Roseability

Disclaimer: my middle name is Rose. This means nothing, as far as I’m aware. I have never received roses for Valentines (as far as I’m aware). What follows comprises an essay on what a rose is a song is a word is a rose(?), feat. the likes of Gertrude Stein, Idlewild, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, the French Symbolists and Lana Del Rey…

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Despite having two degrees in literary studies, a lot of my more convincing intellectual references were first encountered through music, not books. The Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album introduced me to Foucault, Plath, Ballard, Nietzsche, Mailer and Pinter in one fell, aggressive swoop of a Richey Edwards lyric barked over the guttural shudder of Nicky Wire’s bass-lines. Gertrude Stein, the awkward goddess of modernism, first came to me via an Idlewild song—deep in some distant vestige of the noughties, when I still bought CDs. She’s mentioned in ‘Roseability’, the last single to be taken from the band’s 2000 breakthrough, 100 Broken Windows. It’s a typically angsty track, reflecting on the futility of being dissatisfied with the present and finding pathetic solace in the past: “stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums / because I know they won’t teach you what you don’t already know”. Say it and already you know, right? ‘Roseability’, like ‘Idlewild’, is a compound word, a mashing of nouns that seems to promise deep meaning as its very premise. But where is it pointing us? What of Stein and what of her roses?

Stein’s famous quote on roses, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, seems to do two things. Firstly, it indicates an essentialist perspective on semantics—circularity conveying the uselessness of further description. Secondly, it enacts a qualitative echo chamber by which the reader must question what constitutes this essence, this roseness which is the rose’s identity. The repetition suggests the elusiveness of this essence, deferring with dreamy assertion—the kind of beautiful aphorism you might coin on an acid trip, completely sure of your own new logic. There’s a sense, with every ‘rose’, of meaning’s possibility blooming. You want to wrap the sentence in a circle (as Stein did, selling the phrase on plates) and close a precious loop, devoid of full stops and fixed meanings. Is a rose a rose or the space between a rose and what a rose is? Swap Saussurian triangles for sweet hips and sepals, a new rose budding in the roots. Lose all fixity for the chance trellising of structure, turn attention to sunlight, rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions. Acquire tautologies and promise of spring. A rose is a whorl, a loop; a delicate head so heady with beauty. Humans like roses share beds sometimes. Look too long into the corolla and maybe you’ll lose your mind.

Idlewild: the secluded meeting place in L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables
Idlewild: the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC
Idlewild: to idle wildly; to wildly idle; to idly go wilding.

You’ll always be, dissatisfied.” Perhaps the mere act of flicking through memories is a form of idle wilding. Making a wilderness of memory’s stasis. Depart only at airports; dwell between continental impressions of kisses.

100 Broken Windows marks a turn in Idlewild’s direction: from their 1990s brit-pop/punk roots to a more spacious, ambitious sound, influenced by the likes of The Smiths, The Wedding Present and R.E.M. When I first started listening to Idlewild, 12 or more years ago in those tender, pre-adolescent times, I sort of filed them as the Scottish version of Ash: they had that punk sensibility coloured by stadium choruses and a cheeky pop strain that balanced the anxious lamenting aspects. All sincerity, sure, but the lyrics were sharp enough to lift them from the sentimental pitfalls of subsequent contemporaries—the end of alt. history that was ‘Hey There Delilah’. Here we move into screaming emo or post-hardcore as inherent hauntology of the fuzzy rock club: the bourbon and sweat, the greasy hair, the frank, shuffling indifference of stoner punters. There were words that smouldered, sparked, then extinguished in the wind; but Idlewild had something different, a primitive attunement to human sorrow that cut through the gum-snapping cool of postmodern irony games, even as its affect blew up in a drumbeat or solo, the loquacious, Michael Stipe angst of Roddy Woomble’s voice. Think sonorous violins and a solid rock chorus, all the energy and wit being typically Scottish. Like the Manics before them, Idlewild did punk and guitar pop, did the stylised mosh and generic fusion, did the political and personal. The millennial malaise in their songs was very much of the times even as it seemed already tired of them:

It’s a better way to feel
When you’re not real, you’re postmodern (It’s not that one
dimensional, it’s not the only thought)

Cut out all feeling, except wait. There’s more. We don’t have to languish in the paralysing grunge of the nineties. The drama of strings would grace each melody electric and maybe you’ll find historic truth in this plugged-in homage to folk turned  on its head. If postmodernism is a Mobius strip of self-referentiality, that recursive collapse of linear progress (figured as a Scalextric set in the video for Idlewild’s ‘These Wooden Ideas’), then how to find meaning again, to find sense at all? Stand in a doorway and find yourself blasted with void fill, flick grapes in a wastebasket, count up your demons for the old stoned longing. Shrivel like raisins. The turn of the century has already happened, but maybe if you surrender to the chorus you’ll feel less jaded. There’s a reassurance. The thing about choruses, after all, is that they repeat.

As it does with choruses, algorithms and perennial blooms, repetition happens a lot in Tender Buttons, Stein’s infamously cluttered collection of prose poetics. With repetition and modulation, a queering of standard grammar, everyday objects become less the tools which underpin human existence, and instead things in themselves—the wasteful artefacts in excess of definition. Paratactical, concatenating assemblages which entangle like vines or else accumulate. Grapes on the carpet, styrofoam littering the floor, a word or two oozing through the backdoor…Am I far too close to the things I mistrust? Maybe there is always a stammering, a stilted stilling. I buy roses for the restaurant in which I work and the very act drags me into heteronormative time: the time of expensive dates, birthdays, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners. What preference for the deep, luxurious, elusive bloom? Must lovers cut their tongues on thorns? I wonder, do those erect stems contribute their strange teleology…to what, to what…are roses always in excess of themselves—showering petals, shedding, being ever so much just roses?

I stopped and waited for progress”. Back in the day (2005), the NME rated Idlewild ‘a stolid group of trad guitar manglers’, whose new single ‘Roseability’ served ‘both as a rabbit-punch to the head of agnostics and a celebratory three-and-a-half minutes of safe, predictable, wholly generic, utterly brilliant rock ‘n’ roll.’ It makes me dewy-eyed to remember the magazine’s honest, scathing days. That insouciant, throwaway cool. Music criticism was pretty brutal when I grew up, and you basically had to tick every indie rock’n’roll formula (hello Alex Turner: snake-hips, haircut etc) to get consistently decent reviews. Or you could nail the attention on some eccentricity (The Horrors), or perhaps mediocre throwback to rock’n’roll times gone by (need I name every white boy indie suspect circa 2007). ‘Roseability’ is how it feels to be in your twenties, surrounded by people looking backwards; not quite in anger, but in nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered something new as ‘utterly brilliant rock ’n’ roll’ in the transcendent sort of way Idlewild pull off—hardcore guitars, thrashing drums, literary references and all. Sweetness and thorns. Uneasy noise secretion. Tip your hat at tradition and then blast through the chorus, scatter your petals to cover the seams. What words in ‘Sacred Emily’ follow the roses? ‘Loveliness extreme’. I miss the NME, I miss being young enough to get lost this easily.

To veer into Idlewild itself, let’s wallow in passages from Anne of Green Gables:

You know that little piece of land across the brook that runs up between our farm and Mr. Barry’s. It belongs to Mr. William Bell, and right in the corner there is a little ring of white birch trees–the most romantic spot, Marilla. Diana and I have our playhouse there. We call it Idlewild. Isn’t that a poetical name? I assure you it took me some time to think it out. I stayed awake nearly a whole night before I invented it. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, it came like an inspiration. Diana was enraptured when she heard it. We have got our house fixed up elegantly. You must come and see it, Marilla–won’t you? We have great big stones, all covered with moss, for seats, and boards from tree to tree for shelves. And we have all our dishes on them. Of course, they’re all broken but it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they are whole.

That endearing, childish hyperbole, the absolute thrill of invention. The special grove in a ring of white birch trees, heart of the circle, the rose’s secret pistil. Place of germination. Fragments congeal as expansive imaginings, disappointment evaporates in hope.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough”. I’m not quite sure how Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s lead singer, intended the Stein namedrop, but I take it as a reference to her poems’ weird loops of recursion. In the video for ‘Roseability’, Stein’s portraits are hung up all over the room; her face is even on the front of the kick drum, looking all knowing and stately. The video’s aesthetic has the feel of a 90s television set, all pop art circles whose colour has faded, sharp swivelling camera angles and hair swishes. The pop iconography of teenagers flooding the room with their plastic bracelets, braided hair and awkward moshing. It would be totally American if not painfully, most Britishly sincere—I mean just look at how the guitarist crushes into his own instrument, how Woomble wipes sweat off his face, paces around with the mic so close it could feel his breath. Loveliness extreme. When this was released, I wasn’t even a teenager. When I finally see him live, it’s in a church hall in Maryhill 2k17 and it’s utterly beautiful: how generous the set-list, how gracious a frontman with his small-talk and nods to the band, his thank yous. Watching the kids in the ‘Roseability’ video recreates that weird oscillation between feeling old and seeing in their faces the bizarreness of MTV ennui: the ghost of what I would temporarily become at thirteen, fourteen; cladding myself in discount Tammy girl, then Topshop, dying my hair pink and donning studded collars. With the hormones, you lose that ecstatic childhood imaginary hope; desire is amorphous and endlessly droning. You close your eyes and it seems the world has already ended. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not. Maybe roseability simply means innocence.

‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ (Woolf). But customers rarely do. It’s up to me to ornament a room, to flourish a mood, to mark some milestone in another life that’s not mine, whose linearity’s not mine.

My mother bought rose-coloured roses for my eighteenth birthday, blush pink. Red when I turned twenty-one. I stopped acting sweet and rosy, dyed my hair red too. Fell through the whorls, the plush abyss.

‘Roseability’: the ability to be of roses, for roses to exist? Sensibility is, according to my laptop’s built-in dictionary, ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’. Does roseability denote a similar sensitivity? When we think of roses we think often of Englishness: that angelic Laura Marling figure, a garlanded Bronte heroin, Paul Weller’s ‘English Rose’. We think tenderness, pastoral, a certain enclosure (marriage, gardens?) and guaranteed loveliness. She who coils golden hair round her porcelain finger, who knows how to talk to sheepdogs, who paints watercolours of the dawn. We think Shakespeare—‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’. But we also think north of the border, a little bit of the visceral made kitsch: Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’, whose unfortunate fate is to garnish every dishtowel bought on your granny’s last visit to Alloway (Roddy Woomble, perhaps not incidentally, is also an Ayrshire lad). The faint rose scent in a golden cologne, mingled with tobacco; the glistering sweetness of a youthful, drugstore perfume. Roses are roses, but roses are so many things, are poised on the lips of also…

The rose is a complex flower, a perennial whose species number over 100. Roses are typically ornamental, grown by those who know what cultivation means and spend their Septembers clipping away the thorny remains. An old man round the corner from my flat is out in all weathers among soil and stem: grafting, trimming, tilling for his roses. Perhaps he loves them more than his children. In summer, walking home on warm evenings you can smell them in the pale ambrosial air, a delicate bounty. If properly cared for, roses can live a long time, perhaps over and over, perhaps forever…what exactly does perennial mean?

The appropriately named Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stands on Cumberland Street and opens a letter from Martha Clifford—a woman who responded to his newspaper ad requesting a typist. The Dublin postal system facilitates a sort of illicit exchange between them. Half-rhyme, consonance: petal/letter. The delicate thrill of letterly infidelity. She wants to know ‘what kind of perfume does your wife use’; the animal possession of scent. She attaches to her letter a flower, slightly crushed:

He tore the flower gravely from its pinhold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. […] walking slowly forward he read the letter again, murmuring here and there a word. Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don’t please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha’s perfume. […] Fingering still the letter in his pocket he drew the pin out of it. […] Out of her clothes somewhere: pinned together. Queer the number of pins they always have. No roses without thorns.

So many compound words, clustering in the mouth like so many attaché petals peeled off from a dress. He plucks them away, fingers the soft excitement of words: ‘naughty nightstalk wife’ with the luridly alliterative twist of fantasy. Libido vs. loss of life. What slips away with the pin? What does the pin pin together? Folds and creases, sleepless. Spike of cactus, nasty, phallic. Prick. Tulip. Coiled anemone: wild flower or tentacular sea creature? Connotations of slip. In her slip. Slippery. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, waxing lyrical about female genitalia:

I thought of what seemed to me a venturesome explanation of the hidden meaning of the apparently quite asexual word violets by an unconscious relation to the French viol. But to my surprise the dreamer’s association was the English word violate. The accidental phonetic similarity of the two words violet and violate is utilised by the dream to express in ‘the language of flowers’ the idea of the violence of defloration (another word which makes use of flowersymbolism), and perhaps also to give expression to a masochistic tendency on the part of the girl. — An excellent example of the word bridges across which run the paths to the unconscious.

Dear roses dear romance; violets are pale taste of childhood’s sweet naivety. Violets are blue and so are you. Things you can take away. Lines of flight, tangled stems and botanical echoes. Semantics. Lingering taste. The burgeoning rhizomes of the greedy unconscious. Lana Del Rey: “there are roses in between my thighs / and a fire that surrounds you”. The Metro calls it a ‘shocking new track’, but I’ve never heard anything so languid and dreamy and in love. Hungry. Sugar is sweet and…

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Angela Carter’s roses bite, don’t you? In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, the self-starving somnambulist—the ‘beautiful queen of the vampires’—is a figure for desire’s recursive, self-destructive appetite. Manifest as addiction, or withdrawal; the flesh-shedding lust of anorexia, its resistance to growth and fuel. ‘She herself is a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit’. Her dialogue billows round and round into absence. Like Stein’s rose, she is bound to the noun and the grammar of herself—the flickering inward structures of mind, matter. The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Clustering rootlets, trapped yearnings for impossible perfection. No rose can be the perfect rose; except perhaps Stein’s rose: the virtual rose at the end of the looping rainbow. Loopy, lupin, lupine, luminal. Devouring, emanating, alluring. The virtual rose, perfect by its very impossibility, like Mallarmé’s Book. So many leaves and words. The stain of ink and rain, imprinted teeth. Carter again: ‘I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave’. Those intoxicating roses, like Carter’s baroque, coruscating prose, cascade across the page, the white snow, the grave. La petit mort. In every petal the promise of a word, a breath.

Roseability. Faith in the unknowingness that is adulthood’s full blooming. Desire’s maturity bound in nostalgia, that noxious plague of your twenties; the ‘sense sublime’ of Wordsworth, five years later, experiencing ‘something far more deeply interfused’. Like the rose’s corolla, time rolls both round and onwards. It’s nauseating, an almost vortex. You’re always chasing that inward spirit, the thing that burns regardless: “They won’t teach you / what you don’t already know”—don’t Idlewild know it?

There is no roseability.” Enduring, complicated, hungry and sweet, it’s no surprise that roses are symbols for romantic love. Oh hallowed, protected cliché. Expensive hotels strew red roses on white bedsheets, a look that is oddly funereal. Share the ephemeral with melting chocolates. Reminiscent of menses, the blot of a clot in time. He got shot. She bled freely. Blood is like iron, a sharp metallic taste. What do roses taste of? What kinds of symbolic immersion might get at the essence? A bathtub of roses, a bedspread, a bouquet exploding for wedding celebration. Petals of confetti; a blossoming, artificial effect. White roses can be purity, lightness and marriage; or maybe undying love in death, restoration of innocence. I love you as the snowfall that closes Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Sitting on the languid banks of a river in June, desecrating a rose with your sorrow: one petal, he likes me, two petals, he likes me not. Enough petals to fill a river, all the world’s worth of unrequited love. Red upon red upon blue. Flowing, felt in the blood. But no river is ever twice the same, no rose identical, no inflorescence—despite the algorithmic genius of plants—symmetrical. The beauty of roses comprises their subtly unique detail. ‘Lesser’ flowers, mere ornaments to weeds, clutter up close in mutual similarity. Maybe’s Gatsby’s Daisy could be anybody—she just had to be sweet and blonde, smelling of the damp rich old world, ersatz fresh, ready to decorate. The colourful shirts were mere petals for the true dark rose of his longing. Did Gatsby have blue eyes? I can’t remember.

I did a hard-drive search for the phrase ‘blue rose’ and found an old flash fiction piece I wrote years ago, called ‘Watercolours’. An extract:

The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by mixing blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.

Isn’t it strange, the seduction of fairy tale ecomimesis? Nature’s ekphrasis surrendering effortlessly to the same saccharine motifs; the kitsch aesthetic containing within its insistence a certain artifice, then the theatrical mists of deliberate illusion. I think of watercolours and I think of everything blurring. Colours decay in the rain, or do they saturate? And again, the roses and violets, whores and madonnas? What of the feminising of botany’s blushing ornaments, ‘captured’ by a (male) artistic vision? But time is ever more flowing, desire afloat, liquid and trembling as rain. What would it mean to anthropomorphise roses, to imbue them with certain abilities? Roseability. These would be the most precious roses, the memorialising and future-making symbols. The blue ones.

I also found a piece from 2013 titled ‘Blue Roses’ It’s about a botanical garden famous for its sky-coloured flowers. The narrator’s lover, Richard, laments the death of his mother and talks about what it would be like to be a carnivore plant. The narrator says: ‘“Those long, slow deaths would suck out your soul.”’ Was I reading Carter at the time? Nature (always capitalise to denaturalise) in this story is narcissistic, strange, devouring: stars are ‘aware of themselves’, the twilight forms deliberate ‘geometric patterns’, the rain ‘spilled out in oozing puddles that clogged the scum of the pavement’. Security patrol the blue roses in the glasshouses. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean in the story. Symbols for what? Eliding natural selection, these monstrous flowers blur into nothing but blueness—the exotic quantity, intangible mystery, possible infinitude. Despite the wholesomeness of the tale, I couldn’t help but think of the weird erotic undertones of its spooky botany. Blue rose, blue movie.

So yes, the very phrase ‘blue rose’ denotes something exceptional in Nature (in Twin Peaks, a ‘blue rose’ case is one which involves supernatural elements). In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Laura (a character based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, the aptly named Rose) is nicknamed ‘Blue Roses’ on account of her fragility, her spiritual affinity with that which transcends the ordinary (and a childhoood attack of pleurosis). Laura dwells in a surreal version of reality; her very nickname harks back to André Breton’s ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’: ‘Cet été les roses sont bleues’ (this summer the roses are blue). Things have reversed and in their delirium remain quite beautiful. Roses, blue or not, are associated with a certain precious wavering between worlds both spiritual and physical; worlds crossed only by rare occurrences of romance, imagination, memory. He loves me, he loves me not…Laura is obsessed with a little glass unicorn, symbol of mythology, virginity. Preservations of the body for another world, or from another world? I go into the woods and find fairy rings made from small white flowers (I think of the inverse fable of extreme depression, the harp-sparkling Manics’ track, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’). While there is a lovely joy to the common daisy or meadow flower—an ethereal quality that recalls our initiating buttercup crushes—the deep lust of Romance must be associated with the scarlet plumage of the rose. Love is calculated on decadence, exception.

Is a rose as shatterable as glass, as a heart?

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I used to live in a house called ‘Daisybank’, but my friends always teased because there were roses painted onto the window, not daisies. What weird reverse supplement? The fat white dog daisies would spring up on the front lawn in summer, but they were always overlooked by those glassy roses. There’s a certain authority, majesty even, to the rose. You associate it with tragedy and great beauty: Lana Del Rey with her lips stuffed full with a rose, playing the calamitous heroine. Snow-White and Rose-Red. Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’ is taken from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet convinces Romeo that it matters not that his name, Montague, is her family’s rival house. A rose is a rose; regardless of name it will always come up smelling of roses. Having graduated from Daisybank, I now find myself living on Montague Street…

‘Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?’ This is W. B. Yeats, probably writing to a woman he loved, Maud Gonne. He seems to set up beauty as life’s eternal opposite; where human existence is fleeting, beauty remains archetypal, enduring. Think of Keats’ ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. There’s a universality, a mythological underpinning to this beauty. In Yeats’ poem, the loved one embodies wistful figures of glory: Helen of Troy and Usna of ancient Irish history. Surely she slips between the shadows of comparison? Whether Yeats scorns the idea that beauty ‘passes like a dream’, or whether he ultimately reveals its truth, is unclear.

For Immanuel Kant (see, Critique of Judgement), the experience of beauty hinges on a paradox: since it seems that beauty is a property of the object—indeed, emanates from it—you’d think beauty itself was universal. Everyone should fall in love with that painting, that colour, that song. But not everyone does find the same things beautiful. It feels like a betrayal of reality when I play Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’ (where roses are swapped for “lollipops and crisps”) to a friend and their reaction is a casual ‘meh’ and a shrug, while all sorts of biochemical reactions of wonder and euphoria are swirling around inside me. Beauty, for Kant, is largely nonconceptual: that is, there’s an unspeakable quality to it, a thing you can’t put your finger on. In Realist Magic, Timothy Morton describes it as beauty’s ‘je ne sais quoi’. Being unable to pin down what it is that makes a thing beautiful is part of its beauty. You take a rose. You could describe its petals, its inward swirling whorls, its scarlet colour, the slenderness of its stem; but in doing so, you lose the rose itself. As ever in synecdochically applauding a woman you lose the woman. The love object. The love? Recall Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’? ‘Love is not love’; it’s what it is and it isn’t, and what’s left over as forever. 4Eva/4Real. Personally, I prefer Cate Le Bon’s take: “Love is not love / When it’s a coat hanger / A borrowed line or passenger”.  But isn’t everything stolen and temporary, in transit? How do you claw back the rose when the rose, maybe, is just this epic symbol for love? What moves in the static eternity?

I used to draw roses all the time; I’d always start in the centre, finding my way outwards with liquid ink. You see I had no conception of the rose’s shape, I was just following the shaky trajectories of layering lines. Important not to excise too sharply the arrangement of beauty, to impart onto nonhuman forms a reified taste. Eroticism preserved by ellipsis, meditation contained in the mysterious code of the senses. What was it Wordsworth said so long ago, in his famous tract against book knowledge: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect’. Wordsworth would prefer you to go out and encounter the objects themselves rather than try to ‘dissect’ them through rapturous, scrutinising poesy. Being one of the great Romantic poets, distracted by words even when in Nature, Wordsworth is of course a filthy, (forgivable) hypocrite—up to his knees in Kant’s paradoxical beauty as much as the rest of us.

Making words of roses involves cutting their heads off, losing the essence, letting the adjectival rose oil leak into language’s dripping pores. Binding the immortal to time. That seepage is ink, is tense’s durational flow, is poetry’s cruelty. This is perhaps what Mallarmé means when he says: ‘Je dis un fleur, et le fleur est parti’—‘I say a flower, and the flower is cut/split/gone’ (translation: Tom McCarthy). To break the object of beauty down in writing is to incur a violence; as McCarthy glosses, ‘Things must disappear as things in order to appear symbolically’. What is perhaps most seductive is the remaining qualities, the deconstructionist’s milk and honey, the semiotic residue that clings between things. Spiderwebs, woven by first light, acquire a serene and gossamer gleam; but what is most seductive perhaps is the spaces between the lines, the way up close the lacing makes new frames for the real, the scenery behind and through.

Then we have Derrida’s ‘maddening’ supplement. For all roses refer to other roses, to every iteration of the word ‘rose’ throughout literary history. What a rose means can only lie in the space between these occurrences, and even then the meaning is temporary, contextual—there is no outside text, no place in which to hurl your roses to semantic abyss. We might hope for Love as some manifestation of the Lacanial Real, a pre-symbolic realm of pure emotion; but love too (as Roland Barthes reminds us) is discourse, perennial and yet bound to the fluctuations within language. ‘Rose’ is a noun, but it is also qualia: the subjective quality of something that cannot be objectively measured. Her cheeks were rosy, the rose-coloured sand (of the dream sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Red Desert), a rosiness to the air that spoke of July. By scaling tone, we might get a general sense of what ‘rose’ is (a quality defined by difference rather than identity), but we’d never get to see rose through someone else’s experience. What is ‘rose’ to one poet might be ‘pale and bloody’ to another. Rimbaud writes, ‘The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears’. Abstraction meets the concrete which itself is a spill through synecdoche. What music seeps, weeping, into the beloved’s ‘ears’? ‘Rose-colour’ becomes that synaesthetic property, the oozing, effulgent thing that cannot be pinned. For colour, like music, is perceptively subjective. What prompts a sudden spasm of imagining in you might send me to sleep; could we call both actions reactions to beauty?

‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’. So goes the line in American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 suburban modern classic—a film about midlife crisis, inappropriate lust, neurotic materialism and the nuclear family under late capitalism. Where Ricky, the visionary, weed-smoking teenager, sees a sort of sublimity in waste, videoing a plastic bag’s leaf-like billows in the wind, Lester falls for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela. The particular Gen X fatigue over cultural trash and consumer excess is recycled as a pared-back appreciation for symbolic indications of the world’s decay—little quotidian details which offer momentary redemption as beauty in tragedy. The old Kantian adage of beauty’s je ne sais quoi. Lester’s misplaced infatuation for Angela is represented by motifs of lurid red roses, flowering outwards like bloody snowstorms of feminine intensity. The chase falls cold when they kiss IRL, and he realises she is just an insecure teenage girl. Tell me I’m beautiful. Interpreting the film is as tricky as trying to clasp onto any one of those whirling petals, to kiss a single tear on an eyelash, a dew-drop clung to the flesh of a rose. Joni Mitchell, in ‘Roses Blue’: “I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles / I think of rain, I think of roses blue”. A lyricist’s ability to make pearls of emotion. Superhydrophonic. Is this another symbol, listless, transient, glistening?

The Symbolists were mostly French poets of the fin-de-siècle, the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (whose flowers were assuredly evil), who probably drank quantities of absinthe and wrote symbols that emblematised reality itself, rather than merely inward feeling. All that absinthe had to come out somewhere, idly wilding in the streets of Paris (pronounce it the French way). Where abstraction reigns often in the world of emotion, meaning accumulates through the repetition, modulation and pattering of these symbols. While Mallarmé’s poetry indulged in dreams and visions, it’s a certain patterning of associative power that provides the stitching behind his fashion for aleatory. The poetics of chance may still have a structure of sorts, something you can trace like the veiny trellises within a leaf. W. B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist, loved a good rose: just see ‘The Rose of the World’ and ‘The Rose of Battle’. In his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Yeats makes frequent comparisons between symbols and music, describing the ‘musical relation’ of sound, colour and form as constitutive of symbol.

At a workshop I’ve been running with homeless people, a girl who shares her name with Stein’s favourite flower reads out a piece she’s written in ten minutes flat. It’s a typically tragic tale of abuse, of a family torn apart by pain, drugs, death and violence—written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl, perhaps her daughter. She reads it with a stilted west coast accent that picks up its confidence and lilt as the sentences run on. Somehow in those sad and wilting lines, strewn with the accidental detritus of truth, there’s hope. It blooms so unexpectedly in all the despair. A ten-year-old girl sees the world very clearly and pure. I can only paraphrase, of course. I’m sad that I don’t get to see my mother, but she says that it’s okay because if I look at the moon I know that she’s looking at it too. This part struck me harder than any other—it seemed an echo from elsewhere. The whole piece became suddenly a buildup to that single, simple, irresistible image. When Yeats presents Burns’ ‘perfectly symbolical’ song of the moon and time, he misquotes him. Translation falters to glitch, like with lossy compression. The moon as a symbol, as something to be shared, a white chocolate button broken in two. Except you can’t split the moon. You can only imagine what the other person is seeing. I wonder what they were looking up to.

Where metaphors ‘are not profound enough to be moving’, symbols move in both senses of the word: they act through motion, the accumulative or associative arrangement of sound and meaning (as opposed to metaphor, which acquires meaning through more static, straightforward comparison), and they prompt affect in the reader. Such affect is not just the temporary indulgence of an artwork’s emotional value, but can indeed alter how the world is discursively understood. The rosy words thrown upon some poetic zephyr recalibrate reality as we know it. As Yeats puts it:

Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary, day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and unmaking mankind.

The construction of feeling through symbols, then, institutes the substance and gaps that structure how we relate to ourselves, others and nonhuman objects. A very delicate, precise, imagist poem like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has effectively changed how we relate to both the colour red and wheelbarrows more generally (never mind the ‘white / chickens’). Symbols can charge our perception with fresh emotional channels. Music relates a bit differently, of course, but only because it literalises Yeats’ musical relation metaphor—there’s a more physical intensity, maybe. Like a river (you can never dip your finger twice in the same river), a piece of music cannot be played the exact same way again—a truism owing to the arbitrary dynamics of individual players, environments, acoustics or subtle interruptions of duration. A breath or a sneeze, a chance sigh in the background, a trumpeter who can never quite pace her crescendo. You experience the opera differently from me, even though we watch the same one (I have never been to the opera). My hearing is slightly muted, along with my interest in self-congratulatory coloratura; while you have perfect pitch, ears that ring with pleasure as the high notes hit. Though the same in one sense, comprising a shared duration, our encounters are completely different. Music’s durational function is made explicit with the likes of John Cage’s music concrète, composed of sounds rather than notes and thus retaining elements of chance within a certain duration. The process becomes more about selection, sampling and curation, rather than composition according to tones, melody, chords.

If anyone idled wildly, it was the notoriously languorous aesthete, Oscar Wilde. The decadence of roses is also associated with a certain concretisation of language, a making material of words, a honing of time and world. Consider the opening line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses’. The way assonance works, subtly wafting its chiming vowels through ‘filled’/‘rich’ and ‘odour’/‘roses’, creates that musical relation that Yeats so fetishised. Poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance abound in Wilde’s novel, where prose becomes musical, lilting, exactly honed upon sensory detail, the vivid relation of objects. Roses that fill a studio, that pungently glow with lavish scent. There is a heady, ambient quality to much of Wilde’s descriptions, giving off the impression that we are perhaps perceiving how objects seem to one another, filtered through the opium vapours that so penetrated Dorian’s accelerating decadence: ‘In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.’ Objects are at once anthropomorphised and ornamental; that play between movement and stasis, however, cuts across binaries between human and nonhuman. The world of Dorian Gray is sprawling, random, a chase through meshes of entangled desire. A straightforward death drive is diverted by all sorts of sensory encounters, plastic morality, visionary beauty. And words? Words in Wilde are the petals that swell and unfurl into Yeatsian symbols:

Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?

Words have (re)active potential. Each one shivers with the weight of its every use, alive with subtle magic. Be careful what you write.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough (I know that that’s not enough now)”. Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. She said it first in ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), and later wrote, in ‘Poetry and Grammar’:

When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.

What do we swap for tautologies? Love is tautological; love justifies itself. It means everything and nothing. There’s isn’t any escaping the reifying loop, the ring with its symbolism of marriage. That which encapsulates and closes. The hermeneutic circle. Stein makes us linger, ponder the grammar of each rose. Ring-a-ring-‘o-roses. What does it mean to ‘caress’ a noun? To render the erotic potential of language by gesture of touch, extend into physical… Idlewild: a word whose internal rhymes fold together, whose l sounds caress the roof of the mouth.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough.

Lana Del Rey: “You always buy me roses like a creep.
Also Lana Del Rey: “And then you buy me roses and it’s fine.

There’s a surfeit of petals and sex, a gluttonous economy of symbols which Stein stamps out with the simple carousel of her musical roses. Sing it slowly. Tell me what you mean.

Luce Irigaray, from This Sex Which Is Not One:

Your body expresses yesterday in what it wants today. If you think: yesterday I was, tomorrow I shall be, you are thinking: I have died a little. Be what you are becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be. Never settle. Leave definitiveness to the undecided; we don’t need it.

Lana Del Rey, reading from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

I pass between worlds and names and symbols. Every lipstick stain is another iteration, each kiss the palimpsest of the first, and even photographs fade in the sun, faces dissolving like planes behind clouds. Of ‘cappuccino pink ranunculus’—not roses—Colin Herd writes: ‘They’re at their most ravishing and / ethereal the day before they expire’. I imagine a white corridor imprinted with all your flickering dreams. Between realms, the soft wilt allures more even than it does in bloom. Images become sentences: long thorny stems of sentences, stretching and snarling a confusion of brambles and briars. The more you write, the more you grow your beautiful garden. I tear my wrists and fingers, trying to get to it: ‘There is a forcible affect of language which courses like blood through its speakers. Language is impersonal; its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’ (Denise Riley). This garden I make is not really mine and daily it grows stranger. The roses offer their pretty heads, then droop in winter. I hear their beautiful words in arterial melodies, sprawling among shadow, platitude, the skeins of a letter letting loose through my pores.

Roseability: the quality of forever chasing roseability. File under qualia, noun/rock, the poetics of etcetera.

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gif. credit: : : Douglas Pattison

Top 16 Albums of 2016

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Top 16 Albums of 2016

It’s never easy to compile a list like this. Albums by their very nature are dynamic; like books, their significance shifts over time as we build up new associations from listening to them over and over. I know it’s corny but I can’t help but think of that quote from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: ‘I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind’. Well, you could say the same thing about records. Any good album stays with me a long time and it’s so interwoven with memory and place and emotion that I could no longer just glance at its cover in a shop and shrug, it’s a good album. Give me a copy of American Idiot and I’ll wax lyrical about my political awakening, aged eleven; when I first discovered what teenage angst meant, when I decided it was hot to wear eyeliner and complain about dead-end jobs. When I realised you could make stories with music and create characters from songs; in fact, a whole mythology.

It’s becoming increasingly important to me to keep track of what I listen to. Month by month I’ve started to save new stuff onto Spotify playlists, where once I would fall back on the same old iTunes favourites, playlists I’d made years ago. Relying on shuffle or rehashing albums I loved five years ago and never bothering to look out anything new. Having a year away from university gave me the time to focus on music again; I realised that it used to be this massive part of my life that I’d since abandoned in favour of obscure literary theory (now I know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive…). I’ve started to write reviews for RaveChild , which has sort of taught me to listen to a song the way I’d read a text. I want to find the hook, the arrangement, the way all the different parts work together to evoke something. I’m listening for detail, texture, weirdness. It’s fun and sometimes hard work, but always rewarding. Now, often an actual musician will read a thing I wrote and maybe they’ll retweet it or like it or in some way show their appreciation. For someone whose writing has always been a solitary thing – confined to notebooks and extinct LiveJournal and MySpace accounts and only more recently a grownup blog – I can’t tell you how nice it feels for my writing to be out there, being noticed somehow. It’s so lovely. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a new outlet, and to discover so much good music while I’m doing it!

Anyway, to mark the end of the year like I did last year, here are my top 16 albums of 2016. I’m going to try and do them in order this year, bearing in mind the fact that this ordering probably changes in my head on a weekly basis. Basically, the first 16 are pretty arbitrary; I love all of the stuff listed and know that as soon as I’ve written this I’ll want to shuffle it around again.

1) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

This is such a beautiful, highly-crafted album. For someone whose favourite Radiohead record is probably In Rainbows, but who also loves the jagged electronica of The King of Limbs as much as Jonny Greenwood’s cinematic compositions, A Moon Shaped Pool is a real treat. I remember when In Rainbows first came out and there was so much media controversy over its distribution method. I read about it constantly in NME magazine, without much sense of what the music was. Radiohead were a distant entity to me then, a kind of musical megalith that I wasn’t quite ready to approach. Well, a few years down the line I gave In Rainbows an actual proper listen (not just because ‘Nude’ was used in a Skins advert, I swear), and then fell in love. If you’re not properly acquainted with the band, you probably don’t realise how truly eclectic their music is.

A Moon Shaped Pool came as a surprise album to many, the prize release to all those who panicked over the band’s social media blackout. Still, the gimmick takes nothing away from the music. It’s so multi-layered, with orchestral textures and many lovely moments. It doesn’t reach the aggressive pitch as on some previous albums, and in turn feels more honest, stripped of the usual cynicism. A song like ‘Daydreaming’ feels like reaching a moment of nirvana-like sublimity, but it’s not an entirely happy state – its a kind of uneasy contentment, a bewildering dreaminess. ‘Burn the Witch’ is a fable for our times that provides a warning against falling back into what we so dismissively call the dark ages, when in fact 2016 bears the ugly imprint of small-minded times from history. ‘True Love Waits’ has been kicking around a long time now but I really love this mellow, slightly haunting yet effortlessly tender version.

I listened to this record all summer, walking home through the park after nights out, feeling the chords form soft over my inebriated senses. I began to crave Thom Yorke’s voice, the subtle croon and the way it bends so elastically over the high notes like rivulets in the tide. ‘The Numbers’ is a beautiful environmental song: ‘we are of the earth / to her we do return / the future is inside us / it’s not somewhere else’. Yet this is no hippie-dippy one world holism; there’s something unsettling about the future being inside us, about the world being up close, physically within us. The song’s rife with uncanny images, where anthropomorphism is reversed and where the boundedness of the human body is dissolved: ‘it holds us like a phantom / the touch is like a breeze’; ‘you may pour us away like soup’. Yorke forces us to confront these truths, but his tone is wistful rather than dramatic or didactic. You actually feel like you’re being carried away by that breeze as strings shimmer around you.

You can really fall into these songs, and they have a breadth (and breath!) that carries you away. The album feels loose, adrift, a little weary; but this refusal of tight structure and convoluted imagery is what grants A Moon Shaped Pool its sincerity. Pitchfork calls it ‘everyday enlightenment’, which seems fitting, since this album is less about cyborg dystopias and paranoid androids and more concerned with its humanist bent: whirlpools of emotion, the simple epiphanies reached in ordinary life. That’s not to say it’s lost its political freight; if anything, the themes of agency, government control, ecological disaster, technology and societal breakdown gather more strength for being more subtly disseminated.

READ FURTHER: ‘True Love Waits’

2) Angel Olsen – My Woman

Another album that more or less soundtracked my summer, or at least the tail-end of it. Olsen’s musical style really matures on this album but for me it was definitely a grower. I rather unusually fell first into ‘Heart-shaped Face’, a kind of quirky, languid ballad, sugar sweet even as it delivers something mournful. I love the album’s overall retro feel. ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ is livelier than Olsen’s usual fare and is decidedly catchy and playful, with that haunting country voice doing its best gymnastics. ‘Intern’ feels a wee bit Lynchian, all atmospheric synths which satisfyingly never really build to a climax and instead dissolve into the jangly croons of ‘Never Be Mine’. It’s music to listen to while lying in a park, sure, or strutting down a preciously sun-drenched city street on your way to meet someone exciting. It’s also sophisticated enough to work really well live (Olsen had at least three guitars on her recent tour) and also to wrench your heart out in all the right places. Jewel in the crown track ‘Sister’ is a complete masterpiece. I might even go so far to say it’s my favourite song of the year. It builds up to this glorious solo and then the release that comes with the refrain all my life I thought I’d change is so cathartic, like doing something wild – plunging your head in freezing water to get over heartbreak. The video is glorious too – Olsen just has this devastatingly cute smile and the vibe is all cactuses, desert plains, pinkish skies and turquoise swimming pools. My Woman has a hint of psychedelia mixed in with its alt-country and indie folk, but ultimately it’s that beautiful warbling voice that really makes the record shine.

3) Kevin Morby – Singing Saw 

I first came across Kevin Morby on recommendation from a friend, and the song that hooked me was ‘Slow Train’, a lonesome, leisurely track which is duly adorned by the smooth melancholy of Cate Le Bon’s vocals towards the end. Singing Saw sees Morby developing the craft of atmospheric singer/songwriter folk, mixed in with a distilled tinge of Americana. Morby’s songs have an old worldly vibe, devoid of contemporary references and shrouded in a kind of wilderness mythology. A lot of the songs on this album are more upbeat than previous offerings and ‘Dorothy’ is really fun, a pop nugget as much as it is a song about music and the road. There’s a more expansive sound and the bass feels nice and crunchy, the harmonies always on point. Morby’s voice always has a kind of haunting depth to it which shines through as he stretches his vowels, as he threads his hypnotic melody over the pulsating beat of ‘Singing Saw’.  An album for listening to around a camp fire on a beach or rocky hillside; an album for toasting the end of summer to and glancing out towards the gathering darkness of winter.

4) Beth Orton – Kidsticks

This album, conversely, was perfect for kicking off summer. It’s bright, electronic; a little bit feisty, with plenty of pause for languid reflection. Orton has a way with surreal images, with unfolding a kernel of detail into an elaborated, looping song, as on ‘Petals’. Sometimes the album feels trippy, sometimes it feels very 1990s folk-tronica in the best way possible, all saturations of bass woven around Orton’s distinctly wispy voice. Still, the more focused commitment to synths feels properly contemporary, as on songs like ‘Falling’ which dabbles in a kind of bewitching minimalism. ‘1973’ feels super retro, while ‘Snow’ and ‘Moon’ are truly celestial super tracks, complete with super crunchy bass. It’s an album that you can listen to lightly, but also one that rewards more sensuous attention; its percussion and electronic elements are richly textured, with interesting effects. Overall, this album reminds me of all the sunshine we had in May, and all that time I sat lying in Botanics among the daffodils while on my break, looking forward to everything ahead.

FURTHER READING: Beth Orton live review 

5) Roddy Hart & the Lonesome Fire – Swithering 

A late-comer to the table, released less than a month ago, nevertheless Swithering managed to shoot its way up towards the top of my list. There’s something about Roddy Hart’s voice, its earnest attention to emotional inflections, its clarity which always sharpens and shines in whatever genre Hart applies himself to. Swithering is a really polished album, rife with loss and memories, with love and regret and empathy. The band have definitely benefited from Paul Savage’s input on production (see his previous work with, for example, Admiral Fallow), as the sound here feels more cohesive than on their debut. You can also tell that they’re growing more confident with expressing more traditional and indeed vernacular roots while having a bit of rock’n’roll fun, wearing their influences gleefully on their sleeve (everything from U2 to Aztec Camera and The National). This album got me through the difficult essay writing weeks when I needed something powerful to cut through the fog on long late night city walks.

FURTHER READING: Full album review 

6) Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack

Ah, good old Frightened Rabbit. I always think of them at this time of year, mainly because it brings back memories of December 2010 when I had a ticket to see them in Glasgow when I was still at school. All day I was looking forward to it, when during the last period I was sitting in the library and it started snowing. My librarian proceeded to gleefully torment me with the knowledge that all the trains would be cancelled, a fact she confirmed by duly consulting every available travel website and showing that trains between Ayr and Glasgow were having problems owing to the weather. I was so gutted that evening, watching the snow falling and wishing I was at that Frightened Rabbit gig. My friends and I sung ‘Poke’ at every party, deliberately mashing the words.

For a Frabbit fan, this album sort of has it all. As critics keep saying, it definitely sounds more polished; but there’s certainly the same old twist of raw Scottish melancholy. ‘Get Out’ feels powerful and cathartic, while ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’ moves close to old favourite ‘Poke’ and deserves pride of place in the Frightened Rabbit sad ballad cabinet. While the lyrics trawl familiar themes – alcohol, depression, heartache, existential anguish and urban boredom/depravity – there’s a renewed musical energy here which leaves a residue of hope to even the most despairing songs. I find myself yearning for the effortless way in which Scott Hutcheson’s vocals do acerbically emphatic social commentary, soothing harmonies and lyrical witticisms. Few bands could pull off a bitter reflection on the death drive of a broken class system and turn it into a poignant love song, as on ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’. Yes it’s grey-hued, Brutalist, a little bit miserable, but all of these things make sense through Frabbit’s zealously lyrical dissection.

7) Cate Le Bon – Crab Day

If ever there was a better, spikier, weirder art-pop album! Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon isn’t scared of being a bit out there. She compares herself to a ‘dirty attic’ and feels like geometry; her heart’s in her liver, she wants to be someone’s tenpin bowl, love is a coat-hanger. It’s like she’s inhaled a bunch of surrealist poems and swallowed some Cubist art and then vomited it all out in glorious rainbows, complete with very tasteful thumping drums and keyboard trills. Apparently, the album’s title is a reference to a fictional ‘Crab Day’ conjured up from the imagination of Le Bon’s young niece. This childlike playfulness runs through the album and gives it its flying spirit. If it makes sense, you could say that the songs are geometric: all jagged guitars, syncopation, weird angles, tessellating lyrics. The percussion is fun in a kind of skittish, school-practice-room way, all zany, trembling marimbas and thrashing drums. The electric guitars are clean and Le Bon’s voice pulls off a combination of artful dodgery, aphoristic declarations and crooning, cat-like mews. ‘Love Is Not Love’ provides a slice of relief from the stomping revelry and provides a languid ballad with curious little spikes of guitar and subtle brass. Overall, a record to have fun and enjoy your summer with.

8) Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)

Woah, where to begin with reviewing a Crystal Castles album! I suppose the band had a lot to prove, having replaced iconic singer Alice Glass for a third party, Edith Francis. Nevertheless, Francis stepped up to the mark and it’s certainly possible to listen to this album and still appreciate it as authentically Crystal Castles. Not only are the band donating profits from record sales to Amnesty International, but they’re providing a much-needed blast of searing catharsis to shock us out of the apathetic slump that 2016 has brought upon much of us. Opening track ‘Femen’ develops its looping, rasping rhythms out of a haunting chorus of voices which dwindle and build like sound blowing back against the distant ceiling of a massive church. The heavy pulse of bloated synths is back on ‘Fleece’, and ‘Char’ shows off Francis’ vocals at their purest, reminiscent of the dreamy 80s vibes of disco-indie outfit Chromatics. ‘Enth’ makes you want to thrash your hair and limbs around wildly and fling glowstick fluid across the room. Final track ‘Their Kindness if Charade’ layers fragments of vocal samples over shimmering synths which reach a kind of clubland pulse over muted drumbeats, withdrawing again into the melancholy quietude of Francis’ stripped back rendering of impenetrable lyrics.

FURTHER READING – Crystal Castles live review

9) Hannah Peel – Awake But Always Dreaming

I picked this album because it’s such an ambitious piece of art in its musical range, yet manages to return always to its thematic focus on memory, dementia, heartache and lost connections. It’s got an orchestral expansiveness, Peel’s cut-glass voice, the twinkling music box, showers of synths and a dialogue between energetic pop songs and atmospherically experimental tracks like ‘Octavia’. Peel riffs constantly on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and as such there’s a visionary element to her songs which maps the inner space of the mind onto fictional landscapes and metropoles. It reminds me of walking along the Clyde at night with the wind howling in my ears, a sort of mad feeling in the city as it bristles against the death of autumn and the coming of winter, the lights shimmering across the river.

FURTHER READING – Full album review 

10) The Pictish Trail – Future Echoes

Rather shamefully, I hadn’t heard of Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail, until I opted to review his latest album, Future Echoes. In all honesty I picked the album because I liked the sound of the artist’s name; a customer at work once asked me if I was a pict. I’ve started telling the Mormons in the street that I’m a witch because I can’t be bothered being converted on my way to the shops. Anyway, Future Echoes. What an album! Johnny Lynch is a busy man; he runs Lost Map records which is based on the Isle of Eigg and houses an array of talent, including Randolph’s Leap, Kid Canaveral and Tuff Love. Still, he’s managed to find the time to put together an album which feels tight, exciting and something a little bit different.

It tackles time: history, futurity; things shifting, changing, preserving. It should be called pastoral psych-pop, because that is a generic label worthy of Pictish Trail’s particular brand of Scottish melancholy, based in a strong tradition of indie rock and inflected with ethereal dream pop vibes. Lynch has a distinct, sonorous voice which reaches some really heartfelt expressions amidst dramatic strings, pulsing synths and loops. There’s an honesty to the lyrics and a Twilight Sad atmosphere to many of the songs, but Future Echoes is also splashed with funk and disco. You could actually dance to it, especially on tracks like ‘Dead Connection’ and ‘After Life’. I thoroughly enjoyed dissecting this record for a review and the lesson I learned was to keep picking things I hadn’t heard of before because god knows there’s a lot of good stuff out there to discover.

FURTHER READING – Full album review

11) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

I have to make another embarrassing musical confession and admit that this is the first Nick Cave album that I’ve really properly listened to all the way through. I once found some mp3s of his older stuff which my Mum’s friend had left on our computer, but I think I was too young at the time to appreciate that dark, resonant voice, the subtlety of Cave’s songs. This record has won me over. It’s rich and melancholic even in its sparsity. I’m detecting a trend this year with a move towards a sort of deep minimalism – think David Bowie’s Black Star and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – which nevertheless maintain sort of jazzy vibes even as the mood is enigmatic and slightly sinister.

This is a very serious album, not to be taken lightly. Cave lost his teenage son in a horrible accident last year, and I don’t think it’s cliché to say that grief seeps through every note, even though most of the lyrics were written before his son’s death. Nevertheless, Cave never loses control; it’s a sustained release of emotion which trickles its mournful truth across spacious and poignant tracks. He paints stark images with thick, vivid brushstrokes, which curl back on each other as the lister is multiply interpellated by the lyrics:

You’re an African doctor harvesting tear duct
You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now
You’re an old man sitting by the fire, you’re the mist rolling off the sea
You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?

Death here isn’t just personal, it’s cultural, global. ‘Anthrocene’ is a riff on the term ‘Anthropocene’ which more or less refers to the current geological age initiated by the human interference in the structure of the earth (basically triggered by the industrial revolution and the extraction of fossil fuels). It’s one of the most unsettling and beautiful songs about climate change I’ve ever heard. Like much of the album, it makes use of loops and dissonant synthesisers. On ‘Jesus Alone’, there’s the repeated drone that sounds like the hurt cry of a glitching, dying bird. ‘Anthrocene’ is spooky and hazy, imagining the dissolution of the earth from the position of dark forces, of animals and plants and the lost people who inhabit this broken earth. It tackles the sense of strangeness that relates to our coming to terms with ecological disaster; which, as Timothy Morton would argue, is a necessary stage of grief, a process of mourning: ‘When you turn so long and lovely, it’s hard to believe / That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene’. What sounds like an address to a woman, a beautiful dancer, probably refers to the turning of the earth, the passing of seasons which still exist, lingering, even as carbon emissions pollute the atmosphere. The song is structured around Cave’s measured vocal delivery and the sweetly sad, rising and falling harmonies. ‘Rings of Saturn’ kind of reminds me of R.E.M (‘E-Bow The Letter’) drenched in a black black oil.

I like music which breaks with conventional song structures and Skeleton Tree certainly does that. It’s mesmerising, atmospheric, strange. You have to listen to it many times.

12) Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

A far livelier offering, yes, but one no less struck with historical trauma. It deals with the ever-prescient issue of racial injustice, but also joyfully samples a vibrant array of black culture, including spoken-word poetry and retro R&B grooves. There’s a fantastic drum solo on ‘E.V.P’ which glides in among the chorus of voices. Hynes’ voice is divine throughout and there’s something so addictive about lots of his beats. It’s quite an eclectic album, ranging from instrumental to the jazzy ‘Love Ya’ to funk to the dreamy nostalgia of ‘Augustine’ and fat synths and male/female dialogue of ‘Best to You’. You could compare this album to something by Michael Jackson or other fresh offerings of contemporary R&B. My knowledge of the genre is so limited that I’m not going to attempt to make comparisons. Freetown Sound feels really unique, a bursting bag of colourful tricks and collaborators. It resonates deeper than most pop records on the charts these days. ‘Hadron Collider’ is a looping ballad which sucks you in with its pure vocals and shimmering piano. I first came across Dev Hynes in his incarnation as Lightspeed Champion and that kind of melancholy blend of humour and sadness is retained somewhat in Blood Orange’s project, only now the message is more cultural than purely personal. It’s an educative album as much as a fun one.

13) Conor Oberst – Ruminations

This album sort of came out the blue for me; I’m normally hyper-aware of any imminent Oberst recordings on the horizon, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear that not only could I get my hands on a ticket for a UK tour date but also that I could access some new material. Ruminations is old school Oberst mixed with a new, bittersweet maturity. Don’t be fooled by the harmonicas; while there is a political undertone to his lyrics (especially on ‘A Little Uncanny’), Oberst is here focused on introspection as opposed to outward-looking troubadour. The recordings feel a little bit strained and raw, but this is the kind of authentic frisson old-school Oberst fans crave. The sort of warbling attic recordings from the pre-I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning era. As the title implies, these songs are all extended thoughts which extend the personal to the political. Despite the minimalism, Oberst doesn’t hold back on the visceral lyrics. Where songs seem to paint a vision of isolation, of wandering confusion, there’s always something powerful to hint at possible connection: ‘Tomorrow is shining like a razor blade / And anything’s possible if you feel the same’. In ‘Tachycardia’, thoughts hit ‘like cinder blocks’.

The passing of time is a major theme of this album but there’s a sense of timelessness to the songs, as if they open up the compositional space of the wee hours where all the dark thoughts pour. It’s quite hard to listen to these songs in daylight; not because of some gothic spirit but because out of the cover of darkness these songs make the real world seem a little too obscene – too cluttered, crowded, vibrant, excessive. While the narrator of Oberst’s songs notices sweet little everyday details – ‘the checkout girl has a thing for me’ – all these miniature epiphanies are swallowed up in a general apathy: ‘I just wanna get drunk before noon’. Still, Oberst’s analysis of modern life bears an honesty which transcends pure nihilism. In ‘Gossamer Thin’, his warbling voice recounts a clandestine relationship where two unexpected partners come together. The narrator admits, ‘it’s no business of mine / They can love more than one at a time’, but this open-mindedness is qualified by an acknowledgment of the thinness of our emotions in an age when we constantly push ourselves to the edge, wearing our identities down as we spread them freely across the world and the internet: ‘you are who you are and you are someone else’. Whenever Oberst brushes up against philosophy, he never seems to make a didactic point but rather leans into the yearning for transcendence: ‘’Cause the mind and the brain aren’t quite the same / But they both want out of this place’.

14) Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House

It’s been almost a decade since I last bought a copy of NME with Farris Rotter (aka Badwan) and the rest of The Horrors plastered extravagantly across the cover. I’ve always been slightly in love with his dark, seemingly careless yet somehow still tender voice, the beautiful, New Romantic hair, the hint of eyeliner. Cat’s Eyes are an alt-pop duo, combining Faris’ sultry croon with the ethereal soprano of Rachel Zeffira, an Italian-Canadian composer. Obvious comparisons include 1960s girl groups (The Ronettes), but there’s a haunting dissonance to Cat’s Eyes lulling, cinematic style. Tracks like ‘Be Careful Where You Park Your Car’ and ‘Drag’ epitomise this jangly sixties vibe, but then you’ve also got the celestial minimalism of ‘Everything Moves Towards the Sun’, a song which hinges on delicate xylophone arpeggios, Zeffira’s melodic voice and faint drumbeats. This album feels vintage, a little bit gold standard. I like to listen to it at nighttime, when the sky clears and if you get away from light pollution you can see the stars in the park. Treasure House gilds everything around me in a kind of grandeur. I bought this album  after first hearing ‘Treasure House’ which sounds like opening a beautiful music box and melting into the taste of rich Belgian truffles, laced with a kind of muscle relaxant which makes reality slow down into a silken haze. It’s a real treat, a tender record that has its fizzy, upbeat moments as much as its mournfully reflective ones.

15) Palace – So Long Forever

I had the pleasure of catching Palace recently for a headline gig at King Tuts. While they’re a band who really come into their own onstage, all elasticated vocal harmonies and twinkly guitars, So Long Forever is a really solid debut album. It feels polished and atmospheric in the way that The Maccabees’ Marks to Prove It felt more expansive than its predecessors; here, however, Palace have skipped the cutesie twee-pop phase and delivered from the start a fresh kind of bluesy-indie. The record has a lot to offer. There’s the languidly jangly ‘Live Well’, the kind of song you want to listen to on the last day of summer, waiting for the sun to set with your school friends, nostalgia glowing on the distant horizon. Sweet and upbeat. Then there’s the looser ‘So Long Forever’ and the trembling urgency of ‘Break the Silence’. While Palace have an array of decent singles, they don’t crowd their album with them and instead give space to lots of new songs which melt together in a carefully detailed bluesy masterpiece. As you can say, I like the word bluesy, and keep using it because I feel it perfectly describes the loose, hazy feeling of the songs, the way they are tied to their lyrics and melodies like a boat on a complicated river. ‘Bitter’ is just perfect. It’s catchy in a strange way; you find yourself falling over the stretchy chorus, the bright guitar, the clean bass. Plus Leo Wyndham has such a lovely voice. Sometimes it sounds a bit like the lead singer of Little Comets; in fact when I first heard Palace I assumed they were also from Newcastle. There is less of the rush of a fast-paced London indie scene here; instead you have a refreshingly chilled collection of tracks which really take their time and pay attention to detail.

FURTHER READING – Live review 

16) The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It

Please don’t judge me for choosing the pink-hued bombast of the 1975’s sophomore effort for my list. It’s more than just a guilty pleasure; for me, it represents a glint of hope within mainstream pop music. It shows there’s room to do something interesting beyond constant rehashes of what we now derisively call EDM, the auto-tuned formula perfected in Radio 1-loving R&B. I won’t rant anymore about that (you can hear much more eloquent rants on the subject from Laura Marling on her excellent podcast, Reversal of the Muse). The 1975 showcase an array of influences, from Bowie to INXS, but they don’t just flaunt their inspirations with a citational ironic sneer; rather, they recuperate 80s music, its pomp and flamboyance, to comment on the narcissism of the selfie-era, to make self-referential pop that actually seems intelligent but still deliciously fun and sugar-coated enough to become a chart darling.

From the Pete Wentz-worthy album title to lengthily indulgent instrumental tracks, this is an album which unashamedly revels in itself, in the album as an elastic art form. It’s definitely a love/hate thing, and somehow I’m drawn to it. It’s simultaneously painfully honest and ridiculously silly. The way Matthew Healey sounds so vulnerable on ‘Somebody Else’ and ‘Nana’, the pop crooning of ‘She’s American’ and the melancholy ‘A Change of Heart’. Then there’s ‘Love Me’, the extravagantly OTT and catchy lead single completed with twangy INXS guitars, cheesy 80s synth flourishes and a playful vocal delivery. It’s the kind of album that makes your teeth hurt, but there’s plenty of wee gems in there to savour.

And everything I couldn’t include but still loved dearly:

Agnes ObelCitizen of Glass
Biffy Clyro – Ellipsis
Black MarbleIt’s Immaterial
Bloc PartyHymns
Bon Iver22 A Million
C Duncan The Midnight Sun
DiivIs The Is Are
DJ ShadowThe Mountain Will Fall
Emma PollockIn Search of Harperfield
Fair Mothers Through Them Fingers Yours and Mine
GoGo PenguinMan Made Object
Honeyblood Babes Never Die
Jimmy Eat World Integrity Blues
King CreosoteAstronaut Meets Appleman
Leonard CohenYou Want it Darker
Let’s Eat Grandma I, Gemini
Martha Ffion – Tripp (yes, it’s an EP and not an album but I’m gonna cheat with this one)
Minor VictoriesMinor Victories
Modern Studies – Swell to Great
MogwaiAtomic
PinegroveCardinal
PolicaUnited Crushers
Randolph’s LeapCowardly Deeds
Soft HairSoft Hair
Sunflower BeanHuman Ceremony
Teenage Fanclub – Here
TeenCanteenSay It All With A Kiss
The AvalanchesWildflower
The Last Shadow PuppetsEverything You’ve Come to Expect
WarpaintHeads Up
Wild Nothing Life of Pause

***

Top 15 Albums of 2015

 

(in alphabetical order…)

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Beach House, Depression Cherry 

It’s moody and melancholy and perfect for Sunday afternoons in winter, where hardly an hour of light graces us with its presence. The singing is woozy and lush, the track titles are typical Beach House (‘Wildflower’, ‘Levitation’, ‘Days of Candy’) and a mellow, dissonant drone seems to drift over most of the songs. There’s a whispery feeling to the vocals and a scratchy-sounding organ keyboard. Also, the album is coated in soft red velvet, so the physical copy is pretty beautiful, and there’s definitely a ‘tactile’ sense to the music itself, with all the sparkling effects and the echoing texture of Legrand’s voice. I like Beach House for the same reason I like Cocteau Twins: the music enfolds you like the atoms (or pixels?) of another world – it doesn’t sound 100% human, there’s something too mystical about it. The band released a website with typed lyric sheets, which adds to the sense that the whole album is a hazy collection of dream poems. It was released in late summer but I have listened to it a lot more in winter; it’s like the sound of  Victoria Legrand’s hazy, drifting vocals is better suited to the cold weather, the whiter light, the sheen of ice.

Favourite tracks: ‘Space Song’,  ‘Levitation’, ‘PPP’.

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Beirut, No, No, No

There were a few weeks where I sort of just played this album on repeat in the restaurant where I work. Generally it was pretty harshly reviewed and there is a sense that single tracks stand out more than the whole. Still, I appreciated that cheerful continental folk vibe to get me through the autumn and winter with its remnants of pastel-hazed summer. Even though the songwriting might not be as *original* or *inventive* as 2011’s The Rip Tide, you can have a lot of fun with some staccato beats and percussion. Plus I love a bit of brass.

Favourite tracks: ‘No, No, No’, ‘Gibraltar’, ‘Perth’.

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Belle and Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Just the sort of lively pop weirdness you need to brighten your January, when the album was released. I love Belle and Sebastian, the way they create simple catchy folk-pop but base it around stories and characters and inventive lyrics about lost girls and ~cutely~ wayward indie kids. There’s a bit more experimentation than usual on this one: from the funky disco atmosphere of ‘The Party Line’  and ‘Perfect Couples’ to the epic near-7-minute dance track ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’, there’s something for everyone. ‘Nobody’s Empire’, which approaches the subject of lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s MS, reveals Murdoch’s general genius for lilting melodies punched through with a weightier-than-usual buildup and bass line. ‘Ever Had a Little Faith’ is maybe the closest song to old-school Belle & Sebastian. Generally this album is full of interesting licks and typically witty lyrics, and its experimentation lends well to repeated listening.

Favourite tracks: ‘Nobody’s Empire’, ‘The Party Line’, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’.

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Blur, The Magic Whip

Blur’s first album since 2003, The Magic Whip is kind of a mystical, surreal experience. Along with the artwork (a neon ice cream and some Chinese lettering), the album’s whole vibe sort of reminds me of this weird game I used to have for Sega Megadrive where you could do fight scenes on top of an apartment roof in the depths of Tokyo. Everything was blurry and glitchy and full of bright lights against the backdrop of glittering darkness. The Magic Whip is set in Hong Kong rather than Tokyo, but it has that strange sense of futuristic metropolitan darkness. It takes away the grunginess of Blur and sonic spaciness of 13 and enters a more self-aware, perhaps even ‘postmodern’ (ugh, the implications of that term) territory.

Well, for one there’s the obvious cultural borrowing from Hong Kong, where the album came together; there’s also the sense of meta-britpop on songs like ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘I Broadcast’ which update the whistle-along laddish bounce of 1990s culture for a more accelerated version of the jaded digital and cosmopolitan era (‘Lonesome Street’ is overlaid with the sound of someone reporting – on the news? – sparkling synths and echoing city street noises). The sense of absurdity and collapse, like in ‘I Broadcast’ where the chorus falls into the repeated line: I’m running being played over Graham Coxon’s sharp guitar. It’s a complex and intriguing album with some sweet bass lines and dreamy Damon Albarn vocals. Listening to it really does sort of take you somewhere else. Also, ‘Mirrorball’, the record’s final song, sounds almost like it belongs on a David Lynch soundtrack.

Favourite tracks: ‘Ghost Ship’, ‘Pyongyang’, ‘My Terracotta Heart’.

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Clarence Clarity, No Now 

From the glitchy, 90s Windows computer aesthetic of its videos to the vibrating bass, disco rhythms and shrieking guitars and falsetto vocals, this is one crazy good album. Not many folk are brave enough to put out 20 tracks on their debut album, but the effect of doing so sort of drags you underwater into a world of sound that’s electric as a field of lightning, as shrieking neon as that purple lava you get in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Chemical Plant Zone. Sorry, is that mixed metaphors? Who cares, with music like this, everything is mixed to fuck. 

Some of the songs have a cinematic feel, which is hard to define except for a sort of atmosphere created by all the glitchy sound effects and samples (listen to the start of ‘The Gospel Truth’, for example). It’s a relief when Clarity strips back into ‘purer’ or softer vocals (see ‘With No Fear’), but also a great feeling when the effects pedals step on again, like having water thrown over you. Cold, shocking, refreshing. Kinda like the whole album. You’ve got references to ‘worm holes’ and ‘cancer™ in the water’ and all sorts of surreal cyber imagery and staccato vocals in reverse (‘Tathagatagarbha’ is straight out of Twin Peaks’ Red Room, right?). ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’ is the kind of psycho disco death funk they would play at the end of the world. I was lucky enough to see Clarence supporting Jungle in Edinburgh this year and I can say that it all sounds sweet as hell live – the band’s energy really plays out the craziness of the album – which isn’t always always the case when the production is one of the best parts.

Favourite tracks: ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’, ‘Bloodbarf’, ‘Will to Believe’.

(Also, I think ‘Hit Factory of Sadness’ is one of my favourite song titles ever).

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Foals, What Went Down 

I guess the critical/commercial success of Foals’ fourth album (in October they were voted ‘Best Act in the World Today’ at the Q Awards) means I don’t need to say much to justify my choice. I’ve been with Foals ever since they were bouncing out math rock on early Skins, and this album was no letdown. For one, it has several tracks which follow in the footsteps of ‘Spanish Sahara’: ‘London Thunder’ is a beautiful, atmospheric track with a lovely build, and even Lana Del Rey has sung her praises for ‘Give It All’, which addresses love as a kind of fragile presence/absence, of digital melancholia – ‘Give me the way it could have been / Give me the ghost that’s on the screen’. ‘Birch Tree’ has that sort of upbeat, syncopated feel reminiscent of ‘My Number’ (from Holy Fire). Other than the softer tracks, it’s a whole lot rockier than previous albums, especially on the frenzied ‘What Went Down’ and jangly guitar rhythms of ‘Mountain at My Gates’. I listened to this all throughout the month it took to move from my old flat, so it will always have that sense of dislocation and haunting futurity for me… (plus the stress of shifting boxes and scrubbing kitchens).

Favourite tracks: ‘Mountain At My Gates’, ‘Birch Tree’, ‘London Thunder’.

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Gaz Coombes, Matador

I have to confess that while Matador was released in April, I didn’t actually listen to this album until about a month ago, when I found out my cousin (the lovely Hannah Lou Clark) was supporting him on his UK tour dates. I saw Supergrass a long time ago when they supported Coldplay at Bellahouston Park, but I don’t remember much of it, especially as I was right at the back! This is such a gorgeous album though, I swear I’ve listened to ‘Matador’ on repeat to and from work for the last fortnight at least. It has great range and depth, another fine example of the maturity that can come out of the Britpop era. Coombes can sound both delicate and powerful, and there’s a certainty, a sureness, to this record. There are songs whose haunting atmosphere is complimented by stunning but simple lyrics (‘Worry fades the soul away / I’ll take the hurricane for you’ – ’20/20’) and climactic choruses. If I close my eyes I imagine this song being played over a dramatic film scene, like someone running through city streets, a breakdown, things exploding, changing. Something like that. I know it’s cheesy but there are definitely songs on this album which you could call sublime in the true sense of the word. Disorientating, awesome, majestic, powerful. Gospel influences, electronic beats, acoustic guitar. I’m still in love with it.

Favourite tracks (this was difficult, and may change): ‘The Girl Who Fell to Earth’, ‘Matador’, ’20/20’.

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Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Going Down

Aw man, there’s just this beautiful twang to Kurt Vile’s music that is so addictive. It’s not just his hair. The country twang of guitars, his sweetly droning, idiosyncratic voice. You can see the influence of Nick Drake, maybe a touch of Dylan, but also a very modern sense of disconnectedness, of goofiness even – the sense of being very self-aware but at the same time alienated from who that self is. Some of the songs sound a bit ballad-like, but there’s always a kind of dissonant, bluesy twist. He really nails his lyrics and imagery too: ‘I hang glide into the valley of ashes’, ‘A headache like a ShopVac coughing dust bunnies’. The twinge and stuffed wordiness of ‘Pretty Pimpin’ proves strangely addictive, as does that developing, repeating, turning, twanging guitar riff. ‘That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)’ is a darker, sadder sort of folk ballad. Generally, it’s an album to listen to dreamily, maybe on a car journey, but also one that goes well in the background of bars, because it’s lively enough, and pretty damn cool.

Favourite tracks: ‘Pretty Pimpin’, ‘That’s life tho (almost hate to say)’, ‘I’m an Outlaw’.

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Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon

I could rave about Lana all day. She has the genius of Lady Gaga, Bowie and Madonna in her creation of the ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ persona, but an old-school Hollywood voice that haunts and croons and glides over dark, sweet melodies. Honeymoon is very much a coherent piece of art. It’s a very visual album, much in the tradition of Del Rey’s previous work (the monochrome vibe of Ultraviolence played out in the gloomy, stripped back energy of the Dan Auerbach produced songs). Picture a summer-hazed beach with pastel huts and neon-signed strip clubs, peeling paint. Lana writhing about in her mint green muslin in the video for ‘High By the Beach’. It’s her dark paradise, a retro realm of sweet pop richly infused with jazz, blues, R&B, trap, disco and poetry. The loveliest recital of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ I’ve ever heard, soft and haunting. A Nina Simone cover. Tracks like ‘Salvatore’ and ‘Terrence Loves You’ really demonstrate the crystal clarity of her voice, as well as the strength of her range. The title track can be described in many ways, but I prefer the terms glimmering and cinematic. Really, it was the perfect soundtrack for a melancholy, post-graduation summer — except I swapped the retro cars and ice cream for long walks in Glasgow rain.

Favourite songs (again, so hard): ‘Terrence Loves You’, ‘Honeymoon’, ‘The Blackest Day’.

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Laura Marling, Short Movie 

It’s quite lovely to witness Laura Marling’s music maturity. From the honest folk pop of Alas I Cannot Swim to the stronger, mythological tones of Once I Was an Eagle, she has really developed and expanded her sound, not just in a literal sense but in a metaphysical one too. Does that make sense? I mean the way that her music opens worlds up. Eerie, dark soundscapes and cessations of space, interruptions and pauses and softly twangling guitars. Opening track ‘Warrior’ is spellbinding, allusive and elusive; full of echoes and misty vocals, guitar licks that curl round and round. It feels distinctively American, as opposed to, for example, the Englishness, countryside sweetness of I Speak Because I Can. There’s a sense of being lost, looking for something (‘the warrior I’ve been looking for’), of endlessly journeying.

For most of the record Marling steps away from the acoustic songwriting (delicate, but sometimes forceful) which won her fame in earlier records; her electric guitar simmers through the tracks, building around her increasingly impassioned vocals. On ‘False Hope’, a track about Hurricane Sandy, she steals us away from the vague landscapes of ‘Warrior’ to the metropolis, the Upper West Side, where darkness falls and electricity fails as she tells us of the storm. The weather plays pathetic fallacy to the storminess of the singer’s mind: ‘Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be at all? / There’s a party uptown but I just don’t feel like I belong at all / Do I?’. ‘False Hope’ slides into a more traditional Marling track, ‘I Feel Your Love’, which rolls along like a nice old folk song, a bit Staves-like maybe, but more haunting. Her more ‘spoken’ delivery of vocals, intertwined with some searingly brief high notes, in ‘Strange’ for example, bring to mind Joni Mitchell. At times she addresses different characters: spurned lovers, young girls who mirror herself, the ‘woman downstairs’ who’s lost her mind. The overall effect is less introspective, and more fleeting, transient: the self behind the voice slips in and out of view, through various narratives and images. There’s a restlessness which contributes to the Americana vibe, but one which is perhaps also simply the natural expression of a successful singer songwriter still only 25, trying to find her way in the world…

Favourite tracks: ‘Warrior’, ‘False Hope’, ‘Worship Me’.

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Little Comets, Hope is Just a State of Mind

My favourite band for kitchen sink indie…I like how Little Comets ease you into their changes in sound through various EPs released throughout the year. With the tingly guitars released on ‘Salt’ and the earnest lyrics, a ballad (‘The Assisted’) and emphatic drumming (‘Ex-Cathedra’) of ‘The Sanguine EP’, listeners were prepared for what was to come on Hope is Just a State of Mind, which seems to head towards what might be called a more eccentrically pop direction. One of my favourite things about this band is how they delve into the political and there’s certainly no avoiding it on this album, from the dig at Robin Thicke’s gender politics in ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’ to the lethargy of rock and roll in ‘Formula’ and the cultural demonisation of single motherhood in ‘The Daily Grind’: ‘You must feel so proud / Stigmatising every single mother / While your own world’s falling down’. Songs like ‘The Gift of Sound’ and ‘Formula’ have a more straightforward energetic pop vibe, whereas ‘B&B’ begins with an accapella moment and revolves around the repeated line: ‘my own mother cannot take me back’. There’s lots of thudding drumming and a swinging sort of emphatic, repetitive melody. The song, incidentally, is about bedroom tax and Robert Coles has eloquently said of the lyrics:

‘Lyrically the words came quite quickly as I always had the “even my own mother cannot take me back” line in my head from writing the melody. I knew it was going to be about politics: specifically the patronisation of people by the political class in both ideology and delivery, and the way that my own region has been altered by the blue hoards of conservatism.

The title stems from a tweet by Grant Shapps regarding the last budget – “budget 2014 cuts bingo & beer tax helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy. RT to spread the word”. Beer and Bingo – because there’s nothing else to do.

I think the first verse is just frustration with the attitude put across by politicians that suggests that they think people are total idiots – policies light on detail, simplistic ideology, framing debates in headlines, constant ill behaviour. Plus from the other end of the scale the total demonisation of the less well off in the swingeing benefit cuts typified by the bedroom tax. I just think it is bizarre and to treat us with this brazen amount of contempt.

It really got me thinking about the north east getting so bashed up in the time of Thatcher – destroying lives and communities because of a need to dominate on an ideological level. I think the second verse tries to convey the depressing notion that beyond this pain, she also eradicated trades and skillsets that had been built for hundreds of years without the prospect of anything new, or transferability. To extinguish a trade, a way of life…. Wow….. That’s a pretty crazy course of action.

It’s almost like she stole those years from us – and it feels a little like it is being echoed now. Taking away what someone relies on is oppression, and this is being felt in communities across our country today – horrified in the knowledge that it will continue until people are so battered that they accept it. The worst part is if you look closely enough, past Grant’s apparent carrot you can see the joy in the eyes behind the ghastly stick, and they look frighteningly familiar” (Source: Little Comets’ Lyric Blog).

I guess I’ve included the quote because I think the politics have become more direct in this album and it’s interesting to flesh out the backstory here. Sure, there have been plenty of ‘northern’ bands before, but rarely have I listened to a pop or indie band who engage with their politics so directly and so articulately (usually this space is reserved for punk or rock – Manic Street Preachers of course, representing a ‘marginalised’ Welsh perspective). Aside from lyrical content, you’ve got the usual pleasures of Little Comets harmonies, shredding guitar licks and bouncy rhythms. ‘My Boy William’ is wonderful live, the way it builds up and everyone following the drum rhythm. ‘Little Italy’ is great fun too, with its cascading melodies (liiiittalll iiiitaaalllyyyyy I reeAAd heeEre) and syncopated rhythm. It’s true, on this album (especially on ‘Salt’), the songs are very up and down, rarely straightforward and often lines are lyrically and melodically convoluted; this isn’t a criticism but more a reflection of what seems to be a desire to push the formulaic boundaries of pop, to infuse guitar chords with lush vocal harmonies and ringing percussion. To represent detailed, difficult subjects in pop is never going to be easy, but Little Comets nail it in their own unique, beautiful way. Look forward to seeing them again live next year!

Favourite tracks: ‘Don’t Fool Yourself’, ‘Little Italy’, ‘The Blur, the Line & the Thickest of Onions’.

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The Maccabees, Marks to Prove It

Well, to be honest I never would’ve thought I’d be including The Maccabees on my 2015 albums of the year. Over the last few years, I haven’t spared much thought for the band other than as another soundtrack to the general indie trend of the last ten years: a band mentioned frequently in NME perhaps, soundtracking lovelorn scenes in movies, but nothing particularly distinct other than in their creation of twee indie pop. However, one night after work I was lying on the floor recovering from a terrible shift with the radio on, listening to X-Posure With John Kennedy on what used to be XFM. The Maccabees were talking through their new album and playing the songs, and I was pleasantly surprised by how intriguing the sound was, as well as how articulate the band were in talking through the writing process and the stories behind the songs. I guess the next day I went out and bought the album. It definitely sounds a long way away from ‘Toothpaste Kisses’, though the added kazoos and varied percussion doesn’t spoil the simple joy of good plain songwriting. The songs have a weight to them, a grander atmosphere, especially the weird dissonance on the likes of ‘River Song’. ‘Silence’, however, is quietly beautiful, drifting along soft piano notes, subdued vocals and a somewhat eerie sample of an answering machine voice.

Where once you would recommend The Maccabees mostly to fans of The Mystery Jets, Pigeon Detectives or Futureheads, this album feels much more grownup, darker somehow, wilder and expansive. The lyrics vary in subject from the gentrification of London’s Elephant & Castle (the band’s hometown) to heartbreak (‘When you’re scared and lost / Don’t let it all build up’) and well, happiness (‘Something Like Happiness’). It’s refreshing to have a song that does just feel like at times like a gentle old ode to joy: ‘If you love them / Go and tell them’. ‘Marks to Prove It’, the opening track, feels confident and bouncy, with a sharp riff and assured vocals. It would fit in with a fast pop set from The Futureheads, but the rallying battle cry that precedes Orlando Weeks’ voice announces something slightly stranger, a record with new edge.

Favourite tracks: ‘Silence’, ‘River Song’, ‘Something Like Happiness’.

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Tame Impala, Currents 

I was introduced to Tame Impala mostly from one of the chefs at work playing it in the kitchen on Sunday mornings, and weirdly enough his psychedelic brand of synth pop seems appropriate preparation for a day serving Sunday roasts to hungover customers. It’s the swelling bass and brilliant synths that really catch you, the smooth falsetto and tingling production. You can tell Kevin Parker is a dream at studio magic, with flawless instrumental arrangement that makes for a sound that could be big or chilled, depending on how you play it. There’s some dark keyboard drama, there’s a lovelorn anthem (‘Eventually’) and what might tenuously be described as weird disco funk. For some reason (maybe all the synths, gossamer vocals and vintage-sounding guitars?) has a ‘bedroom-made’ feeling, but with a much slicker production than the DIY element might suggest. Some songs sound like they belong on a long, atmospheric train journey across a space desert; others sound like they’d fit on the cuts of drama interspersing a video game. There’s a dreaminess to songs like ‘Yes I’m Changing’, but a more radio-friendly funkiness to the likes of ‘The Less I Know the Better’, or even ‘Love/Paranoia’, with its silky beats and finger clicks. As the album progresses, the theme of heartbreak starts to really solidify and I guess that’s the overriding drive of the songs – a heartbreak that slows and stifles, morphs between introspection and the temptation of mild bombast.

Favourite tracks: ‘Yes I’m Changing’, ‘The Less I Know the Better’, ‘Love/Paranoia’.

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Stornoway, Bonxie

This was a lovely album to enjoy in spring, from the hopeful folksiness to the cute origami bird on the cover. I guess it got me through that period of hell in my life that was finals. I would go on walks around Kelvindale where all the cherry blossoms were, listening to the soft acoustic licks and all the soothing bird sound effects. It’s an album to enjoy by the sea perhaps, full of a sort of longing. There’s the noise of distant foghorns, the rolling harp-like guitar and sparkling xylophone over the drifting shimmer of a wave-like cymbal. This is probably my favourite Stornaway album, or at least equal to the debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill because of its more folksy atmosphere, its immersion in nature — the sense of being lost, deliciously lost by the edge of the ocean. ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ especially boasts a shanty-like chorus which adds to the nautical theme and sort of swells up like you’re caught at sea, singing along irrevocably. Melodies build up to climaxes and fall back down into subdued, slower choruses, as if the speaker tries to articulate something about his surroundings (the beautiful environment) but fails to express them entirely. Sweet, comforting guitar licks glide us through (e.g., the start of ‘Sing With Our Senses’). Vocals are never aggressive, only sometimes shrill and generally soothing – like a bird’s? Apparently over 20 types of bird donated their song to the album, and let’s not forget that singer Brian Briggs is a Dr. of Ornithology! It’s just a lovely escapist sort of album, reminding you of seaside holidays from years ago, that childlike ability to sink into your surroundings and find wonder in a leaf, a taste of salt air, a bird call.

Favourite tracks:  ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, ‘We Were Giants’, ‘Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea’.

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Swim Deep, Mothers

It seems everyone has been describing this album as Swim Deep’s foray into psych-pop. You only have to take a glance at the warping colour bleed of the cover art to pick up those vibes. The honey sweet guitar pop of Where the Heaven Are We has morphed into something heavier, more saturated. There are so many influences, but I suppose you could start with psychedelic music, house and kraut rock. Lots of bursting, colourful synths. It reminds me of The Horrors’ Primary Colours, not only because it’s a ‘change-around’ album, but also the subdued, atmospheric reworking of prior image and musical style. Songs like ‘Honey’ and ‘The Sea’ from their debut album were chilled and loose with catchy melodies, and while Mothers retains the catchy melodies, its style has tightened up a bit. The instrumental elements are more complex; songs open up a multilayered world rather than the silver stream of a simple pop tune. ‘To My Brother’ has an epic quality, building up to the chorus with some extravagance – weirdly, the sort of mistiness of the vocals and quirky synths remind me of Seal. I’m not sure why, or whether that’s even an accurate comparison, but the link just popped into my head. I love the way critics have compared ‘Namaste’ to discordant game show music, which obviously fits in with the 1990s vibes of the video. All that beige, those glasses, the sense of mania reflected in the music! It’s more mature maybe, but still fun.

Favourite tracks: ‘To My Brother’, ‘Namaste’, ‘Imagination’.

A few others…

  • Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars (two albums in one year, ‘nuff said)
  • Florence & the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful 
  • The Libertines, Anthems for Doomed Youth (listening to it to drag up the old nostalgia of discovering the first albums, for the lovely production and Doherty vocals on ‘You’re My Waterloo’ and Carl Barat’s very English swagger).
  • Prides, The Way Back Up (Stewart Brock has come a fair way since Drive-By Argument (big up a band from Ayr!) but the wide, electronic sound of Prides has its heart in the original synthiness of Drive-By Argument which developed into more distinctly electronic side-project, Midnight Lion. Obvious comparisons are to Chvrches, but maybe also a bit of Daft Punk. Radio-friendly but I’d imagine really big and energetic live, plus whenever I hear them I get sweet teenage nostalgia for Drive-By Argument).
  • Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell 
  • Years & Years, Communion (sparkly EDM pop with plenty of pluck, from a band whose singer starred in Skins and Stuart Murdoch’s indie flick, God Help the Girl).

All the Love for Little Comets

Paddington coats are just wonderful, you know?
Paddington coats are just wonderful, you know?

I first saw them at Wickerman Festival, god knows how many years ago now, and we went to see them on recommendation of my brother. It was probably raining a bit but maybe there was sunshine coming out there from behind us as we stood at the stage. I think they were on before or after Fenech Soler, who you should check out if you like electropop, Friendly Fires, White Lies and all things with synths. Anyway, the band in question who we were watching are called Little Comets, and they play what can only really be described with any accuracy as ‘kitchen sink indie’. I’ve seen them so many times since – basically any time they come to Scotland, which is usually twice a year.

A cold windy Glasgow Monday and I’m sitting in Slouch on Bath Street, watching the snow fall down behind a window of fairylights. We’re discussing what songs they might play. We’re reminiscing about old festivals and terrible and great music from the past. The walk to King Tuts is short from here.

I’ve been to King Tuts many a time before. Embarrassing to admit though it is, the first gig I saw there was You Me At Six. There’s an energy to the place that seems to billow about like the dust off the walls. It’s a wonderfully tiny basement venue with clean toilets and a decent bar and lots of posters from bands that have played there before. There’s Belle & Sebastian and The White Stripes and Pulp on the wall. We go down the stairs and the air is close and thick and hot. We watch two support acts, one of which was the Dundee band Model Aeroplanes, who have a nice amount of energy and lots of lovely, floppy, sweaty hair and bouncy guitar riffs. Oh, and we sussed that the bassist looks kind of like Adam Driver from Girls. 

Reasons why I love Little Comets: 

  • They sing about so many different subjects, from adultery to love to fatherhood to sadness and hope and sorrow and domestic violence and corrupt politicians and poverty and girls named Joanna, Matilda and Jennifer.
  • They tour the U.K all the time and always come to Scotland.
  • They write lovely little blog posts about their lyrics.
  • They seem to genuinely care about the music over everything else and even founded their own record label to avoid being sucked into corporate pressures.
  • There are little snippets of poetry which adorn their songs: ‘tension in the twisted silence of our sheets’ (Isles). They like to talk about metaphors and similes and often their songs tell stories.
  • After gigs they sometimes give out cards for fans and they write nice silver messages on EPs when you order them.
  • They sound so tight live, with amazing harmonies and clear, bouncy percussion.
  • ‘Dancing Song’ is just the best thing ever to jump around too, even if it means you’ll get trodden on and elbowed in the ribs by teenage boys.
  • They write political lyrics without being remotely sanctimonious about their status as musicians writing about politics.
  • Their artwork is really cool and they do it themselves.
  • They are maybe the best male feminists in the music industry of this period, at least as far as lyrical content goes. I don’t know, show me anyone better.

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Well last night they opened with a track off their new album, ‘The Gift of Sound’, which in a corny kind of way was appropriate because that’s what musicians do, give us the gift of sound. They moved through a few new songs off of Hope is Just a State of Mind and also I was pleased to hear them play ‘Isles’ off the first album because it’s been a while since I’ve heard it. The gig was over-14s and standing there behind rows of fourteen-year-old girls and far-too-tall fourteen-year-old guys, listening to those opening lines ‘Economic downturn you can get a job | Apologetic parents you can get a job’ and I’m thinking god I’m so old that when the economic downturn was happening back in 2008 I was about fourteen and probably discovering Little Comets for the first time.

The last couple of Scotland gigs have been in Edinburgh and you could definitely tell that this was a Glasgow crowd. There were a bunch of lads around us who were giving it the ‘oggy-oggy’ football-match style chanting in imitation of the songs which was actually quite sweet (and funny and annoying) and the band looked sort of bemused and taken-aback; Rob at one point finished the song (can’t remember exactly but I think it was ‘Little Italy’) then said in wonder, “nobody’s ever done that before”. I spent half the gig sort of laughing at the absurdity and magic of it all, that strange reaction people have. I mean, it’s amazing to listen to ‘burly’ (haha) young (and middle-aged) guys with tribal tattoos shout out lyrics like: ‘And like for every victim | It seems the pain will not subtract or even calm | All this protracted by a state | In which the poor conviction rate for rape | Can often leave a woman feeling | More at blame than able’. And even if it’s just words being thrown out, at least they’re being thrown out into a room full of likeminded people who believe in the words that the band are singing; even if just for the melodies being woven, even if just because it plants that tiny seed of thought in their heads. It feels empowering, somehow.

Well they fired into well-loved tracks like Joanna and Dancing Song which got everyone jumping about like crazy. One of my favourite things about Little Comets gigs is that you get gorgeous ballads and also songs you can jump about and dance to. I saved my Converses from being pulled off, survived a mosh pit and did my fair share of hair swooshing. It wasn’t all that pleasant being flung against guys who stank of sweat and cheap aftershave and hair that reeked of Chilli Heatwave Doritos, but that’s just a gig curse and the music makes it worth all the stitches.

A highlight was everyone singing along to ‘Coalition of One’, which is probably my favourite track off their last couple of EPs. It’s a song that opens with the lines: ‘food banks spring open | like jaws dropping in time | the weight of man is measured | by the depths of a carrier bag’. It’s simple and powerful and it hits you and makes you think how wrong everything is in the world right now; specifically in Britain. In comparison to the heartbreak-heavy lyrics of other ‘indie’ bands, Little Comets are genius. In fact, you get the sense that people can’t believe they’re singing along to it. It’s almost like a surrealist image, dragging up some common found object and assigning a kind of tragic beauty to it, and then getting such a mix of people to sing it back to you, to throw it out into the air like a lost plastic bag drifting in the wind. There’s a frailty to many of Little Comets’ images: you only have to look at songs like ‘Waiting in the Shadows in the Dead of Night’ (It’s like barbed wire, this crucial touch | That holds me here, expects so much) and ‘Early Retirement’ (‘the promises you sew are | shallow footsteps in the snow | that you cover up’) to feel their concern with the beautiful ephemerality of experience, the soft alliteration that slips between their words. Watching Rob, lead singer and guitarist, standing over his keyboard, drenched in stage smoke and blue light, singing ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’, is enchanting and inspiring. I don’t mind throwing those cosy words around because these guys deserve it, they’re so dedicated and passionate. What other band has the guts to take on Robin Thicke-style sexism in the industry with lyrics like this:

But this filth stands on a quicker sand

Next to cold hard fear and the deeds of man

The abuse of body image as a form of control

And the typical portrayal of the feminine role

I have never been more appalled.

Pick me up with rhythms and waveform

That can symbolise a culture lost

Sing about the future like you mean to

I’m never going to count costs

Question the agenda of an industry

That only can objectify

You write about a non-existent blurred line

But not about abortion rights.

OK, so this might not be Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf, but for an all-male band to write these lyrics and perform them gig after gig with heartfelt expression is a victory for any kind of feminism in the modern age. It’s questioning an industry from within and writing about issues that are hugely important to women and men – abortion, media objectification and so on – without framing them in a kind of gratuitous ‘pity’ narrative or ignoring them altogether. Music can be political without a band having to tie politics to their t-shirts, and Little Comets demonstrate this perfectly.

Indeed, the feminist content of their lyrics is also evident in ‘Violent Out Tonight’, which I would argue is a masterpiece of a song. With elegant, soaring harmonies (performed so well onstage too), a thumping, emphatic heartbeat of a drum rhythm, and haunting sliding guitar, it conjures a dark story that follows a brutal encounter between a man and a woman on a lonely street. It’s filled with poetry that shifts between the subtle and stark and by the end we too are left bruised and battered by the sad narrative it tells:

As they step into the dark

Only moonlight hides his treason

And the shadows skip like sharks

Through the gasps of air between them

She says: ‘Becalm your hands boy I thought

restraint was now your sentiment of choice?’

But as his fingers strike her blouse

All the words that he espoused

Lie deftly scattered on the ground amidst

the buttons he’s torn open

When sung aloud, the rhyming works here in a really interesting, disturbing and dissonant way. It’s a song that can silence a rowdy crowd into awed absorption. You let the sounds slide through you and you listen, as Rob’s voice ranges from painful constraint to effortless flowing notes. There is a tension and a release. You feel this release with more uplifting songs like the opening track from Hope is Just a State of Mind, ‘My Boy William’, which Rob describes on the Little Comets blog  as ‘really the most emotionally honest song that I’ve ever written, and also one of the simplest – it is just a message to my little boy William: my hopes for him’. You could tell the crowd loved every minute of the gig from all the clapping and shouting and singing along and jumping (might I remind you how rare it is to see people actually dancing at all at an ‘indie’ gig), but especially with these numbers you could tell how much everyone really respected these songs for what they were and the sort of joyful simplicity of innocence they evoke. It’s all fuzzy and you get that great feeling when you’re in a crowd and lots of other people are experiencing similar things to you and even though you might not be a father or mother yourself, you still feel that raw sort of love shine through, in a way that feels uniquely authentic rather than cheesy or sentimental. As the hard-looking bald guy with the tattoos chanted at the end of ‘My Boy William’: ‘he’s going to be a superstar when he grows up, just like you Rob!’. And well, if that’s not cute I don’t know what is.

One of my favourite parts of the night was when they were chatting between songs and Rob said that Matt (the bassist) had just noticed some wires on a bar above the stage which were still there from years ago when they last played. The band used to bring an assortment of pots and pans with them which they hung above the stage and used with their percussion, which I suppose justified the ‘kitchen sink indie’ label in addition to the soap-like drama and domesticity of songs like ‘Adultery’ and ‘One Night in October’ (I’m never going to get over the lines: ‘So I sit her down | And say this must stop | ’Cause all we do | Is argue and shop | She goes to Boots | I go to Argos | Complete with deceit | We stalk each aisle’). Well I thought it was very sweet that this little mark of days gone past was still there, even though King Tuts (mostly the bar) has undergone some renovation since. I remember that gig very vividly; I was in second year at uni and had just finished my horrible essay on The Tempest and Heart of Darkness and I was drinking Jack Daniels alone in my room and doing cartwheels I was so excited. My favourite album so far is the second one, Life is Elsewhere. I think it works best as an album (I need to give the new one some more listening to judge though) and the lyrics are sweetly dark and just the right level of mournful, joyful and sentimental. And I like the line: ‘I’d rather starve than become a member of your old boys’ club’ in a dig at Oxbridge culture which permeates the top levels of governance in Britain. All these songs have a double layered nostalgic quality for me now, reminding me of feeling a bit more lost and hopeful and innocent as I stumbled through my first years at uni. Now I’m coming to the end it feels right that there should be more songs to form associations with. It’s actually pretty weird because they tend to release a new EP with every semester, so it’s almost like a kind of diary where I remember things through Little Comets releases. Oh well, if you’re going to support your memory with techne then maybe it’s better that it’s music from one of your favourite bands rather than just shallow social media statuses…oh well, just my two cents to future generations… (and I should stop trying to understand Heidegger).

It’s also fitting that before their last song (well, I think it was their last song unless there was an encore – which they usually resist doing due to the arrogance and cheesiness of encores – we had to leave early so the troops could get the last train home), Rob was telling the audience that he likes this song because it reminds him of their early days of playing. ‘In Blue Music We Trust’ is one of my favourites off Life is Elsewhere: again it has that haunting, nostalgic quality that builds and swells as the song progresses and proves the perfect ending to an awesome gig. How magical too that it was so cold and crisp outside, and that I walked home through Finnieston in a snow storm with all those swirling flakes glowing orange under the lamplight, and feeling so calm and serene and dreamy because it’s rare that things in life can make you so happy, but I guess good music can, and feeling fresh and freezing after a steaming hot gig.

‘I suppose the thing I am proud of with our music is the fact that we’ve always followed our hearts and stayed true – we do what we love, and we work very hard but we’ve never compromised ourselves for it. If I could pass one message onto my little boy, other than how much we love him, is just to be true to himself and keep an open mind – there’s always more to learn…’ (Little Comets blog).

Punk, Politics and the Personal: In Praise of the Manic Street Preachers


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One of my earliest memories is being at my dad’s old flat and messing with the hi-fi player to get attention. It would’ve been around about 1998, the year the Manic Street Preachers released their album, This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. Maybe my dad and my brother were watching rugby on T.V or something, and I’d read all the books I’d brought with me. Well anyway, I thought of a keen plan to wind them up. I turned on the hi-fi and skipped to my dad’s favourite song (at least, his favourite song that wasn’t anything by U2!) and let it play. Loudly. And then I put it on repeat. And then I stopped letting it play out; I just played the first bar or so then pressed repeat and played it again, as if it were on a loop, inducing hypnosis. Incidentally, those first few notes are inscribed into my memory. The song was ‘You Stole the Sun from My Heart’.

Since then, I’ve drifted through life with the Manics not far from my consciousness. When I was about fourteen, I discovered some of the darker tracks from The Holy Bible online and basically that was me sorted for emotional outlet. What better lyrics do you need as an existentially-frustrated teenager than: ‘self-worth scatters, self-esteem’s a bore’? However, it’s only this summer that I’ve come to properly listen to the album in full. By pure coincidence, it just so happens that this year marks the 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible’s release. I was one year old when it came out. Funny, how it still rasps with fresh energy, all these years later when a whole new generation are beginning to appreciate it. It has songs about capital punishment, anorexia, the Holocaust, prostitution, aching nostalgia, suicide and (metaphorical) political sex scandals. At times it can be painful to listen to, with its throbbing, angry bass-lines, and packed-in lyrics which scream razor-sharp poetry: ‘Your idols speak so much of the abyss / Yet your morals only run as deep as the surface’ (‘IfwhiteAmericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’). James Dean Bradfield is a master at the smashing (in the literal sense of smashing), punkish guitar rhythms and sailing solos that almost make your brain hurt. At the same time as being able to throw out all those lines, a million a minute. It’s brilliant. I can only imagine how amazing it must’ve felt, back then, to go out and buy this brand new album and listen to it on a Walkman and feel, more than ever, electric and alive. And angry at everything.

The Holy Bible is now considered an early 1990s classic, to be filed alongside the (considerably cheerier) offerings of 90s Britpop; for example, Oasis’s Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995), and the holy bible of grunge, Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991). While the rest of British music was penning the likes of ‘Live Forever’, ‘Rock and Roll Star’ and ‘Park Life’ – drunk anthems for the boozy masses (and still we love them, if only in secret) – the Manics were deconstructing contemporary society (class, political injustice, historical trauma) and existential crisis through the spike-edged modes of punk, pessimism and fury.

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Moreover, as its title suggests, The Holy Bible is more than just an album: it’s also a text. A network of references and quotes, provocative enough to set you on a trail of philosophical and literary discovery. The voracious listener is able to devour even more information by following up the sources scattered over its songs, learning at the same time as participating in this performance of knowledge. Camus, Foucault, Plath and others haunt this album, through direct references but also aesthetics. There’s Plath’s visceral emphasis on the body and its various contortions and distortions, its ruptures and vulnerabilities: ‘a tiny animal curled into a quarter circle’ (‘Die in the Summertime’). The title of track ‘Archives of Pain’ pays homage a chapter in David Macey’s 1993 biography of French philosopher Michel Foucault (who wrote Discipline and Punish), and the song itself considers changing societal values with regards to punishment, although it is ambiguous as to whether the song advocates a return to capital punishment, or a refusal of the glorification of serial killers. Lyrics such as ‘prisons must bring their pain’ and ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ offer a bleak, Lord of the Flies rendering of humankind’s essential lust for destruction, its need for revenge. While Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards collaborated on its lyrics, Richey seems to claim it as a ‘pro-capital punishment song’  (see Harris 2004), while Nicky told music magazine Melody Maker: ‘everyone gets a self destructive urge to kill, but I don’t particularly like the glorification of it. The song isn’t a right-wing statement, it’s just against this fascination with people who kill’ (cited in Power 2010). The ethical ambiguity of this song adds to its disturbing quality, its fury that cannot quite be pinned down.

The album also crackles with various audio samples, a ghost chamber of voices which include a fragment from an interview with the mother of a victim of Peter Sutcliffe (the 1946 so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’):

I wonder who you think you are
You damn well think you’re God or something
God give life, God taketh it away, not you
I think you are the Devil itself

And when you hear it, you’re chilled to the bone, before being thrown into the savage world of ‘Archives of Pain’. There’s also a quote from the author J. G. Ballard talking about his controversial novel Crash (1973), which flashes in as a soundbite on ‘Mausoleum’: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, force it to look in the mirror’. Mausoleum is a song inspired by a visit to Auschwitz, to the barren landscapes where concentration camps once existed, but still linger. The chorus is simply:

No birds – no birds
The sky is swollen black
No birds – no birds
Holy mass of dead insect

It’s painful and bare, so that listening to it, you imagine a dark carcass of a sky, heavy with the traumatic void of its past. The ‘dead insect’ which serves not only as an image of the barren remainders of death, but also perhaps as a reference to those swarms of people who were so brutally dehumanised during World War Two. And Ballard’s quote captures everything about The Holy Bible: it’s visceral, it forces you to confront the shadows of your own self, and of humanity. It provokes an abject reaction, through its images of self-harm, dismemberment, corrupt sex and violence. At the same time, it ‘obliterates your meaning’ (‘Mausoleum’); it shatters all attempts to make sense of the traumatic events it references. The conventional linear progression of melody and song and perhaps even narrative in an album is broken up with intertexts and ghosts, and perhaps that’s why it still lives on today. Unlike, perhaps, an Oasis album, which is nostalgically evocative of more simpler, hopeful times, it doesn’t feel in the least bit dated. Its endless trail of references add shadow and depth to its meaning.

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But perhaps, listening to it now, you feel that it’s haunted most by Richey Edwards himself, the band’s fourth member who penned (Nicky Wire has claim to the other quarter) 75% of the lyrics. Following bouts of depression, self-harm and an eating disorder, Richie disappeared one morning in January 1995, just before he and James were due to visit the U.S. on a promotional tour. In February, his car was found abandoned at a service station near the Severn Bridge. Since then, almost twenty years on, still no evidence or trace of Edwards has been found. Even though he was pronounced officially ‘presumed dead’ a few years ago, the aporia of his disappearance remains. Of course, this allows fans to string mythological tales about his reappearances around the world. The lack of closure is perhaps what is most distressing: the not-knowing, the sense that at any time he could come back into his friend’s and family’s lives. Listening to The Holy Bible, Richey’s personal suffering is of course inscribed in every line, even though most of the lyrics reach a universal, almost transcendental pain at times: ‘I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’ (‘4st. 7lbs’). And then you hear him when listening to the Manics’ later albums, which are still full of Richey’s presence/non-presence in the band: ‘You keep giving me your free air miles / What would I give just for one of your smiles’ (‘Nobody Loved You’), and ‘As holy as the soil that buries your skin / As holy as the love we’ll never give / As holy as the time that drifted away / I love you so will you please come home’ (‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’).  Richey’s bandmates even dug out his old notebooks, with permission from his family, to use as the lyrics for their 2009 album, Journal for Plague Lovers. Maybe the most painfully intimate Richey track is the final song on this album, ‘William’s Last Words’. Arranged by Wire, it features soft guitar strokes and his crooning, deep voice singing about voyeurism over lines of loss and death that almost sound a melancholy joy:

Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew?
I’ll be watching over you
Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew
I’ll be watching over you

It ends with the bittersweet lines: ‘I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy, / Wake up happy’. It’s a stripped-back Manics; it’s simple but stays with you, innocent and chilling, like the blood-spattered Jenny Saville artwork that adorns Journal’s cover:

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In this album we also see again that familiar combination of theory and fiery politics, as the opening track references Noam Chomsky’s book, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, The Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (1993):

Riderless horses on Chomsky’s Camelot
Bruises on my hands from digging my nails out
A series of images, against you and me
Trespass your torment if you are what you want to be

The sense of our powerlessness to media and mediated disaster is captured here in just a few frenzied lines. ‘A series of images’: the sense of personal and political conflict flashes past us in handfuls of words, just like the way that war plays out through the flickering light of our television screens. Chomsky’s book documented a critique of Kennedy’s foreign policy in Vietnam, and these themes of military funerals, fallen soldiers, geo-political conflicts and human sacrifice in war are all invoked in a handful of words, powerfully delivered as ever by Bradfield. We might think also of ‘Kevin Carter’, the trumpet-tinged single from Everything Must Go (1996) which documents the story of ‘Bang Bang Club’ and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Kevin Carter, who famously suffered from the haunting scenes of all the killings and suffering he had witnessed (and indeed photographed) and eventually committed suicide. The Manics, not just with their military-inspired outfits, are consistently attuned to themes of war and death.

The mysterious story of Richey and the Manics is of course seductive, and perhaps part of the enshrinement of pain that goes with their mythology, but they are also an incredibly uplifting band. They kick the listener into political engagement, which is refreshing in a time of political apathy (or the complete neglect of politics in most pop and rock music, with the exception, perhaps, of Muse’s Matt Bellamy and his crazy conspiracy theories). Songs like ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ and ‘Design for Life’ are songs about working-class experience and class politics in the post-Thatcher era. Of course, being from Blackwood, an ex-mining town in Wales, the Manics are all familiar with the catastrophic effects of deindustrialisation upon communities. Seeing the life and soul of a town being lain to waste after the rich won the class-wars of the miners’ strikes. Their eleventh studio album, Rewind the Film, closes with the song ’30-Year War’, which references the Battle of Orgreave, the Hillsborough disaster, coverups at the BBC (and oh how there are many – from Savile to Scottish Independence) and has the refrain, ‘the old-boy network won the war again’. It’s depressing, but realistic in our time of austerity. Has much has really changed from the Thatcherite legacies of the early 1990s, when the Manics came into being? Arguably, with the rise of UKIP and a weakening Labour party, the ‘working-class’ opposition to neoliberalism faces an even deeper well of apathy.

Source: walesoline.co.uk
Source: walesoline.co.uk

On the subject of far right politics, funnily enough last year the far-right English Defence League (EDL)  tried to appropriate the Manics’ 1998 hit ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ for promoting a demonstration in Birmingham. The song features the pretty much crystal clear lyrics: ‘So if I can shoot rabbits / Then I can shoot fascists’. As well as a lesson in irony, it is probably a reflection on the EDL’s stupidity as much as anything else to choose a song inspired by an anti-fascist slogan used during the Spanish Civil War. The Manics have always been associated with political controversy, from Nicky Wire’s sharpish (‘remember, all men should castrate themselves’) quotes to the band’s iconography (famously, a 1994 performance on Top of the Pops featured Bradfield wearing a ‘terrorist style’ balaclava, albeit with his name scrawled across it playfully like a name sewn onto a school jumper), but in this case, the EDL’s appropriate was too ridiculous and they had to sue.

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This autumn, the Manics announced that they were finally ready to do a Holy Bible anniversary tour. Although my dad and I jumped on Ticketmaster at 9am, we were unable to grab any tickets for the elusive Barrowlands date, which apparently sold out in two minutes.  I’m really gutted (especially as it would have been a welcome reward for finishing uni coursework), as I can’t really imagine a gig that would have quite the same emotional resonance. Nevertheless, the fact that they’re now touring the album means they’re playing it more in general across various forms of media, which is always a great thing. I must admit, it was very satisfying to see James, Nicky and Sean performing ‘Revol’ on Later…With Jools Holland. When Jools interviewed them about the song they were going to play from the Holy Bible, Nicky sort of giggles and says it’s about dictators engaged in metaphorical sex games, some clever idea of Richey’s. There’s an irony that he’s certainly aware of. How commercialised music’s become, how such a song just doesn’t have its place in today’s music world. It’s telling that the two songs chosen to broadcast on the evening show were the poppier (but no less the better!) offerings from their new album, Futurology (2014). The new album is bold, flamboyantly European and even features that rare delight of Nicky singing on the chorus of a leading single, ‘Futurology’. It’s bold – maybe even bombastic – but the boldness is put into relief by the acoustic introspection and self-deprecation that characterised their previous album, Rewind the Film. They just keep reinventing themselves, and that’s the best thing about the Manics: they don’t do paltry repetitions, or parodies of their former selves. Their lyrics stick with you and gather new meanings as each album throws your deepest assumptions into question.

Artwork from 'La Tristesse Durera' (Gold Against the Soul)
Artwork from ‘La Tristesse Durera’ (Gold Against the Soul)

You could argue that the Manics have the paradoxical personality of a child: that strange urge to both disappear and gain all the attention in the world. To ‘walk in the snow and not leave a footprint’ (‘4st. 7lbs’) but also pen the extroverted Krautrock of ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’, which throws itself into electronic music but also the increasingly frenzied political debates surrounding Europe in Britain right now. And like the child that I once was, trying to break my dad’s CD player by endlessly repeating one of their most successful songs, they go for attention. Their confidence isn’t the laddish arrogance of their Britpop bedfellows, but the endearing ambition and glam aesthetic of their early years and the strong direction that characterises most of their career (maybe Lifeblood was a slip-up, but I think it deserves more than straight dismissal…). It’s an oft-forgotten fact that the Manics’ single ‘The Masses Against the Classes’, was the first British chart No. 1 in the new millennium. It’s a single that begins with Chomsky: ‘The primary role of the government is to protect property from the majority and so it remains’ and ends with Camus: ‘A slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown’. Maybe this vicious cycle of capitalist desire and inequality will continue through the millennium, but by god let’s hope there’s still artists like the Manics around to do all they can to critique it. And if that’s not enough for you, then the fact that Nicky Wire went to the Brit Awards wearing an ‘I Love Hoovering’ t-shirt (and the man seriously does love housework) really should. What could be cooler than a Situationist statement which isn’t for once pure hipster irony?

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basically Nicky Wire is amazing & makes me want to wear leopard print again

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Harris, John, 2004. ‘The commitments’ in The Guardian, Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/nov/21/popandrock [Accessed 7.11.14].

NME, 2013. ‘Manic Street Preachers take legal action against the English Defence League’ , Available at: http://www.nme.com/news/manic-street-preachers/71397 [Accessed 7.11.14].

Power, Martin, 2010. Manic Street Preachers: Nailed to History (London: Omnibus Press).