New workshops: Epistolary Experiments and Pop Matters

Thrilled to announce I’ll be working with Beyond Form Creative Writing again this autumn to offer two new workshops. The first, Epistolary Experiments, begins on 28th September and is a monthly, four-part series designed to explore the arts of letter writing and correspondence across different forms. We’ll be thinking about how the work of address, posting, description and all its intimacy and triangulation can tell a story, evoke fantasy scenarios or perform an expansive, relational lyric. The second, Pop Matters: Our Songs, is a one-off workshop on 23rd November and offers a warm and upbeat ‘studio’ for musing on the relationship between creative practice and pop music. How do we write through and towards pop with all our devotion or ambient dwelling in its neon glow? Both workshops will involve a mix of reading other work, discussion and structured individual writing activities. There will never be any pressure to share work, although you will have access to the workshop threads on Experimental Creatives Collective, a closed forum space where further discussion and sharing can take place if anyone wishes.

For both workshops, there is both a full price and two concession rates.

Epistolary Experiments

4 Sessions Starting Wednesday September 28th

6-8:00pm (GMT) via Zoom

‘I write you a letter to make eyes at a reader I don’t know from Adam’ (Kay Gabriel). From Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) to Sean Bonney’s incendiary Letters Against the Firmament (2015), letter-writing or ‘the epistolary’ has inflected all kinds of writing, including novels, poetry and manifestos. Taking cue from Kay Gabriel’s ‘The Purloined Lyric’, we’ll explore the possibilities of letters, address and communication in all kinds of writing, practice and performance. While the literary letter has an established tradition, we’ll look at contemporary artists/authors who shake up the form of correspondence and in turn reframe desire, play, identity, sex, intimacy, domesticity and the political. 

In this four-part, monthly series, we’ll look at several key areas: the love letter, the political letter, the fantasy letter and the postcard. A letter can triangulate writer, addressee and reader in endlessly generative ways, not to mention the origami of folds between art, life and writing, and this series is designed for creatives of all kinds to think about the epistolary genre in their own practice. Whether you want to incorporate the letter form directly into your work as source material/form, or simply use it as an extra tool in your research, reflection and development process, this series offers a generative starting point. Workshops will combine reading and reflection with individual writing activities, with some opportunities for collaboration including optional pairing of participants as ‘pen-pals’ for the duration of the course.

Open to all skill levels and writers and creatives of all mediums. You can sign up for all or just some of the weeks!

​♡

Session 1 September 28th: The Love Letter 

An iconic motif in the history of film and literature, the love letter conveys acts of noticing, clandestine reflections, confessions, embarrassment and desire. The love letter might be a plot device, a poetic ode, a pop song, a frank or coded material expression. The love letter tells a story, obscures a truth, embodies connection; it might concern romantic, platonic or comradely love. Sometimes a love letter goes beyond the intended beloved and forges all sorts of new energies and worlds. We’ll write into all these intimacies and frictions. 

Key writers include John Keats, Jane Campion, Kay Gabriel, Jo Barchi, Diana Hamilton, Frank Ocean

Session 2 October 26th: The Political Letter

By reading unsent letters, letters to everyone, letters to no one, we’ll consider how the art of writing letters is a radically social form. Playing with the art of address and description, this workshop explores how the letter form can explode and disseminate ideas of presence, identity, desire and political (im)possibility. 

Key writers include Bernadette Mayer, Fred Moten and Sean Bonney

Session 3 November 30th: The Fantasy Letter 

Sometimes we write to someone who might never read our letters. We write to fictional characters, other writers or artists — some of them lost to time. These epistles might take the form of fan letters, speculative letters, epistolary letters or fantasy missives — defying the limits of time, space, the living and dead. In this workshop we’ll engage with such letters to consider voice, the intimate arts of reading, communication between forms, the body and queer temporalities. 

Key writers include Dodie Bellamy, Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo, Jack Spicer 

Session 4 December 14th: The Postcard 

‘A giving which gives only its gift, but in the giving holds itself back and withdraws, such a giving we call sending’ (Derrida, The Post Card). What does it mean to send, or be sent? This final workshop takes the pithy form of the postcard as a figure for the literary possibilities of posting. What temporality does a postcard hold? What happens in the relationship between word and image, expression and constraint, public and private? Could we write postcards to the past or future, to the more-than-human? Can thinking postcard help us rethink other kinds of ‘posting’ and (un)delivery in our daily and writerly lives?

Key writers include: Postcards from the Anthropocene project, Jacques Derrida, Kiraṇ Kumār

Register


Pop Matters: Our Songs

Wednesday November 23rd

6-8:00pm (GMT) via Zoom

Building on the success of the 2020 Pop Matters series, this workshop offers a warm and upbeat ‘studio’ for musing on the relationship between creative practice and pop music. We’ll focus mostly on pop music and love/devotion, making space for writing which borrows from the form of pop music or writes to specific pop artists. We’ll consider how pop can offer the emotional and structural inspiration for other kinds of creative output, the role of pop in everyday life/life-writing and the mythologies we give to pop icons in writing. Designed for anyone who wants to flirt with a bit of pop in their practice, this workshop will feature music, free association, reading and stimulating activities for writing.

Key writers include: Kevin Killian, Dana Ward, Anne Boyer, Ian Macartney 

Register

Playlist: April 2018

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In a sense, April will always be exam season. It is a month of friction, one season rubbing against the next; only eventually the better qualities of spring bleeding through the residues of winter. April snow and April showers. April light, April gloam. It is perhaps the most poetic month, beautiful to say aloud, a little like peeling the sticker off an apple. April. It trills round to a crisp. April of anticipation, April of burgeoning knowledge. April is the sweetest, the cruelest month. Somewhere west of summer. There was a song from my childhood about a boy called Jack and a girl called Marie, young and sweet, this jangly song from the country about the city, tambourines and easy chords; a song about lovers who know one another so well, who fall asleep in wishing wells. It’s kind of simple but a strange song still, the chorus marking the passage of time and the sense that such love alters the landscape within you: ‘And the days will pass like falling rain / And the tide will turn both feeling strange’. Every good lyric contains a potential eternity. The song was ‘Flames’ by Roddy Hart and I burned it off a CD my mother bought at a festival, an early version of whatever the song would become on his debut album, Bookmarks. I always thought that song began in April, the skyline burning bright. April is the first month of that proper, bittersweet feeling that emanates from every street corner. The sense of memory, pungent and leaking through the pores of the city. Here is this place, here is that. Where we walked or kissed or did not. Where you stopped to buy cartons of mango Rubicon, lit a cigarette, slipped your fingers through the new baby leaves of the lindens. Fresh strains of pollen to catch in my eyes, my nose, the membranes of sight and scent. Where we turned over conversational stones that would build up our friendship, the lain-out exchange of opinions on class and politics and art that would form a foundation for seven years hence. 

Yesterday, I hadn’t really slept for two days and was riding on a total sleep high until around 7pm. The dawn chorus accelerates a temporary insomnia. Neutral Milk Hotel: ‘How the notes all bend and reach above / The trees’. Sleep deprivation has a similar effect to many drugs: there is a delirium, a rush, a plunge, a sense of depersonalisation or detachment from the world around you. Dreams process all the nonsense of your unconscious and so when you don’t sleep, it just blurts out of you–the ramblings better saved for a diary or song. I have been bumping into things, bruising myself; I have been knocking over glasses of water. It is as though the arrangement of matter in the air around me is out of whack. It is somersaulting and shimmering clumsily into and against my body. It’s not an entirely unpleasant feeling, a sort of letting loose.

Last night, walking home from Yo La Tengo with the sky a violent Prussian blue, split yolklike to a pool of moon, I walked very fast and everything passed and blurred around me. That was the neon unremembered, the smearing of sense that refused all narrative. I passed a girl walking towards me, nearing home in a familiar neighbourhood. It was that thing were vaguely she looked like someone I’d know, I knew, but dressed kinda different. I glanced at her face as I passed and she glanced up at mine and our eyes met and that sort of threw me. Her eyes were intense and glittering, the same Prussian blue as the sky. They were fierce pools twinned by a feeling. When someone has their turbulence beaming through them, that was such a moment. As though someone wrenched a new crevasse inside me and all this new worry, pouring out like liquid gold. It will dry and crackle again in the sun, I’m sure. 

This morning, fluttering in and out of treacly sleep, I dreamt I was serving tables at work except work was more like a train carriage, and I was stumbling around carrying trays and plates of food, trying to be nice. The layout of the floor at OM was superimposed upon this narrow train space. I served a table of two young girls and their mother. The girls were imploring their mother to take them to the aquarium. One of them had on a turquoise jumper spotted with tiny white clouds, a bit like the cover of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather, pressed in miniature. They were talking about the aquarium so I split in with my two cents, telling them about the one at Loch Lomond. The last viewing’s at four though, I said. You’ll maybe have to wait till the summer holidays. They didn’t seem perturbed by that. They started asking questions about the aquarium I could not answer, like Is there a tank of mermaids? Do they have sharks? Are there Nemo fish and what do they eat? Are there fish that eat other fish? Mindlessly, I brought to them three sticky toffee puddings meant for another table. They were talking about their summer, chattering away, the clouds moving brightly on Girl One’s jumper. I turned away, facing the other tables as I moved back along the carriage. I suddenly found myself weeping, those hot wet tears you know will take ages to shake. I was weeping for girlhood, for summers off school. Summers I’ll never get back. I felt sticky and silly; I cried in the kitchen and a hundred white checks swirled off the pass and sank down around me. I was too tired to lift a thing. I cried for summers I gave up for regiment, work and illness. I woke up pathetic on a true April morning, pale gold sun and the sound of someone in the distance, mowing their lawn. Everything else very still, a faint murmur of hard-drive hum, my body aching with the unspent sorrow of stupid dreams. Did I even give them the bill, in the end? What do I owe the company?

John James: ‘Looking for a new geological disposition’. I feel the deep, cramping pains of something within me changing, almost tectonic. I remember once a lump of moonstone, unpolished, ripe with numerous accessory minerals, making of its rainbows a plural extravagance. I snap pictures of the oil’s vibrant spectrality on the surface of grey city puddles. Good news arrives in emails. Little electricities go off within me. I soar for new mornings, longing to be smoothened from sleep. I walk around Stockbridge in the quiet hour of twilight, a thin moon eking over the sandstone buildings, the cobbled mews. This is a month of desperate turnings. I am always late, on some sort of overflow or else delay. I run for trains, backpack bumping against denim, catch my breath on the platform. The shops and houses are already thumping away into distance, as the train pulls out of the station. Drifting across the Central Belt’s perpetual rainfall, I am between two cities. Each hold a wonder I’m still trying to claw at, time after the fact. Hugging my knees. The city like a scratch-and-reveal picture, coming up multi-coloured when the carbon-black stuff flakes away, becomes merely the clastic textures of years forgotten. Some people use a penknife for greater accuracy, cutting apart the shapes of their lives. Prising. The black stuff ends up somewhere, lodges all constipated within us. I try not to think too much about Georges Bataille. The man who owns my restaurant shows off to his associates a pop art rendition of severed eyes, hung resplendently obscene among his art nouveau portraits of Burns’ adolescent lovers. He refers to the eye painting, quite obsequiously, as breathtaking. A little piece of me shrivels like a rose; I prise off a piece of cuticle and I know there are similar petals hidden all over this place, slowly rotting. Every eyelid a petal, peeled back and hidden. Someone in a pub somewhere is talking about bull fights. My mouth tastes like grapefruit and alcohol, souring.

There is the blood rush of filming a video in the cold. We spin each other round on shorelines, under subway tunnels, our yellow bags bump and clack in the dark. We run up Garnethill for the camera, we peer among the foliage of evergreen trees, needles sparkling darkness around us. The air is grey; it is thin and cirrussy, deprived of light. We are the only luminous colour, earth and fire and little ideas of pods in Tiree, black coffee, stop signs, cheese sandwiches imprecision of (!!!) that is elsewhere.

At once the blossoms appear. The white one outside my flat is luminous against the azure blue sky. I remember the endless pink blossoms of Maybole Road in Ayr, those bus stop mornings walking to Belmont, or to my father’s office, aged fourteen on my way to work experience. The lilac blossoms of my childhood garden, toasted Escherian limbs of the tree, the bluebells beneath; something beautiful I’ll never see again. Do lilacs even grow in the city? The cherry blossoms seem kind of tired this year; after all, it has been such a winter. They have pushed through snow and cold to get here, little withered blooms whose buds would drink the misty heat. Normal isn’t optional. I grow nostalgic for lunches of the past, eating apples on my break among the daffodils at Botanics. Feeling true sun on my skin, before retreating inside to a world without windows. The world of dust and vinegar. 

I read W.S. Graham and make fortnightly pilgrimages to Greenock. I get off the train at Central and we wander Morrisons then back along the road for our workshops. This is a very peculiar Morrisons; it sells unnatural flowers, grafted in alien colours like the genetically-glitched foliage of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. In our workshop, we cover the theme ‘Journeys’. We learn new ways of listening; we map the skeins and twists of our lives, absorbing the lives of others. There are so many strains it’s like those skeins were severed along the way by numerous barbed wires. It hurts to get back on the train and be okay again, but then the late afternoon of sunshine in Glasgow takes our breath away. We are so alive and dazed. There are no scones in my pocket; not even almonds or acorns. I skim over maps of the land around Greenock, wondering about Loch Thom. As I wait for the train, the same time each week, I hear another train, parallel to ours being announced. It is the Ayr train, pulling away before us. I follow the straight road to the loch on the map, ‘stretching away across / Into the blue moors of Ayrshire’. We are surrounded by forest, then real forest. I am deepening by Galloway’s greens. I long like Graham, like ‘the man I made for land’, to somehow ‘Drown in the sudden sounding trees’. A greening comes over me, swallows me like sea. 

I arrive at work with plastic-packaged slices of Pink Lady apple, holding them like a prize. Nobody takes up my offer, the crunch out of character, the taste of pesticides. 

Buying a secondhand bike, I have started cycling again! It is a wonderful thing. I talk about it and listen to people’s cycling tales, their tidbits of advice; but mostly following the way their faces change when they talk about cycling, the smiles and the light in their eyes reminiscent of freedom. We share stories of bike-glimpsed sunsets, passing scenery, receding buildings, the wind off the Clyde alive in our hair. The wind off the Clyde a grey kind of blue, like the blue in my eyes, the blue that cried salt-licks of oceans. When I am cycling, my heart changing pace, I think less and I feel more free. 

It is May tomorrow, and we are nearly in Gemini season. Season of air and light, of psychic twinship.

Sometimes all I need / Is the air that I breathe / And to love you’ (Simply Red) 

And every breath that is in your lungs / Is a tiny little gift to me’ (The White Stripes)

For earnest asthmatic words I’m sorry.

Drawn from the eerie Louisiana marshland of True Detective to the hinterland gothic of Bates Motel to fading memories of the rain-sodden kirkyards bordering Amsterdam, I’m trying to look forward to burnished summer noons, the car that would drive us, the lavender pillow. Detail he remembered. I wear bright colours, then inexplicably black on Sundays. I stand up in gigs with an exhaustion that threatens to topple me, the music pulling my body onwards and backwards again like a tide, a forest susurration—‘Drown in the sudden sounding trees’. Mostly fantasies of falling asleep and waking up somewhere different. Taste the sesh. Everyone loosens in presence on Saturday, glazing the town on my way home with ice-sweet memory; hovering on the bridge to watch traffic lights pull fluoro taffy over the motorway. I listen to your voice recordings in the hour before dawn, darkness furling green and blue at the edges of dreams, a sonic mottling soothing to ambient forest. ASMR. An ecotone in which this quiet euphoric feeling meets flesh, sun-drenched song, rehearsal of sheltered Julys, been and gone. Elsewhere, he is coming off ket, listening to the new Grouper. Outside a same sky fills with similar shimmerings. Gifts of lemon-flavoured San Pellegrino, the aluminium pull that clicks out of sync. Meet or don’t meet your heroes. Nostalgia for dad-rock on a highway dragging you west where summer begins, a hot lump of sun in your throat.

Starts to melt, petals shed, a sugar glow…

~

Bjork – All is Full of Love

Junto Club – Shiviana

Oneohtrix Point Never – Black Snow

Grouper – Blouse

Porches – Country

Elvis Depressedly – Weird Honey

Vashti Bunyan – I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind 

Broadcast – Valerie

Spring Onion – I Did My Taxes For Free Online

wished bone – reasons 

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Simple and Sure 

The Sundays – Here’s Where The Story Ends

Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions – Let Me Get There 

Rachel Angel – In Low

Angel Olsen – The Blacksmith

DRINKS – Blue From the Dark

Half Waif – Back in Brooklyn

Yo La Tengo – Tears Are in Your Eyes

Coma Cinema – Sad World

Elliott Smith – Cupid’s Trick

Many Rooms – Which is to Say, Everything

James Blake – Overgrown

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio

Manic Street Preachers – Concrete Fields

The Innocence Mission – Green Bus

Laura Veirs – Everybody Needs You

Lucy Dacus – …Familiar Place

Sun Kil Moon – Lost Verses

Cat Power – Half of You

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Refute

Savage Mansion – Older and Wiser 

Emma Tricca – Mars is Asleep

R.E.M – E-Bow The Letter

Playlist: December 2016

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December: I was sitting in Botanics and an old man started talking to me about ancient ash trees brought over from America. I went to Edinburgh for a day and collected my thoughts among the dead bracken and cracked seedpods in the Botanic Gardens. I carried a Christmas tree home over the bridge on Great Western Road, wrote thousands of words and lay on my floor listening to Bjork and dreaming of fairy lights, the superimposition of each glow and glare over imaginary cityscapes half-borrowed from mid-noughties video games. People gave me mixtapes for Christmas which I’ve cherished with care and reverence, loving even the tracks that skip. I carried enough plates to make my wrists hurt, spinning trays and polishing glasses to a proper sparkle. I threw glitter over things until they started to change, remembering the eyes staring back at me and the way the music would fall through the catacombs of darkness, all the while forgetting the beauty of that drunk feeling. Knee socks, lipstick, tequila, lost garlands. Wrapping things in holograms, I hope for another decent year with all these magic people.

Laura Marling – Soothing

Neutral Milk Hotel – The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One

Hippo Campus – The Last Snowstorm of the Year

White Baer – The Tide in My Lungs

Sibylle Baier – Says Elliott

Fionn Regan – Lines Written in Winter

Bright Eyes – When the Curious Girl Realises She is under Glass

There Will Be Fireworks – Your House Was Aglow

Minor Victories – Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard)

salvia palth – i was all over her

Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July

Kirsty MacColl – A New England

Max Richter, Ben Russell, Yuki Numata Resnick – Dream 3 (In the Midst Of My Life)

Angel Olsen – White Water

Portico Quartet – 4096 Colours

Kinbrae – Constellations

Seven Songs from the Vault (1)

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~ Seven Songs from the Vault (Version 1) ~ 

  1. Suzanne Vega – ‘Marlene on the Wall’, Suzanne Vega (1985)

Partly to blame for my writerly obsession with long, m-beginning girls names (Meredith, Meredana, Marianne), this song was one of the first tracks that brought me to music – brought me to music in the sense of listening to it and discovering something new about the world through it. It’s a story of a dangerous and probably ill-advised love affair, told through an impression of symbols; the singer urges the listener to ‘observe the blood, the rose tattoo and the fingerprints on me from you’. The line between desire and violence blurs here and there’s something about Vega’s cool, whispering voice: an intimacy that is at once conversational but also steadfastly aloof, refusing the self-aestheticising of vibrato and instead fixing itself on the delivery of its sharply observational lyrics. In an age where big, operatic voices dominate the popular music scene (think Adele), Vega’s vocal style seems comparatively and indeed curiously fresh. When she returns, angrily, to the chorus, there’s a real, mesmerising venom to her delivery.

The song was on an acoustic compilation CD I’d nicked from my Mum’s car and I used to play it over and over again, my nine-year-old mind trying to make sense of the song’s darkness; its ‘danger zone’, the urgent guitar strums and insistence on silence – ‘don’t talk about it later’. By successfully striking the experience of ambiguity in desire, twisting pop’s conventional picture of love to one more sinister, Vega draws you in and in again to her characters. Who’s Marlene? What does she mean by the wall? Who are the soldiers, and the ‘things I cannot see’? I still have no idea.

2) Bloc Party – ‘I Still Remember’, A Weekend in the City (2007)

Like a Roald Dahl novel, rife with endearing surrealism, you sink into this story of young love with a queasy mix of confusion and warm familiarity. The guitar riff that kicks in with all its clarity is a comfort, even now, listening back almost ten (!) years later, and the song lilts between the energy and languidness of longing. The relief that comes when Kele Okereke breathily sings that first line, ‘I / I still remember / how you looked that afternoon / it was only you.’ It’s a love that touches on the unspokenness of queer desire, the possibility of falling for your best friend: ‘we left our trousers by the canal / and our fingers, they almost touched’. It’s almost Blakean in its very pure, stripped-back articulation of innocence: ‘you said “it’s just like a full moon” / blood beats faster in our veins’. It’s draped in childhood nostalgia: ‘and on that teachers’ training day / we wrote our names on every train’. With all these images, you can’t help but remember such experiences from your own youth, those simple days and strange feelings.

When the song builds up with the thrashing drums and the insistent refrain, ‘I still remember’, all the campouts and nights out and beach drinking and endless hanging out come flooding back. Okereke’s love exists now only as a metonymic collection of details, sentimental objects and memories: the playgrounds and rooftops, park benches, school ties. There’s a terrible bittersweetness to the song, its sense of regret, of unrealised, forlorn desire: ‘You should have asked me for it / I would have been brave’. Sure, the album came out in January 2007, but in a way it’s a song for autumn: the aftermath of summer holidays, the return to school, the always problematic sense of fresh beginnings, of leaving a certain era behind. The golden haze of nostalgia, and all its futile longing. The dissolution of that final shining chord.

In my head, it’s inextricably tied up not just with my own adolescence but with that even earlier exposure to frustrated love. I think of the ending to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, with Mary’s endless stories, the ‘quantum leap’ that is love’s realisation, her talk of negative capability and the unravelling of Proustian memory, decades deep from a piece of marzipan; then Lyra and Will, after so many adventures across several universes, admitting they love each other, their first kiss like the taste of the ‘little red fruit’ and then the devastating revelation that they love each other and yet can literally never exist in the same world and live. I remember vividly sitting on my bedroom floor on a Sunday night, picking flakes of paint from the floorboards, anxiously devouring the last of book of the fantasy trilogy that had consumed both my summer and winter and feeling this weird immenseness of sadness and relief all at once. I think it’s the expression that counts; the only overcoming of such feelings. That’s why Bloc Party’s song’s so good. It’s cathartic.

3) Belle & Sebastian – ‘Dress Up in You’, The Life Pursuit (2006)

For me, The Life Pursuit is one of Belle & Sebastian’s most obviously ‘chamber pop’ albums, it’s lush and glossy and upbeat, featuring vocal contributions from both male and female members of the band. Its production is shiny and the mood (for once?) is cheerful.

Probably not surprising that the song I picked is one of the album’s most melancholy, however. We can all relate to ‘Dress Up in You’, in a way. It’s a song about jealousy, about our problematic relationship with the friend that always dazzled,  the one with a ‘beautiful face’, that was always destined for great things, while you were stuck back home, ‘knitting jumpers’ and ‘working after hours’. There’s a bitterness to the song’s tone but at the same time the relaxing cadence of the piano riff and the upliftingly sweet horn solo keep the sadness in check: ultimately, the song’s message is one of admiration. The ‘singer in the band’ paints a vision of her friend, the one who ‘got lucky’, who forgot about her, as a beautiful idol: ‘if I could have a second skin I’d probably dress up in you.

We’ve all wanted to be someone else at some point. It’s probably part of the human condition that we’re mostly doomed to be dissatisfied with our own skin, to long for where the grass is greener, where there are airplanes and style and ‘the essence’. What I love about this song is its contradictions: the bitter lyrics and the sweet music, the sense of absolute friendship (deals signed in blood, understandings, love, the sense of missing someone so much they give you stomach pain) and jealousy/resentment, the contrast between stardom and failure. It carries them off perfectly and there’s a satisfying relief in the way the song closes with the rallentando leading into ‘they are hypocrites, forget them / so fuck them too’ and then all those carefree la la la la las, harmonised lovingly with the accompanying brass.

It’s a song that reminds me of sitting up till 5am on friends’ sofas, passing round the laptop and its weighty iTunes library, drinking the dregs from a bottle of gin and feeling a bit miserable for ourselves but also kind of paradoxically content with the feeling of discontent.

Notably, it’s also the song that plays over the credits to Stuart Murdoch’s film, God Help the Girl, and I like that the film’s ending is pretty open, just like the outcome of the song—does the friend become an actress? Is she a success or a failure? 

4) Frightened Rabbit – ‘Poke’, The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)

2009 and 2010. Two winters so cold the roads and rivers froze over; so cold we wore coats in our classrooms, the heating system of our leaky-roofed Victorian school building packing in in tandem with the collapse in temperatures. These years all a blur of computer screens and studies, of long walks round town and into the hills with friends. I had tickets to see Frightened Rabbit at the Barrowlands in December; I was in school, reading Sylvia Plath for my English dissertation, when from the windows of the computer suite I saw the first flakes of snow, falling from the sky like a promise. They came thick and fast and soon everything was draped in white. Something inside me soared, even with the sad knowledge that the trains were cancelled. I couldn’t go to the gig.

At parties, we would mockingly sing the words to each other: ‘poke at my iris / why can’t I cry about this’. Sometimes we’d mishear the lyrics. We wanted a reaction from each other, perhaps, a way of making sense of that weird desire to be poked in the eye, to be stilted from our drunken reveries. Or maybe it meant something deeper, weirder. Maybe that was our own ‘brand new language’, a semiotics of stupid expressions and warbling voices, the way we’d brush up against each other’s hands as if we wanted to hold them.

‘Poke’. It’s an elegy of sorts; an elegy for the disintegration of a relationship, the frustration of striving for closure, caught between an animalistic need for freedom and that enduring residue of whatever was there before: ‘Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone? / And we can mourn its passing / And then bury it in snow’. It’s that wintery, rural Scottish numbness, the refusal or even inability to admit feeling – ‘Why can’t I cry about this?’. There’s the tender, Burns-like romanticism of this love – ‘it’s got lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon’ – kicked viscerally in the teeth with all that suppressed violence that we bury in the darkest dullness of our relationships: ‘Or should we kick its cunt in / and watch as it dies from bleeding?’. Scott Hutchison’s poetic, sometimes growling croon is softened in this song, even as he refuses to hold back on the emotion, it unravels perfectly in the expression of paradox that governs the end of a relationship: ‘But I hate when I feel like this / And I never hated you’. The sudden severance of that connection that was almost familial, blood-strong in its longing. The interludes where Hutchison sings his Ooooohs with that perfect, withdrawn sorrow are like the movements of the sea over the steady rivulets of the guitar picking. I always wanted to be able to play this song on guitar. It sounded so simple and sad and pure.

5) Wild Nothing – ‘Paradise’, Nocturne (2012)

I used to do double shifts most Saturdays and Sundays and it was a grim affair without the aid of some good music to brighten the restaurant where I found myself pacing endlessly, lifting plates, taking orders, polishing glasses, picking litter and leaves off the floor, scraping candle wax off tables, dusting the gantry, moving zombie-like between tables with the same forced fresh, maybe fragile smile.

My friend Douglas would bring stacks of CDs in and leave them for me on the bar top while he was away working in his section. In the midst of sensory deprivation, I would pore over those CDs like they were exquisite treasures (which, fuck it, they were). For one, it was lovely to find someone else who shared my passion for the actual tangibility of the compact disc. The sleeve and the notes and the design printed on the disc itself. I liked the sheen of plastic, which felt solid in my hands. It was 2013 and Douglas had a music taste that ranged from the up-and-coming heroes of alt-pop (Grimes, Lana Del Rey) to the more left-field and experimental/electronic; looking over those CDs reminded me of the world I had missed while immersing myself in nothing but literary theory podcasts and James Joyce audiobooks for two years solid. Now there was Bjork, Angel Olsen, Poliça, Wild Nothing.

I asked to take a few home to borrow, mostly based on my attraction to the album artwork and the titles of songs. I’ve always been drawn to song titles and artwork, probably because I am literary-minded but also because I love it when artists actually pay attention to building up a particular aesthetic that’s appropriate to, or even spins a whole new meaning on, their music. I love thinking about how the title of a song changes everything. It’s weird because I find it really hard to title my own work, but I guess that’s a common problem…

Anyway, one of those lucky albums was Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, which is a blissful array of buttery, colourful dream pop songs which mould together as perfect as the lunar cycle. The standout track for me is ‘Paradise’, a five-and-a-half-minute ambient starry-eyed disco epic which, if the album is meant to sort of capture ‘a sleepless state of mind’ (hence the album’s title, Nocturne), is that moment when the endorphins kick in and you reach that precise state of euphoria that occurs when you have not slept for say 40 hours solid. Maybe you’re travelling, airborne to distant lands. Maybe you’ve been boozing through the night and morning. Maybe you’ve just been on your feet all day and are reaching the 11th hour of your shift…

For me, this is sort of The Cure drenched in pastel tones; the meticulous crafting of those dark synths and celestial reverb; Joy Division staring into the refracted galaxies of a crystal ball that would predict a brighter future. Jack Tatum’s voice here acquires a much stronger, more sonorous quality than on most other Wild Nothing tracks, and there are definitely Ian Curtis comparisons to be made here. The mood perfectly balances its bouncy drums, uplifting synths and twinkly 80s guitar riffs with a controlled and almost majestic lyrical delivery which is rather melancholy in theme, the refrain ‘love is paradise’ framing most of the song, as if striving to reach some sublime point where paradise would be reached. If you check out the extended version online, with Michelle Williams doing spoken word in an interlude section, there is a definite sort of Allen Ginsberg/Beat generation vibe to the lines, moving to a sort of transcendent rapture: ‘The past was folded up and in the twinkle of an eye / and everything had been changed / And made beautiful and good’.

The song overall feels like a spiritual and spatial journey; it fades and builds and comes to fade again. It never indulges in elaborate solos but instead maintains its vibrant rhythm that moves between liveliness and a kind of soporific haze of drums and sparkling guitar and synths. Listening to it at work, for those five-and-a-half-minutes I felt weightless, bodiless, up in the air; free from the cutlery and crockery and bells tolling endlessly from the kitchen…

6) Bright Eyes – ‘Lua’, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)

A song that you carry with you somehow, that’s so engrained in your brain as to never leave you, each chord and lyric sedimented with years of memory. It’s a fragile song, sparse as a deciduous tree in winter. It’s a song about wandering, the dislocated sense of not exactly inhabiting the world, but somehow just drifting through. It’s a paean to solitude: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversations / with the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection’. It explores the thinness of reality, the sheen of ‘polish’ that in the morning ‘looks like shit’, the false love sold in the evening, which by the morning ‘won’t exist’. It’s a candid admission of human frailty, the mercurial nature of our emotions. It’s a specifically metropolitan song: you have a sense of Conor Oberst’s warbling voice as he wanders the streets, lost protagonist in his solipsistic sadness. Yet the song spreads outwards, as a commentary on the human (or at least a generational) condition, a not-quite nihilistic exhaustion with the world – ‘we might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain’. We flit from one thing to another, our desires will oscillate as sure as the moon’s phases. Everything seems ‘so simple as the moonlight’ but no amount of incantation will render solid this refrain.

Thematically, the song is about addiction, depression, the everyday vacillations of sensation contained in a morning and evening. The random party at ‘some actor’s west side loft’ and the flask shared on the train, the person addressed who looks ‘skinny like a model’ and keeps escaping to the bathroom, ‘always say you’ll be right back’. In body, the people in the song waste away as easily as the time that contains them, surviving off coffee and moonlight and imaginary conversations.

Oberst, lyrically, is a genius at paradoxes and parallels and expresses them in a way that offers them as explanations or gestures of understanding which never quite satisfy but at least leave us pondering: ‘But what was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane’. The opening line, ‘I know that it is freezing but I think we have to walk’ so clearly establishes the tone of the song, the jar of realisation – we’re both forced upon this journey, nobody’s going to give us a ride – that it could be a line from a Wallace Stevens poem. It’s a cold song, whose play of end rhymes only half hit home – ‘walk/loft’ ‘off/gone’ – leaving us always  longing for something more. No closure can be reached: the song can only end with the circular repetition of ‘so simple in the moonlight’, a childlike rehearsal of the beauty which cannot kill the complications of adult life, the self-destructive habits which inhabit the song’s lyrics.

In third year of high school, I used to listen to this every lunchtime, lying in the playground by the P.E block, feeling so light and empty, the world dissolving around me in a dull cacophony of kicked footballs, shrieking games and called-out names. It was a mysterious adult world, the one contained in that song, but I almost felt I was already there, dissolving what was left of matter.

[There’s a lovely version Oberst recorded with Gillian Welch for the album Dark Was the Night (2009) which gives it a flavour of melancholy Americana, a greater sense of dislocation, fusing the urban setting and Oberst’s minimalist delivery with Welch’s distinctly lilting, country voice and all its resonance of the prairie].

7) Muse – ‘Citizen Erased’, Origin of Symmetry (2001)

It seems insane to think that this album was released fifteen years ago, but maybe the timing was appropriate. There’s something uncanny about it: the paranoid, political and often surreal lyrics, howling soprano, bloated distortion of electric guitars, as if the music were forcing us to release the visceral eeriness and indeed grotesque weirdness of a reality that tried to cloak itself in the fairytales of gameshow tv and the financial greed offered by a fresh new century…

‘Citizen Erased’ is visceral, beautiful; at once tender and full of fury. It renders the experience of someone living in a fucked-up political state, the striving for freedom and confusion over what it means to be human, to be a person, at all. The thrashing drums give way to a thickly buzzing bass and the yearning swirls of screeching electric guitar solos. The song builds slowly and softly but the choruses are huge and operatic, with Bellamy’s distinctive wail crying out: ‘For one moment / I wish you would hold your stage / with no feelings at all / open minded / I’m sure I used to be, so free’.

The experience of this song is one of purification. You are exposed to music that is violent, lashing, angry, but like any good narrative, there is a turning point, a calming of the waves. The music becomes almost ambient. The key changes and Bellamy’s voice returns to its melodic, delicate expression, accompanied by ripples of piano and the fuzzy, spacey twanging of distorted guitars: ‘Wash me away / clean your body of me / erase all the memories / that will only bring us pain’. I’ve always felt purged somehow after listening to ‘Citizen Erased’. I think it chews you up a bit then leaves you, disembodied, drifting along the final tributaries of its current, back to a place of imaginary origin, more peaceful and pure than the harsh world it renders…

Road Trip

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Picture the scene. You pass sea after sea of pines, their tall green points misted with a fine web of vapour, a greyness that stretches over, concealing the tips and the distance, and you are not sure whether it is fog or woodsmoke, the wisps of early morning or perhaps the smoulders of a landfill. Probably you’re somewhere deep in the moorlands, glens and peat bogs of the Highlands; or maybe not that far yet, maybe just the Trossachs. If you open the car window a tad, you can almost smell the midges, their damp, thirsty breath in the air. This is air so clean that its purity counts as a flavour, claimed by many who have flogged the native whisky or bottled water. You would leave the window open, indulge yourself, but there is a sharp cold breeze that tickles the fine hairs on your neck, waters your eyes. It is always windy here; or else deathly still, like a valley out of time. Mountains rise up around you, growing closer and grander as the car turns another corner. They seem monstrous, towering over your small car, and you feel like William Wordsworth (the boy version, out of The Prelude) plodding along in his stolen boat, gazing fearfully up at the mountain peak beyond the lake, the peak that gazes back like an animal: ‘a huge Cliff / As if with voluntary power instinct / Upreared its head’. You can’t help but stare at the streams which splash down from each hillside like silver belts, which glimmer in the pale light which makes it through the misted sky. They catch your eye, pull you in myriad directions. You know that rain is imminent; its scent is as clear as the water that runs on the burn alongside you.

There is always birdsong, even in the evening. You can hear the cacophony of many different species as the car rumbles on in the silent space between two tracks passing on the stereo. You and your friend spent a whole day curating the playlist for this trip. Curating. She said that word, jokingly; but even so, it makes you feel special. This isn’t just any trip. It isn’t like you get out like this all the time, free from the bustle and smoke of the city, the people lingering outside pubs, the strangers drifting through in street-lamp darkness.

You spent a childhood in the back of your mother’s car; the smell of her cigarettes always blowing straight back into your face, rolling down the window to snatch breathfuls of that sharp, fresh air – an escape. You scrambled alongside rivers which rolled on over gleaming boulders; you scrabbled together heaps of stones and logs and built dams, pools and waterways. You fell over, bruised your knees, skelfed your fingers on the pine branches. You watched the water for hours, while your mother smoked and your big brother showed off, scaling rock after rock, cliff after clifftop. You ate cheese and pickle sandwiches made soggy by the damp that seeps in everywhere, through the aluminium and glass, the plastic glovebox and the silver foil. Midges clung to your neck; constantly you felt their hot, sticky itch. Sometimes the car smelt of engine oil. The food made your cheeks flush afterwards, as you washed your lunch down with bottles of flat lemonade that had lingered on the backseat for days.

There was an innocence to those holidays which literally makes you ache to think of. You would do anything to be that small again, crouched by a river, dipping your toes into the freezing water while your brother splashed you from afar, shouting declarations of war. His always taunting words, his grand arrogance. The way your mother scrunched up the sandwich foil into tiny, crumpled balls, collected them in her purse. The day you found them all, still there, when you were digging for lunch money.

Fog coming in thick and deep from a distance. You saw it roll over the mountains like God’s own shroud. It was comforting, feeling the moisture prick in the air, seeing the landscape slowly disappear. When you retreated back into the car, packed up the camping gear, fought with your brother over the radio. He always wanted the sport – Five Live – and you wanted the songs, the music. The stereo pumped, crackling and loud, audible even through the walls of the car, drifting in and out of signal, static…

Her sadness, leaning against the bonnet, sipping from a flask of coffee, staring out into the distance. The tears that you couldn’t see – not from behind – but you always knew they were there.

And why are you going? Why set forth again into the world of fog, of deep enveloping glens and silver rivers? The soft moss and the heather, the greenness that haunts your sleep. Was there some mystery you thought you could solve? She said it would be cathartic, your friend, her name irrelevant. Anyway, it’s Eilidh. When you met her, you didn’t understand the silent letters.

The playlist comes from an iPod, the classic one with the spinning wheel and the white casing. You were going to sell it, after you lost your job and faced the end of things, but something pulled you back. Gone were the Nike trainers instead, and now you are here in the car with your best Sports Directs. What sounds pass through your head? There are many conversations you always wanted to have with Eilidh. You wanted to ask about her purple hair, the bright lilac colour of heather. What did it mean? You wanted to ask whether she was still seeing that guy she met at uni, the one who studied law and played cello for an orchestra; who spoke French in a way that defied the limits of his Edinburgh accent. But you had known her five years, and still you could not speak.

The songs were lovely, dark and deep. Miles were consumed by the roar and pulse of the engine, roadsides slipping away as easily as signs fading into hill fog. You were long gone from the city, its tall grey buildings a mere memory, the pillow of mist you sank into at night. Remember the times you shaved an inch from your life? The bus turning the corner, sharp; the tiny sliver of razor on the white bathroom china. The dark colours flowering out in water, as you watched your ex-girlfriend wash her paintbrushes in the sink. Shades of crimson, violet, blue and scarlet. You were slipping through all these images, the shock and the bruising; the little jolt to your heart as the car passed over a pothole. You were driving, then she was. It’s difficult to remember.

There’s a lot of Mogwai on this playlist. When you first hear ‘Heard About You Last Night’ it’s a bit like waking up for the first time, the blinking beat and slow entry of bass bringing into colour a brave new world of beauty and fear. So many people, you suppose, have died out on those mountains. Battles fought and lost and won. Rain that fell for so long, it seemed the whole landscape might be swallowed up in shadowy puddles. Then there’s the anxiety of ‘Hungry Face’, those infuriating repetitions which build up to the twinkling innocence of the xylophone against those quietly thundering drums. It gets in your head; you can’t help but think of ghost ships disappearing over the Clyde, a set of yellow eyes opening and closing, suspended in the dark, clouded air like the smile of a Cheshire cat. The sound of soft, steady bleeping. Eilidh says something funny about the sheep. They have an absurd look about them out here, she says, but then so do pretty much all sheep. They glance up at you, but instantly their expression fades into blasé. They have only two emotions: indifference and fear, the fear coming out when they jolt their necks back and scarper.

Soon you fall into the melancholy of ‘Cody’, so slow and serene you might as well be stoned, sinking away from your thoughts like being pulled out into a vast, shimmering ocean. The bass echoes slow through the car, its thick walls. You press your face against the glass, leaving steam marks which fog up the world outside, the tall green mountains now coated with your breath. Reality blurs with the material of sleep. And would you stop me? If I tried to stop you? You imagine this is what heroin feels like, plunging into a slow, majestic ecstasy, the kind that drags eons of time through your veins; and from all those hours draws out this kind of awesome mournfulness even as your whole body tingles with euphoria. You could sleep forever in blissful, evil dreams. When I drive alone at nights, I see the streetlights as fairgrounds / And I tried a hundred times to see the road signs as Day-Glo. So slow, the car turning corners. An elegy to a lost raver, stumbling through the darkness of some urban labyrinth, the upturned bins, old condoms and leaking glowsticks spilling out the wasted remainders of another good night, another goodbye to childhood. Would you care at all? Eilidh rests her hand on your leg.

“Stop crying,” she says. It’s a statement, not an instruction. You are still staring out the window.

Your mother used to listen to The Waterboys, maybe even Primal Scream in her more rebellious phase. She liked to dance around the living room doing the dusting to ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, all the dust motes swirling up in a maelstrom of childish untidiness and neglected housekeeping. Her voice would crack and she would laugh at herself, breathless, collapsing onto the sofa. Make me a cup of tea, eh boys?

You were at a house party once, at uni – not that long ago really – and this girl was playing a song that stirred something familiar in your memory. You knew that voice, its growl, the twists of electric guitars.

“What is this?” you asked, the joint smouldering between your fingers.

“Oh, it’s The Waterboys actually.” You resented her showiness, of course, but this was interesting. “I know, so lame right? I like it though. They put Yeats to music. You know the poet, W. B. Yeats? ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. It’s a lovely poem.” She was drinking port, of all things – you remember that too.

You inherited, perhaps, a gloomier tradition of the nation’s music. There would be no Proclaimers on this playlist.

Arab Strap, the disco beats, spat poetry and everyday apathy.  The sort of post-hardcore or drum-soaked indie that felt like having the rotten parts of your brain stripped out as you lay on a boat, slowly being drenched in dreich Scottish rain. You were always a fan of Frightened Rabbit, ever since you saw them at a festival once, danced yourself into a frenzied ceilidh of mud and tangled feet, even as the songs sung of sadness and bleakness and heartbreak. The endless drone, the refrain: it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm. Teenage campouts in Loch Lomond, worried you would all die of the cold, of the rain and the midges. Drunk out your minds, desperate and scared of the river which burst its banks sometimes even in summer. The expectations of nothing but the prospect of falling into the same abyss as everyone else. Fag butts drifting by the edge of the river, the scorched remainders of a bonfire. Listening to it again now, well, you can’t help but think of how this seems to be coming true somehow. The same abyss. Even as the drums collapse over the screaming words, there’s a waterfall out there somewhere, maybe the one you floated in once, upside down on weird pills with the cold so deep in your bones that you didn’t feel the punches of your best friend who hated you because you kissed — no. That was another time. You are driving forward now, you are at the wheel.

Maybe there is something that you know that I don’t. 

“We should stop soon, you look like you need a rest.” The world outside is almost darkness; it is twilight spinning webs of navy and sapphire gold around the edges of trees and mountains. Trees with their shimmering leaves. Clusters of stars emerge from the velvet blackness. You wouldn’t stop for anything.

Next: There Will Be Fireworks, ‘From ’84’. The simplicity, the sorrow which isn’t yours; for how could you feel so much nostalgia for a year, a thought, that came before your time? The not-belonging is what makes you feel lonelier, the minor chord, the rustle of Eilidh in her woollen tights turning the page of a cheap magazine. Just a kid, in his room / No-one hears him howling at the moon. But you have lost touch with friends too, you have felt the strange pain that comes from seeing people you love change, grow apart. You cannot hit the high notes; you cannot sing along. So we’ll put it down to fate or bad luck. The plain, bare strumming pattern haunts you, even after the song finishes and something new comes on. You’re thinking of another lyric – sad song in a minor key – and wondering how you ever heard of this band in the first place. Why is it you love them so? Whether they’re actually any good, or just another expression of bleak Scottish winters, the lack of sunlight, the endless, down-pouring rain…but isn’t that beautiful too?

Eilidh has, perhaps, more interesting taste. The next song is hers: Cocteau Twins of course. She mutters on about how their best album was Milk and Kisses, though everyone thinks it’s Heaven or Las Vegas. Elizabeth Fraser’s dreamy soprano takes you straight through the night and into the morning; you could both listen for hours and hours, not realising that the songs were changing or repeating, just drifting into the dissonant guitars and distorted lyrics, the hypnotic drum machine loops, better than sex. You would like to float, suspended in a disco somewhere, each song playing out the pattern of a strange, intense kiss. You suppose these are all the 1990s discos your mother would’ve went to (if she hadn’t had you). What does it matter now? The sky before you bursts through in pastel smudges, which break up the dark silhouettes of the Trossachs mountains. In the distance, through the windscreen, sparkles of sunlight play upon a pale blue pool, the first loch you have seen since yesterday. There is something about the shape of the peaks, the space of the valley. You have been here before. 

The Twilight Sad come on the car stereo. There’s no mistaking the intensity of that voice, the thick accent and its distinctive rolls and howls. Each song with its own atmosphere, a haunted quality reminiscent of The Cure.

“Let’s stop here.”

The loch is so close now. You can feel something inside you, a tension breaking, the rapid increase of the beat from the heart that burns in your chest. Eilidh is humming along, though her voice crackles and breaks as easily as the gravel on the road below your tyres. When you climb out the car, cold air sucks your breath away as you slam the door. Suddenly, the signal floods back to your phone. Three missed calls from your brother, and you know what that means. Another night, another row of bottles slowly emptying, slowly being broken in a dive bar of old men, the black hole at the bottom of every street in every Scottish city. Once he was an eagle, soaring down those hillsides, ready to leap out and scale the lake with legs made strong by football, with arms that could reach out for anything they wanted. He couldn’t save her, any more than you could, weak and pathetic, wrapped up in all that suppressed panic. Hidden in your room, even when it happened. It rolls through you, the realisation. This loch, like a terrible mirror. This beautiful loch, the very one you all picnicked by, the year your brother finished high school, the year of your first kiss, the year she —

‘There’s a Girl in the Corner’ on the stereo, and Eilidh is speaking, but her words are muffled through the window, the pounding drums and resounding lyrics. She’s not coming back / And she’s not coming back again. Standing here, the cold wind at your neck, another summer nearly ending and here you are – you finally feel it.

(all embedded lyrics attributed to respective artists).

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).