on ‘Get Not High, Get Not Low’, and even nails that old-school, Sunday slowdown soul on ‘Young Up’, luring us back into a sweet-moaning organ nostalgia. I live for the soft twang of those acoustic solos, wind-chimes shimmering in the background.
The sparseness of accompaniment across the album—mostly just a few raw strums—sets the stage for that distinctive, airy voice and all its more corrosive breakdowns. Whether she’s singing of ‘The Wind’, of ‘Lost Dreams’, or leaving any party for the sake of bae, Feist is subtly precious and quietly heart-breaking. I feel fragile in the space of that album; it doesn’t exactly heal so much as it makes feeling brittle, then sparkle quite oddly. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, it’s beautiful after all.
Takeaway track: ‘I Wish I Didn’t Miss You’
Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up
I started getting into Fleet Foxes about a year too late; they’d pretty much already split by the time I was obsessively sound-tracking my summer with their verdant brand of chamber-pop pastoral. I’d decided that this was a band outside of the cultural present—surely—a band that had existed in some dimension and maybe even played gigs once upon a time, but ultimately their songs were from a place where reality smoothed into plashing fountains and anonymous fields of green. I guess that’s the effect of pastoral: its ability to resolve conflict, to press out present agonies with a certain nostalgia. What Fleet Foxes offered was a promise of total authenticity; there was little irony, it seemed, to their melodic, soulful, harmony-laden pop. It’s hard to remember that (ironically) the king of sarcasm, Father John Misty, was once their drummer.
Where Fleet Foxes swayed in its pensive dwelling, Helplessness Blues was a rush in the wind, a bit breathless and in love with a sense of presence in the earth. Crack-Up, a precious gift that came packaged in the lonely foliage of June, sees Fleet Foxes yoke their trademark sound to greater depths, richer complexities that find brief heights and shower like just so much blossom and seedpods and rain across billowing landscapes. The sound itself has grown vastly, acquired a new intricacy; whether in Pecknold’s vocal range, the textured instrumentation or truly orchestral scale of these songs. The vocals make garlands of uplifting chords, the sometime swell of an interlude drawing us irrevocably to stranger places where percussion thrums in like a sleety landslide. I’ve realised recently that listening to the record, I barely follow any of Pecknold’s words, except perhaps when he slows to a refrain. For me, they exist as performative instruments; not quite to the extent of Elizabeth Fraser’s mysterious, dadaist trills, but largely estranged from sense nonetheless. The general gist seems a more heavy, philosophical perspective; paranoid perhaps, tense and self-aware, though unafraid to burst into frustration or quiet, fleeting reflection. I don’t feel the need to linger on his lyrics the way I frankly wanted to on previous records, falling for repeated, visually abstracting lines like “Apples in the summer are golden sweet / Every day a passing complete”, as if I were reading Dylan Thomas or Yeats, my mouth full of lemon drops, sweetly devouring Cider with Rosie in all tart naivety of youth.
Crack-Up takes you far away from youth. There’s a sonorous maturity both musically and thematically, a refusal to placate you with pretty images—where meteorological grandeur—a climatic pause or crash or swell—is favoured over imagist detail. The record is eclectic, disarming; at times simply beautiful, at times frustrating and provoking in the way good solid music should be. Occasionally I’m alienated by the inscrutable references to classical mythology, other times utterly convinced by a plain meta-commentary on lyricism itself, with its careful, tender dissolve: “But all will fade / All I say / All I…”. It certainly feels like a passage, a slow ripple across a complicated tapestry of sense and sound. There’s all the filigrees of mythology which flicker below the surface, trellised among harps, Middle Eastern melodies, creeping bass, wavelets of piano, krautrock synths and clap rhythms that somehow work in tandem although maybe they shouldn’t. It’s the kind of record you need to give a lot of time too, to walk yourself through—linger and contemplate. Not everyone will want this and sometimes I don’t or can’t. I can’t give the attention it requires. Other times, it’s this very esoteric intricacy that utterly seduces. The range of moods is pretty stunning, from sweeping, time-shifting takes on regret (‘Fool’s Errand’), to introspective, soft-strummed and tightly-held ballads (‘If You Need To, Keep Time On Me’). The shifts in time signature or key across the album’s various suites have the feeling of a cycle.
There’s a sense that the standard 3 or 4-minute pop song is no longer capable of holding together the dissonant fragments of reality that Pecknold grasps at. I don’t know whether he named the album after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1936 Esquire story of the same name (‘The Crack-Up’), but the link does seem striking. Fitzgerald describes ‘all life’ as ‘a process of breaking down’, but there are special blows that come ‘from within’, blows ‘you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it’. True intelligence, Fitzgerald relates, is the ability to hold simultaneously contradictory ideas. Maybe that’s the secret to dealing with these grandiose, existential fissures that leave us gaping at the past, thirsting at the retroactive possibilities of youth.
The multi-faceted, generous and sensuous complexity of Crack-Up seems to offer itself to the slow, reflective blow; the crisis that comes over us at a time in our lives when we don’t realise until it’s too late. And then all we can do is pick over what happened, sort the fragments as they make their way through us, internally, like water slowly stained with wine. We can try to fashion something elegant from these gossamer entrails of memory: the way Pecknold relishes with long notes his clipped lines in penultimate track, ‘I Should See Memphis’, over lush and flourishing strings. There’s something about that mournful delivery, “I miss the highway”, that ekes out a need for resolution’s possibility, over resolution itself. For ultimately, in all its self-reference, introspection and visionary sweep, Crack-Up is really about a journey—inwards and outwards, this Mobius pull of a weary and yet curious eternity, as complicated and displaced as ever the present should be.
Takeaway track: ‘Third of May / Odaigahara’
Four Tet, New Energy
Earliest Four Tet memory: curled up in the backseat of my mother’s car, listening to Rounds scrolled up to full volume on my iPod classic, trying to slip into a deeper sense of what happens in the glide between street-lights, letting thoughts ebb ever closer then slosh back down where I can’t find them, buried like sweets between velcro seats. Sometimes the world feels piecemeal, and perceiving it that way is a kind of sublime, where fragmentary ambience keeps me in sync with ethereal rhythm. I’d never heard anything quite so hypnotic before; where many teenage years involved traipsing the vacant crossroad fields surrounding my town, listening to Aphex Twin to avoid the squawk of the gulls, this was something less visceral, but somehow maybe more immersive in its accessibility. There was less imperative to intensity, so you could slip in and out of tune with those lush melodies, the finely-woven instrumentation, the sense of a seamless collage that re-animated musical styles I hadn’t even dreamed of before: Jungle, breakbeat, gamelan, garage, deconstructed hip hop.
Being a teenager in the mid-noughties meant coming up when dubstep was emerging as a thing: this spooky midnight genre with its traces of rave culture, its 2-step glimpse into wobbling, alien drum and bass simultaneous with the reggae I knew much better, already loved. Hell, how many girls my age didn’t for a moment want to be Effy Stonem, sneaking out her bedroom window and stuffing her pyjamas in the neighbour’s bin while disappearing to some warehouse with crimped hair, LSD and fishnets? While dubstep’s debt to garage is more potent than Four Tet’s psychedelic underpinnings, the attraction to strangeness that prompted my first forays into underground sound is the same attraction that led me to Kieran Hebden’s eclectic, downtempo records. Listening to Rounds, I’m taken to otherworldly places set within this very world. All those harp arpeggios on ‘My Angel Rocks Back on Forth’, prettily assembled over that industrial drum click, conjure a motorway bridge with a white-clad girl leaning over, counting the lines in the traffic. Her hair is blown back by an unseen breeze and I wonder whose angel she is. There’s the squelchy, metallic Aphex synth refractors on ‘As Serious As Your Life’, which genuinely lift my heartrate; make me check around the room to ensure no massive upheaval of material existence has occurred (sometimes disappointed when it hasn’t). When things lift and there are smatterings of jazz (‘And They All Look Broken Hearted’) or post-rock breakdowns (‘Slow Jam’), melancholy landscapes become rooms without walls, opening onto new plains of imagination.
I’ve always found a gorgeous sort of sentiment in Four Tet’s music, a certain warmth that’s different from the darker, eerier style peddled by many of his contemporaries. New Energy promises more of this, and there’s an almost Balearic euphoria on tracks like ‘Two Thousand and Seventeen’, with its dulcimer glissando dragging us soothingly through the future by way of history. Could you link this album to a sort of new age/ashram trend in electronic music (cf. Happy Meals, Full Ashram Devotional Ceremony) or a more general celestial turn? Regardless, New Energy is a vibrant and truly kaleidoscopic effort: tenderly evoking new phases of life in the somnolent rounds of ‘Daughter’, plunging us into suspended, Oneohtrix Point Never-style lagoons of eerie synths, throwing a nifty garage breakbeat on top and moving towards sumptuous, smooth deconstruction (SW9 9SL) and rounding off on something pulsing, aquatic, sparkling with sitar sounds and the anonymous chorus of female sirens, a la Burial (‘Planet’). It’s quite the spiritual passage, best enjoyed at sunrise with lashings of tequila or tropical light to further enhance that ideal, future-looking rapture of plaintive mind.
Takeaway track: ‘Lush’
The Horrors, V
The Horrors are a long way away now from how I first encountered them, aged 14, while scouring the glossy pages of the NME. Back then, the shaggy hair and goth aesthetic was enough to make up for the eerie and sexily vintage but somewhat lacklustre garage they were peddling with organs and analogue beats and all (mind you, ‘Sheena is a Parasite’ is still a hit). The Horrors have since been gathering an impressively mature back catalogue of glossier, cohesive rock albums that find themselves tinged with psychedelia, surrealism and pulsing drones (Primary Colours, Skying). V floods your veins like a slow and powerful drug, reaching its surges and then purging fully from your body like a glorious, pain-sucking comedown.
These are tracks glitched with squeaking synths, swathes of retro atmospherics, industrial technics worthy of Nine Inch Nails, scintillating guitar solos and pulsing, all-encompassing beats. It’s a record poised on destruction and creation, a sense of sheer power that forces you towards emotional limits. It’s nastier than the formal coherence of previous records; V is unafraid of breaking up the languid melodies and lending the production some grit. The basslines reach a hefty groove; the rhythms are clean and the compositions highly immersive, like a cleaned-up sorta shoegaze. ‘Machine’ is just huge. Lyrically, things get a twinge dystopian, but Faris Badwan’s sultry, understated vocal delivery has you hooked on the vapourised darkness. Closing track ‘Something to Remember Me By’ has a vernal sense of renewal, a crisply uplifting beat that descends into total emotional catharsis, like hurling your feelings off a cliff.
Something about the whole album carries this feeling of plunging from a plane, everything swept by at high octane, burning in and out of its shifts of perspectives. Urgent, broken geometries, sustained by artful synths and keys, by tightly held beats. Music to walk fast to, letting the wind rip innocence from your cheeks as you try not to cry. Music that feels cool and distant despite its emotion—planetary, even. Maybe that’s why it’s so good to feel upset to, with its recalibration of all perspectives.
Takeaway track: ‘Something to Remember Me By’
Johnny Flynn, Sillion
A surprising thing happened when I switched on the radio recently and not only was Cerys Matthews interviewing one of my favourite writers, Robert Macfarlane, but following the interview was a track from Johnny Flynn’s latest album. Turns out Robert and Johnny like to walk along rivers together. It makes me endlessly happy when intellectual interests crossover with music, especially as directly as this. You might also be interested to know that one of the hardest bouncers at my work—an ex-New York stockbroker, a man who can twist you into an arm-lock in three seconds flat, especially if you withhold his access to homebaked goods—is also a Flynn fan.
Johnny Flynn has always flirted with the pastoral tradition, mixing classical references with everyday musings on landscape and love in the heartsick, windswept mode of the lonely wanderer. Think Laurie Lee, if Laurie Lee had gone to a posh school and learned Shakespeare and made his picturesque idylls with a guitar and piano instead of a pen. Where the likes of Country Mile and A Larum do not stray far from folk, Sillion feels more expansive somehow. Dare I even say theatrical (not mentioning Flynn’s dual career as an actor)? There’s a movement and energy to these songs that feels more urgent; not just emotionally but somehow also physically. Listening to Sillion, I’m travelling through time as much as I am through space. There’s death, mourning, darkness here; much more so than on previous records. I might point you to Macfarlane’s excellent Guardian essay on eerie Englishness.
Sillion: a rare word that means ‘the thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plow’; a description worthy of any coruscating noun plucked from a Robert Macfarlane tweet or tome. There’s a sense that Flynn’s album excavates the past, as much as it turns over the earth and offers new grains to the sun. Toiling, tilling. I think of dust particles rising, seedpods and pollen catching gold in the late summer light, then eventually cracking. I think of a rasping radio, the shipping forecast pulling me onwards to elsewhere, the lure of the broadcaster’s syrupy tones. Westward, deathly, warnings of gales in force, visibility occasionally poor.
When Flynn sings the beginning of ‘Heart Sunk Hank’, it has the scratchy allure of a shanty ballad sung over an old, forgotten radio. A startling sense of the past’s eruption in the present, something you try and tether to on the sonorous choral of Flynn’s voice, its shifts between soft and coarse. There are proper haunting country ballads (‘The Landlord’) which feel very English, very folk (your southern longing to The Unthanks’ airy, northerly sagas). There’s some bold brass (‘In the Deepest’), and I can confirm, from his show at Saint Lukes, Flynn’s effortless ability to lift a trumpet to his lips mid vocal melody. Then there’s the eerie dirge of ‘Hard Road’; its poetry moody and timeless—‘fair thee well my love’—glinting with sprinkles of harp like pieces of quartz in asphalt or riverbank. It’s hard not to find yourself following that road, meeting your voice on its haunted harmony; finding yourself more than a little infatuated. The curse of the road is its endless recursion; the beauty being points where we meet as we do in the chorus, over and under, a promise of momentary, gorgeous presence.
Takeaway track: ‘Hard Road’
Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness
This is a very special record, for a lot of reasons. Sometimes a singer’s voice just touches you as a form of pure enchantment, soulfully rising on a languid, westerly breeze. Listening over and over, you look towards the end of the day with comfort, not sorrow. Sometimes music feels like the weather, except somehow you trust its lilting pressure, its moments of suspension, its showers. Julie Byrne makes music as pure as a valley rainfall in the middle of summer, as a quartz crystal held up to sunlight, as rain on the rusted roof of a farmhouse. The songs on Not Even Happiness are earnest explorations of the self within, as much as they attend to the natural world that permeates, surrounds. The moods of the album fluctuate softly over warming harmonies, minimalist acoustics, delicate strums. All the while, everything is led by the wistful cadence of Byrne’s gorgeous voice, rich as milk chocolate yet also somehow haunting, hollowed out where emotion cuts to the bone. This is a nomadic record, the story of a restless soul and the clefts of existence in which she’s found beautiful, ephemeral comforts. Colours and clouds and remnants of wind-blown melody. The natural world is something that often resonates from within; Byrne draws its energies and in her voice they melt so irresistibly to any listener.
I have written an essay about Not Even Happiness already, having had the privilege to basically explain why this album deserved the position it got as GoldFlakePaint’s Album of the Year, why it’s important and frankly why I love it so much. I don’t want to repeat myself, but equally I want to set down in words how precious this album is. It’s a cycle, a trail across the land. I walk the same city routes, reimagining the pastoral scenes I’m missing so bad, the half-remembered hills and fields of my youth. Here in Glasgow it rains and rains, but sometimes there’s a day of blue, even though tinged with dicey frost, leaf-bitter browns. Listening to Julie Byrne, I slow right down. It’s like she says, feel for the beauty between things. I look for the blue, the verdant green that blooms from the rain, and maybe for a while it’s all okay.
Takeaway track: ‘Sleepwalker’
Lana Del Rey Lust for Life
With Lust for Life, Lana Del Rey declares a turn away from the solipsistic melancholy of yesteryear, towards something more collective, a gesturing to the future: “This is my commitment / My modern manifesto / I’m doing it for all of us / Who never got the chance”. I’ve struggled a lot with this album, ever since its first single ‘Love’ was released and then getting my hands on the full thing, 16 tracks and all. It’s a lot to digest; there are many collabs to stomach. When ‘Love’ came out I thought, my god has Lana just gone and written the sappiest most vapid ballad I’ve heard since John Legend’s ‘All of Me’? (Okay, I wasn’t actually that harsh). Then, after more careful listening, the song’s full thrust was upon me and I saw the complex messages encrypted within its deceptively simple lyrics. I’ve already written a hefty essay on ‘Love’ so I won’t bore you with too much here. Suffice to say, I think the song’s actually a startling, poignant address to millennial angst in the time of narcissism, Tinder and the end of the world—a probing of reality itself as much as the mundane rhythms of zero-hours existence.
As a whole, Lust for Life feels timely and indeed political in a way that no other LDR album has, other than her show-stopping debut, Born to Die. Of course, that cycle from death to life has its own satisfying trajectory, coming full circle to a sense of regeneration rather than total existential despair in the wake of Trump et al. Yet despite Born to Die’s general melancholia, the upshot is: “Try to have fun in the meantime”: Lou Reed’s ancient rock’n’roll adage to come walk on the wild side.
Lust for Life takes up that mantle of pleasure in the face of suffering and adds an ethic of care to the mix. You don’t need to listen closely to realise that ultimately this is a gesture of millennial empathy, a model for generational community. Sure, it’s a largely elite, white world, but Lana enlists her famed support (A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carty, The Weeknd, Stevie Nicks (!) and Sean Ono Lennon) for the ride. What’s more, she’s interested less in identity this time than the crowd. Lust for Life is less dreamy than Honeymoon, less the hard-edged, oft-sardonic introspection of Ultraviolence. Emerging fully-flushed in the midst of July, this record is a meta-commentary on festivals, road-trips, those long afternoons spent with friends killing time. While previously she’s garnered controversy from the likes of Francis Bean and Kim Gordon for fetishizing suicide and domestic violence, making a big deal of bedding the bad boys, this record feels—dare I say it—decidedly wholesome.
Even title track ‘Lust for Life’, featuring Canadian ‘King of Sex Pop’ The Weeknd, which should come across as a steamy duet, feels sort of Hollywood twee. The pair share a chorus, “Take off take off, take off all your clothes”, which seems less sexual than a little odd, estranging. Like, why repeat such an imperative, especially in the languid way she does? Del Rey fashions herself and The Weeknd as a sort of millennial Adam and Eve; this time with Eve in charge, swaying indulgently over fat trap beats. Their wispy, cloying falsettos come together like a sticky fantasy you don’t really want in your head. When The Weeknd sings “we’re the masters of our own fate”, you can’t help but wonder if this is a gesture towards self-empowerment in the age of political oppression and mass surveillance, or simply a cheeky imperative to jump into bed with him. With sparkly arpeggios falling away towards the song’s end, mention of love letters, there’s an electro-Disney vibe that seems to preserve its imperative for romance in the modern world.
Following the odd banality of ‘Lust for Life’ is the soaring, cinematic strings of ‘13 Beaches’. After crackling with a sample taken from 1962 horror film, Carnival of Souls, Del Rey’s distinctive symbolic lyrics take frontstage again, the song building with heavier beats as she hints at a breakdown in the flimsy paradise erected by the previous track’s saccharine lyrics: “Can I let go? And let your memory dance / In the ballroom of my mind / Across the county line”. There’s a sense throughout the album of coming up against these thresholds of self and other, now and forever. The ballad, as usual, is Del Rey’s preferred mode, but these aren’t simple declarations of loneliness and love. Rather, the ballad form contributes to the album’s overall themes of unity vs. fragmentation, public vs. private, self vs. collective: “I fall to pieces when I’m with you”; “it took 13 beaches / to find one empty / to find one that was mine”. She works in these juicy, mysterious symbols: “cherries and wine, rosemary and thyme”, “dripping peaches”. You don’t need to watch Tropico (2013) to realise Lana has a thing for the Garden of Eden in the age of hell and corruption, of caffeinated horror—Trump and his 12 Diet Cokes a day. Still, her fruits are exotic, her dialogue concrete or surreal or silly (“Fuck!” “bitch”) and a far cry from the innocent, gleaming apples of an English yesteryear.
There’s a sense throughout that Del Rey is dealing with the end of the world. I’ve just finished Roy Scranton’s compelling and slightly frightening Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and I think there’s something interesting to be said about how LDR teaches you to die while nurturing that lust for life. She paints her honeydew glaze over things, while brushing up against horror and endings. In Ecocriticism on the Edge, Timothy Clark writes of our attempts to conceive of the Earth as planet as an exercise in aporetic (im)possibility:
Language about the sight of the Earth as a planet forms a singular kind of catachresis, that is, a knowingly inadequate simile or metaphor used to convey something for which no literal or as yet accepted term exists, stretching to breaking point language derived from the seeming coherence of the world of immediate consciousness.
In ‘Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems’, Del Rey’s attempt at a sort of Anthropocene piano ballad, she evokes an aestheticized reality of bewildering scales, at once beautiful and disturbing:
Blue is the color of the planet from the view above
Long live our reign, long live our love
Green is the planet from the eyes of a turtle dove
‘Til it runs red, runs red with blood
Blue and green, blue and green. You can trace references to blue throughout LDR’s back catalogue and maybe there’s a case for linking her melancholic imagery to a wider sense of planetary decline. Why is the turtle dove running red with blood? Is this mere symbolism for heartache, or a synecdochical hint at the world’s ecological decay? There’s something deranging and defamiliarising, as Clark argues, about conceiving of our world as object: a ball, a planet or globe. Del Rey isn’t afraid to mangle our sense of presence and being, to stir up a sultry love song that paces her feelings against the world’s intense and interminable hurt, a kind of unknowingness from within and without. And hm, isn’t that what love is too?
The Guardian describes Del Rey’s ‘political approach [as] rooted in escapism’, and certainly there’s a narcotic, trap beat pull to her tracks that finds comfort and a kind of serenity in the age of ever-bleeping phones and 24/7 headlines. You want to sway, swing and drift. In ‘Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind’, she performs a typical Del Rey retro move of superimposing the flower power memories of the sixties with the garlanded crowds of contemporary festivals. While in previous records, this might be an act of hauntological mourning, in Lust for Life it’s a sincere take on feminine solidarity amidst acts of global violence. She prays for their safety and it’s almost maternal, or at least big-sisterly, the way she admires all the young girls wearing flowers. If Sandi Thom feels cynical about the state of contemporary politics, longing to wear flowers in her hair and join the vintage revolution, “I was born too late / to a world that doesn’t care”, then what Lana does is make that statement to her fans: trust me, I care. I’m here in the present.
And you know, for all the album’s flaws, this is what matters. LDR is an artist who’s taken a lot of flak for her risqué aesthetic, and rebuilt herself into a model for hope, without losing her skill for alluring lyrics and irresistible dream pop hooks. She’s unashamedly writing yearning love songs for the famous (‘Groupie Love’, ‘White Mustang’) while committing herself with stadium pop grandeur to female power (‘God Bless America – And All the Beautiful Women In It’). She’s quoting from rock’n’roll history, borrowing John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s son for a Beatles-referencing track (‘Tomorrow Never Came’), demurely reflecting on how the world is just “crazy”. She’s showering herself in celestial images, astrological west coast futurity, alluding to Dylan and F. Scott Fitzgerald in one fell swoop: “Lay Lady Lay / On that side of paradise / In the Tropic of Cancer”. She’s got lyrical cross-references with Marilyn Manson, Morrissey, Elton John, Frank Sinatra. In short, there’s a lot to unpack in this record. Its maximalism is contained, beautifully, in relatively simple and smooth arrangements. The soft-sweet balladry gets its edge from the sort of stadium, trap production found throughout Born to Die.
Overall, Lust for Life is hopeful; it gestures towards a new sincerity even in its subtle irony (isn’t it silly to sing about the end of the world and our constant problems, but only from the POV of beautiful people—for this was Fitzgerald’s version of upper-class universalism, surely?). In all that joy, there’s still the broody, trademark sorrow. Lana can sing “there’s something in the wind / I can feel it blowing in”, but only with the backdrop of a mournful piano, moving reservedly around her voice. It’s this uncertainty, this careful preserving of self-awareness while tuning to the winds of change, that I’m ultimately drawn to—letting go of pretension, feeling a little more earnest and youthful.
Takeaway track: ‘White Mustang’
Laura Marling, Semper Femina
Like many others my age, I more or less grew up with Laura Marling’s music. Her commentary on life, self and love has long provided a neglected feminine perspective enriched with worldly maturity, something much needed when you’re eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-four and still don’t know what to do with yourself. While the late noughties saw the rise of other female singer-songwriters, no-one does emotional nuance and lyric precision quite like Laura Marling.
With each of her albums, Marling has honed new musical directions, timely outlooks on daily and deep existence from a perspective that has always felt feminine despite its universal reach. A femininity grounded in self-knowledge, emotion and expressive power as much as reserve, coyness and beauty. 2015’s Short Movie felt very Joni Mitchell, expressively rich yet somehow desperately lonely, an album with cinematic reach but at heart conveying the struggles of a soul alone in New York. Semper Femina is a return to tenderness, but its folky strains are by no means sweet or twee. This is a record, refreshingly, about friendship as much as love (often the slippery space between the two). There’s a sense that Marling’s communicating with her past through the various connections she’s made along the way. While this is no groundbreaking theme, the way in which she expresses her interwoven journeys through pared lyrics with mythological twinge (“the martyr who feels the fire / the child who knows his name”) is beautifully unique. If her previous record had a flavour of New York grit, electric guitars and all, Semper Femina feels like a distinct return to Englishness. The way she turns up her vowels, a little Dylanesque, emits a sort of sagely purity and wisdom. Maybe that’s where the L.A connection comes in: this mythological promise, an airy sheen that speaks of shape-shifting skies, a Californian sunrise.
Still, even with the spaciousness, the declarative power, there’s an intimacy to this record. Alongside her usual confessional lyrics, Marling uses the second-person quite frequently across Semper Femina. The effect is a kind of celebration of the other, a reaching out; a gesture of understanding rather than forcing of distance. You could approach these tracks as a series of letters, there’s a definite addressing in her words which has a mystical, summoning quality. The stories she paints are not, however, explicit narratives, but rather impressionistic, softened at the edges to emphasise emotion. She sings of that which we struggle to articulate: “there is something underneath / something shy and hard to see”. Her evocations of nature, those peculiar green trees, of everyday scenes like passing someone by, are quietly abstracted, allowing the listener to inhabit the album with their own narrative, their own emotions.
She may have taken the record title from Virgil’s Aeneid, but her evocations of femininity’ protean qualities, of psychology and classical reference, are plainspoken and accessible. The complexities of love and loss are rendered with a frankness and passion that is quietly measured, with a clear sense of distance: “Must every heart break / Like a wave on the bay.” She’s enlisted a lovely arsenal of strings and woodwind, with lots of pretty guitars, sorrowful arps and soothing, bluesy pizzicato. None of this feels intrusive; it’s simply the ornamentation that warms Marling’s high reserve, her angelic delivery. There’s a sense on this record that Marling is trying to solve problems, tease out the emotional knots that have swelled somewhat in recent years. She consoles herself with mantras, “At least I can say / That my debts have been paid”, but there’s a sense of dissatisfaction, a longing that lingers.
This is most vividly present, perhaps, on ‘Soothing’, the record’s dark and sensual opener, with Marling’s tightly held sorcerer’s trill entwined around thick and sinuous basslines. With its “creepy conjurer” and “strange discord” this is a song about power, secrecy and love, a song that never blossoms to proper narrative conclusion—and is all the better for this broody unease. For ages, I thought the line from the bridge was “I burnish you with love”, which lent this aching decadence; but I realise it’s actually banish. Are the implications even more striking? Love’s forceful, perilous luxury…
It’s tricky to pick a favourite track from a record that’s as softly eclectic as it is coherent. The songs blend into each other like a perfect narrative, but this doesn’t detract from the unique tone and textures of each one, matching in form the exploration of femininity’s changeability. For a while, my favourite was ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, which had a sort of world-weary insouciance I loved for its country-song lilt, its invocation of time’s bright hinge, the ephemerality of everything: “I won’t forget the late September / Where we danced among the midnight embers / But it’s going like a half-remembered dream.” There is a sense throughout the record of something fading; the vivid immediacy of Short Movie is supplanted by a softening of focus, an abstracted dissolve of scene. Picture yourself passing through trees, amber lights of the town ebbing away behind you. Despite the musical nonchalance, the relaxed off-beats, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ is a very sincere love song, a song about what redeems in the depths of depression. That line, “The only thing I learnt in a year / Where I didn’t smile once, not really”, really sticks in its frank directness. What can you scrape away from experience, the day-to-day performance of normal, the blueness we cover to protect what’s left? Marling asks you to take a chance on the brilliant abyss underneath: “We’ve not got long, you know / To bask in the afterglow.”
Upon reflection, however, the track that endures for me is ‘The Valley’. A crystalline waltz that feels timeless and sublime in its rendering of lost connection, of being ghosted by someone whose mourning and loss lies unspoken, lies beyond—is something of a deep, mythological hurt. What’s ostensibly a song about losing a friend on a night out is spun as a dreamy musing on empathy, love and the fresh possibilities in time’s recycling of memory. I can’t help but hear echoes of Leonard Cohen in the line, “I love you in the morning”. There’s a prayer-like warmth and rapture, softened by Marling’s plush and gorgeous lines: “We love beauty ’cause it needs us to / It needs our brittle glaze / And innocence reminds us to / Cover our drooling gaze”. This brittle glaze is what we use to palate the world; make it possible to absorb all that uncertainty and pain; the mingling of transcendent joys and everyday pleasures. This is a record about desire, friendship and solitude; but also a reflection on how we reach these, feel these, as mere mortal selves with humanly fissures and memory’s stain.
Takeaway track: ‘The Valley’
LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
As ever, I was working last New Year’s Eve. We finished at midnight and after the persuasion of several tequilas, I found myself in the midst of a drunken Glasgow crowd just an hour into 2017. The DJ’s playlist was a familiar round of Bowie, disco favourites and, inevitably, ‘Come on Eileen’; until suddenly the pulsing synth beginning of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Someone Great’ comes on, unmistakeable through the PA system. The mood shifts in a second. There’s just something about LCD, the way they universalise experience, bring a diverse crowd together in pure exhilaration. This song is connected with a local tragedy that happened in 2016, the loss of a life too young. It takes forever to build, takes a lifetime to build if you’re fully in the moment. But then the xylophone chimes come in, the melody kicks. It’s a song about someone you’ve lost, the butterfly flutters extinguished in an instinct. A whole relationship, a whole love gone. Listening to it at the start of the year was like falling through glass into the emptiest part of myself, and that was an honest euphoria. I don’t know if it’s about death or simple heartbreak. Nothing can prepare you for it. My friend was crying, tears like sequins on freckles, and I probably went outside. Cold air and first felt stars of January, drunks lighting cigarettes.
I was a bit conflicted about a new LCD album. Part of me wanted the mythology of greatness settled to rest, this era-defining, stadium-fat electronic rock that reminded me of Skins and feeling human things as new and the limitlessness of darkness on every night out walking home with the cold in your toes. A sense of massive, American grandeur. The melancholy afterwards; they would pick you up as much as they threw you into abyss. New York I love you, but you’re bringing me down. I was sceptical, suspicious of commercialism. But hell, I guess we didn’t have much to worry about. This is a glossy monster of an album, smooth and beautiful, crunchy and a bit funky, all electronic shreds and squelchy synths and quiet, deathly ambience. All its moods governed by slick beats and layers of sensitive production that feel as ripe for a club as they do for your earplugs, the resonant window-leak of music in streets. Okay, so it doesn’t totally lift; it might be better live, but there’s something here. A smoothness of beckoning mood…
Whether lamenting the death of Bowie (‘black screen’), exploring age and a sense of slipping relevancy (‘i used to’) or fluttering through paranoia with old-school LCD bass-crunching flamboyance (‘other voices’), thematically this record hails a new sincerity. If James Murphy was once the figurehead for Gen-Y hipsterism, on American Dream, he’s paying attention to genuine millennial grief and frustration. Okay, so not everyone had the same personal relationship with Bowie that Murphy had, but he manages to capture something simple, human and shared in his expression of personal grief: “You fell between a friend / and a father / I owe you dinner man / I owe you something.” We’re not all jaded fools, or maybe our jadedness is a justified reaction. There’s a sense of protectiveness (“you’re still a baby now”), built alongside personal vulnerability, the voice drowned out by moaning synth melodies. It’s a record that feels big, spacious; an obvious soundtrack to the end of summer, catastrophic political milestones swiftly approaching. To some degree, it rewards hard work—the committed listener’s attentiveness to emotional nuance—but mostly it’s just immediately accessible. This isn’t something to be sniffed at.
Despite a jagged experimentalism in places (‘pulse (v.1)’), and the more universal smash-hit vibes of ‘tonite’ or butter-wouldn’t-melt, eighties synth-shivering confessional love (‘oh baby’), American Dream does feel of the moment—its implicit politics looms beyond the obvious college-dorm bangers of previous records. ‘American dream’ is a disturbing waltz about the emptiness of everything, “find a place where you can be boring”. It’s maybe something you’d listen to walking home from a failed Tinder date, realising the world is in an infinitely worse state than you are just now: “this is someone else’s pain / so you feel drained.” There’s an admission here, also, that it’s okay to admit your suffering isn’t your own, that it’s maybe as much the media’s, the world’s.
Takeaway track: ‘oh baby’
Lee Gamble, Mnestic Pressure
Atmospheric, glitchy, precise in each beat to the point of beautiful binary, a shuffle of presence and aporia. There’s no way I’m qualified to talk in much detail about the underground background in which Gamble forged his musing computer sound, but I want to have a stab at describing his latest ironclad work of solid and hypnagogic affect.
The funny thing about Gamble’s music is that when you label it innovative, you’re not just making a banal remark about his knack for the mixing desk or sharp ear for a sample. You’re talking about the temporal orientation of this stuff too. It feels like tuning into different scales, the sonic environments of different objects. On first perusal, listening to Mnestic Pleasure with my headphones turned up full, I made an immediate comparison to Burial’s self-titled 2006 debut. Not so much in style as substance: these are records that each feel rooted to an urban environment, the eerie alleys, abandoned bars and smashed-in cars; places where stars melt in puddles of drug-lacquered rain, and posters for nightclubs slowly dissolve in their own acid neon.
But where Burial’s album is precisely the twenty-first century lament for such places, conjuring an elegy for the late eighties’ urban raves, Gamble’s fashions another world altogether. A world that is present without presence; that is infected and inflected by so many other moments, echoes, gestures towards the unsayable, unplayable. Mark Fisher talks of the ‘slow cancellation of the future’, that increasing inability of culture to think in terms of the to-come. Where we might look to Kraftwerk as emblematic musical futurists, few equivalents exist in contemporary times. How do we think the future when the present itself is delayed, deferred and collapsed in the flattened rhizomatics of social media? Is there, as Fisher asks, a ‘present to grasp and articulate any more’?
Mnestic Pressure v i b r a t e s. By which I mean, it literally shivers like something affective, sentient, sparkling. Something potentially nonhuman, and not just machinic. This isn’t science-fiction, steampunk or cyborg techno. I once had the pleasure of a brief exchange with Gamble on Twitter about Graham Harman’s metaphysics, and the basic principles of object-oriented ontology seem worth rehearsing here. We are all objects; there is some unique essence of reality to each object that cannot be accessed by other objects. Mnestic: relating to memory. The residue secrets we bear alone, yet access sometimes through the glimpse of a thing external to ourselves. There’s a potentially deliberate invocation of hauntology here, but Gamble doesn’t go in for utter nostalgia, nor does he paint a hollow, if seductive, Burial-style vision of his favourite city now cast to ruins. He doesn’t withdraw from the world; rather than performing an emptying out, a wallowing in hypnotic and deconstructed versions of retro, he takes a confrontational approach to the times.
With collaged soundscapes, subtle fragments of grimy bass, disorientating impressions of jungle and charged drumwork, there’s a sense of reality throughout Mnestic Pressure as tuned to hyper-pitch. Memory is pressurised, the dial turned up on thought till what occurs is a beautiful entropy of sonic debris. The thump and pulse, campy twists of 808 bass throbbing through sinuous snares. On tracks like ‘UE8’, haunted percussive space is brought to intensity through urgent beats that melt out in occasional interludes for breath. The rhythms are erratic at times, focused at others. Every time you think you’ve settled into something, a mad breakbeat or burst of subbass will throw you again off the scent. Listening to Mnestic Pressure is like being caught in a labyrinth, but one in which gravity behaves oddly and sometimes portals open into the future. What’s there? A lot of glistering industry, punishing darkness, but also insanely mesmerising electricity.
This is a record with room for nostalgia, sure. You’ve got moments of pause among the surge, moments where you could imagine a dry ice misting in and recalling in swirling melody (‘Locked In’, ‘A Tergo Real’) the importance of music as pleasure. For in the eerie soundscapes set up, Oneohtrix-style, in whirring effects and ghostly synths, the underlying arpeggios that flicker towards the surface in genuinely pretty melody, are total redeemable bliss. Take the night-train out west, if you will. Both abstracted and grounded in the concrete jungle of the club, this is a record for in-the-moment or else vicarious experience. I can see something blooming, strange and utopian, in the rearranged pixels of my screen. Maybe I’ve been sleep-deprived a little too long, but I’m totally sucked in by Gamble’s intensity, his artful balance of insistent twists and moments of floaty dissolve, mimicking memory’s mercurial fades and narrative curves.
With a clear nod to Autechre, whatever the technical intricacies of this album, to get lost in its grainy, glitching, melodic fold is by no means a bad thing. If someone made a sonic choreography of strobe. I’m finding my body again like a galaxy, full of all these strange and divergent energies—so expressive and then again recalcitrant. There’s both sweetness and dissonance; a sense of being welcomed but then made alien by sounds that seem to emit nonhuman effects: a digital intentionality that lusts after its internal composition, the complexities of circuitry given voice as a series of blips and whirrs, perfected underneath by lucid, moody synths. Objects unhinged from original source, given reign to flicker towards the future, which opens its sky like the howl of a sun, the neon of a club burning out on its own fly-ridden buzz. Dirty and pure, controlled and Dada-random, stressed and serene; it’s a record that manages many affective dualities with coordinated ease. I picture a map, a map of everything lain down in tiny, synthetic wires and beads; a map bigger than anything a human could ever lay down. A million lit metropolises seen through the heavenly skin of the Earth laid flat. Infinite glassy, crystalline to the touch, rippling with impress of noise, a bit epiphanic. It’s the city again, it’s the figurines of us once-dancing, it’s a place beyond scale we might never have seen.
Takeaway track: ‘A tergo Real’
I have such gushing, unadulterated love for this album. Back in July, I was asked if I wanted to write a wee thing about it for GoldFlakePaint, and it ended up becoming the piece of writing I’m maybe most proud of this year. Masters dissertations are one thing, but you don’t get that emotional reach that you do from a piece that’s published online for hundreds of music fans. You don’t get that glow when someone tweets you to say they liked what you’ve written, that maybe it changed their whole view of the album.
The essay was called ‘Sweetheart Psychopathic Crush: On Lorde’s Melodrama and Pop’s New Maximalist Palette’ and you can still read it online, so I won’t write too much about it here. After binging on Melodrama all through the summer, I gave the record a break for a while and returned to it when winter was dragging me down and I needed something that felt fresh and dynamic, a vivacious kick-start for the senses. Melodrama is both party album and a soundtrack for the afterlife, the comedown: “Bet you wish you could touch our rush / But what will we do after the rush?”. With tracks like ‘Liability’, Lorde will pick you up in her sultry arms and give you the strength to feel whole and good and single again. With tracks like ‘Green Light’ and ‘Supercut’, she’ll have you flailing down a maddening highway of glitz and lights, dancing your way out of negative memory. With slick, glossy production, sharp riffs of brass, luscious synths, trap-inspired boom boom beats, crystalline eighties guitars and bright, breathy vocals, Lorde’s melodic pop never felt so extravagant.
This might be a breakup album, deeply personal in a lot of ways, but you can tell its mastermind is having a whale of a time. It’s the reflection of a young artist getting the creative control she deserves, pushing the boundaries of her genre and being totally flamboyant while staying cool. Lyrically, there’s this super cute earnestness that’s hard not to fall for; she uses words like ‘awesome’ with little irony. This is alongside occasional expressionist flashes of orgiastic violence: “We’ll end up painted on the road / Red and chrome / All the broken glass sparkling / I guess we’re partying”. The love story that runs its neon thread through Melodrama is one that falls apart in brilliant splinters, renews the self that bursts forth from the shattered ashes, shattered ash trays. It’s a heady record, a bit of a whirlwind, unashamedly sweet like a cola-cube flavoured cocktail flaming in some downtown bar where folk dance on tables and the jukebox is strictly r’n’b, pop and disco. Maybe not to everyone’s taste, but frankly I fucking love it. There’s a buzz from living vicariously in records.
Takeaway track: ‘The Louvre’
Moses Sumney, Aromanticism
I’m not exactly sure what age I was when I first broke through the false consciousness of heteronormative society, the compulsive ideology of forced romance etc. By which I mean, sitting in the back of the car on the way to the supermarket having to listen again to Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs. In my child’s head, I made some blistering connection to the refrain of chocolates and champagne and the cheap sort of saccharine, baby-talk love that was constantly peddled on the radio. Okay, so Steve had a few cute listeners on board, stories about 50-year romances, grannies holding hands and grand reunions. But then it would be some cheesy Motown or soul number crackling through the speakers and I pondered again that question of love. Pondered awhile then realised that if you hadn’t felt it yet—at least not this shiny, diamond-ring kind of love—this was all a bit pointless. I got quite sick of having it shoved down my throat.
A decade or more later and along comes Moses Sumney, redefining what it might mean to write a pop song for solitude. Not just because we’re in some social media-inflicted Age of Loneliness, but simply because some of us are okay to not lust constantly after company. The concept of ‘aromanticism’, Sumney’s own coinage, describes an absence of romantic feeling towards others: an alienation born not from loneliness but from the lack of romantic feeling itself. Most of us at some point have felt a longing to be in love, if not for love itself. But what happens when you realise this doesn’t matter to you all that much, that you’ve broken free of those amorous shackles? Making fresh territory, Sumney’s genre-bending album explores these questions and more.
With succulent falsetto, sensual beats and chordal sweeps, Aromanticism feels like a whirling journey of sorts. Romantic tropes dissolve into fleeting affect; pleasure is pleasure and nothing more, nothing lasting or overly complex. There’s a loveliness to this eremitic existence, even as sometimes the emotion comes up brittle—both melancholy and euphoric. Sumney’s universe is both abstract and intimate, an orbital chorus of jazz, soul, electronica and slickly-produced pop—as good for the club as perhaps the bedroom, whatever the hell you wanna do in it.
Takeaway track: ‘Lonely World’
Phoebe Bridgers Stranger in the Alps
I wrote quite extensively about this record back in July when I got to interview Bridgers for GoldFlakePaint, but I guess it’s good to reflect on how the album’s rooted its way through my life since then. And rooted it truly has; no matter how much I go off in different musical directions, I always find myself falling back into its cool emo glow on long walks home. There’s something about Bridgers’ voice, an incandescent sort of sorrow, that is pretty much irresistible. She’s Elliott Smith rolling over silver boulevards, less star-struck than bummed out on ubiquitous cultural melancholy. It’s millennial frustration at its most tender, it’s pure unadulterated sadness. You might think, god, not self-involved emo again; but this is something totally different.
Like Julien Baker, Pinegrove and others, Bridgers is taking emo’s emotional earnestness and re-articulating it in much more visceral, interesting and lyrical ways. Where the black-clad boy bands of the noughties were all about hating on girls who dumped them, whinging about the world in a storm of self-loathing, the new wave of emo is much more nuanced, empathetic and free. It speaks to wider generational ennui as much to personal conflicts; it wears melancholy on its sleeve not for the sake of teenage symbolic capital but rather as a genuine sense of this is how I am right now, how are you?
Stranger in the Alps is part diary, part pop, part deliberate emotional extremity. Listening to her lyrics, you’re pushed to places you might not want to: the funerals of friends, your brother’s sorrow, being stoned as uncomfortable numbness, reflecting on how things have changed and not always for the better. It’s full of haunted streets, bike bells and trains, burnout towns where the kids just get high and life closes in on a litany of problems, dwindling to total void: “You are anonymous / I am a concrete wall”. Most of these songs are slow, retain elements of the country ballad style which modelled Bridgers’ early work. They might relate speeding in cars through the night, but the pace of Stranger in the Alps is that of the bored flaneuse, jadedly pacing the same old streets of her youth. With lap steel and minimal drums, low pulsing bass, she narrates this atmospheric space where memory bleeds through the present—sometimes with comfort, sometimes pain. Maybe no surprise that I like this record best when I’m tired or hungover, too deadened of sensation to feel much other than this gaping space of what I’m supposed to do but can’t. Tenderly yet sinuously, Stranger in the Alps releases the feeling back in the blood, finds some way to thaw your anaesthetised reality.
The smudgy ghost that adorns the album’s cover is kind of a figure for identity itself, as much as it is for the phantoms that haunt these songs. Do you ever look at yourself in a shop window, the aluminal gleam of a passing car, and think god, who is that? Amid all the crisis and chaos, there’s a meditative precision to your early twenties, something you can attain maybe only midway through a party when almost everyone has left and you’re in the bathroom starting to sober up and staring at a crack in the wall, letting all these memories gush out and rearrange themselves in the strange geometries of the present (okay, so I’m ripping off Tom McCarthy’s Remainder again).
Whether empathising with serial killers, calling up old friends, prison boys and lovers, or nailing a devastating cover of Mark Kozelek’s ‘You Missed My Heart’, Phoebe Bridgers has released maybe the most cathartic debut of the year. It feels very American—Chelsea Hotel and all—but there’s a universalism to its sadness, its references to Bowie’s death, to missing someone so much you imagine them as a can on a string, to blacking out and finding yourself tucked up so small again on your childhood bed. Listening to Stranger in the Alps, it’s okay to feel sorry for yourself sometimes, but equally this is such a richly empathetic album—as much about a broken community of friends and lost connections as it is about the violence that strikes solely inside the self. A record for that time in your life when everyone you love seems to be moving away, moving on, and you just have to find some peace with yourself and where you’re at now, to fathom a sense that the here and now are okay too.
Takeaway track: ‘Smoke Signals’
Portico Quartet Art in the Age of Automation
It would be a shame to talk about the new Portico Quartet without mentioning Walter Benjamin. Author of The Arcades Project, an unfinished, 1000+ page collection of notes and writings on subjects which spilled from the Paris Arcades: fashion, advertising, interior design, Baudelaire, progress, boredom, surrealism and more. These fragments and sketches on notecards became a sort of dossier, the debris of which stands as a memorandum to the project Benjamin was never able to finish, killing himself to avoid being killed in the war as a Jew.
Benjamin also wrote an essay titled ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in which he argues that modernity’s technologies (film and photography) incur a loss of the artwork’s aura, due to its ease of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin’s aura is the originality and authenticity that shrouds a work of art: a painting or a musical performance. A photograph is an image of an image; a phonograph is a recorded replica of a recording. What’s more, Benjamin writes of how the capturing structure of technology can unlock unconscious desires within the viewer: for instance, new camera angles intervene in the assumed immediacy between object and vision, instating a rhythm, pace and structure of voyeuristic tendency.
Art in the Age of Automation taps into Benjamin’s ideas of the aura, of art’s sensory interventions and the possibilities of music as an operational interface of time and space: ‘During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence’. Where Benjamin wrote in the early to mid-twentieth century, a time of mechanical reproduction, Portico Quartet make music in the age of automation, the glossy screens that structure our seamless symbiosis of virtual (and) reality. This is the age of machines which perform everyday functional capacities (your self-service checkouts etc), but also make art. Not just auto-tune; literally machines can generate art through algorithms. Of course, this is not a new revelation: it’s something the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and concrete poets of the 70s and 80s (Bob Cobbing, Charles Bernstein and the like) have already tapped into. Concrete poetry stages itself as both materiality and Event: there’s a sense maybe of recalling the scene of composition as aesthetic and metaphysical rupture.
Portico Quartet are, loosely, well-practiced purveyors of jazztronica, combining electronic effects with ambient, nuanced production, super-melodic composition and jazz improv. Jazz, in a sense, embodies this play between automation, art and time. Improvised in the moment, a collaboration between tool and body (instrument and musician), it’s nevertheless framed by certain systems and limitations of scale, tone, key. There’s maybe a loose, Oulipo quality to it; while slapped frequently with the jazz label, Portico Quartet sound much more focused and polished than old school free-ranging jazz. Their music is about opening hypnotic time-spaces, swirling auratic through sound, while feeling technically slick, a satisfying grandeur that perfectly produces its alignments of mood. If Kraftwerk make robot electronica, Portico Quartet are what happens when you let the mystical back in.
This isn’t something Benjamin was afraid of. Ambience and aura are, inevitably, a question of myth and mystery. Woozy woodwind and brass glaze the album with a sense of the elsewhere, as with sparkles of harp, rising Boards of Canada bass and twinkling electronic percussion. There’s a richness to these compositions, a density of layer and texture. The songs slip between each other with effortless glide, weaving a complex trajectory of hypnotic recline against rise, the slow pull towards a glowing euphoria. Title track ‘Art in the Age of Automation’ nicely encapsulates all these elements found across the album, with its Balearic sunrise synths, sweetly-seething strings and aleatoric peter towards abyss. At times, there’s a sense of spaciousness to the production (‘S/2000S5’ and ‘Mercury Eyes’) that recalls even Oneohtrix Point Never’s otherworldly virtual environments. While saxophones splinter little riffs, there’s a sense of drifting around a bright-lit mall, everything of gloss and perfect surface.
Ending on upbeat ‘Lines Glow’, completing their geometric/HEX arc from ‘A Luminous Beam’ to ‘RGB’, it’s difficult to resist conjuring roving landscapes in your head. Clouds parting to madder pink stained tangerine sky, wisps of breeze to lift your hair, your senses. This is at once a skyward journey and a passage of excavation. This is a return to form, a traversal back to the earlier sound that made Portico Quartet’s name. It’s a polishing of influence, a metamodern sway between irony and sincerity, the serious and camp. Mixing ambience, worldbeat, techno and, most belovedly, experimental jazz, this is something fresh, something strange but pleasing to reawaken the senses. Conjure the aura at your own pleasure.
Takeaway track: ‘A Luminous Beam’
This record is more of a totalled experience than anything I’ve ever listened to. By totalled I mean, completely abstracted from anything paratextual, anything extraneous like movement or genre or trend. I didn’t really know who Slowdive were until this was released and there was a bout of hype and so I found myself sliding into this mystical, spacious universe, devouring each back record whole before fully listening to Slowdive, the band’s first album in over twenty years.
Slowdive melds everything to love about shoegaze and dream pop with a sort of epic weight, braced on beautiful, soaring melodies. The landscapes of these songs are sweeping, glittering with distance. The intermingling of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s vocals, all masculine sonority with angelic, haunted femininity, raises the music to pure sublime—and this is just track one, ‘Slomo’. With lyrics that gesture towards a beyond, whose words are lost sometimes in the hoary, breathless ascent, this is a record of longing. Themes of love, dreams and maritime imagery—all shipwrecks, coasts and oceans—recall Cocteau Twins at their most dazed and elemental. You can’t help feel as though you were plunging through space and time, listening to this record. ‘Star Roving’ has a crisp, upbeat and energised pop atmosphere that opens the skies to something glossier and greater—a new direction for shoegaze, an injection of zeal within that body of longing. There’s a perfection here, a sheer reach towards euphoria: “Said she’s feeling love for everyone else tonight”.
A record of many moods, Slowdive has an internal meteorology of turbulence and harmony, holding its trials and tribulations in a manner impossibly smooth. A primitive mysticism, secret knowledge contained in the unknowable, buoyed up by comforting, skyward synths on tracks like ‘Don’t Know Why’, with its clustering, urgent drum-beat interludes and layered flails of electric guitar.
What I love most about Slowdive is its ability to simultaneously hold melancholy and joy, moods contained in the molten core of irresistible melodies, whose force draws from lyric simplicity as much as the aporetic implications of vast walls of guitar and thundering drums. I remember something esteemed dark ecologist Timothy Morton wrote in his book Hyperobjects, relating a Keatsian aesthetic experience (that famous chiasmus of beauty and death) to the pioneers of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine:
When I listen to My Bloody Valentine, I do not reach out toward the sound—instead, I am assaulted from the inside by a pulsation that is also sound, a physical force that almost lifts me off the floor. Kevin Shields’s guitar sears into me like an x-ray, scanning me, strafing me. The chords lurch around one another sickeningly, gliding in and out of tune, amassing towers of harmonics through dissonance. Distortion pulps and fragments the sound into a welter of gravel and thick oil. Yet try as I might, I can’t tear my ears away. The music is so beautiful. I wonder how Odysseus felt, strapped to the mast as he heard the Sirens. I think I can hear singing, a quiet, wistful song. Inside the bubble is the pattering ooze of guitar distortion washed with cymbals. I think that this music could liquefy my internal organs, make my ears bleed (this has actually occurred), send me into seizures. Perhaps it could kill me. To be killed by intense beauty, what a Keatsian way to die.
When I listen to Slowdive, I feel caverns within me opening up, the swell and surge of synths brightening my organs to a shiver I don’t know is yours or mine. It’s the very unlocking of desire from without, then as I slip further I’m clasping for surface in the mire of sonic assault. I would like to hear these songs live, played with blistering intensity but then at times so tender it is as though the room’s very atmosphere is the skin of that sound, the soft repetitions, the longing refrains. Where My Bloody Valentine trade in hazy, ear-splitting riffs, Slowdive feels crisper, clearer. The songs are like grandiose sculptures, poised on the brink of their own dissolution; the production recalls something I might’ve cranked out on a tape-deck from the late nineties being transmogrified through some beautiful, clarifying futurity machine.
For a massive chunk of my autumn and summer, I walked around, circling the same old routes, listening to ‘Sugar for the Pill’ over and over. There’s an obsessive, Odyssean quality to this; a desire to return to presence that sustains itself on wave after wave of that painful absence, “all those nights / when you wanted so much more” (‘No Longer Making Time’). It was a song that felt like coming home, but wasn’t home itself. It was comforting in its sense of descent, its resignation; its shrinking that somehow bloomed on another horizon, cracked open the sunset elsewhere that I craved and needed. ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a sultry ride, swaddling inside soft-sweet guitars which draw you ineluctably over steady, crunching bass, opening this space of ponderous sorrow—a dark slow melancholy you could only call love at its most elated, belated and infinitely strange. It makes you realise distance, the space between each existence; the people you miss and the pain of that missing: “Just a rollercoast / Our love has never known the way”. Not all lovers come home, not all feelings can meet as they might beyond a tiny splinter of time. A blushing, eerie quality of sentiment that carries the song is returned, periodically, to the comforting warmth of the chorus, its blissful synths and twinkling, sugary guitar. It’s a gesture towards coming home, but also a glimpse into the abyss of what that might mean, our deep and personal uncertainties.
A record to get lost in, certainly, but one also to be soothed to—by you or him or anyone, as ever the music.
Takeaway track: ‘Sugar for the Pill’
Alt-J – 3WW
Angel Olsen – ‘Special’
Arcade Fire ‘Creature Comfort’
Beck– ‘Up All Night’
Bjork – ‘Blissing Me’
Breakfast Muff – ‘Babyboomers’
Coma Cinema – ‘Loss Memory’
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – ‘Over Everything’
Ellis May – ‘Father’
Fazerdaze – ‘Shoulders’
Ffion Regan – ‘The Meetings of the Waters’
Fufanu – ‘Sports’
Golden Teacher – ‘The Kazimier’
Good Good Blood – ‘Fallen Leaves’
Grizzly Bear – ‘Aquarian’
Ho99o9 – ‘Neighbourhood Watch’
Japanese Breakfast – ‘Machinist’
Jay Som – ‘For Light’
Julien Baker – ‘Appointments’
Kevin Morby – ‘City Music’
Kiran Leonard – ‘Could She Still Draw Back?’
Lanark Artefax – ‘Voices Near the Hypocentre’
Lomelda – ‘Interstate Vision’
Los Campensinos! ‘Renato Dall’Ara (2008)’
Martha Ffion – ‘We Make Do’
Mogwai – ‘Coolverine’
The National – ‘Dark Side of the Gym’
Nugget – ‘Watermelon’ (Human Bones cover)
Out Lines – ‘Our Beloved Dead’
Penguin Café – ‘Cantorum’
Perfume Genius – ‘Slip Away’
Pronto Mama – ‘Arabesque’
Roddy Woomble – ‘Jupiter’
Sacred Paws – ‘Strike a Match’
Saint Sister – ‘Causing Trouble’
Spinning Coin – ‘Raining on Hope Street’
Sufjan Stevens – ‘Tonya Harding’
Total Leatherette – ‘Faux Fox’
Wuh Oh – ‘Hairstyle’
The XX – ‘On Hold’
Alice Glass – ‘Alice Glass’
Amber Arcades – ‘Cannonball’
The Bellybuttons – ‘Wires’
Bicep – ‘Glue’
Burial – ‘Subtemple’
Cate Le Bon – ‘Rock Pool’
CCFX – ‘CCFX’
Djrum – ‘Broken Glass Arch’
Death Grips – ‘Steroids (Crouching Tiger Hidden Gabber Megamix)’
Frightened Rabbit/Julien Baker – ‘Recorded Songs’
Half Waif – ‘form/a’
Hannah Lou Clark – ‘The Heart and All Its Sin’
Joy Orbison – ‘Toss Portal’
Lanark Artefax – ‘Whities 011’
Minor Science, ‘Whities 012’
Sega Bodega – ‘Ess B’
Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – ‘Among Horses I’
Com Truise, Wuh Oh @ Stereo
Conor Oberst @ edinburgh & ABC
Happy Meals/Pictish Trail @ Edinburgh Caves
Johnny Flynn @ Saint Lukes
Julien Baker @ CCA
Laura Marling @ O2 ABC
Lana Del Rey @ Hydro
Lanark Artefax @ The Glue Factory
Lomond Campbell & Modern Studies, SOUNDING @ Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh
Martha Ffion, ULTRAS @ The Glad Café
Mull Historical Society, Roddy Hart & the Lonesome Fire @ Oran Mor West End Festival All-Dayer
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds @ Hydro
Phoebe Bridgers @ Broadcast
Rachel Sermanni, Jolie Holland @ Mackintosh Church
Radiohead, Belle & Sebastian, The Vegan Leather, Wuh Oh @ TRNSMT
Roddy Woomble, Kathryn Joseph @ Mackintosh Church
SWANS @ Oran Mor
Tenement Trail (especially Spinning Coin & Savage Mansion)
Withered Hand / A Singer of Songs @ The Hug and Pint
Top Gig Moments:
Conor Oberst part 1) Mesmerising duet on ‘Lua’ with Phoebe Bridgers @ the Edinburgh gig.
Conor Oberst part 2) Surprising everyone by playing ‘Something Vague’ at the ABC, a deep part of my broken teenage soul swooning heavily.
Everyone singing the ‘la la la la’ parts to ‘Religious Songs’ at the Withered Hand gig & a warm fuzzy winter-coming-to-an-end feeling.
Laura Marling commanding everyone’s sorrow with ‘Once’ & making loss something you could melt in a melody.
Suzanne from Happy Meals doing her mad sexy yoga moves on the floor of The Caves.
Radiohead playing ‘Lucky’ as the second track in their set and from those desultory opening strums feeling like I was gonna burst in the lights & the moody memories.
Catching a ten-minute glimpse of Out Line’s stunning, magnetic set from the Gallery at Oran Mor.
Getting an unexpected night off work and ending up seeing Roddy Woomble playing ‘American English’ at the Mackintosh Church, my Idlewild heart bleeding dry.
Erin Rae thanking me onstage at the Hug and Pint in her beautiful country drawl for my GoldFlakePaint feature on her music.
The lovely sonorous duets between Kathryn Joseph and Fair Mothers with the Hug and Pint disco ball spinning silver and slow.
Having my sense of reality shattered apart with the emotional chaos and sheer sonic sublimity of Lanark Artefax’s scintillating Glasgow debut, glistering monolith & all.
The kind of cold that’s purifying, that fills your lungs like sea-water sloshing inside the mouth of a cave. So it’s hard to breathe, but cutting through the breath is a sweet feeling, preciously there in the swift struggle that settles on calm. I go out at night and the cold air is a shot of adrenaline; I walk ultra fast, making hard strides across asphalt that sparkles with salt in the fierce moonlight. This is a month of much stress and panic but also relief. Resolving to make new friends, even though each time I worry about who will leave next; the cyclical press of everyone coming and going, memory hanging on a thin noose I can’t quite tauten, snap and break. I fall through it as light falls through a halo. I feel feathery and weird, writing nonsense in the morning to delay the inevitable rise from bed—a snap of cold, of spine and mind. I love the old ones, look forward to new.
We’re up late and I watch things unfold, messenger blue. At work, I run upstairs to watch Out Lines perform down below, an incredible light show glistering with swirls of lilac and white. It’s gorgeous and dramatic, genuinely breathtaking. I watch from the gallery as sonorous and sinuous beautiful voices mingle in a room full of awe. I feel sobered, grateful to just be, watching a few songs before inevitably I must return to work, to count the till and smell the coppery aura of tired old pennies. I see Julien Baker perform in LP Records, filling the tiny room with her massive voice; a voice that could start car alarms, make cracks in the concrete, tear up the numbness that governs the daily. It’s the voice of a heart too big for its ribs, a heart throbbing against the cruelties of existence, spreading hope on a room of friends and strangers. She covers Audioslave’s ‘Doesn’t Remind Me’ in honour of Chris Cornell, and for weeks after I hear that refrain, over and over, Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything. And I wonder what it means, and what sort of list I’d make in lieu of Cornell’s lyrics (‘gypsy moths’, ‘radio talk’, ‘driving backwards in the fog’, ‘canned applause’), planning a poetry exercise but then finding all the same that even the world’s waste is entangled for me. Maybe I will get older and find little daily voids to give my mind too. For now, even a tree is too heavy with everything. I can’t talk about Pokémon without getting misty-eyed over my youth.
Strange personal things make momentary ripples in reality. I fall asleep at work, heroin-heavy, in a hoard of recollected dreamscapes; I get up at 3:30am to attend a conference in St. Andrews, ‘Cultivating Perspectives on Landscape’. The sky above the River Eden is this dramatic topaz cutting into azure, argent wisps of cloud streaking the horizon. Without realising, I pass by a friend’s house. I watch from the train window in total awe; delirious on the earliness of it all, the quiet, the light on the soft waves rolling and rolling. I could be on this train forever, even though waiting at the station for changes makes my fingers seize up with the cold. I’m reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, gloved fingers clutching its paperback skin and pulling pages back with a hunger within. He describes the absolute cold of the mountains, the physical heft and sense of pure reward—not from summit but from sheer movement, the panoramas unfolding around you, the mountain that gets under your skin, the scale and sublime you practically inhale. Landscape glitters with detail; Macfarlane has a vocabulary that makes you feel as though in reading you were picking over some deluxe smorgasbord of words. Learning and learning in the lilt and fall of his complex rhythms. It is the right thing to read at these freezing stations, taking me elsewhere entirely, sharing my sense of embodied limit. I arrive at Leuchers around 8am, the sun just coming up over flat plains, a total burnished, scolding orange. Later, I find myself wandering a herb garden with lovely strangers, crushing rosemary between fingers and ruminating on narratives of scent. A very clever academic gives a lecture on classics and lively stones. On the train home, everyone is drunk and teenage boys crack cans and discuss girls with a coarseness I’d sort of forgotten existed. I sit opposite two guys in their late twenties who discuss their mutual careers as accountants, and I feel blessed to be outside such existence: paid-for parties, gym memberships, brutal team meetings, deadlines, spreadsheets, rapturous conversations about the latest tablet. I buy a bottle of Talisker Skye on the way up Sauchiehall Street, warm my cockles on the space-heater and do sun salutations to boost circulation. Already, several friends have left for Australia.
Frequently, there’s a brain fever, an ache in the body. I am ill for much of this month, but there is a day when I wake up better and clearer and it is like taking a drug. Health. Temporary sense of invincibility. Sad things happen, secrets reveal, sordid truths fill up the news. A man I knew died in a terrible accident. People have far harder lives than I.
The floor in the restaurant where I work starts coming up, splitting apart like something is rising from underneath. I carry food, traversing the crevice, Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’ playing over in my head. It’s so disorientating that sometimes I forget this is something I do every day, just carrying plate after plate, cups and mugs and cutlery. Tracing the usual trajectories. I come in two days later and somebody has smoothed out the crack. It feels like a violence that never happened.
When people are drunk, they tell too much. Sharing melancholy joy till six in the morning. It’s good, but how much of that are you allowed to revisit sober?
The exhibition/installation I’d been helping out with for months took place. The Absent Material Gateway. I think of it as a sort of portal to extra reality, a space where you can relish the intensity of elsewhere, let it split apart your senses for ten minutes—long enough to let sound and light rush through you, to conjure the ruptures that remain for weeks afterwards, never quite healing as even the quotidian fills them with usual slush. Nothing feels completely fabricated, but rather it’s a blurring of what we think of as real—how we encounter objects. Here, the weird things shimmer in dramatic strobe and seem to act upon you; these lively, alien pieces of matter. Scrap parts gleaming with mysterious power. The Lanark Artefax gig at the end of it blows my mind. I’m sipping straight vodka piled up with ice in a freezing dark room at The Glue Factory, but as soon as those first trademark stammering pulses start fracturing stars and synths and the melancholy strings with eerie samples hold back, suspend, then rush underneath…It’s a landscape elsewhere that is momentarily, totally immersive. I think of matter crackling at microscopic levels, or else grand panoramas of mountains bathed in alien starlight. Cities that smoulder with smoke, hovering drones and dramatic cracks in the side of cliffs whose insides fissure with poisoned earth. I think of ancient ruins through doctored photographs, angles of time dissolving with the phantasmic drift of a passing graphic, numbers running in algorithmic digits, pixels melting to colour smudge, then ether. Glitches. It is all of a shuddering. The audience are truly glued, despite being charged up on all the free Red Bull. All the sound cuts through so every normal thought is in shards, afloat. It’s one of the few genuinely sublime experiences of my life. I walk back in the cold rain, feeling emotional, drained, intense and electric. When I close my eyes to sleep I see nothing but strobe.
I have dreams of Styrofoam palaces, trains that keep leaving without me, layers of skin I could scour off my body.
There was a talk on Mark Fisher at Glasgow Autonomous Space called ‘Acid Communism’, and I got to dwell awhile in the comforting, baffling whorls of radical theory. I spent all month talking about Fisher to numerous people. Sent lots of excited emails and prepared my PhD application. Ideas started ravelling and overlapping and tightening. This whole sprawling project set out before me; I felt ambitious and still feel as though this is something that maybe I could actually achieve. Build this thing that I’ve set out in rough blueprint. I am energised, thoroughly, by the words of others.
We launched SPAM Press pamphlets (Dan Power’s Predictive Text Poems and Ryan Jarvis’ Tesseract Life) at Good Press and bought quantities of Lambrini for the occasion. Life is a whole lot of walking past Kelvingrove Art Gallery at one in the morning, sharing nightclub horror stories, gently reminiscing and falling asleep so the ink in the pen leaks over your duvet. I realise Greenock has a well lush Lidl, my cousin releases a single and it ramps up over 130,000 Spotify hits in a week. It’s funny, remembering her on our old sofa aged fourteen playing ‘Face for the Radio’ on my brother’s out-of-tune guitar, that lovely voice at its first nurturing. Now she’s on a billboard. We have the same nose.
I feel blessed by the blue days, the clear blue days, that come a couple times a month and even when I am too tired to leave before dark it is good just to know that out there things are bright and good. After graduation, we visit Luss and the sky is already at the brink of gloaming, this luminous lilac that blooms over the hills. I watch the nicoline light on the land across the water, over the heads of Japanese tourists unseasonably out snapping pics on the pier. Watch the city blossom back into shape across the motorway, an inverse meadow of delicious twinkles, listening to John Martyn in my father’s car. I feel calm, setting out to meet friends and discussing everything, sloshing a cheeky amaretto.
I revisit A Perfect Circle, Sun Kil Moon and Sufjan Stevens as the nights draw in too close and there is barely six hours of workable daylight. Something stirs from the past, but I crush the feelings like crisp dead leaves underfoot. I drift around, inhaling woodsmoke and missing the countryside. People leave curious furniture out on the street. A maximalist dolls-house, scattered by the city’s ruthless refusal to deal with its waste. New systems spring up around old objects. Ecosystems are complex and recalcitrant, their musty materiality seductive. Something hits me, occasionally, and it’s implacable, otherworldly. Space in my head that could be anywhere, everywhere, either. Even the streets feel bruised. My brother leaves for Australia and I think of him flying over a bright bright blue. All these people will bronze as I fall farther white into china paleness, sipping peppermint tea and crunching almonds between teeth. These people that go travelling, they leave me lilac eyeshadow, mint-cream nail varnish, memories and jumpers they won’t need anymore. I feel the roots tug and shuffle, sprawl beneath me in new formations. Endless scroll of Instagram posts. The last leaves cling to more paranoid trees, lamp-lit in sodium glow on the long walks home. Shops fill up with fairy lights, glitter and sprigs of fir. I can’t tune to the lure. Christmas is still a word I’m trying to deal with, a lonely lonely tinsel litany.
Saint Sister – Blood Moon
ARK – Made for Us
Alela Diane – Hazel Street
S. Carey – Fool’s Gold
Tiny Ruins – Old as the Hills
Adrian Crowley – Long Distance Swimmer
Sufjan Stevens – The Hidden River of My Life
Sun Kil Moon – Sunshine in Chicago
Julien Baker – Doesn’t Remind Me (Audioslave cover)
Kelly Lee Owens – Pull
Ellis May – Father
Sharon Van Etten – Keep
Bjork, Arca – Blissing Me
Windows 96 – Youthful Waters
Slugabed – Stupid Earth
Angel Olsen – For You
Pinegrove – Angelina
Julie Byrne – Sleepwalker
Out Lines – The Left Behind
Ho99o9 – Neighbourhood Watch
A Perfect Circle – 3 Libras
Hirola – Fields
Lanark Artefax – Voices Near the Hypocentre
Penguin Cafe – Cantorum
Boards of Canada – Everything You Do is a Balloon
Feist – Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
Jeff Buckley – Morning Theft
Sylvia Plath wrote many of her Ariel poems in the wee hours before dawn, sucking in the cold and inverse crepuscular air, its colourations of sinister lilac and absent sleep. We have a cliché of the poet’s spontaneous overflow, but instead with Plath there’s a sharp intake, a suspension of air, of breath: ‘Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.’ We have to think through the impossibility of a substanceless blue, as everything must be a component of something; we are all of a sort as perilous hybrids, weak in some place with the viral code of our own demise, shimmering within and outside us like a beautiful aura. The speaker paralyses herself on the brink of sublime, of suicide. Tor: a hill or rocky peak. Vertiginous depths to erase the scale of the self on earth. Tor: a free software project which protects your privacy online. Where history bounces back, is the elaborate sarcophagus that traps the foul air of your history. Think of layering, onions, peeling stench of purple flesh. Indulgent recipes for regret; the cloying addresses of cheap pornography, of midnight Amazon deliveries. Inside the deep centre a secret, liquid sweet as Timothy Morton’s chilli-dark core of chocolate ecology. Chilli, chilly; a shiver in the air that is freeze or fiery. I have been googling your name in my sleep. A shivering, unsettled enmeshment. The encryption an insufficient addition to the substance of memory, its thick brain mulch of skin and image. Such protocol stacks are hypothetical only, nested as the heavenly day that will not die. Wordsworth singles his day from a tangle of others, the onion clot and rot of forgettable hours. To dwell forever in that substanceless blue! To wear innocence on the sleeve of freedom! Plath’s line breaks are harsh and sharp, they flake off the page in their skinly abscission of sound and sense; the body is imposed on grander scales, made to stretch then wither in variable ‘dead stringencies’. All of a space, the thin poem shivering down a spacious page. All of this is so much of air. Take me to the edge, go on, it’s a dare.
An understudy is someone who learns another’s role in order to act at short notice in the person’s absence. You lurk in the background, an absent presence of possible flourishing. The poem as understudy: recipes perhaps in the absence of breathing. What we read when there is no air left to breathe. Poems in reserve for a gradual apocalypse. What exists as core substance, what complements the element whose insouciance charms the lungs without thought. Derrida’s maddening supplement: neither presence or absence, something added and something in place of. An understudy for air, a rehearsal of air’s function. Anthropocenic, tarry air, stung with coal and thickly textured.
Robert Macfarlane asks that we find a ‘thick speech’ for articulating life in the time of climate crisis. Enter Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air (Sad Press, 2017). This is not a collection, ostensibly, about ecology or even the end of the world. It is a phantasmic scaffolding of words and lines for living, breathing, being. Its epigraph takes the axiom of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes: ‘The source of all things is air.’ Air being then the ubiquitous neutral substance, something available for occasional roles in physical process. A reluctant but capable actant, developing itself or forced upon by other natural causes. Air’s principle shifts bring about the other main elements: flicker into fire through precious density, condense into wind or water, earth then stone. Anaximenes articulates this through a simple example: if you relax your mouth and blow on your hand, it’s hot; if you do so with pursed lips, the air is cold. So rarity correlates with heat, density with cold. A beautiful, quiet, material intimacy. Everyday action, for Anaximenes, here forms the source of a theory of matter, and yet ever with time this matter recedes. There’s a scarcity of air, something sparse and grasped for in the gelatinous enjambment of Lafarge’s lines.
Precision of form: shortness of breath. When we pause at caesura, pause to breathe, when we lilt our words over the ambiguous interval of a line-break, we are forced temporarily to think about air. I recall the little ticks my brass instructor would make on a sheet of music: remember to breathe. The ticks would supplement a conventional musical pause; I guess I just needed more time to breathe. Breathing is temporal, but also material. There’s a precision to Lafarge’s form, a negotiation of reflective lyric transposed through material effects and affects. In ‘sapling air’, a sense of childhood’s loss is articulated as nonhuman ailment, the ‘first outbreak’ which is a poisoning of the air or the bark of trees. At first I think ash dieback, but then we are taken somewhere more grandiose, planetary, magmatic. Lying in the liminal space between ‘child / and whatever came next’, the speaker is in the bath, ‘gazing up through the skylight / as a plane passed overhead’. This sense of temporary epic scale, its vanishing écriture of ‘vapour trail’, is a writing of fleeting sheen. I think of glassels: those stones which appear glossy beneath water (in river or sea) but when picked and brought home they revert to dispirited dullness. It is as if life has left them, where momentary they truly appeared as vibrant matter, appealing to the senses with electric connection. Is this the fate of the bath-varnished body? How beauty consists in the wounded part of a thing, a fragile glitch in the viral code—what makes death inevitable. Stones ground down by the sweat and chafe of salty water, the sky a landfill for carbon dreams, modernity streaked across substanceless blue.
The speaker glimpses the oscillating scales of panorama and miniature: the passing plane and the ‘passengers’ eyes’. She sees through the eyes of others; a vertiginous, fleeting sublime in which she is the one looking down and the one looked down upon. Humans become binary nodes in this networked communion of sound and sense: ‘the passengers’ eyes flickered on and off / with signal’. Air carries, air travels. Air miles, as both temporal noun and verb. I find myself tangled in the space between transitive/intransitive. Air signifies the dialectic flickers of presence/absence. Accumulates, billows. What the speaker notices is a peculiar distortion, a toxicity overlaid with her own poisoned body: ‘I looked down. the bath water / was the colour of porphyry and I could no longer breathe’. The excess of the skin flakes away as feldspar, silicate rich and igneous, carrying traces of radial or volcanic exposure, imperial purple or deposited copper. Containing within it divergent scales: wee matrix crystals and larger phenocrysts. The speaker experiences her body as this suddenly alien thing; the sight of the bathwater steals her breath. Is it the first glimpse of what the outside does to the inside, the staining within us we leave on the world in a permanent toxic chiasmus? But I can’t help think also of period blood, given the speaker’s interlude adolescence: something tricky to articulate that nonetheless clots in the mind as childhood’s instated loss of innocence, a condensation of excitement that clings then turns readily and stickily to red, to blood. That moves in turns, cycles as the waxing mist of the moon. What is this substance, this iron-rich bodily flood? Where matter confuses, we turn back to air.
She tries to express to her father a bewildered grief, ‘there’s something wrong with the air’, but her ‘words went through to dial tone’. There’s a delay, language meeting its buffer at difference: through what? Gender, generation, divergent points of vision? Her special melancholy is something that lingers down the line, seeps inside the passage of time. The poem closes: ‘I still wonder, how many months, years from now / he will listen to the message’. Throughout Understudies for Air, Lafarge uses this technique of unfurling: instead of saying simply, ‘how many years from now’, she adds in the months, practices a sort of delay or lag. I think of smoke billows, slowly dissipating. Of what it means to say, there was chemistry between us, an atmosphere in the room. The way voiced words vibrate momentarily in meaning then once again settle to silence, stasis. An almost electricity, crackling then out. Compare this to the written word’s more permanent, inevitable viscosity. Language sticks: you can tease it over and over, read the same thing till centuries down the line the ink wears off from the page. You can replicate. Speech is quite a bit more fleeting, unless you set it down on wax or tape, find new ways to materialise language’s spit, crackle, lilt. The forcing of sign and shape from sound.
Air in Lafarge’s collection is a sort of pharmakon, in Jacques Derrida’s sense of an undecidable fluctuation between poison and cure. It is a substance acted upon with the medical impetus of invasion: in ‘desecration air’, ‘brittle waves of grit’ are ‘growing, syringe-like / into the air, and in so doing suckle / and cleave the dunes around them’. There’s a sense of maternal genesis and geologic violence, an injection of force into air’s spaciousness. For air at once signifies space and density of matter at the brink of scattering, sparking, forging. I start typing what is air into my search bar and it suggests, where can it be found? I am suddenly struck by air’s mystery, the possibility of everyday deception as to its ‘nature’. What is taken for granted has elusive substance; after all, can we view air in the object-oriented sense of ‘object’, or even, at transcendently nonhuman scale, ‘hyperobject’? For air blends and bleeds, both substance and accident. The painting or glass had an airy quality, we talk of a room as light and airy. Does this mean more air, or air less dense, more receptive to breath and space and quiet? Air is rich with the silt of existence: dust being its materialised twin, these myriad phantasms of hair, fibre, textiles, minerals, meteorites, mostly skin. Air is nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide flavoured with traces of neon, methane, helium. We breathe air but also pass constantly through it, as our molecules swim in the vast bombardment of other molecules swirling. Ambient air is safe, we pass through it daily; but air can also spark, as fire’s immanent ingredient, awaiting some flagrant chance to burn. We talk of dry air, damp air, air that feels ‘close’. Air signifies both absence (space) and presence (elemental matter, tangible substance). Air is always potentially transformative.
There is a poem called ‘calque air’. Calque means loan translation: a word-for-word exchange of meaning across languages (examples include ‘fleamarket’ and ‘skyscraper’). In French it means literally ‘copy’, derived from calquer: to copy, base on, trace; derived again from Latin calcāre, to tread, press down. Thus in the abstracted xerox of translinguistic exchange, we meet a sense of material rubbing, the friction that exacts its inscription between two substances: stone on stone, wood on wood, paper on paper etched with lead. It’s a physicality that chills the spine. Yet tracing somehow also connotes residue, the excess material produced by this rubbing, the patterning stains set down by a tread, like footprints sunk deep in the sand and preserved semi-permanent by glitters of frost. Lafarge writes: ‘people / were finding messages / in their bodies they hadn’t / written’. Again this sense of material semaphore, whose translation is a phenomenological act of physical reality, a sudden otherness within us that requires an empathy, an excess, a confusion of words rubbing wrongly against one another: ‘it was decided the system was malapropic’. Language spiralling as if in the hands of the nonhuman, the air or machine or book.
Anthropomorphism reaches its textual extreme: ‘the book grew hair, organs, toes’, and so even ‘accurate translations’ become disputed, subjective, active and physical. What is it about air that somehow substantiates the symbiosis of language and matter, its aching and perilous leak? Here we are, tipped in the gaslit eve of twilight, where ‘the sky throbbed / sideways like a haemorrhage’. Matter acts upon us, causing a gulping or gaping as we churn through it, our bodies mucilaginous mulched into altered form, new affect. We can try to discern the nature of air, but in some way its inner essence remains recalcitrant, resistant to the interpretive instruments of other forms, including humans. Lafarge plays on the semiotic plurality of ‘forms’, poking fun at science’s ‘consent and feedback forms’, ethical necessities which prove useless upon the elusive air. This raises the question of how to extend a nonhuman ethics, what forms of consent are required when probing and monitoring their patterns of agency or behaviour? In ‘attempted diagnosis air’, Lafarge concludes: ‘in the end, / you left the forms in the airing cupboard / to let the air fill out itself; it acquiesced / in many hands of mould, dust and heat, / none of which you could hope to translate’. The air transmogrifies into purely itself, is available only as sensation in the perceptive ‘hands’ of other substances. It’s worth quoting Jane Bennett at length here:
Thing-power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly. It seeks to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap. It emphasises those occasions in ordinary life when the us and the it slipslide into each other, for one moral of this materialist tale is that we are also nonhuman and that things too are vital players in the world.
Air is surely the channel for thinking through this vibrant materiality. Lafarge’s poetics, shifting through sparsity and density, perform this slippage between human and nonhuman at variable scales. Rooted in ordinary life, in personal memory, the poems of Understudies for Air root out these collected knots of ontological ‘torsion’, the ‘bunioned’ meanings that wash up like offerings then shut down all visible meaning—‘they closed in my hand / like eyes’. The lack of capitalised titles renders the poems’ drift into one another, in free-flow without the arche conventions of literary closure, of textual finality. A sense of fractured or wounded text, poems chipped out of a grander object, left now to change and drift. In ‘driftwood air’, driftwood makes a temporary semiology of the shore. Driftwood being perhaps the airiest form of wood, a text well-chewed by aquatic bacteria, lightened and smoothed by the tide; erosion performing its nonhuman act of calque: a copying of wave upon wood, the tiny treads of millioning microscopic appetites, like the imperfect press of a nonhuman telegram. With her spells of air, Lafarge conjures a vibrant ecology of non-anthropocentric process; evocative still as such effects take place through the decomposition of the lyric ‘I’, whose voice drifts out in nonhuman confusions, signals and distance. Human affect returns in glimpses like delicious flotsam, jetsam, moments of reflection gleaned from material debris.
The ‘I’ often shrinks or recedes, but sometimes floats over the ambient scene with declarative assertion: ‘the twin lines of naming and being / run parallel but never touch’. Such philosophic pronouncements then melt away in exploratory thought, lines closely attuned to trans-species process: the swell and lurch and pleat of water, plant, lichen or toxin. Once again we come to air as pharmakon, and so its process arises as a sort of pleasing monstrosity. The odd thing about plants is they just grow, often without purpose, foregoing teleology for an impersonal, gorgeous flourishing. In ‘asbestos air’, the speaker marvels:
lichen and moss
grooming your body;
it is a relief to watch
things grow without
End-stopped punctuation is often foregone for free-flowing, morphological enjambment throughout Understudies for Air, so the inclusion of semicolon here is its own kind of force. I think of imagism’s stop-motion visual equivalencies: Pound’s apparitional faces in the metro and wet black petals. The ‘body’ in question could be human or nonhuman. There is a plain admiration of process and flow, the ease of growth that feels significant against the endless stuttering, knotted bolts of human maturity. And what about ‘asbestos’? More silicate minerals invading the air, released by abrasion and enacting a slow-release of symptoms, as deadly fibres clot in the lungs. Asbestos makes its own mark upon air. The speaker clearly craves that insulation, a felting of absence with ‘lichen and moss’ that comes as a ‘grooming’. Grooming being the softening and smoothing of matter, but also tinged with danger: to be groomed is to be seduced towards some form of invasive peril. Twin signals, twin materials; a chiasmus of death and sleep’s electricity. Sucking in air, we sleep towards death; slowly we rove over lines that enamour with deceptive simplicity. We can’t help but breathe in sleep; it’s just evolution. What’s more, nature isn’t mere positive growth, but might be compounded poison, cancerous swells. Tumours accumulating almost mycologically, darkly twisting and rising in the shadowy mulch of the organs, the undergrowth. Behind a benign appearance is the spectre of asbestos; for of course mosses and lichens are indicator species, material harbingers of polluted air. Air is the cure, the restorative; but air can also kill. It is both oxygen and carbon monoxide, its healthiness hinges on a delicate balance.
Air’s undecidability, perhaps, is a deconstructive motion of question and answer, a maddening circuitry of frazzled nerves and linguistic synapses. In Lafarge’s attempt to materialise air, to verbalise its form as supplementary poetics, writing does the work of metaphysics. Enter Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys in The Derrida Wordbook, glossing Derrida’s term undecidability:
If metaphysics teaches us how to read, and reading teaches us metaphysics, birthing each other in a twin maiuetics, then deconstruction also calls us to a reading. To read undecidability is to resist that other resistance which would efface it.
Air’s invisible toxins make themselves known with prickling, painful insistence at the miniature level of surface pollutants, scum left on water or stains on metal. A poet’s Keatsian eye would draw out this material tread of Anthropocene effect, illumine its slow evolution with the linguistic wit of a chemist. The irony of deep-time causation at the hands of humans, those obfuscations of cause and effect that place humankind as geologic agents. Reality, matter, climate change become undecidable. We are being taught, in these poems, the call to the earth that is really a subtle conversation within our own bodies—palimpsests of dangerous nature we tried to fashion but grew otherwise, anyway. Despite melting icecaps, the air grows colder in winter, it thickens.
Lafarge develops this viscous, hyperobjective symbiosis through her descriptions of air’s sticky contaminations. There are ornaments of scattered matter: bitumen, seed heads, the wildfire possibilities of ‘drying leaves’. There is a constant overlay of the biological, spatial and arboreal: ‘we soiled our mouths to mimic / the good fettle of root and seed’; those ‘dark thickets of lung’. I think of the word forest, then ‘for rest’. Places we go to shelter, to cleanse ourselves scented on pinewood air. We can’t see the woods for the trees, or was it the trees for the woods? Morton’s idea that we need a return to parts over wholes, this notion of subscendence: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. A tree more important than a forest. Lafarge strains her ear to every little activity, the expressions of suffering that come from sources beyond the human: ‘on every corner a tree / articulates its script’. Tree language is material too, it is sound in the air unique, and seedlings glistering on rustling rhythms. It is the flail and droop of branches diseased, stung acid by rain or ravaged by leaking methane.
To put words in air implies a sense of declaring, but this is less the enlightened ejaculations of a singular genius and more a sensual symbiosis: ‘the words / identified me as carrier / and now along I go / sowing their imprint in air’. To sow, to plant seed, to let meaning take root and feed upon air and soil, sound and shape. By tuning to nonhuman forms of inscription, Lafarge attempts to answer the call of the absolute other. This is ecological poetry’s luminous tool, its potential ethics.
This is also, to a degree, Michael Marder’s ‘plant-thinking’: a thinking about plants, a thinking through plants, a symbiosis of human and vegetal thought at the level of form and content. Not discursive domination of subject but a perceptive, non-anthropocentric and multisensory modality of what Marder calls ‘transfigured thinking’. I cannot help think of a shadowy, cooperative alchemy in which the baroque foliage of language ravels round the utterances of the absolute other, those bladed shivers and flashes of light, that speak of time felt close in the skin of a cell. It is a metaphysical elixir that deconstructs its own postulated recipe. Metaphysics, for Marder, is unable to think coextensively ‘with the variegated acts of living’ that exist in plants; it seems to ‘affirm the quasi-divine life of the mind’, but actually ‘wields the power of negativity and death’. It risks becoming ‘a cancerous growth’, smothering the plants it attempts to draw ‘vitality’ from in knowledge and energy. I think of the chemical kill that Keats in Lamia implies is the effect of philosophy, which ‘will clip an angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Writing poetically, we must be tender, channel the lurid sounds that fill the sparkling air, nevertheless deathly polluted as a charnel ground. Embrace inexplicable oscillations between the living and dead; challenge binary conceptions of stasis and liveliness, animals and matter. Retrieve a kindred sense of mutual mystery, preserve the lingering aura of species-being. Plant-thinking must instead be ‘receptive’ to the ‘pole of darkness’ within botanical existence. There is a Keatsian sense of negative capability here, a chameleon dwelling in the infinite and multiple, the rhizomatic offshoots of unknown effects, undecidability. There’s a Deleuzo-Guattarian intermezzo too, as Marder puts it: ‘To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and darkness, is not to be confined to the dialectical twilight […]. It is, rather, to refashion oneself […] into a bridge between divergent elements’, to allow that darkness to shine as much as the light of visible knowledge. Remain discursively flexible, morph through variant perspectives.
We have here an immersive rhizomatics, hinting also towards Graham Harman’s assertion of the object’s metaphysical withdrawal. Lafarge’s speaker certainly stands in this middle, exploring ‘a vernacular for pipelines, / circuitry, the fetid grids and systems’. She doesn’t penetrate essences. Stinking like soil mulch, our carbon economy is overlain with what we traditionally take to be ‘nature’: those lichens, mosses, leaves. We are reminded that cancerous growths, chemicals and shameful asbestos are as earthly as the daffodil or ash tree; each to each, irrevocably and intimately enmeshed, from the clinging of air to shared DNA. The speaker lets nonhuman forms speak through her: the shape of those gusts and shudders, those incremental growths and sudden ruptures, take effect in the passage of language. She brings us quietly, unassumingly, to aporetic conclusions, refusing to clasp meaning’s assertion from the lateral sprawl, preferring the precarious, seductive dissolve towards undecidability: ‘I still think of them, their clod eyes / roiled with fever, churning the peat / of a stagnant loop’. Clod: insensitive fool or chunk of mass. A clod of stone, an ignorant clod. An estrangement of nature, a closure of humanity to uncanny matter, churned in the loop of signature tautology—a metaphysics of presence that is ever an ‘argument’, a stagnant pool. How we must dwell, thickly, in these poems, these fleshy pools of blood and sap and dripping air. The declarative trochee like a stone thrown in a pond, ‘roiled with fever’; these shivers on the petrified skin with its fur of moss, toxin, mould. Conveyers of nonhuman temporality. The speaker licks such substances with lapidary language; the effects are circling, strange, recursive as a maddening philosophical problem. She dwells quite certain in uncertainty. Perhaps this makes her the perfect understudy, questioning but never at the point of egotistical revolt.
If all that is solid melts into air, then we know this now to entail less evaporation than transmutation. Solid objects arise elsewhere. What daily we flush, cough and excoriate from our bodies floats out in the hothouse biosphere, only to be reborn as fragrant waste, the fettered matter that is fetid at the point of being/becoming other. In the pamphlet’s final poem, the speaker passes a ‘high-rise’ and in the shrill of its alarm encounters an ‘elderly lady’, naked in her white towel like a terrible angel wrenched from the heavens to corrode on earth. The white signifies a kind of surrender to time and matter; the woman addresses the speaker thus: ‘one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotten flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots’. I’m reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where Peter Walsh witnesses a vagrant woman, ‘opposite Regent’s Park Tube station’, her gurgling vowels speaking in a tongue he cannot understand. Is this a primitive ecofeminist figure from the future-past, her voice ‘bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning’? She speaks with ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, channels somehow that geologic core, its rupturing pain. There’s Jonathan Bate’s insistence on poetry as ecological dwelling, in The Song of the Earth (2000). Woolf’s eerie, primeval wanderer stirs up the dead leaves from their settled grave, recalls an ancient song that aligns feminine suffering with planetary pain. I think again of Lafarge’s speaker, lying in the bath with a sense of her own body eking out a substance unfamiliar, the water stained a curious, feldspar colour. Poetry as monstrous giving-birth, poetry as vegetal thinking; poetry as lichenous growth or ambient eddy and flow.
There isn’t much pastoral about Understudies for Air, where things are scorched or ‘unspeakable’, full of porous holes and an inexplicable, surveilling gaze, those eyes which absorb and emit reality with cytoplasmic osmosis. There’s a dwelling in-between; a refusal of pastoral’s smoothed surface, its crudely soldered contradictions. Lafarge’s material history is thick, polluted, complex: irrevocably enmeshed with the speaker’s autobiography, a slow enclosure of tainted expiration; the result of some unreachable, originary trauma—the first infected inhalation. As the first poem opens: ‘difficult to pin the beginning / of the bad air’. In the Anthropocene, as with shame and trauma, it’s tricky to find causes, to trace singular beginnings. We have to face the impossibility of the transcendental signified, keep crossing over the same old tracks, tuning to peculiar scale effects in the dust and dirt, shaking the rain from our wilting manes, blades, branches, names. We can hack at the data, break the trees. In the end it is all just mutual suffering, the poem as supplement for what we can’t say, the horror of thought that is personal guilt and environmental blame. Yet somehow, Lafarge stirs sweetness from the wastelands of contamination, a little bit of the old Eliotic ‘breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’, or Morton’s molten, dark ecological chocolate. We move from depression to mystery to empathetic, mouth-melting sweetness. What you bury might come up lavender later; death still tainting, beautifully, the fullness of life. There is a shivering ethical suspension between the one and the other, cheating human text with the infiltrating voice of the strange stranger, where even the poet doubles back on herself, shrinks and fades, becomes alien against her own voice and song. Amidst all these ‘unspeakable things’, Lafarge reflects the coruscating absence, the flicker-to-effect of the dust in the air; motes of melancholy love, life and death, that cluster temporarily in poems and feel like a homecoming, yet always on the brink of becoming unsettled. Forever this ‘speech / impaired through contact / with the air’, the wrenching of justice from staunch aporia.
All this is so much of air. The words clot and float, they are pushed elsewhere as stacks of data, the coded reverie of software forgotten. Dwell in the dark web, a gossamer poetics that drips with the fringe-work of hackers, pirates, spiders. Once again: ‘homes / for unspeakable things’. Protection of privacy, pelt of fur, air that gluts on the temporary flesh of speech. A child’s ‘moonmilk / crusted round its mouth’. Language for future generations, raised on the logic of ‘selenography’; all human attempt to make sense of time beyond the body. There is a rhythm and a dwelling, a child’s bright cry in mica-flecked darkness. We all find overlays for our love or trauma—‘perhaps it was an early leak of the air / that conjured the image of his mother’—but instead of burial there is only entanglement, the sentencing ever excess of ‘a bad root / growing in every direction’. Trouble is, we can’t find it exactly; it grows and grows regardless. It shrouds us, auroral, auratic. Lafarge picks at flakes of flesh and star and paint, travels arterial between filament, taproot, wire, synapse and galaxy. Understudies for Air feels performative, a traversal of myriad sorts that folds back on itself, reflectively prone to spiralling dialogue, a postured void. For, as Steven Connor reminds us, the thing about air is ‘it encompasses its own negation […]. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air’. It’s in this multivariant, phenomenological pulse that Lafarge’s speaker dwells, sparked against the air’s vibrant matter as much as its ever conditional abyss. I read her words over and over, fragments of collected matter; conjuring in the cold winter light some other possible, nonhuman chorus. I’ll vapourise now, leave you trailing in the ‘fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines’ (Connor), for it’s the sheer glut of language, coming in and out of phase with human perception and nonhuman form, that really matters. Matters. Connor again: ‘We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.’