Hunter Schafer in Allure (2020) [transcript]
My first full-length poetry book is now slinking out into the world!
138pp. with inside illustrations by Maria Sledmere and cover design by Douglas Pattison
Typeset by T. Person
Order from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.
The Luna Erratum, Maria Sledmere’s debut poetry collection, roams between celestial and terrestrial realms where we find ourselves both the hunter and hunted, the wounded and wounding. Through elemental dream logics of colour, luminosity and lagging broadband, this is a post-internet poetics which swerves towards the ‘Other Side’: a vivid elsewhere of multispecies relation, of error and love, loss and nourishment. Its leitmotif of Luna, a shapeshifting feline of satellite proportion, waxes and wanes through poems which move beyond the twilight moods of left melancholia, sad hospitality and ecological crisis towards a fugitive imaginary that lingers in the ‘Flirtation Device’ of lyric and its many echolocations.
Taking cue from Jenny Boully’s ‘erratum’ — ‘the text of what is and the text of what should have been’ — Sledmere writes with failure, friction and fractal attention, with a yearning for intimacy, shelter and ongoing ways of bearing the im/possible. She offers poems of mystery, refusal and pain at personal, political and planetary scales, tracing the desire-lines of the everyday and its glitching encounters. The Luna Erratum is a book of memory and friendship in the so-called anthropocene, of bodily disorder, painterly gesture, quantum kissing, rodent sisterhood, open world intervention, technology, tenderness, shimmer and song.
Praise for The Luna Erratum:
How do you explain yourself to yourself when you suspect that actuality – your experience of it – is provisional and full of error? You come up with your own poetics, your own tense and mode of address, which is a lunar one, and which involves speaking in crushed, frothy mouthfuls to a terrifyingly silent, unpredictable and generous friend (celestial objects, an indifferent lover, &c.).
The Luna Erratum offers no truth except in things – colours, materials, beings, dreams, schemes of language, human artefacts and locations – and their known convergences, all of which hold as much affective weight and capacity for transformation as the events that precipitated this profoundly graceful, unsettling and mesmerising book.
— Sophie Collins, author of Who is Mary Sue? (Faber, 2018)
A glittering universe, Maria Sledmere’s first poetry collection is both lyrical and electric, both video game and watercolour. Reading these poems feels like ingesting semantic MDMA, the ectoplasm of a Victorian ghost trying to reach her lover through an unstable wifi connection. Sledmere’s words ooze a desire that is part animal, part human, part astral body. Let them transfix you.
— Nadia de Vries, author of I Failed to Swoon (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2021)
In Maria Sledmere’s The Luna Erratum, rivulets of neon daylight stream through the ever-quickening fibre-optic cables of the soul. Beneath ‘morphine clouds’ climates change as human groans crosspollinate in the moon’s tread. Sledmere concentrates the neural pathways on the world spirit, crossmatching the matters of attention. The lines grasp at what repositories of sentiment might be made secure for poetic memory, as the pleasure of every experience is threatened by its immediate disappearance, like Bernadette Mayer reciting Keats in the abandoned sea life centre. And yet, for the poet’s eye, the sumptuous bounties of the world are still all up for grabs; the human squats on top of the non-human and: ‘you can take bites from the sun’. This book is a hot tub full of Tamagotchi frogs’ spawn glistening in the light of the full moon atop the Yggdrasil skyscraper.
— Ed Luker, author of Other Life (Broken Sleep, 2020)
If you would like a copy for review, or to stock in your bookshop, please email mariasledmere [at] outlook [dot] com. 🙂
Life changed the moment I minted my depression as an NFT. The process was long and boring, but now I am a clean one who has never grasped the meaning of silverware. Let me try to explain the process of having a life thus expunged of its fungibility, which is to say, I feel now worthy of anything. I don’t even need to log on.
- This is not a book of ‘the environment’, nor do I profess care for the precise expenditure required to fuel that sluice of the blockchain which facilitated said transaction. Honestly I am just glad to have sold my black dog to an eager buyer.
- I can hear someone crying thru the walls most nights, the kind of wail that angels do, having no sex to think about they might body millennia of pain. The quality of having no carnal emotions owing to calorific deficit is guaranteed.
- The black dog was adopted from more or less insipid childhood fantasies in which more or less I could not have lived this far. Small red marks on my glyph flesh. Not to be dramatic but there is a reason why I am scared of cars. The first time what is called Marlene sat behind a wheel I freaked.
- Communiqué over Excel spreadsheets had led me to believe my sadness was extractable. I started feeling it everywhere, standardised and flashing among the long trails of light exposure.
- Imagine buying a thing for its absolute exclusivity, only to release its essence, bit by bit, in meatspace! The ambience of my original sadness spread across the mall, where generally I was to be found weeping by the ceramic fountain, where people tossed coins as the wanton value of wishes.
- [Autumn redux]
- Dramatic monologue of the dog: I am a dog! A fucking dog! You better not touch me.
- I tell you, I freaked the fuck out. She did. Is it better to have someone crying or having sex thru the walls? Irritability is a relative condition. I’m so tired and fucked up. Moan.
- I want my black dog back Why are they not a blue dog, someone asks in the comments. The internet is so fucking literal. I paint my nails hot pink and chew them so all the polish flakes into my mouth like itsy bits of sext.
- Have to stop myself reading Lauren Berlant’s blog again. Get kinda sentimental at night. ‘I was lucky to be the dreamer because the dreamer never stops being interested. People know when they haven’t said enough, that’s why they dream’. I never say enough, that’s why I write. There’s something I always wish I told you, but you never could tell.
- Every time I sit next to a man on the bus, I assume he’s gonna reach for something intangible, a long red thread you could tug from my cunt with this terrible thing at the end, that’s it.
- The black dog had impossible puppies and the puppies are always following me, especially onto the bus. Ten black puppies is a lot of transport coverage. Driver winks and goes, ‘you’re just a pup’. When I close my eyes, we spit in each others’ mouths. I hear a Belle & Sebastian song in the distance.
- Scenery passes, etc. Static poplars.
- Everybody started to ask, Where do you see your future? I see my future in NFTs, is the prepared, p(r)eppy answer. No, not as an investor. I’m not even a flip in bed, where it counts. Can you guess?
- Everybody who doesn’t have a choice has a price. I used to text M. like, what do you think I should do with my life. There’s nothing to buy at the mall. You should go home, she says.
- Earlier I lied. I kind of do care about the environment. Black dogs let loose among burning forests.
- I have no memory for the feeling of rain.
- Non-fungible errors cluster my dashboard. That I had my sadness minted and then accused of bad metaphor. Darling, I was the economic downturn all along.
- I eat with my fingers among the dogs. They love me.
(Thinking about how much I love Jhudora…)
(chocolate melts at high temperature
(stay cool everyone
Warning: contains dairy
These Piscean days, I lose whole mornings to night. I spread every hour like butter to sleep, back to the melt-world with its length which is only the sentence, dripping at the end of the knife a line. These nights are nothing! Paragraphs are so conceptual and I am always failing to come inside them. I wake up to ill-formed texts and forget my dreams. ‘There is a type of daydreaming that can foretell the future’, Jenny Boully says, ‘a type of dreaming that explains why nothing is being written’. Nothing gives itself up this way. In the diner, pressurised to justify something of which I have nothing to say, I took my leave of the mirror. I watch butter drip from the knife that is poised on a plateau. Honestly, I would eat truffle fries with Deleuze any day. He’s like, ‘what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and even rarer, thing that might be worth saying’. In saying nothing, I dream my days and nothing gets written. It is a process but nothing gets written. Yes you can take the menu away.
As nothing happens, indistinguishable figures surround me and my space key sticks. The mark between will melt in your mouth. Some of the figures make violence, they bear what I can’t say of the happening. They are dripping with the fat that won’t hold language. So I am struggling to say this to you. I had this beautiful dream of the world’s oasis, its heart, not the world’s but you know whose, what that dream belonged to, what heartfreak is it the dream contends. When you cut the knife in the middle and it melts all the rainbows around it.
Truffle smell is just vapourised rhizomes, baby.
A refuge cove, pastel-hued in some new time before dusk and dawn that was not night, unnameable, not even twilight. I feel it is a word only islanders know. I was swimming so freely in this cove, my soul was archipelago, and I knew it was the end of the world, breakfast, not the cove but everything breaking up, it was happening, at long last, and we were so calm. We were so calm in our pieces. Disaster is archipelagic these days. The other person was asking me questions, confused, and I was saying it is only that things will change, and you knew and you knew, like Nico. It all breaks up. Can I convey to you the beautiful feeling of the water, which always continues? How I touched that chalky rock like it was a planet, how I said (being spoken) it is told to believe, the scales are disordered; if we keep touching the rock it only can happen. The water surrounds us smooth as cream. The sea level rose around me; I felt rosy, I knew I wasn’t the only one — I couldn’t wait to feel truly atomic, after all. The violent figures would extinguish each other, I won’t say like love.
Have you heard Grimes’ new album? For me, it is more like, I felt so light I could fall above earth, like angels descending. We might catch each other on the way. Our wings would stick, like my hair in your glasses.
After the end of the world, like the single annihilation of a mountain, bmbmbm, a kind of love that eats you from the inside out. A love without purpose. I read this satirical piece in The New Yorker which goes something like, but what about when there aren’t many fish in the literal sea? What then? Is there an app for that? Someone keeps scrolling for other expressions
…and the fish will catch you back 🙂
The scene in my dream was like the one in Antonioni’s Red Desert, where she swims around the turquoise bay, she is so bronzed and this is the lightest moment, the music, before industry almost. Childhood’s idyllic shelter is water.
I wonder about the shelter of water. What is it to swim and not actually swim, from my perch in the city, a milky white cat at the end of my bed? You end the things you say with salt. Chalkmatter colours my black leather shoes. It only snowed or almost snowed; they salt the roads so poorly. At the end of The Topeka School, revolution just is the kid doing asphalt sketches in front of the cops. I read that book by an early winter, on the old Virgin, heading north. The full spectrum of my psyche swings between two types of moon: the black cat and the white, the lunatic cappuccino continuum. miaow / miaow / miaow. It is a foamy thing, otherwise slender, dusted w/ safest chocolate stars. I could mew for a future, should it work. I sleep through the pickets; I am wracked in guilt, I wake with a cold full of head.
Why don’t you tell me a story?
Why not yesterday’s?
Reality is bladderwrack.
My dreams are thickening; they scent so hard.
It is mostly, surely — I’ll tell it properly later — that the story has to come out backwards. You pull the child safely away from the water, you unravel the knotweed ribbons of time, you tweeze a poison stem from my lips. Why would you? I had forgotten the cove was an island, a place to be always alone. Robert Pattinson pulls the kelp from her belly. Why would you let her fall in love with the water? You can have these luscious, indulgent memories, salt spray, and still be unsure as to who they belong. This is our state of it now. How long had I lived in nature documentary, ambient music, instead of the freak of my heart? The freak of my heart was a golden foam. The island was upside down; its bowels were dripping into the sky, there was so much lava, gold-dripping lava. The sea all warm with thermal energy. The sea gone almost gold. I go to see a movie about the smallest glacier in the world, and Iceland is a word I cherish like fruit.
So eerie, only the splash her legs make slicing the water. There was no sound.
Two types of cat, they eat up my thoughts like golden commas.
It was between what I wanted to say. It was covered in gilt and leaf. Before I slept, thinking the unsaid is a tan line and surely if I took off these clothes you would see it, crinkling frost of gold, how the not-saying had burned the skin of my chest and back, how it was all there, so plain and white, negative scripture — what I had covered. If you could insufflate the measured lines, excoriated pores of deepest carat. Shame is expensive. Whose fault is that violence? The moon-cats, white and black, they blame the sun. The scratch little hieroglyphs from the skin of my arms.
It was the interruption of a ship. A wreck. I fell for it. She leaps off the rocks of her refuge cove. She fucks up, walking through the park in tears. It is only Monday. The ship is a ghost. What do we mean when we say ‘alone’? It sailed away to a moonscape, burning. The child wants to know what that also means. Eudaemonia. The ship coming back, as it always will until the end, which is the after we’re in, we’re ever.
I want us a mountain. The strangest isolated music, whose voice was all. I dreamt somebody was threshing corn, impossibly on the side of a mountain. There was an operatic howl from the sea. I could feel these landscapes start to collapse, this deep impending heat, inland and littoral, which would surely explode on a note I couldn’t reach.
The rocks resembled faces. I found my inlet. The rocks like flesh.
‘Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent’, writes Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain, ‘But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible. But paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled’. Am I afraid of this fulfilment?
Every hour a transparency you catch on not-sleeping.
Brain function down by infinite percent.
Pareidolia is a symptom of material contingency. My transparent success of walking this back to air, a bodiless gratification, ephemeral as rainbow. It’s coming around. In time, to erase like a tan line, missing the call of a thought.
The train goes north to Aberdeen, and I want to keep going, to go as far as Inverness then west — so painfully do I miss the summer, the midges around the loch, the rich excess of Highland rain. We took photos at the mirrored curve of the road. The crazed church cat, wild heather and car rides, rice cakes. Now the light is pink on granite, there is snow on the hills.
That break I took, listening in the corridor; ‘How to Disappear Completely’. Labour’s psychic debt is a cup of tea. And why are the blossoms here already?
There’s this line by Karen Dalton in ‘Remembering Mountains’, ‘Do you think the seasons change? / Without your heart’. It’s a miracle when they do, and I hear Sharon singing it, and I love the name Sharon. I can’t stand the sight of snowdrops and crocuses, when colour still hurts because it throttles towards the overlap of the year, a loop I won’t complete. I wear it necked. They used to say I look like her. ‘Are you dreaming?’ asks the song, and I wish I was, as if I could sleep, and it is five in the morning of a Wednesday, indigo light / cheap lager, and I am watching Joan Baez on the BBC. It’s Edinburgh, 1965, and the crowd sing along in the chorus, and she is so beautiful and soft, the chords familiar, ‘O the summertime / is coming’ and I can hardly bear it, the fact of this five in the morning and the promise of leaves, long hair and warmth. Angel Olsen: ‘If it’s alive, it Will’, ‘So That We Can Be Still’. My heart among strangest cacti trembles. Whose purple heather belongs to the mountain? Her voice will carry me through the morning light, the screaming gulls, the missing sea. My cousin gives birth to a boy. And I melt on the blue I wake up to / in this flat that isn’t mine. And when the others sing along Joan murmurs, that’s beautiful.
What are your favourite books to read? I used to think, I used to think…
Everyone watches in such stillness and awe. ‘I watch you grow / from a child of shimmer’, Julia Holter sings on a fragile, chiming version of one of Dalton’s songs, ‘My Love, My Love’. What belonging does the shimmer really want? It feels like the loneliest fragment, plash of a fountain, so significant. As I write this, it’s starting to snow: rich flakes of not-snow, the long and melt of it.
Remember when the world seemed plenitude. She was 24, her voice a soprano hillside, ribboned with crystal.
Dude, the river is a drum machine.
There is an era I long for.
When the rabbit appears, is it like Donnie Darko.
When the rabbit appears, is it like in Donnie Darko.
I guess I could never get the physics.
I always felt too meta.
When the rabbit gets away.
‘Knowing another is endless’, Shepherd intones, ‘The thing to be known grows with the knowing’. I don’t exist apart from the knowledge of others. Somehow that’s soothing. Like never really knowing what you know of me, and not to know that. I give little pieces to the sun, like wine gums of soul. The sun could chew my life to its sugar and cinders. It gives me a tan line. I think about solar panels installed in the desert, a solar forest, a solace. Send a stupid text like, all of the funk is cherry coloured. Waft between; what bleeds of a middle, you press the knife in. They were playing it in the restaurant, ate to eight, and I knew this would happen forever, and I knew it had already happened. Black stuff gushing straight out from the centre. The bookings cease behind Billie’s lashes. She gets up to eat her ocean fish and the sky is an ocean eye, skinned by a knife.
Angelina, I had written so long — I wanted you to show me how to wash windows, like in the Pinegrove song, or how to paint the walls pink like in Betty Blue, or how to be painted that smutty colour of being extinguished. You would pull the ladder away. There is a ladder scene in a film you say is super beautiful but I haven’t yet seen it.
Bright Eyes are coming back! Spotify has a playlist called lofi love. I have seven unread messages; I keep deleting the apps, choosing colours to flush the hours, wishing I was outside if I felt less ill, changing skins, crying in public —
The republic of crying in public! The spun out sky is another seduction. I took notes, returning to Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate. I was particularly struck by her use of the word ‘encradling’. It seems this is something a cat can do. There is a fountain made of glass we cry beside where we used to make wishes. The secret is the fountain is a harvest of tears. In the dream where me or the girl was clung to the rock (who is she) and I knew that in touching the rock I would survive the end of the world. My paw on the rock, I would promise. Well the rock was whittled and polished and shaped, and now it’s a fountain. ‘The harm will come’, Boyer writes, ‘it never doesn’t’. We only cry beside it, cradling kittens. This is so metaphorical, he says in the movie. We can’t cry exactly inside the harm; it would be like trying to trace your own flesh with a cloud… ‘for the harm may also be like an entry in the encyclopedia of what has not yet been written’ (Boyer). Shamefully, I am still more interested in wishes than knowledge, even if the knowledge would allow me to be.
A waste of paint!
An elixir of less!
A precious index!
Watching the figure skaters twist and snap their ankles on ice — temporality of wishes — love that spark snap kick when they leap and pull each other backwards, forwards. Some of them are infinite flowers. Halo selfie in lieu of sleep, so graceful I dream of the tessellating rainbows. Watching The Love Witch, Spinning Out, Parasite, Ismael’s Ghosts, The Lighthouse.
These Piscean days are strange and excessive. Spread rainbows from the jar by your dreams and remember the all-night messaging, the synchronised falling asleep two coasts apart on autoplay, other Aprils. You look cute without glasses. I get ID’d at Sleazy’s, give the bouncer my whisky to borrow. He’s like, ‘Good night?’ and foolishly I tell him of the day, one sip on the train. That is not what he meant. I go to Aberdeen and back. I read the whole of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume in one go. In the novel, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse has a theory that ‘life could develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the earth itself constantly emits a corrupting gas, a so-called fluidum letale, which lames vital energies and sooner or later totally extinguishes them’. So his theory is trash or whatever, but what if I am scared of the earth inside me? Mum, did I really eat mud as a kid? I gathered petals from roses and watched them float in a soup bowl, calling it rosy cologne. I love the bit about developing an angel scent, so ‘good and vital’, what happens towards the end is success. I am scared of the invented theory of an earthy sickness, so I eat truffle fries with Deleuze in my dream. I am trying to garner immunity. You have lamed my vital energies! I dab my wrists with liquid tobacco, maple and cherries. I want to seem resistant to the fluidal theory. I want the teeth to sink in my wrist, a taste of pulse. Maybe like Nan I need to get close to the mountain, melt with its snow and sleep there. ‘No one is the only one‘. I am totally extinguished. They would dredge me sick from my earthly perch and call me hahaha a virgo. Sleep has its pulse like a feline body of sugar and grass and plasma. Sorry, I’m feeling milky. Sick tidings, bro. What is the odour of fresh-fallen snow? In the library the scent is quiet. When I get stressed, sometimes I experience a phantom olfactory glitch. I smell what isn’t there, this extra-sweet and ersatz presence. What is the scent of a coming storm? Who is behind me? I joke that I can feel it in my breasts, some quip from a movie, bruising me.
Melt-world of the fridge makes ice of this milk. And who would pour it?
There are so many storms of this month you could fill a class of primary children with their names, and they would take off their coats to fly with the wind and in the Red Desert story, its central heartfreak, that was the tale of the kites, to fly by your coattails, his heart murmur that almost broke us. I was sorry to cattily tell you the story. And so to gather up those fish, get caught again, you stay inside the essay.
Pour me a storm? What of language catches.
From the stage on Valentine’s Day, Angel addresses the crowd, my sweet lad, and the dusk flavoured Buckfast on the walk to find you, darkest blueberry red assessed, and the gossip would settle its glitter on song, and we would have cried had she played ‘Sister’, but to fall upon ‘Lark’ was ultimate. As if she were singing Angelina, farewell or washing windows, as if we were singing along in the car and this was the long and winding road to Arran, St Abbs or Skye. We have all these earnest chats about burnout. It’s been a fair while since I’ve seen the moon, or even the news. It snows but doesn’t settle.
Free Love – Bones
Sufjan Stevens, Lowell Brams – The Runaround
Melody’s Echo Chamber – Snowcapped Andes Crash
Sharon Van Etten – Remembering Mountains (Karen Dalton cover)
Perfume Genius – Describe
Weyes Blood – Lost in Dreams
Culte – It’s Too Cold to Be Spring
Joanna Sternberg – My Angel
Joan Baez – Will You Go Lassie Go
Conor Oberst – The Rockaways
Julia Jacklin – Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You
Billie Eilish – xanny
Ratboys – Peter the Wild Boy
Deeper – Pink Showers
The Orielles – Come Down on Jupiter
Disq – Loneliness
Sorry – Starstruck
Kississippi – Cut Yr Teeth
(Sandy) Alex G – Salt
Nice As Fuck – Angel
black midi – Sweater
Hannah Lou Clark – Trigger Happy Kisses
TOPS – Witching Hour
Hatchie – Stay With Me
Wild Nothing – Sleight of Hand
Grimes – So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth
Arthur Russell – I Kissed the Girl from Outer Space
Nekkuro Hána – Loverspy
Tan Cologne – Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico
Bonniesongs – Dreamy Dreams
Bright Eyes – Waste of Paint
Heather Woods Broderick – Wyoming
POLIÇA – Little Threads
The Concretes – Miss You
The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee
HOLY – Heard Her
The Hollies – Jesus Was a Crossmaker (Judee Sill cover)
American Football – Never Meant
Roddy Woomble – Everyday Sun
Radiohead – How to Disappear Completely
Lana Del Rey – Terrence Loves You
There is this Anne Carson poem, ‘God’s Work’, which ends with the line ‘Put away your sadness, it is a mantle of work’. By chance, I was reminded of the poem via some post on Instagram that came up an hour ago. I want to think about this ‘it’, like how it is the sadness and also the work, and the pronoun of living, the abstract embodied. ‘Mantle’ is something that covers, envelops or conceals, it is a portion of the Earth, a sleeveless cloak or cape. Is it also the bevelled edge of a door? One can be mantled with a blush, the mark of a covering shame. Is it a mantle of work to hide your sadness, or does the ‘it is’ refer to some other thing whose outcome is that we must put away our sadness? We must close a passage of time behind us? Notice I am switching to a plural pronoun, because I have entered the poem, sharing the position of both addressee and speaker. I am the the person with this feeling; I am the person addressing this feeling. To speak at all, I am doing the mantle of work. There have been these tectonic shifts in my life of late, the underlying move or loss that is a portion of everything. ‘Put away your sadness’ asks you to imagine a physical form for the affect, a classic poetic move: my sadness is a bird, my sadness is a stone, my sadness is a rose, a scrunchie, a sea. These are things you can put away, tie back; or you can hide with a cloud, or you can dive in. Typing in ‘my sadness is a’, Google suggests:
a father introduced
a joyful dance
It seems these things are all correct, at the present moment. For instance, I drink from this mug and I think about Prague, and how it looked in the rain of a flickering image. That is a souvenir, but it is somebody else’s rain. The internet offers ‘Healthy ways to deal with sadness’, ‘Why am I sad all the time?’ and the old adage, ‘It’s okay to feel sad’. I have been reading Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (2019) and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Didion insists, ‘The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room’ where one could ‘touch a key and collapse the sequence of time’. In one of my favourite Laura Marling songs, ‘The Captain and the Hourglass’, she sings ‘Behind every tree is a cutting machine and a kite fallen from grace / Inside every man is a heart of sand you can see it in his face’. I love the pessimistic, teenage fatalism of this album, Alas I Cannot Swim (2008), its jump cuts of warning and love and familiar pain. Is the man the whole of humankind, or men in general? What if instead of words we had the bark of a tree, its abrasive shavings; a shaven novel or heart of sand in which to bear our suffering? Dissolve is imminent. There would be the rings of your life, the brief achievements of flight, but then the fallen linen, the tired old string, the particles blown. Didion wants it all at once: a simultaneous display of the frames, the scenes of a life. You would then choose what to cut, reassemble or stow away. What doesn’t matter to be dispersed. In the cutting room, a mantle of work is required. And what of the work that is to write who you are, when what that seems is only pencil shavings, sawdust and woodsmoke?
I have not walked in the woods for so long, and the last time it was with you. But let that not be the last. I was cloaked in so many layers; I could not get rid of the cold. It was a damp and green, needling feeling. It was not so much inside as around me.
Heather Christle puts it really well, this question of the cutting room and the cry:
Maybe we cannot know about the real reason we are crying. Maybe we do not cry about, but rather near or around. Maybe all our explanations are stories constructed after the fact. Not just stories. I won’t say just.
It is a relief to write while crying. There is something comforting about the simultaneous flow, as though letting two substances at once run through you: one being language, the other chemical; each in a woven relation. Crying, then, is the anarrangement (ana being Greek for ‘up, in place or time, back, again, anew — OED), of a state of things that are happening in life, in the body, in the social, in various temporalities. There is the before and after of a break; there is the running on, running behind, the sense of feeling this from ‘above’ or ‘below’. Like when for ages I didn’t properly eat the world was a glassy thing I was seeing from underwater, poking the ripples, falling backwards. To cry is to indulge in both prolepsis and analepsis, to slip and collapse, to blur and feel into. A friend says, you have to work through and not around it. I try not to cry about, but recognise the ambience of sadness. I won’t know until later what is really happening, what narrative this can all be placed in, or slip from.
Somebody nearby is playing a flute really badly.
The chime of a text message. It’s okay to feel sad.
In the office, friends and I exchange tales of election night. One of us is trying to fix a puzzle, the other drinks for sorrow; there is a mutual sensation of violence which can only ‘end’ in blackout, keying a car, throwing a punch, posting a rant or falling through sleep’s amnesia. For a while, I could only listen to songs that came out before this happened, and before the Tories were a bad new government, which felt forever ago.
What if daylight itself became elective, and that was the bold democracy of what it was to enter a day. Do you choose the light, or does it summon you? I just make playlists.
The moon has been flagrant of late, or was it right before. I remember seeing rainbows around the moon for days at a time. I remember that seeming too much, like I’d overdosed on the dust of this planet, like there were molecules of colour in my nose I could not sneeze or shake out. Like there was a terrible high about to happen.
I have not seen the moon at all this week.
I write this raining.
A thought of the before and after which remains unfixed and semi-colonic. It is to say and not say of what was said.
There is a special release in crying by bodies of water. I believe in a clairvoyant sadness, one that predicts some upset to come. It is the body’s sincerity of knowing. So you cry by the sea, or lately, a river. All that I have. Cry your eyes out by the Clyde. When you arrived, I was reading about the horror of purple, that ‘which hurts both sides’, ‘the horror’ (Hannah Weiner, The Fast). I wear it around my sleepless eyes. It is a bruise colour, the muscular failure to move through the day; it is a pile of clothes, a burgeoning energy of the horror. So I turn to blue, which is a star, or a gas flame because someone is cooking.
That line in Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, from Blue, a lifesaver every Christmas, which goes, ‘Just before our love got lost you said / I am as constant as a northern star’. And it’s that ‘I am’ that I like, the moving throughness of it, the insistence that this is and not was. Because there is something of forever which is getting lost, or a wound that is hidden and cannot be healed. That is forever opening up. For we were so close, a year ago. And of course Joni flips, deliciously, to the mundane. She asks ‘Constantly in the darkness / Where’s that at / If you want me I’ll be in the bar’. As though to look down in your soupy negroni, you would find that hot abyss from which love is turned, over and over. And maybe you’d shed a few tears in it. And you’d struggle to say the location.
I remember dressing as a wise man for a play at school, wearing a homemade crown and parading slowly towards a manger. Somebody was acting the part of the star, and we followed them.
Somehow in a notebook I wrote, ‘I am going to be fine. I am going to shine at it’. To be shiny in this being fine, I wrote that in a café and I remember my hands were trembling, my earrings were not real gold.
There is this dream from last night where I wear a blindfold made of a banana leaf, and you are helping me cross this road, this road that is river.
In Goodbye, First Love, there is a hat that floats away in the river where Camille is swimming. This happens at the end. It is either too late or too soon, and she is crushed. This is the wiki summary. From the film I remember the widening shot of the river that flows on but closes, and the sunlight, and crying as I watched this at six in the morning, after reading about it on somebody’s blog, the link now lost. It was almost spring and I had not cried since winter. Back when I would add things to my weekly list like, ‘more on lattices’, ‘a setlist’, ‘a more explicit weave’, ‘reply’ and ‘pack’.
Writing this now, am I attempting to ‘put’ this ‘away’?
When he tried to be practical, mentioned ‘In the long run…’ I could only think of that song by The Staves. It was a churlish note, curled at the edge and not mine or yours. That night, there was a cat called Olive, a taxi to Greenbank, sleeping in a friend’s sister’s bed, waking up face to face with Sophie Collins’ small white monkeys again. In the notebook I had written in a slurred hand, ‘I wish I would cry now but I feel afloat’. It was the elated tiredness, the denial. I had a freezing shower to cool my shame.
Climate breakdown is also a breakdown of the heart. We have to admit that. Something is always stinging, ‘I’ve been thinking’, a mug of hot water. I could not sleep, I was reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva in fits and starts, which is perhaps how it demands to be read:
I swallow a mouthful of blood that fills me entirely. I hear cymbals and trumpets and tambourines that fill the air with noise and uproar drowning out the silence of the disc of the sun and its marvel. I want a cloak woven from threads of solar gold. The sun is the magical tension of the silence.
A spoon of blood, not sugar, not jam. It is the hot lump in your throat when you cry and the blood that is anyway. About to. Remember I bled for thirteen days, or was it more. It was because of hot liquid, a rush, a pill. How you nourish yourself or not. A friend says, when I cry on buses and trains I listen to specific kinds of music and pretend I’m in a movie. Is it detachment we want from that? Would there be cymbals and trumpets and tambourines in this movie? I want you to put me in it, the noise. I want to stand at the front of the gig, be buffeted. I want to be bashed around like a note that won’t break from the instrument. I want to find a post-it note stuck to my back, but what should it say? Over time, I garner respect for the sun. It is not that my nocturnal years are ‘over’, but I am wondering what it would mean to truly love and rejoice in the sun. The giver of life, not Byronic darkness. To lie in a colourless sea. What would this clarity that Clarice writes of look like, the woven cloak of ‘solar gold’, its ripples? Is it the mantle one could wear to cloak a sadness? But what if the sadness was the clarity itself? I say, I think you are brilliant. It is a mantra. It is a giving away. When the van swerved and nearly hit me, I felt the sunlight so incredibly brightly. The east coast, the sense that this was someone else’s morning. The silence remains still, and I look for it in that ‘magical tension’ of the said and unsaid, and I am doing what Didion does with her grief, the magical thinking that is arranging all these scenes at once for something to emerge as possible. That is trying to sort a timeline or feeling yourself ‘invisible’, between things, the living and dead, an incomprehensible love.
In Ariana Reines’ recent collection, A Sand Book (2019), the pages of the final section, ‘MOSAIC’, are black. She introduces the scene that prompted this section with italics,
The sun’s warmth kept filling me, and what had begun as a slightly above-average warmth kept growing. It was starting to fill my body, and just before I totally surrendered to it, I had the inkling this might be something like the “bliss” I had heard about in old books. I had to sit down.
What is relayed as a religious experience, a spiritual experience, is then a series of transmissions (‘MOSAIC’ is in reference to Moses). But it is also fundamentally a solar experience. I think of Laura Marling’s heart of sand, something grazed by a coming warmth, the lap of a sunlight like the sea. A hot liquid thing that is coming inside me, causing the bleed, the bliss, the generous massage of some hormone. It is embarrassing writing, it demands a hot bright mantle. To feel it, feel through it, you have to sit down. You might go to the bar, as Joni does. In fact, I write this lying in bed, as is often the way. There is nothing to set out for or plan, so much as the needling of this ‘inkling’.
I go to see Little Women, and focus on Jo’s ink-stained fingers.
I have not been ‘on holiday’ for so long but if I did I would make a solar panel of my opening chest and lay where the river and the light would take me. I think the black space on Ariana Reine’s pages is just as important as the whitely capitalised text, ‘EARTH IS SPECIAL […] THERE IS NO “BACK” TO GET TO’. We can’t get back to any bliss other than what is felt in the present. And there has to be so much energy. Put down your phone.
Dorothea Lasky says she tells her students ‘not to have a plan, but to collect things and poems and then put them together’, there is this ‘holy idea’ of ‘emergence’. I write mostly by assembling quotes I like, streaming things down (for to ‘jot’ implies a decisiveness, an almost violence) whenever they do or don’t make sense. Text myself so the thought is received as though in reply. I have all these poems from the month I don’t yet know how to assemble. They are as much of the rain as the rain. Someone comments on a fresh sense of ‘scarcity’.
‘I wish I had a river so long’. And there is no snow here. The lines feel hard and overly sweet.
Candy canes hang upon the tree.
On Christmas Day, we walk by the canal and stop by the locks. The trees seem anorexic, as in a Plath poem; as though they had chosen to strip this pure and gleam on the water. They too will see from below, but they know a different renewal.
I can’t say a certain five letter word.
I want to know what the seven words are in the Weyes Blood song.
‘I wish I could swim in an ocean / As cold as’ a line I can’t finish, listening to Grace Cummings as though it were autumn all over again. But people on the internet are still going wild swimming. The world is not everywhere cold. The caption reads, literally all I want for xmas.
Two photos on different accounts of a landscape blurred by the motional train.
It’s funny, I even wrote, ‘it’s like The Topeka School and the failure of language’.
To sob into the warm, soft fur of a cat.
The want of a cigarette.
Astonishing winter light.
I couldn’t finish the wine.
In The Fast, Hannah Weiner writes, ‘I didn’t know any golden light people, but I knew a couple of blues. I knew I had to be rescued (I thought of it that way) by a blue, or someone near it’. One of my closest friends and I both Instagram a snapshot of ‘River’ on Spotify at separate points across the festive period. It is this secret, not-so-secret gesture of the living-on, the warmth and possible. I think she is one of the golden light people, in loops, and I wonder what I am, if one of the blues. Who else is a blue? But I have always loved green eyes. And the Earth, which is a globe of something like green and blue, (de)pendant on/of the universe. Whose. And I have seen the garden in four seasons now, but just barely. The scene is still swinging and won’t stop to focus.
What Reines writes of how there is no ‘back’ of the Earth to get to. I think of the back of a tapestry: a ragged collation of stems, snipped-off threads, criss-crossing lines. A simultaneity, a mess, a work in progress. When I am trying to write about the anthropocene, about what is happening, about the earth, is it this ‘back’ I am trying to write. It is not to get back to, but a back that is happening, the other side. I have been trying and failing to learn crochet; I think those who succeed are beautiful and perfect, I won’t turn over their lovely creations. In her song ‘Other Side’, Grace Cummings sings ‘The fall of a raindrop / Returns blue to the daylight / Your mind must return / To behind your eyes’. One drop of blue can restore the day. I think of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, living on Montague Street, in one or more stories. The worried thread. It is like putting on makeup to stop yourself crying, but doing it anyway, later in rivers of mascara and other clichés. When you are watching a movie and the crying is about to happen and you feel it as a sparkle, because it is not about the movie for which you are crying, but something around or near the happening, the space of it, being there in the other imaginary. And then what is going on ‘behind your eyes’. Crying happens in a space. It is all the prettiness we do while we can, which is a mutual hurt, a hot slide of a tear that catches your neck and means something small and inexplicable.
The Bright Eyes song ‘Train Under Water’ begins, ‘You were born inside of a raindrop / I watched you falling to your death / And the sun, well she could not save you / She’d fallen down too, now the streets are wet’. I used to think that song was about miscarriage, now I know it could be about any kind of love and loss. Remember when Jeremy Corbyn said something offhand about getting the train to Orkney? I dream about the sub-thalassic train sometimes, northerly moving, passing by jellyfish and flashes of shapeless light. Where are you going, where have you been. The milky unborn thing that we bear yet. Feeling sick from relative motion. It is the glassy way we watch from behind falling water, all of our lives. What touch do we really share of each other?
The air is a key change.
At the reading, Gloria says something like, we have all been thinking of writing as a practice of moving through the days, a practice of living, of marking time. Here are the days I give you in words. In Utopia, her little red book, Bernadette Mayer writes, ‘Everything you or I or anybody says always seems 100% wrong sometimes, unless you keep forcing it to be closer to the truth’. There is a truth quality, say, to the way plants photosynthesise or a starling assembles her nest. The percentage quality in which I can or cannot get out of bed, and whether you are ‘Active Now’ or in fact just barely online. Again, it is a question of green.
Marianne Morris has this beautiful poem, the last in her collection Word / World (2018), that a friend and I once read aloud together on a patio in summer at the XR climate café, the first I’d attended. Everything seemed shimmer then. The poem, ‘Lion’s Gate’, is a prose poem of some intensity. It is about what it means to love and to hate, and what is worth keeping. I really want to quote the whole thing but I can’t, so I’ll make do:
We do not want to go back with more questions pertaining to life on this Earth. We must learn them before we leave, loving every possible second upon this beautiful Earth, because we will not come back. We will move on elsewhere. It is like a heart breaking feeling suddenly, I see it all so clearly and I want this moment to stay. This feeling of certainty that the only thing that matters in this life is that you enjoy your time here and keep thirsting and seeking and do not resist the lessons, rush towards them and learn them all, so that you can die to yourself, die into light.
Green Day – 2000 Light Years Away
Caribou – You and I
Market – Told
Angel Olsen – Lark
Fleetwood Mac – Dreams
Pinegrove – Skylight
Rob St. John – Your Phantom Limb
Laura Marling – Tap At My Window
Karen Dalton – God Bless the Child
Joni Mitchell – River
Grace Cumming – Other Side
wished bone – Pink Room
Nirvana – Something In The Way
Wilco – An Empty Corner
Belle and Sebastian – We Rule the School
Vashti Bunyan – Winter is Blue
Connie Converse – I Have Considered the Lilies
Bright Eyes – Train Under Water
Big Thief – Dandelion
The National – Guilty Party
Organ Tapes – Simple Halo
Björk – Sun In My Mouth
Eartheater, LEYA – Angel Path
Mitski – Last Words of a Shooting Star
There is a scenario in which the jukebox is equivalent to the poet and some elaborate analogy is to be made between intertextuality and the limited catalogue whose selectional form produces play. The scenario only survives in video. It needs this urge of duration, not to mention the tenderness of a touch. Where fingers brush keys like notes, there is something to add to the story. A social space in demand of ambience; on flickering alongside off. When Lana is alone on stage, hands stuffed into a bomber jacket, singing ‘Fuck it, I love you’, swaying almost nervously, I want to think about what she is doing there and who she is speaking to and from where she is speaking. She is not really speaking but singing. The lone girl on the stage is the open mic dreamer, with nothing but lines. She is scattered across june-dreams of multiple personality: ‘The I which speaks out from only one place is simultaneously everyone’s everywhere; it’s the linguistic mother of rarity but is always also aggressively democratic’ (Riley 2000: 57-58). We mother our solipsism with words but in doing so there’s an opening. So to say fuck it and state the interruption with syncope, sincerity. Lana Del Rey was born on the cusp of Gemini and Cancer season, which more than explains that statement: ‘Fuck it, I love you’. With her sails to the wind. To say it over and smooth into plural refrain, you could even say chorus. For a chorus wants to be shared. It is a commodious mother, fed by the keys of the jukebox baby. There is a constant reversal of nourishing; the democracy of lyric utterance, the milky feed that streams.
Denise Riley argues that any ‘initial “I love you” is barely possible to enunciate without its implicit—however unwilled—claim for reciprocation’ (2000: 23). But what is reciprocation in a song? Is it just the urge to be sung with? And this ‘fuck it’, the pervasive millennial injunction to just be, to move on, as the tag which erases the expectant price of the utterance? Riley argues that I love you ‘must at once circulate as coinage within the relentless economy of utterance as exchange’ (2000: 24), but in a pop song it bears the leaden weight of so many prior expressions. The irony is that to cut through that with a simple fuck it, Lana can attain something like sincerity in the very pop mode whose lineage of commercialised love would surely undermine her feeling. Fuck it, in spite of saying I love you I really do. The pop song becomes this space for the staged epiphany of repeated assurance, I really do. It is a softcore admission of the self in its burning limit.
‘Fuck it I love you’ is soaked in lights, but they’re fading. ‘I like to see everything in neon’, is the line that opens the song. To see everything in neon is to fluoresce what is haunted and gone. I think of Sia dragging rainbow dust down her tearful cheeks in the video for ‘The Greatest’ — tragedy’s shimmer as fugitive mark on the body. Lana offers herself up as sugar dust, cliché in honour of Doris Day: ‘Dream a little dream of me / Make me into something sweet’; she acknowledges ‘dancing to a pop song’, but it’s not clear if this is her or the character or the one she loves. ‘Turn the radio on’ could be a reflection or an imperative. The reader is hailed between these positions of love and the loved and the effect is saturating, warm, delirious. Separation is that ‘it’, the spacing. In the video, we watch Lana painting and then suddenly she’s surfing with the aurora borealis in the background. She’s on a swing, her jean shorts caressed by the camera, she’s the sexualised pop icon again. She’s on a surfboard, green-screened, young. She’s choosing a shade of yellow from the palette, singing ‘Killing me slowly’. What is this ‘it’, killing her slowly:
I’ll return to the unknown part of myself and when I am born shall speak of “he” or “she.” For now, what sustains me is the “that” that is an “it.” To create a being out of oneself is very serious. I am creating myself. And walking in complete darkness in search of ourselves is what we do. It hurts. […] a thing is born that is. Is itself. It is hard as a dry stone. But the core is soft and alive, perishable, perilous it. Life of elementary matter.
(Lispector 2014: 39)
I want slyly to argue that this is a kind of anthropocene existentialism. Recognition of the self as this ‘hard’, ‘dry stone’ thing of geologic mattering, reflexive species. This is what it is to be ‘Human’ right now. And yet the agential spark within, the ‘core’ that is being alive in a world where we have deposited those sedimentary layers. Creating ourselves in the stone, often with the tarnish of the very products we chose and developed to beautify, excoriate and cleanse ourselves, to remain forever young. So there is this oscillating temporality at work between desired infinity and the trace of our fugitive place on earth. The very earth minerals that would ruin humanity, mine our bodies of endless labour. But to go back to the song, with its idea of a gradual dying. I want to call this something like anthropocene softcore: the unnamed presence of species being within Lispector’s slender novel from the early seventies, or the Mamas and the Papas brand of late-sixties ‘sunshine pop’ whose solarity derives from the perishability of that energy, utopian commons, cascade of flowers — that serotonin glow of selves in streams and streams.
Lana’s anthropocene poetics are not of the hardline, direct call to action. You would not say of her cultural presence, eco-warrior or nature goddess. You would not brand her Miss Anthropocene in a kind of demonic marketing gimmick. You would say most often she is a siren, per se, leisurely supplicating us towards death on the rocks. Desirous flow. This is anthropocene softcore. This is what it is to challenge the act of self-description itself, and in doing so questioning those generalisations that arise from the ‘we’ of humankind, not to mention the ‘I’ of pop’s delectable, mainstream lyric. Alchemically, Clarice Lispector and Lana make of these malleable pronouns the ‘perilous it’. The it, the feeling, the speaking self which is nothing much more than a bundle of affects, sensations, atoms. To be cast over and crested by the wave. Significant that ‘Fuck it I love you’ ends with the rising bubbles of this wave, the one that spills us through the fourth wall and into the studio. This song slams together pop’s saccharine mythos of California as dreamland, a late-summer song as the former was written, surely, for autumn. California: ‘it’s just a state of mind’. She could be talking about the self or the state, or the state of the self.
What happens next? The shot drifts over the cliffs, the coast, to a strip of palms and a distant view of the LA skyline. That shining love in the previous track is replaced by a minor key, a glimpse of the jukebox whose songs include The Eagles, Bon Iver, The National. Artists whose Americana is the melancholy of generations moved from political despair to something like the glitch of the times as a basic fact of intimacy. One of the Bon Iver songs shown in the video is ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, and if that title was not rife with implicit apocalypse, what is, what is. A stammering into language, pitch-shifting the fragile space of utterance. There’s a spiritual glimpse to the sky and the infinite quality of the stars:
There I find you marked in constellation (two, two)
There isn’t ceiling in our garden
And then I draw an ear on you
So I can speak into the silence
It might be over soon (two, do, two, do, two)
(Bon Iver, ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’)
I don’t know what the maths is doing. I don’t want to know that the song ‘was inspired in part by Bon Iver mainman Justin Vernon’s unsuccessful attempt to find himself during a vacation’. I am however interested in the hubris within this term ‘vacation’ at all. Do we now live in a world where you can take ‘time out’? There is nothing of the world we know that could be switched off. There is no ‘away’ of complete erasure or original presence. Deconstruction caught up with our living. Vernon describing this song as a gesture towards what might end of his emptiness could just as easily be flipped: its relief is equal to a mortal sense of loss. The impending erasures. It ‘does’ or acts the accretional event of extinction that is speaking into the silence, to those who could not speak back.
Fragments and snatches: the neon green lining Lana’s eyes, the aurora borealis, the neon green palm in the club where she sings alone. A season by yourself. The love of the couple together surfing is cardboard, Hollywood. It is a trembling symbol. It is almost ridicule.
What is Justin Vernon looking for in the constellation? When he sings ‘two two’ I think of Hilma af Klint’s nose-touching swans, or the hours of the day chipped at the edge — two of them stolen by tragic event. I think of a mic check, two, two, ch, ch. Click. Near-enough-presence of speech. A white swan on black background; a black swan on white background. Flip. The swans are geometry, signets of signature, they move towards abstraction. Growth. I love them. Fuck it I love them. The way they are just it. Inversions of colour and a monochrome mood splashed with cornflower blue, the tiny excess we can treasure. It is the cornflower blue, the little webbed feet, which make the swan in question unique. So we can care for it, figuratively as it swells through grey-white waters of memory. The swans we have lost in our shit. Royal iterations freed from belonging. This painting is from af Klint’s series Paintings for the Temple, works derived from spiritual communication. The abstraction of the swan / renders us stark in frame / for we were Lana or Leda / before we were animal. Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Seven Swans’: ‘All of the trees were in light’, ‘a sign in the sky’; ‘My father burned into coal’. And all of our sadness was carbon neutral before this. We plunge into whatever remains of the water, its plasticky thickness.
I keep pausing the video as it transitions. ‘Fuck it I love you’ twinned with ‘The greatest’. When The National sing ‘It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders’, what exactly is the ‘quiet company’ of the ‘it’? It could just as well be spiders. Maybe it’s the web itself, the web between the human and the more than human, the gossamer moment where metaphoric articulation becomes more than feeling and gleams material. ‘It’s a terrible love that I’m walking with spiders’ — what is the grammatical transition done by that ‘that’ and who is to blame. Walking with spiders might just be that love. Transitional, subject/object logic is reversed in this song: ‘Wait til the past?’ is sung, then ‘It takes an ocean not to break’ when surely the ocean itself would break you. Soon the ‘terrible love’ is a substance, something ‘I’m walking in’ — to feel it is an act of immersion. It is to let that wave crest over, the ‘lyric auto-explosion’ (Moten 2017: 3) of the wave that would break you.
In ‘The Greatest’, Cat Power sings of former ambition now cast to nostalgic regret. There is a sense of time slowing to delay, laconic strings, relaxed drums, the balladic sleep of a once-held fault. It is a parade slowing down in the rain. To say ‘Once I wanted to be’ is to hold this question of ‘the greatest’ as a generalised desire itself. The hunger we lose in time, whose primary colours soften. I hold to that precious, cornflower blue of a swan’s foot. ‘Two fists of solid rock / With brains that could explain / Any feeling’. This solid rock that would box you into the future, that would harden the edges of self. A thing is born, as Clarice puts it, ‘hard as as dry stone’. This is the thing born ‘that is’. To exist is to be this hard thing, protein ligament, to kick out in lines; but then in time there is the plasmatic self inside that, like some fatty animal byproduct, sticks to the others it loves, it needs, it leaks. Gelatinous, softly sticky love. The ‘it’ that needs saving. Anthropocene softcore; soapy inside of all geologic agency. Who we are and what we regret. The turning of the outside-in, the inside-out. Kathleen Jamie, in Sightlines, asks: ‘What is it that we’re just not seeing?’ (2012: 37).
A sightline is a hypothetical line, from someone’s eye to what is seen. Is it clear or blurred, bad or good? Anthropos recedes in its very own scene as the ocean continues and we howl in the dark like a lossy-compressed version of species. We are the sirens and wolves. We are at the great concert of the Earth. We have to resist what Bernard Stiegler calls the ‘proletarianization of the senses’ (2017); we have to find longform ballads of what’s happening, pass them down the line, resist the short-circuiting of thought that occurs between screens and machines. We have to send letters back to our consciousness, our elders and children. This is the work of lyric. It could be the work of dance. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Alabama, learning to be a ballerina too late in her life: ‘Her body was so full of static from the constant whip of her work that she could get no clear communication with herself. She said to herself that human beings have no right to fail’ (2001: 180). Alabama barely eats; her energy is all the zeal of will. The dance of lyric as reduction, lack, as static and chased success whose collapse lands as Alabama will eventually do on the event of inevitable break. Grapefruit squeezed on the gritty turmeric shot of the future. And a brake, a screech. And yet we write, we cast out limbs and materials, we work towards this loss; we imbibe it.
This is an ugly type of writing in which the outside is always imagined from the inside. Horizons are fictional and buildings are barred. I have no sightlines. I’m
fucking cutting the corners of someone else’s desire. All paths are the continuation of a pre-existing line. This is a city from which I send myself postcards wherein I wish I was here. Flying letters. Words stolen from myself. I refuse to recognise that I have not composed them unintentionally
(Bolland 2019: 78).
The videos for Lana’s ‘Fuck it I love you’ and ‘The greatest’ swerve between inside and outside. We find ourselves in rooms we don’t remember entering. Writing the anthropocene has an ugly, masturbatory quality of fucking yourself with the rush of elaborate doom. Okay, so. Constructing fortresses of lines which would make a valiant destination. When I listen to Lana, I’m accessing shortcuts to ‘someone else’s desire’ which is the opening up of presence. ‘This is a city’; ‘I wish I was here’. I have never been to LA. We plagiarise our very own diaries to get back that sense of the once-intentional, the greatest declaration on Earth. That we were here, and we loved. She wrote that lit, forgot. The papers curled up and rolled away in a sultry air that was summer, 2012. The year of failed apocalypse, the year Lana released her debut album, Born to Die. We saw her campaign of fashion smoking through plexiglass bus shelters. Remember all ‘horizons are fictional’: they tell a narrative, they bleed and tilt and set like ice. Towards them we stupidly drift: the lived throb of our softcore skins, our hungers and rhythms.
Drifting in colour like H.D.’s Leda, the rape of the land and the body and bodies engendering bodies. Worlds ending around us. And so I could say, but this is just one song, a phrase, a white woman of fame lamenting her world. But this self-conscious cinematics is a gesture towards the western world itself as this haunted, tragic protagonist: ‘The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball / I guess that I’m burned out after all’ (‘The greatest’). So you could say, anthropocene softcore speaks to the lyric I in its state of orphaned exception, which in turn is the loss felt by us all unequally. If we make of Lana a sort of anthropocenic siren, we must recognise the distinctions within our longing. For we all lose worlds differently; harm is striated along lines of class, gender, race, ethnicity, geographical distribution — of course. That wave that closes the video could elsewhere be a tsunami. I like to think its place on the edge is a deliberated hint to what could or is even already happening here or elsewhere. And maybe the colour, the aurora, is this streak of need for an excess beyond static blank, ‘human’ planet, standardised canvas; the need to splash something more of blur and blue. Flood the structure.
When we say something is ‘lit’, we mean it is hot, on fire. We mean it is turned on, ignited, intoxicated, drunk, excellent. Lit is the past simple and past participle of light. Isn’t that line alone just lit? Maybe we are in the twilight of a former Enlightenment, recognising our species hubris as this alien green that tinges every familiar horizon, upsets the normalised green of pastoral. Is it toxicity, the elsewhere within ourselves? It is a radar showing who we are and where we have been. Those material metaphors cook on a smoulder, and this is the softcore coming to knowledge about what is happening.
What does it mean to sing: ‘I’m facing the greatest / The greatest loss of them all’. To sing this on the brink of a hyperreal sunset, to chase a solar excess among loss. This loss could be a love but it is more like a culture; it is more like a voice and the condition from which to speak or sing it. The loss of lyric, its possibilities of address, and the loss or deferral or ruination of place itself. Maybe this is Lana’s lyric maturity, a generational acceptance that ‘young and beautiful’ is no longer the apex state of what we should strive for. Absence tenders complexity. Is this, as Roy Scranton puts it, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene? This question of mutability, the green-winged eye that sees a darkening world, a lack of birds along the bay, an edge. In the video for ‘The greatest’, Lana’s jacket reads LOCALS ONLY on the back. I google the phrase and find a hipster restaurant in Toronto with the slogan, LET’s PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED. There’s a kind of parochial nihilism that glisters like the light on the sea, but the sea can never be local only. There’s a boat in the video whose name is WIPEOUT. It’s all happening; the signals are obvious. How we are practicing the absent-presence of the name’s erasure. My tongue gets twisted when I say anthropos; I want to say mess, I fall into ‘guest’ and ‘gesture’. With its glaring cinematics, LA offers the hospitality of light. But it is an exclusionary light. For now, only some of us get lit, get to the mic.
Lana sings from within the metallic architectures of LA’s coastal infrastructure, the port. In the bar, she throws a dart and misses her target by a nonchalant smidge, knocks the 8-ball towards its pocket. I keep thinking about exports and imports, what we put out, take in and trade. Economies of luck and depth and surface. Maybe Lana is a hydrofeminist, her soaring lyric gesture recalling a hauntology of America as that dreamscape of what lies beyond or in the deep. And now we know it is further extinction, precarity, hardened borders. What do we do with that looming closure? Lana has shrugged off her jacket now, she’s smoking in the kitchen where the lid slides off the pan to let the steam out. I’m not saying we’re sitting on a pressure cooker here. There’s simply work to do, mouths to feed, ears to fill. This is a ballad, a paean to the transient, fragile beauty of everything. The songs shown again on the jukebox are songs of a type of blues specific to oceanic or cosmic consciousness, to hunger, the time of lost summer or that of a broken love:
Janis Joplin — ‘Kozmic Blues’
Dennis Wilson — ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’
Sublime — ‘Doin’ Time’
David Bowie — ‘Ashes to Ashes’
Jeff Buckley — ‘Last Goodbye’
Leonard Cohen — ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’
I’ve spoken before of what ‘anthropocene sadcore’ might look like in poetry. I’m still working through that. It comes from the common phrase used to describe Lana’s music, ‘Hollywood sadcore’. I’m interested in how that emphasis on mediation, transmission and cinema plays out in our understanding of ecological emergency, but more generally the existential condition of the anthropocene, which places us as geologic agents under the generalised, gendered rubric of Man. Maybe Anna Tsing’s feminist work on the ‘patchy Anthropocene’ could be applied to the cut scenes of a glossy Los Angeles caught on video. A patch is also a software update, where comprised code is ‘patched’ into the code of an executable program. Maybe the patchy anthropocene involves this kind of cultural patchwork: the lament to a love or a culture is patched to include this bug of ecological consciousness — the patch is a kind of coded pharmakon, poison and cure for apocalypse blues. But Lana paints in shades of yellow too. Blue and yellow making aurora borealis green. A cosmic gesture to what lies beyond thought. And what of those oil rigs in the distance, glistening. They form an audience to the siren’s lament; they are part of this story, and we are mutually complicit. Where the magnetism of the male gaze is often part of Lana’s canon, here it is mostly replaced by oil rigs — supplementary Man as the infrastructure of anthropos, looking back at its melancholic, warning siren. Softcore is less affective than sadcore; it is the ambient hum of climax coming. Its cousin is the slowcore, luminous melancholia of a band like Red House Painters, perhaps: ‘Purple nights and yellow days / Neon signs and silver lakes / LA took a part of me / LA gave this gift to me’.
In Bluets (2009), Maggie Nelson writes of a restaurant she used to work in, where the walls were ‘incredibly orange’. After each shift, collapsing exhausted in her own home, ‘the dining room’ of the restaurant ‘reappeared in my dreams as pale blue’:
For quite some time I thought this was luck, or wish fulfilment— naturally my dreams would convert everything to blue, because of my love for the colour. But now I realise that it was more likely the result of spending ten hours or more staring at saturated orange, blue’s spectral opposite.
(Nelson 2009: 43)
Orange and blue, water and flame. The mind’s alchemical transformations reveal the way colour works chiastically upon us. I think of Freud’s mystic writing pad, the waxen surface of memories allowing for palimpsest versions of stories that trace and erase. ‘This is a simple story’, Nelson writes, ‘but it spooks me, insofar as it reminds me that the eye is simply a recorder, with or without our will. Perhaps the same could be said of the heart’ (2009: 43). ‘Fuck it I love you’, sung to the blue-orange wall until something comes off that surface like a static or fizz. Irn bru, ironed blue. There is quinine in my dreams of hungover labour. Surely there is a violence to this particular love, that is staring, necessary. The love of what must be limitless hurts.
Janis Joplin’s ‘Kozmic Blues’ rises to a swell, a jostling of guitar licks and urgent, assured vocals. A sonic thickening. ‘So mastered by the brute blood of the air’, H.D. writes in ‘Leda and the Swan’. Held in that vascular shudder that acclimatises to a manmade world, what happens next is a loosening, a shimmer, a shrug of the garment. In the poem or song, in the painting or film, in the collapse of that wave into a bluer future. To incur a kind of erosion and yet live on in those terminals. ‘There’s a fire inside of everyone of us’, Joplin sings, and I think not of flames but of cinders. ‘At what temperature do words burst into flame?’, asks Ned Lukacher in the introduction to Derrida’s Cinders (1987), ‘Is language itself what remains of a burning? Is language the effect of an inner vibration, an effect of light and heat upon certain kinds of matter?’ (Lukacher 1987: 3). I know if I did not write I would smoke. These acts of temporality in its material extinguishing. What makes the remembered restaurant blue, not orange, is something of this transmogrified smoulder — an inversion akin to af Klint’s swans, demanding that splash of blue. When I write, am I pursuing the absent space of that skyward blue? ‘Blue is the colour of the planet from the view above’, Lana swoons in a song (‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’) from her previous album, Lust for Life (2017). But in Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana’s California album for 2019, it’s less of this ‘above’ we see. We are held within the infrastructure, cinema, the end of summer. The dreamlike logic of How did she get on that boat? When did she enter that room? Who put that song on the jukebox, baby?
I want to say:
It takes an ocean not to break a planet.
It takes not a planet to break a species.
Lana’s voice grows wispier as she sings of that burnout. There’s this imperative that okay we could enjoy this with American flags, we could pour communal Jack and go down in flames. We could riff the history of our culture in archives of song, gestures and nods of reference. Ladies of the Canyon, Cinnamon Girl, Norman Fucking Rockwell. We could keep laughing or dancing while the world is or was at war. Lana is both behind and at the bar, the sightline of where we go to be ‘served’. Intoxication is the order of the day and we call it ‘fun’ to put the fucking of other people’s desires under erasure, strikeout, as Bolland does.
If this is it, I’m signing off
Miss doing nothing, the most of all
Oh I just missed a fireball
L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot
Kanye West is blond and gone
“Life on Mars” ain’t just a song
Oh, the lifestream’s almost on
(Lana Del Rey, ‘The greatest’)
‘Miss doing nothing’: post-recessional ennui becomes the paradoxical happiness of living in static, not working as a kind of work that resists the future as set out by capitalist horizons of accumulation. We used to just ‘hang out’ and several other dreams of youthful nostalgia. Kids of today can’t even touch that innocence. We know so much; maybe or probably they know more. We are all variously entranced by the softcore unfold of this happening; we are all variously called upon to be complicit, to recycle, act, resist. To speak or not-speak. To be in one of many different levels of rising heat. The conditional state of being’s value, ‘If this is it’, in the anthropocene raises its pitch to a charge. To sign off is a form of surrender that gives up the name for the blur of species. I think of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the planet that would smash us and yet somehow Lana dodges it, that.
The audience in the bar where she sings are mostly men, but their gaze is not sexual, as in much of Lana’s prior visual oeuvre. Rather, their longing gaze, often filtered through further glass, is something like the profound melancholy of a multi-generational sense of this loss. These old men have lost the planet, the one they grew up with, just like Lana’s siren, come from some other time, a life ahead of her steered by the changing climate, the hurt and vengeful seas. The camera holds close ups on their staring faces. The song holds the long durée of a loss that spans generations, damages and is damaged by elders, sparks in the present-tense of cultural tendency. In Lana these men look to a future hurt whose cause was partly theirs, as inheritors of industry: she is both victim and heroine, singing and swinging. The shot opens out to reveal her smiling with younger friends, her own generation. These intimacies are what we have left. The next shot shows some kind of factory or refinery leaking smog into a cloudy, overcast skyline, sulphured yellow. Once again the boat appears with its title, WIPEOUT. Lana is supine on the bow at sunset. She is golden, angelic, silhouette. It’s like she missed the fireball but melted it, cooked it up for tea, apocalypse syrup. Things are going down around us. She hugs her arms, later standing, laughing with a dreamlike intimation of imagined elsewhere, closing her eyes. Be hospitable to yourself and others. The reel of the jukebox keeps ever turning: this is our ever faith in culture. We have to take care of what’s left in whatever space we can make of song, duration.
But the mainstream disciples and idols of Hollywood are failing, Kanye West is ‘gone’. Surely a reference to Elon Musk’s plans to save us by colonising Mars, ‘“Life on Mars” ain’t just a song’ is sung with a melancholy matter-of-factness, a kind of sigh which implies the banality of techno-utopia in a time of extinction. The thrill of such dreams is lost now. We lost our faith in Hollywood, lost our faith in the movies and the scale of those solutions. In a world without books, we’d be ‘bound to that summer’, addicted to one of many narcissistic ‘counterfeit[s]’ to make love to nightly in futile repetition — that would be, as Weyes Blood sings, the ‘Movies’.
What we look back with:
The trauma is not, in the Freudian lexicon, this or that violation from the world (such as war), but the ill and trauma of this originary installation of “the cave”—what could properly be called the cin-anthropocene epoch, particularly given that the era of modern cinema is to be regarded merely as an episode: that of the machinal exteriorization of the cinematic apparatus, given that it coincides with the era of oil (artefacted “light”), given that its arc coincides with that hyperconsumptive acceleration leading to mass extinction events, ecocide, and an emerging politics of (managed) extinction.
(Cohen 2017: 246)
The trauma of greatness as such is this accelerated promise of the dream, the event, capitalist growth, the movie itself — whose imperative is towards scene, closure, episodic narrative in demand of the next. But the drinks in this video are barely drunk; they are more like props. Everyone is aware of their place in the tableau vivant of the anthropocene, even in its softcore, consumerist pop expression: the iconography of oil rigs, downbeat affect and intergenerational longing. Not a violation from the world so much as the stream, and where its accumulative logic would eventually come to crisis, even as corporations beyond our imagining were already plotting that logic of a break within archival excess: the feverish incineration of the present, the smoulder and melt that smogs and spreads and streams.
Fire is there or it is not there. […] But surely there is a word for that moment when a fire log, beneath its bark, has become one immanent ember, winking like a City or a circuit board; for that moment when you know only the desire, no, the need to stir it up. What is on fire, you ask yourself, staring into that waiting. What is that moment. What is that word.
(Lennon 2003: 434)
The nights ‘on fire’ that Lana sings of are those of the Beach Boys, reprieve of the sixties; the bar on Long Beach that served as a ‘last stop’ before the tiny island retreat of Kokomo. Frank O’Hara died on Fire Island. Fire is presence or absence, but there is a moment before it is both. A slippage between the extinct and extinguished. And the world was lit up as before. I wonder if the word Brian Lennon looks for is simply ‘sleep’, the title of his essay which I first read in John D’Agata’s anthology, The Next American Essay — with intimations of that Lana song, ‘The Next Best American Record’. What is with America and the positioning of the next. A constant state of pressurised imminence that streams and streams: ‘We lost track of space / We lost track of time’ (‘The Next Best American Record’). We sleep into death or spirit. My first legal drink was a fireball whisky, in a pub by the sea they built in a church. That moment when you know only the ‘need to stir it up’, fanning the flames. That impulse towards blitz feels extra political in these contexts. We need something of relief that would stream, and in that flow be more than a question. Something of cinders, drifting.
In Lana’s song, I’m interested in this word ‘lifestream’, which seems like a slippage from the more familiar internet-lingo, the ‘livestream’: the coming live that seems provisional to digital retro-future, the promise of satellites beaming the present, simultaneously. Lifestream, instead, is a vascular imaginary of bodies flowing together. ‘LifeStream’ is actually the name of a blood bank serving the Inland Empire and its surrounding areas. Lifestreaming is, Wikipedia tells me, ‘the act of documenting and sharing aspects of one’s daily social experiences online’. It is the flow of the timeline, akin to the wall, the blogroll, the feed. But here, at the end of the song, the promise of information’s overflow is in a liminal state — ‘almost on’. Extinction’s monetised data cast as the simultaneity of thick presence spread by millioning participants. We are here and we said something, our words were atoms, splashes of blue. We stream towards a life, cut ourselves short on the fragments of others’ desires. Mortality’s softcore contingent. The fear of missing out is assuaged by the narcotising work of cinema. And if this is it, Lana has already signed off. It’s something more like her spirit that’s here for us, the stream of an echo, fold of a song that we could replay, continue voicing. Hope lies in the circadian rhythm, the lived time of a pause in the anthropocene’s ceaseless, cinematic duration — that which we see and drown our hearts in. As Jean Rhys’ drunken, depressed protagonist of Good Morning, Midnight (1939 – the year WWII began) muses, ‘Well, sometimes it’s a fine day, isn’t it? Sometimes the skies are blue. Sometimes the air is light, easy to breathe. And there is always tomorrow….’ (Rhys 2000: 121). And what if tomorrow was the greatest loss of them all?
Bolland, Emma, 2019. Over, In, and Under (Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe).
Cohen, Tom, 2017. ‘Arche-Cinema and the Politics of Extinction’, boundary 2, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 239-265.
Fitzgerald, Zelda, 2001. Save Me the Waltz (London: Vintage).
Jamie, Kathleen, 2012. Sightlines (London: Sort of Books).
Lennon, Brian, 2003. ‘Sleep’, The Next American Essay, ed. by John D’Agata, (Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press), pp. 427-234.
Lispector, Clarice, 2014. Agua Viva (London: Penguin).
Lukacher, Ned, 1987. ‘Introduction: Mourning Becomes Telepathy’, Cinders, trans. by Ned Lukacher, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), pp. 1-18.
Moten, Fred, 2017. Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being) (Durham: Duke University Press).
Nelson, Maggie, 2009. Bluets (Seattle: Wave Books).
Rhys, Jean, 2000. Good Morning, Midnight (London: Penguin).
Riley, Denise, 2000. The Words of Selves: Identification: Solidarity, Irony (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Scranton, Roy, 2015. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilisation (San Francisco: City Lights Books).
Stiegler, Bernard, 2017. ‘The Proletarianization of Sensibility’, boundary 2, Vol. 44, No,. 1, pp. 5-18.
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.
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.