The Greatest Loss: Lana Del Rey’s Anthropocene Softcore 

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There is a scenario in which the jukebox is equivalent to the poet and some elaborate analogy is to be made between intertextuality and the limited catalogue whose selectional form produces play. The scenario only survives in video. It needs this urge of duration, not to mention the tenderness of a touch. Where fingers brush keys like notes, there is something to add to the story. A social space in demand of ambience; on flickering alongside off. When Lana is alone on stage, hands stuffed into a bomber jacket, singing ‘Fuck it, I love you’, swaying almost nervously, I want to think about what she is doing there and who she is speaking to and from where she is speaking. She is not really speaking but singing. The lone girl on the stage is the open mic dreamer, with nothing but lines. She is scattered across june-dreams of multiple personality: ‘The I which speaks out from only one place is simultaneously everyone’s everywhere; it’s the linguistic mother of rarity but is always also aggressively democratic’ (Riley 2000: 57-58). We mother our solipsism with words but in doing so there’s an opening. So to say fuck it and state the interruption with syncope, sincerity. Lana Del Rey was born on the cusp of Gemini and Cancer season, which more than explains that statement: ‘Fuck it, I love you’. With her sails to the wind. To say it over and smooth into plural refrain, you could even say chorus. For a chorus wants to be shared. It is a commodious mother, fed by the keys of the jukebox baby. There is a constant reversal of nourishing; the democracy of lyric utterance, the milky feed that streams.

Denise Riley argues that any ‘initial “I love you” is barely possible to enunciate without its implicit—however unwilled—claim for reciprocation’ (2000: 23). But what is reciprocation in a song? Is it just the urge to be sung with? And this ‘fuck it’, the pervasive millennial injunction to just be, to move on, as the tag which erases the expectant price of the utterance? Riley argues that I love you ‘must at once circulate as coinage within the relentless economy of utterance as exchange’ (2000: 24), but in a pop song it bears the leaden weight of so many prior expressions. The irony is that to cut through that with a simple fuck it, Lana can attain something like sincerity in the very pop mode whose lineage of commercialised love would surely undermine her feeling. Fuck it, in spite of saying I love you I really do. The pop song becomes this space for the staged epiphany of repeated assurance, I really do. It is a softcore admission of the self in its burning limit. 

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‘Fuck it I love you’ is soaked in lights, but they’re fading. ‘I like to see everything in neon’, is the line that opens the song. To see everything in neon is to fluoresce what is haunted and gone. I think of Sia dragging rainbow dust down her tearful cheeks in the video for ‘The Greatest’ — tragedy’s shimmer as fugitive mark on the body. Lana offers herself up as sugar dust, cliché in honour of Doris Day: ‘Dream a little dream of me / Make me into something sweet’; she acknowledges ‘dancing to a pop song’, but it’s not clear if this is her or the character or the one she loves. ‘Turn the radio on’ could be a reflection or an imperative. The reader is hailed between these positions of love and the loved and the effect is saturating, warm, delirious. Separation is that ‘it’, the spacing. In the video, we watch Lana painting and then suddenly she’s surfing with the aurora borealis in the background. She’s on a swing, her jean shorts caressed by the camera, she’s the sexualised pop icon again. She’s on a surfboard, green-screened, young. She’s choosing a shade of yellow from the palette, singing ‘Killing me slowly’. What is this ‘it’, killing her slowly: 

I’ll return to the unknown part of myself and when I am born shall speak of “he” or “she.” For now, what sustains me is the “that” that is an “it.” To create a being out of oneself is very serious. I am creating myself. And walking in complete darkness in search of ourselves is what we do. It hurts. […] a thing is born that is. Is itself. It is hard as a dry stone. But the core is soft and alive, perishable, perilous it. Life of elementary matter.

(Lispector 2014: 39)

I want slyly to argue that this is a kind of anthropocene existentialism. Recognition of the self as this ‘hard’, ‘dry stone’ thing of geologic mattering, reflexive species. This is what it is to be ‘Human’ right now. And yet the agential spark within, the ‘core’ that is being alive in a world where we have deposited those sedimentary layers. Creating ourselves in the stone, often with the tarnish of the very products we chose and developed to beautify, excoriate and cleanse ourselves, to remain forever young. So there is this oscillating temporality at work between desired infinity and the trace of our fugitive place on earth. The very earth minerals that would ruin humanity, mine our bodies of endless labour. But to go back to the song, with its idea of a gradual dying. I want to call this something like anthropocene softcore: the unnamed presence of species being within Lispector’s slender novel from the early seventies, or the Mamas and the Papas brand of late-sixties ‘sunshine pop’ whose solarity derives from the perishability of that energy, utopian commons, cascade of flowers — that serotonin glow of selves in streams and streams. 

Lana’s anthropocene poetics are not of the hardline, direct call to action. You would not say of her cultural presence, eco-warrior or nature goddess. You would not brand her Miss Anthropocene in a kind of demonic marketing gimmick. You would say most often she is a siren, per se, leisurely supplicating us towards death on the rocks. Desirous flow. This is anthropocene softcore. This is what it is to challenge the act of self-description itself, and in doing so questioning those generalisations that arise from the ‘we’ of humankind, not to mention the ‘I’ of pop’s delectable, mainstream lyric. Alchemically, Clarice Lispector and Lana make of these malleable pronouns the ‘perilous it’. The it, the feeling, the speaking self which is nothing much more than a bundle of affects, sensations, atoms. To be cast over and crested by the wave. Significant that ‘Fuck it I love you’ ends with the rising bubbles of this wave, the one that spills us through the fourth wall and into the studio. This song slams together pop’s saccharine mythos of California as dreamland, a late-summer song as the former was written, surely, for autumn. California: ‘it’s just a state of mind’. She could be talking about the self or the state, or the state of the self. 

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What happens next? The shot drifts over the cliffs, the coast, to a strip of palms and a distant view of the LA skyline. That shining love in the previous track is replaced by a minor key, a glimpse of the jukebox whose songs include The Eagles, Bon Iver, The National. Artists whose Americana is the melancholy of generations moved from political despair to something like the glitch of the times as a basic fact of intimacy. One of the Bon Iver songs shown in the video is ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, and if that title was not rife with implicit apocalypse, what is, what is. A stammering into language, pitch-shifting the fragile space of utterance. There’s a spiritual glimpse to the sky and the infinite quality of the stars: 

There I find you marked in constellation (two, two)
There isn’t ceiling in our garden
And then I draw an ear on you
So I can speak into the silence
It might be over soon (two, do, two, do, two)

(Bon Iver, ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’)

I don’t know what the maths is doing. I don’t want to know that the song ‘was inspired in part by Bon Iver mainman Justin Vernon’s unsuccessful attempt to find himself during a vacation’. I am however interested in the hubris within this term ‘vacation’ at all. Do we now live in a world where you can take ‘time out’? There is nothing of the world we know that could be switched off. There is no ‘away’ of complete erasure or original presence. Deconstruction caught up with our living. Vernon describing this song as a gesture towards what might end of his emptiness could just as easily be flipped: its relief is equal to a mortal sense of loss. The impending erasures. It ‘does’ or acts the accretional event of extinction that is speaking into the silence, to those who could not speak back. 

Fragments and snatches: the neon green lining Lana’s eyes, the aurora borealis, the neon green palm in the club where she sings alone. A season by yourself. The love of the couple together surfing is cardboard, Hollywood. It is a trembling symbol. It is almost ridicule.

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What is Justin Vernon looking for in the constellation? When he sings ‘two two’ I think of Hilma af Klint’s nose-touching swans, or the hours of the day chipped at the edge — two of them stolen by tragic event. I think of a mic check, two, two, ch, ch. Click. Near-enough-presence of speech. A white swan on black background; a black swan on white background. Flip. The swans are geometry, signets of signature, they move towards abstraction. Growth. I love them. Fuck it I love them. The way they are just it. Inversions of colour and a monochrome mood splashed with cornflower blue, the tiny excess we can treasure. It is the cornflower blue, the little webbed feet, which make the swan in question unique. So we can care for it, figuratively as it swells through grey-white waters of memory. The swans we have lost in our shit. Royal iterations freed from belonging. This painting is from af Klint’s series Paintings for the Temple, works derived from spiritual communication. The abstraction of the swan / renders us stark in frame / for we were Lana or Leda / before we were animal. Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Seven Swans’: ‘All of the trees were in light’, ‘a sign in the sky’; ‘My father burned into coal’. And all of our sadness was carbon neutral before this. We plunge into whatever remains of the water, its plasticky thickness.

I keep pausing the video as it transitions. ‘Fuck it I love you’ twinned with ‘The greatest’. When The National sing It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders, what exactly is the ‘quiet company’ of the ‘it’? It could just as well be spiders. Maybe it’s the web itself, the web between the human and the more than human, the gossamer moment where metaphoric articulation becomes more than feeling and gleams material. ‘It’s a terrible love that I’m walking with spiders’ — what is the grammatical transition done by that ‘that’ and who is to blame. Walking with spiders might just be that love. Transitional, subject/object logic is reversed in this song: ‘Wait til the past?’ is sung, then ‘It takes an ocean not to break’ when surely the ocean itself would break you. Soon the ‘terrible love’ is a substance, something ‘I’m walking in’ — to feel it is an act of immersion. It is to let that wave crest over, the ‘lyric auto-explosion’ (Moten 2017: 3) of the wave that would break you. 

In ‘The Greatest’, Cat Power sings of former ambition now cast to nostalgic regret. There is a sense of time slowing to delay, laconic strings, relaxed drums, the balladic sleep of a once-held fault. It is a parade slowing down in the rain. To say ‘Once I wanted to be’ is to hold this question of ‘the greatest’ as a generalised desire itself. The hunger we lose in time, whose primary colours soften. I hold to that precious, cornflower blue of a swan’s foot. ‘Two fists of solid rock / With brains that could explain / Any feeling’. This solid rock that would box you into the future, that would harden the edges of self. A thing is born, as Clarice puts it, ‘hard as as dry stone’. This is the thing born ‘that is’. To exist is to be this hard thing, protein ligament, to kick out in lines; but then in time there is the plasmatic self inside that, like some fatty animal byproduct, sticks to the others it loves, it needs, it leaks. Gelatinous, softly sticky love. The ‘it’ that needs saving. Anthropocene softcore; soapy inside of all geologic agency. Who we are and what we regret. The turning of the outside-in, the inside-out. Kathleen Jamie, in Sightlines, asks: ‘What is it that we’re just not seeing?’ (2012: 37). 

A sightline is a hypothetical line, from someone’s eye to what is seen. Is it clear or blurred, bad or good? Anthropos recedes in its very own scene as the ocean continues and we howl in the dark like a lossy-compressed version of species. We are the sirens and wolves. We are at the great concert of the Earth. We have to resist what Bernard Stiegler calls the ‘proletarianization of the senses’ (2017); we have to find longform ballads of what’s happening, pass them down the line, resist the short-circuiting of thought that occurs between screens and machines. We have to send letters back to our consciousness, our elders and children. This is the work of lyric. It could be the work of dance. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Alabama, learning to be a ballerina too late in her life: ‘Her body was so full of static from the constant whip of her work that she could get no clear communication with herself. She said to herself that human beings have no right to fail’ (2001: 180). Alabama barely eats; her energy is all the zeal of will. The dance of lyric as reduction, lack, as static and chased success whose collapse lands as Alabama will eventually do on the event of inevitable break. Grapefruit squeezed on the gritty turmeric shot of the future. And a brake, a screech. And yet we write, we cast out limbs and materials, we work towards this loss; we imbibe it. 

This is an ugly type of writing in which the outside is always imagined from the inside. Horizons are fictional and buildings are barred. I have no sightlines. I’m fucking cutting the corners of someone else’s desire. All paths are the continuation of a pre-existing line. This is a city from which I send myself postcards wherein I wish I was here. Flying letters. Words stolen from myself. I refuse to recognise that I have not composed them unintentionally

(Bolland 2019: 78).

The videos for Lana’s ‘Fuck it I love you’ and ‘The greatest’ swerve between inside and outside. We find ourselves in rooms we don’t remember entering. Writing the anthropocene has an ugly, masturbatory quality of fucking yourself with the rush of elaborate doom. Okay, so. Constructing fortresses of lines which would make a valiant destination. When I listen to Lana, I’m accessing shortcuts to ‘someone else’s desire’ which is the opening up of presence. ‘This is a city’; ‘I wish I was here’. I have never been to LA. We plagiarise our very own diaries to get back that sense of the once-intentional, the greatest declaration on Earth. That we were here, and we loved. She wrote that lit, forgot. The papers curled up and rolled away in a sultry air that was summer, 2012. The year of failed apocalypse, the year Lana released her debut album, Born to Die. We saw her campaign of fashion smoking through plexiglass bus shelters. Remember all ‘horizons are fictional’: they tell a narrative, they bleed and tilt and set like ice. Towards them we stupidly drift: the lived throb of our softcore skins, our hungers and rhythms.

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Drifting in colour like H.D.’s Leda, the rape of the land and the body and bodies engendering bodies. Worlds ending around us. And so I could say, but this is just one song, a phrase, a white woman of fame lamenting her world. But this self-conscious cinematics is a gesture towards the western world itself as this haunted, tragic protagonist: ‘The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball / I guess that I’m burned out after all’ (‘The greatest’). So you could say, anthropocene softcore speaks to the lyric I in its state of orphaned exception, which in turn is the loss felt by us all unequally. If we make of Lana a sort of anthropocenic siren, we must recognise the distinctions within our longing. For we all lose worlds differently; harm is striated along lines of class, gender, race, ethnicity, geographical distribution — of course. That wave that closes the video could elsewhere be a tsunami. I like to think its place on the edge is a deliberated hint to what could or is even already happening here or elsewhere. And maybe the colour, the aurora, is this streak of need for an excess beyond static blank, ‘human’ planet, standardised canvas; the need to splash something more of blur and blue. Flood the structure. 

When we say something is ‘lit’, we mean it is hot, on fire. We mean it is turned on, ignited, intoxicated, drunk, excellent. Lit is the past simple and past participle of light. Isn’t that line alone just lit? Maybe we are in the twilight of a former Enlightenment, recognising our species hubris as this alien green that tinges every familiar horizon, upsets the normalised green of pastoral. Is it toxicity, the elsewhere within ourselves? It is a radar showing who we are and where we have been. Those material metaphors cook on a smoulder, and this is the softcore coming to knowledge about what is happening.

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What does it mean to sing: ‘I’m facing the greatest / The greatest loss of them all’. To sing this on the brink of a hyperreal sunset, to chase a solar excess among loss. This loss could be a love but it is more like a culture; it is more like a voice and the condition from which to speak or sing it. The loss of lyric, its possibilities of address, and the loss or deferral or ruination of place itself. Maybe this is Lana’s lyric maturity, a generational acceptance that ‘young and beautiful’ is no longer the apex state of what we should strive for. Absence tenders complexity. Is this, as Roy Scranton puts it, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene? This question of mutability, the green-winged eye that sees a darkening world, a lack of birds along the bay, an edge. In the video for ‘The greatest’, Lana’s jacket reads LOCALS ONLY on the back. I google the phrase and find a hipster restaurant in Toronto with the slogan, LET’s PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED. There’s a kind of parochial nihilism that glisters like the light on the sea, but the sea can never be local only. There’s a boat in the video whose name is WIPEOUT. It’s all happening; the signals are obvious. How we are practicing the absent-presence of the name’s erasure. My tongue gets twisted when I say anthropos; I want to say mess, I fall into ‘guest’ and ‘gesture’. With its glaring cinematics, LA offers the hospitality of light. But it is an exclusionary light. For now, only some of us get lit, get to the mic.

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Lana sings from within the metallic architectures of LA’s coastal infrastructure, the port. In the bar, she throws a dart and misses her target by a nonchalant smidge, knocks the 8-ball towards its pocket. I keep thinking about exports and imports, what we put out, take in and trade. Economies of luck and depth and surface. Maybe Lana is a hydrofeminist, her soaring lyric gesture recalling a hauntology of America as that dreamscape of what lies beyond or in the deep. And now we know it is further extinction, precarity, hardened borders. What do we do with that looming closure? Lana has shrugged off her jacket now, she’s smoking in the kitchen where the lid slides off the pan to let the steam out. I’m not saying we’re sitting on a pressure cooker here. There’s simply work to do, mouths to feed, ears to fill. This is a ballad, a paean to the transient, fragile beauty of everything. The songs shown again on the jukebox are songs of a type of blues specific to oceanic or cosmic consciousness, to hunger, the time of lost summer or that of a broken love:

Janis Joplin — ‘Kozmic Blues’

Dennis Wilson — ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’

Sublime — ‘Doin’ Time’ 

David Bowie — ‘Ashes to Ashes’

Jeff Buckley — ‘Last Goodbye’

Leonard Cohen — ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’

I’ve spoken before of what ‘anthropocene sadcore’ might look like in poetry. I’m still working through that. It comes from the common phrase used to describe Lana’s music, ‘Hollywood sadcore’. I’m interested in how that emphasis on mediation, transmission and cinema plays out in our understanding of ecological emergency, but more generally the existential condition of the anthropocene, which places us as geologic agents under the generalised, gendered rubric of Man. Maybe Anna Tsing’s feminist work on the ‘patchy Anthropocene’ could be applied to the cut scenes of a glossy Los Angeles caught on video. A patch is also a software update, where comprised code is ‘patched’ into the code of an executable program. Maybe the patchy anthropocene involves this kind of cultural patchwork: the lament to a love or a culture is patched to include this bug of ecological consciousness — the patch is a kind of coded pharmakon, poison and cure for apocalypse blues. But Lana paints in shades of yellow too. Blue and yellow making aurora borealis green. A cosmic gesture to what lies beyond thought. And what of those oil rigs in the distance, glistening. They form an audience to the siren’s lament; they are part of this story, and we are mutually complicit. Where the magnetism of the male gaze is often part of Lana’s canon, here it is mostly replaced by oil rigs — supplementary Man as the infrastructure of anthropos, looking back at its melancholic, warning siren. Softcore is less affective than sadcore; it is the ambient hum of climax coming. Its cousin is the slowcore, luminous melancholia of a band like Red House Painters, perhaps: Purple nights and yellow days / Neon signs and silver lakes / LA took a part of me / LA gave this gift to me’. 

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In Bluets (2009), Maggie Nelson writes of a restaurant she used to work in, where the walls were ‘incredibly orange’. After each shift, collapsing exhausted in her own home, ‘the dining room’ of the restaurant ‘reappeared in my dreams as pale blue’:

For quite some time I thought this was luck, or wish fulfilment— naturally my dreams would convert everything to blue, because of my love for the colour. But now I realise that it was more likely the result of spending ten hours or more staring at saturated orange, blue’s spectral opposite. 

(Nelson 2009: 43)

Orange and blue, water and flame. The mind’s alchemical transformations reveal the way colour works chiastically upon us. I think of Freud’s mystic writing pad, the waxen surface of memories allowing for palimpsest versions of stories that trace and erase. ‘This is a simple story’, Nelson writes, ‘but it spooks me, insofar as it reminds me that the eye is simply a recorder, with or without our will. Perhaps the same could be said of the heart’ (2009: 43). ‘Fuck it I love you’, sung to the blue-orange wall until something comes off that surface like a static or fizz. Irn bru, ironed blue. There is quinine in my dreams of hungover labour. Surely there is a violence to this particular love, that is staring, necessary. The love of what must be limitless hurts.

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Janis Joplin’s ‘Kozmic Blues’ rises to a swell, a jostling of guitar licks and urgent, assured vocals. A sonic thickening. ‘So mastered by the brute blood of the air’, H.D. writes in ‘Leda and the Swan’. Held in that vascular shudder that acclimatises to a manmade world, what happens next is a loosening, a shimmer, a shrug of the garment. In the poem or song, in the painting or film, in the collapse of that wave into a bluer future. To incur a kind of erosion and yet live on in those terminals. ‘There’s a fire inside of everyone of us’, Joplin sings, and I think not of flames but of cinders. ‘At what temperature do words burst into flame?’, asks Ned Lukacher in the introduction to Derrida’s Cinders (1987), ‘Is language itself what remains of a burning? Is language the effect of an inner vibration, an effect of light and heat upon certain kinds of matter?’ (Lukacher 1987: 3). I know if I did not write I would smoke. These acts of temporality in its material extinguishing. What makes the remembered restaurant blue, not orange, is something of this transmogrified smoulder — an inversion akin to af Klint’s swans, demanding that splash of blue. When I write, am I pursuing the absent space of that skyward blue?Blue is the colour of the planet from the view above, Lana swoons in a song (‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’) from her previous album, Lust for Life (2017). But in Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana’s California album for 2019, it’s less of this ‘above’ we see. We are held within the infrastructure, cinema, the end of summer. The dreamlike logic of How did she get on that boat? When did she enter that room? Who put that song on the jukebox, baby?

I want to say:

It takes an ocean not to break a planet.
It takes not a planet to break a species. 

Lana’s voice grows wispier as she sings of that burnout. There’s this imperative that okay we could enjoy this with American flags, we could pour communal Jack and go down in flames. We could riff the history of our culture in archives of song, gestures and nods of reference. Ladies of the Canyon, Cinnamon Girl, Norman Fucking Rockwell. We could keep laughing or dancing while the world is or was at war. Lana is both behind and at the bar, the sightline of where we go to be ‘served’. Intoxication is the order of the day and we call it ‘fun’ to put the fucking of other people’s desires under erasure, strikeout, as Bolland does.

If this is it, I’m signing off
Miss doing nothing, the most of all
Oh I just missed a fireball
L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot
Kanye West is blond and gone
“Life on Mars” ain’t just a song
Oh, the lifestream’s almost on

(Lana Del Rey, ‘The greatest’)

Miss doing nothing’: post-recessional ennui becomes the paradoxical happiness of living in static, not working as a kind of work that resists the future as set out by capitalist horizons of accumulation. We used to just ‘hang out’ and several other dreams of youthful nostalgia. Kids of today can’t even touch that innocence. We know so much; maybe or probably they know more. We are all variously entranced by the softcore unfold of this happening; we are all variously called upon to be complicit, to recycle, act, resist. To speak or not-speak. To be in one of many different levels of rising heat. The conditional state of being’s value, ‘If this is it’, in the anthropocene raises its pitch to a charge. To sign off is a form of surrender that gives up the name for the blur of species. I think of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the planet that would smash us and yet somehow Lana dodges it, that

The audience in the bar where she sings are mostly men, but their gaze is not sexual, as in much of Lana’s prior visual oeuvre. Rather, their longing gaze, often filtered through further glass, is something like the profound melancholy of a multi-generational sense of this loss. These old men have lost the planet, the one they grew up with, just like Lana’s siren, come from some other time, a life ahead of her steered by the changing climate, the hurt and vengeful seas. The camera holds close ups on their staring faces. The song holds the long durée of a loss that spans generations, damages and is damaged by elders, sparks in the present-tense of cultural tendency. In Lana these men look to a future hurt whose cause was partly theirs, as inheritors of industry: she is both victim and heroine, singing and swinging. The shot opens out to reveal her smiling with younger friends, her own generation. These intimacies are what we have left. The next shot shows some kind of factory or refinery leaking smog into a cloudy, overcast skyline, sulphured yellow. Once again the boat appears with its title, WIPEOUT. Lana is supine on the bow at sunset. She is golden, angelic, silhouette. It’s like she missed the fireball but melted it, cooked it up for tea, apocalypse syrup. Things are going down around us. She hugs her arms, later standing, laughing with a dreamlike intimation of imagined elsewhere, closing her eyes. Be hospitable to yourself and others. The reel of the jukebox keeps ever turning: this is our ever faith in culture. We have to take care of what’s left in whatever space we can make of song, duration. 

But the mainstream disciples and idols of Hollywood are failing, Kanye West is ‘gone’. Surely a reference to Elon Musk’s plans to save us by colonising Mars, ‘“Life on Mars” ain’t just a song’ is sung with a melancholy matter-of-factness, a kind of sigh which implies the banality of techno-utopia in a time of extinction. The thrill of such dreams is lost now. We lost our faith in Hollywood, lost our faith in the movies and the scale of those solutions. In a world without books, we’d be ‘bound to that summer’, addicted to one of many narcissistic ‘counterfeit[s]’ to make love to nightly in futile repetition — that would be, as Weyes Blood sings, the ‘Movies’. 

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What we look back with: 

The trauma is not, in the Freudian lexicon, this or that violation from the world (such as war), but the ill and trauma of this originary installation of “the cave”—what could properly be called the cin-anthropocene epoch, particularly given that the era of modern cinema is to be regarded merely as an episode: that of the machinal exteriorization of the cinematic apparatus, given that it coincides with the era of oil (artefacted “light”), given that its arc coincides with that hyperconsumptive acceleration leading to mass extinction events, ecocide, and an emerging politics of (managed) extinction

(Cohen 2017: 246)

The trauma of greatness as such is this accelerated promise of the dream, the event, capitalist growth, the movie itself — whose imperative is towards scene, closure, episodic narrative in demand of the next. But the drinks in this video are barely drunk; they are more like props. Everyone is aware of their place in the tableau vivant of the anthropocene, even in its softcore, consumerist pop expression: the iconography of oil rigs, downbeat affect and intergenerational longing. Not a violation from the world so much as the stream, and where its accumulative logic would eventually come to crisis, even as corporations beyond our imagining were already plotting that logic of a break within archival excess: the feverish incineration of the present, the smoulder and melt that smogs and spreads and streams. 

Fire is there or it is not there. […] But surely there is a word for that moment when a fire log, beneath its bark, has become one immanent ember, winking like a City or a circuit board; for that moment when you know only the desire, no, the need to stir it up. What is on fire, you ask yourself, staring into that waiting. What is that moment. What is that word. 

(Lennon 2003: 434)

The nights ‘on fire’ that Lana sings of are those of the Beach Boys, reprieve of the sixties; the bar on Long Beach that served as a ‘last stop’ before the tiny island retreat of Kokomo. Frank O’Hara died on Fire Island. Fire is presence or absence, but there is a moment before it is both. A slippage between the extinct and extinguished. And the world was lit up as before. I wonder if the word Brian Lennon looks for is simply ‘sleep’, the title of his essay which I first read in John D’Agata’s anthology, The Next American Essay — with intimations of that Lana song, ‘The Next Best American Record’. What is with America and the positioning of the next. A constant state of pressurised imminence that streams and streams: ‘We lost track of space / We lost track of time’ (‘The Next Best American Record’). We sleep into death or spirit. My first legal drink was a fireball whisky, in a pub by the sea they built in a church. That moment when you know only the ‘need to stir it up’, fanning the flames. That impulse towards blitz feels extra political in these contexts. We need something of relief that would stream, and in that flow be more than a question. Something of cinders, drifting. 

In Lana’s song, I’m interested in this word ‘lifestream’, which seems like a slippage from the more familiar internet-lingo, the ‘livestream’: the coming live that seems provisional to digital retro-future, the promise of satellites beaming the present, simultaneously. Lifestream, instead, is a vascular imaginary of bodies flowing together. ‘LifeStream’ is actually the name of a blood bank serving the Inland Empire and its surrounding areas. Lifestreaming is, Wikipedia tells me, ‘the act of documenting and sharing aspects of one’s daily social experiences online’. It is the flow of the timeline, akin to the wall, the blogroll, the feed. But here, at the end of the song, the promise of information’s overflow is in a liminal state — ‘almost on’. Extinction’s monetised data cast as the simultaneity of thick presence spread by millioning participants. We are here and we said something, our words were atoms, splashes of blue. We stream towards a life, cut ourselves short on the fragments of others’ desires. Mortality’s softcore contingent. The fear of missing out is assuaged by the narcotising work of cinema. And if this is it, Lana has already signed off. It’s something more like her spirit that’s here for us, the stream of an echo, fold of a song that we could replay, continue voicing. Hope lies in the circadian rhythm, the lived time of a pause in the anthropocene’s ceaseless, cinematic duration — that which we see and drown our hearts in. As Jean Rhys’ drunken, depressed protagonist of Good Morning, Midnight (1939 – the year WWII began) muses, ‘Well, sometimes it’s a fine day, isn’t it? Sometimes the skies are blue. Sometimes the air is light, easy to breathe. And there is always tomorrow….’ (Rhys 2000: 121). And what if tomorrow was the greatest loss of them all? 

~

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All screen grabs taken from here (Director: Rich Lee) and here (Director: Natalie Mering). 

~

Works Cited: 

Bolland, Emma, 2019. Over, In, and Under (Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe). 

Cohen, Tom, 2017. ‘Arche-Cinema and the Politics of Extinction’, boundary 2, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 239-265.

Fitzgerald, Zelda, 2001. Save Me the Waltz (London: Vintage). 

Jamie, Kathleen, 2012. Sightlines (London: Sort of Books). 

Lennon, Brian, 2003. ‘Sleep’, The Next American Essay, ed. by John D’Agata, (Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press), pp. 427-234.

Lispector, Clarice, 2014. Agua Viva (London: Penguin). 

Lukacher, Ned, 1987. ‘Introduction: Mourning Becomes Telepathy’, Cinders, trans. by Ned Lukacher, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), pp. 1-18. 

Moten, Fred, 2017. Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being) (Durham: Duke University Press). 

Nelson, Maggie, 2009. Bluets (Seattle: Wave Books). 

Rhys, Jean, 2000. Good Morning, Midnight (London: Penguin). 

Riley, Denise, 2000. The Words of Selves: Identification: Solidarity, Irony (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 

Scranton, Roy, 2015. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilisation (San Francisco: City Lights Books).

Stiegler, Bernard, 2017. ‘The Proletarianization of Sensibility’, boundary 2, Vol. 44, No,. 1, pp. 5-18. 

 

Radical Tenderness: An Interview with Kiran Leonard

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‘Radical tenderness’, Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chávez write in their 2015 manifesto of the same title, ‘is to be critical and loving, at the same time’, it ‘is to not allow our existential demons to become permanent cynicism’. In the world we find ourselves in — call it the Trumpocene, the Anthropocene or simply late fucking capitalism — it’s difficult to resist this cynicism, to find productive ways of channelling the angst and frustrations that belong to us but also seem much more than us, that link our smallest actions to global feedback loops. How do we productively engage with events whose scales elude our usual modes of expression? Naming his latest album Western Culture, Kiran Leonard could be forgiven for falling short of doing justice to such a sweeping title, but that would be missing the point. As Leonard says:

as a phrase I think [Western Culture] is really funny, because when somebody says it it’s got these heavy grandiose connotations, like they’re drawing at the roots of something — but the phrase has no concrete meaning in itself. Any attribute you can apply to it, there are hundreds of examples throughout history where you can undermine it as a term. It’s not consistent.

The term Western Culture is one of many problematic signifiers that Leonard unpicks across the ten songs of his new record. With deft combinations of subtlety and sweep, Western Culture explores the poetry and politics that are possible in the present moment, casting a nuanced, historical long-view over the conflicts many other indie practitioners seem ill-equipped to sing about, let alone talk about. But maybe the lyric mode is its own conversation.

After reviewing Western Culture for GoldFlakePaint, I sit down to chat to the Saddleworth songwriter ahead of his gig at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint, with support from mesmerising Heir of the Cursed (based in Glasgow via Dumfries and Kenya) and the otherworldly Ubaldo, hailing from Spain. What’s striking about the support acts is the stark intensity of their work: Heir of the Cursed weaving stories with her crystalline voice and guitar, Ubaldo sending the bustling crowd into trance with his splintering, almost meteorological arrangements. Leonard’s own performance explodes that intensity with a full band, shaking the room up with an irresistible sense that this was something to see. I find myself jotting odd tuning commentary on my phone: ‘Tom from MySpace this goes out to you, to a happier internet’.

I ask Leonard what kinds of crowds he typically gets at his gigs, and aside from the reliable 6 Music Dad demographic, there’s definite interest from younger audiences who find themselves drawn to what seems different. He mentions going to see Norwich duo Let’s Eat Grandma in London and being delighted to find ‘an amazing cross section between queer teenagers and 6 Music Dads’. It’s nice to see the demographics of gig-going crowds evolving alongside supportive stalwarts. Aside from the general enthusiasm of youth, part of this, I suggest, is due to a bit of innovation in the kinds of gigs folk are putting on now. In March, Leonard had a break before uni exams and ran his own solo tour. I caught him playing Mono alongside local artist/poet Jessica Higgins and experimental guitarist Jon Collin, an event billed as ‘late start feel good sit down heavy listening/viewing after hours party’. He’s also done the rounds of pubs and arts collectives, as well as Manchester Central Library.

Although Leonard admits it can be tricky to get people to respond in-depth to his lyrics, there’s something of a latent DIY energy in his work that crowds definitely respond to. The care he takes with his lyrics (you can read them, lovingly presented, for free here) is basically akin to poetry; but with the energy of math-rock rhythms and tendencies towards epic or eccentric riffs, even the more intricate or ‘difficult’ lines deliver a universal punch. It’s important to highlight this word lyric, because what Leonard does is play with voice, and I don’t just mean those Jeff Buckley-esque leaps of octave: he inhabits the lives of other characters, marries marginalised experiences with structural forces, pulls us into the harmony of chorus, makes literary use of his academic background. There’s a sublime quality throughout Western Culture that is nevertheless controlled by a narrative arc, where clamour is followed by quiet reflection, walls of noise by careful intricacy, suspension by release. You can tell Leonard has thought long and hard about the challenges involved in singing about the morass of chaos and apathy that we are faced with as millennials, human beings, selves and others, innocents and actants all at once. He writes about the sad decline of a man who loses his job and struggles to ask for help (‘Working People’) with the same deftness used to tackle a lecture delivered by a human rights lawyer (‘Exactitude and Science’). There’s a timeliness and timelessness across the album, which makes it as rousing as it is reflective. It offers both the noise and stillness we need in a time of insidious, pervasive war, migrant crisis, media confusion and mass extinction. With so many people and species and values lost on this planet, sometimes it’s all you can do to cling to a single voice, bask awhile in its quiet wisdom, which rises sometimes to a shout.

For it’s the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ that Leonard points me to when I ask him about the role of empathy in his work. D’Emilia and Chávez, both transfeminist activists and performance artists, describe the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ as an ‘embodied poetic exercise of resistance’, and you might say the same about tonight’s cathartic performance at The Hug. I sense that tenderness, for Leonard, is not just affective choice, but an ethical position to take as a maker of culture, a way of being radically self-reflexive, conscious and careful of one’s positioning and power in a world that demands immediate expression and response, a crowded echochamber where we fight to be heard. Radical tenderness asks for space, consideration, which isn’t always easy for anyone who spends a lot of time online.

For Leonard, the song that most engages with this idea of radical tenderness is ‘Unreflective Life’:

‘Unreflective Life’ is the song on the record most to do with [radical tenderness], but a lot of that is to do with misconceptions around internet use. The internet not as this thing that magnifies the self but instead the thing that disintegrates it. The metaphor I came up with to describe it was: if we think of narcissus as a figure that looks into the lake and sees his reflection, the computer sees every particle in the water and loses a sense of themselves. So there are strands I try to follow in that song: the first is the individual anaesthetised by the weight of history, they can see and access everything so how can there be a capacity for activity; the second strand is fascism — if we want to make a neutral generalisation of what fascism is, it’s an extremist desire for things to make sense. […] What I wanted to get across is that there’s almost like a desire to find something beyond this complete exhaustion by violence.

And of course violence is there in that search for meaning, it’s the wrench that stings in lyric, it’s the painful awareness of one’s complicity, one’s own frustrations, one’s disintegrated identity. But there’s an ancient, philosophical beauty in that search for meaning, even when manifested in the fraught conditions of the contemporary. While many musicians respond with sheer anger or apathy, aggressive walls of sound that do little but mimic the frustrated commuter’s journey on the London Underground, Leonard is striving for something genuinely different. He’s writing from the heart, he’s writing from the history of literature, he’s writing sensitively from different languages and cultures (Leonard studied Spanish and Portuguese at university); I’d wager that he’s making genuine attempts to swerve the passage of the western indie canon. And he does it with a humbleness, eloquence and care that inspires me to try harder with my own writing.

We talk about the lyric ‘fiction in leverage’ from ‘Exactitude and Science’ and Leonard suggests that ultimately the song is about how much of the Israel and Palestine conflict is

a question of maps and lines: how do we redraw, who drew what. That supplants the very real murderers and human beings. That’s an aspect of the Borges story [from which the song takes its title] that I think is very true, especially if you think about the way representation now more than ever preempts everything, the way that things are framed becomes reality.

Going back to his previous thoughts on the internet’s disintegration of identity, I suggest this is what web 2.0 does: maybe social media is a sort of map that constantly remakes itself and the world through targeted ads and data dissemination, these endless feedback loops that we navigate in the map, rather than with it. So all questions of identity and conflict, from something as individual as cultural selfhood or ‘brand’ to geopolitical conflict, are all about framing, the tailoring of fictions.

When asked if he writes consciously within a cultural context, Leonard responds:   

I feel like in terms of what I’m trying to do, maybe it’s not a question of communicating something but instead to assess what the value of that communication is. A lot of the songs on Western Culture are to do with this difficult paradox within art-making in the context of general communication and articulation. On the one hand, writing something in response to an event is — from most pragmatic points of view — a waste of time, and I think you see this in a lot of post-Trump art: a lot of it’s really bad, pointless and coming from an arrogant place. Being anti-Trump is the easiest thing in the world; organising against him is difficult but writing against him is a complete performance. One of the things ‘Exactitude in Science’ is about is that these kind of verbal responses are almost doomed to fail because they lack a physical activity in the world, yet at the same time it’s impossible to deny that the way these things are framed within language both changes the way that we interact within reality and also changes the way that that reality happens.

Art, then, has the power to structure reality. We can’t escape ideology, we can’t write from some ideal non-partisan position, we can’t deny that every little event in culture is contributing to the way politics, identity and such abstractions as space or time are framed. We can’t dismiss the complex identity politics of a pop song with ‘Oh it’s just a song, it doesn’t mean anything’. Even as this process becomes increasingly diffused with the internet, the album is a form that, like the lyric poem, bears a cultural weight. People still talk about albums on the radio; Leonard admits most of his gig-going audience is probably owed to coverage from BBC 6 Music. This isn’t an admission of hubris around the importance of music, but a humble statement about a cultural artifact and its wider dissemination. And hopefully a statement of hope. Albums express things, they are containers of multiple points of view, they provide escape from reality while changing the way we experience reality. They are points of contact, contrast, friction. Leonard elaborates:  

The central thing in ‘Exactitude in Science’ is a talk I went to given by an international human rights lawyer, which leads him into work around Israel and Palestine. Inevitably when he’s invited to talk about these things, he’s saying he’s doing all these things but he’s mostly failing, admitting that we’re not getting further with this. If there are active attempts to amend oppressive activities, what’s the point of verbal responses? It shows an interesting juxtaposition between framing the world through language and how that impacts on the world, especially with that incredibly complex and sad issue, which is totally a question about how we verbalise what genocide is. And the difference between that has an impact on the extent to which that genocide is perpetuated. So yeah, especially if we’re dealing with any of the big-2016 nonsense — it’s about thinking through when I’m speaking in the world, speaking against a thing, what world am I looking at, what world am I creating when I say these things, and what worlds are other people creating.

It strikes me that this is more succinctly and eloquently put than many of the academic perspectives I’ve come into contact with during my five years of higher arts education. Stepping back from who might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a complex, entangled, deeply historical issue, we should ask ourselves what we are doing when we comment on something we might be involved in, or otherwise ‘simply observing’. What world do our opinions and comments contribute to? It resonates with so much about what we do when we make art of any kind, when we express anything in this cultural sphere or that. This admission of the gravitas of the speech act; awareness that what I am saying has impact, accumulates within a wider discourse, ripples across the water, does something.

I was curious to find out if Leonard had much experience with a sense of cultural commons within the music industry. While his first two LPs were recorded at his parents’ house (Leonard grew up in a ‘really old farm, so the neighbours were never really an issue’), after label Hand of Glory picked that work up he had the opportunity to participate more in the Manchester scene, on a somewhat tangential basis. Leonard is clearly comfortable with making music on his own, and while he admits most of his attempts to form bands ‘never really worked out’, it’s clear he gels well with the musicians that play with him on this tour. What’s more interesting, however, in his response to this question, is a point he makes about representation in arts communities:

Music is often less receptive than other art communities to think about the contextual importance of their scene and representation within their scene. In Manchester there was quite a big debate around a venue which had an all-dude bill on a night, and when someone called them out and started a boycott it was surprising how that concept developed — the gig was eventually pulled and replaced with an open panel discussion on the day. I often feel like in art communities, because it’s grounded in theory from the get-go, people get it.

It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the next few years, whether the music industry will continue to take representation seriously and how this plays out in terms of the politics of promotion and access around diverse identities. Does DIY and self-release culture present a formidable challenge to the mainstream, whose macho Gallagher avatars still haunt the walls of many a Manchester pub?

Aside from this nuanced, socially responsible approach to music and lyric expression, we also talk about bands who do provocation in more direct ways. Specifically, our shared love of Death Grips. Leonard mentions a quote from Mark Fisher’s K-Punk about how Kurt Cobain is a symbolic embodiment of ‘the person who’s completely exasperated by the thing in culture where the best thing to play on MTV is a thing that’s against MTV’. If consumer capitalism subsumes all postmodern attempts at irony and critique, maybe we need something that’s ‘reactionary in the right way’, rather than simply ‘hostile and alienating’, as Leonard puts it. As an all-male band making noise rock, it’s important, he admits, to be aware of what the ‘imperative’ is here. For Leonard, Death Grips seem to get this spot on. He refers to their work as ‘genuinely funny and provocative, the real deal’: ‘they manage to make something on paper that could be incredibly macho and annoying, but I kinda like the character of MC Ride – I like his words, he’s a vulnerable figure in his lyrics, incredibly intelligent’. Not to mention the fact of the band crossing the line of business, and deliberately getting dropped from their label.

Maybe what we need in a time of crisis and fragmentation is a turn to something maximalist or long-form, sensorially and intellectually challenging, or (with regards to mainstream culture) simply ‘imperfect’ in some sense. Leonard agrees that there’s probably

a hunger for people to see a process where you work stuff out. I think art’s very prone to answering, because a lot of artists are very arrogant and think they have the answers, to say it in a plateau kinda way. But I think that’s really important — going back to what we were saying at the beginning of this conversation — to be against atrocity and fascism in a verbal way is easy, but it’s often more helpful, especially with something like the Brexit vote, to properly engage with the reasons for that, to take in the history. The way we think about the European vote is riddled with amnesia; I find it funny that nobody talks about the miners’ strike around this issue.

We’re almost out of time, and there’s still so much to unpack here. Kiran Leonard is someone you could share many a pint with and learn a lot from, but I’m also content listening to him as we sip water in the venue basement, the ethereal sounds of Ubaldo’s soundcheck leaking from upstairs. I ask him what’s next, now that he’s got his degree and some solid album reviews under his belt. I’m especially interested in whether he’s considered working with poetry or translation. Leonard tells me he’s ‘hoping to put a pamphlet out next which year which is a load of very short essays which are tangentially relevant to songs on this last record’ and also an exciting new double-CD release, which promises one side of ‘long abstract’, ‘kinda My Bloody Valentine but more through-composed’ songs and the other ‘more sparse acoustic songs’. ‘Something that’s got more space in it’. It’s only been about forty minutes and already I feel a lot of my worldly cynicism dissipate. There is still so much to be said for the world, and I want to hear it.

~

Western Culture is out now via Moshi Moshi.

 

Mining the Light: My Time in Orkney

 

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I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?

I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.

Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.

When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.

The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016)a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.

I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.

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At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.

Places I have been hit by wind:

  • The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
  • The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
  • Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
  • The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
  • On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.

I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.

On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.  

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The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.

I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.

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We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.

I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.

‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.

We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.

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I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.

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On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.

The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.

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Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.

Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.

Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.

Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).

 

Top Albums, Tracks, EPs & Gigs of 2017

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This year, I tried to be organised. I floated over to Fopp on my work breaks, spent endless insomniac hours trawling music blogs, Bandcamp and rabbit hole Subreddits. Each time a new record came out, I scribbled its name in the back of a notebook. The notebook filled up with to-do lists, scratches of poetry, drawings of flowers and mountains. The flowers and mountains became nothing but lines. I forgot the context in which first I drew them, late at night on some estranged floor of the library. The same purple docs I wore every day acquired more bumps and cracks, splitting where leather meets friction and time. I kicked a lot of yellow leaves. There were rustlings. My list of albums grew bigger.

I kept monthly playlists on Spotify, hurling each track that entered my orbit into one long and incoherent list. Every premiere written, every review or simple tweet, acquired archival significance. These are songs that mean something; if not to me, then to another person, shuffling their collection for inspiration. A significant portion of my summer was taken up by any music pertaining to Twin Peaks: The Return: whether the lurid allure of Chromatics’ hyper-saturated playlists, Au Revoir Simone’s sultry, lo-fi dreaminess, or Sharon Van Etten’s breathless ballad of devastation, ‘Tarifa’. The weird logic of Lynch’s universe started to rip shreds from normality; I was doing archive work and writing for The Absent Material Gateway project and falling through new age webpages, crystal collections, alien sound effects, subaquatic moans and blips.

In all this abyss of otherworldly intrusion, I started to realise that writing can be a technology for tuning to experience beyond the daily; that like music it doesn’t just tell a story but alters your sense of reality. Music becomes and exists as an object—a nexus of affect—glistering temporarily in air and lingering as memory and shapes of tones and vowels. Music causes things to happen, sensations to cling at the skin or the vision. There are so many feedback loops between skin and sound and vision, between the body and its organs—the world within and beyond collapsing.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations, recently, about the trickiness of an end-of-year list. I mean for starters, I haven’t even listened properly to Bjork’s new album yet. I fell into a lot of old music too, drowned out a dissertation summer with comforting nostalgia: Lou Reed, The Delgados, Jeff Buckley, Neutral Milk Hotel and Boards of Canada. But let’s try to keep it fresh. I did a top 15 in 2015, a top 16 in 2016; I guess I’ll keep going this way so that every year I’ve an excuse to write about more records. Lots of tasty, memory-making songs. This was supposed to be 17, but I ended up writing 18, because you’ve got to preserve the remainder.

There’s possibly a correlation between increasing nocturnalism and one’s music taste. Certain music I only listen to when the sky darkens, or when I’m small inside my room. Other tunes require movement; walking or dancing or doing yoga. My relationship to a record is about as mercurial as most of my memories, and as such changes its colour and feeling with every wax and wane of the moon. I like something and then I like it less, or maybe forget it. I’m emotional, then as ever so comfortably numb. Still, some records stick; they wedge themselves hard as candy in the blood. Add several pounds to the heart. I’ll try to write down which ones hit me the most, which ones were just bloody good. But also ones I haven’t written about much yet, which means I picked The Horrors, for example, over Sufjan Stevens, or Courney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s lovely transatlantic jewel, Lotta Sea Lice. There are some records I’ve missed out simply because I haven’t had time to process my thoughts beyond immediate bewildering yassss or wow or what? (Ho99o9, Out Lines, Richard Dawson, Fred Thomas—to name but a couple).

This list therefore, is inevitably limited; its generic reach small, its order somewhat arbitrary (in fact, I decided on alphabet rather than taste this time). But life is fleeting so it’s worth noting down what matters to me in this moment, maybe. I guess it’s just one ripple in the pool of them all.

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TOP ALBUMS:

Bonobo Migration

It’s sometime around March and the semester is finally breaking up and I can breathe again. My friends have all got tickets for the BBC 6 Music Festival which, quite fortuitously, is in Glasgow this year. Hiding behind covers from spring’s lingering morning chill, I watch Bonobo’s set at the Barrowlands. I know my friends are there, but I can’t be, like some kind of disco taking place on Pluto. There’s an energy in the crowd, but also a certain hypnotism, distance.

Migration is a solid, complex, uplifting album. All the collaboration, the classicist exactitude, the yearning gesture towards open territory, startles me like a dream brought suddenly into sharp focus. This is less downtempo than Bonobo’s previous work; it’s not quite the deliciously sluggish, swirling subaquatic glitchwork of Black Sands, nor the slow-building euphoria of ‘Flashlight’.

There’s an ecological vibe stirring under these tracks, not just because of the cover, which depicts a tall char of flame in the centre of a prehistoric landscape, the orange contrasting with smouldering azure. ‘Migration’ is a loaded term in these times, when many of the world’s people find themselves displaced across borders and oceans. These are uncertain times, more so than most maybe, and there’s a restless energy to Bonobo’s record that conveys this well. It’s catchy, percussive, melodic sure; but such qualities lend themselves smoothly to a pensive weight. While Grains’ and ‘Break Apart’ build to reflective intensity, the sense of things disintegrating in painful slow-motion, ‘Second Sun’ and ‘7th Sevens’ are spacious and melancholy, something to drift to. ‘Kerala’ has an earworm club vibe, while ‘Outlier’ feels kinda Four Tet. ‘Ontario’, with its trip-step beat and twinkly cross-plucked strings and keys, has all the background drama of a stressful video game, made sublime by its rhythmic intricacy.

Overall, Migration is escapist, room-filling softcore electronica, but unlike many of its cheaper counterparts, it’s satisfying as well as soothing. There are moments of unsettling, of flight and swell. It’s music to think to, if thought were a circling, undulating, glistering sort of journey. Music to reach higher plains, maybe, but not quite climaxing—comforting instead.

Takeaway track: ‘Grains’

Conor Oberst, Salutations

Does it seem cheeky to include this, given that its sister album, Ruminations, was on my 2016 list? Nah. For me, there’s always room for good old Conor, his infinite bittersweet intimate wisdom which feels forever like coming home. While Ruminations was an act of hermitage, recorded in solitary Omaha during a period of personal doubt, frustration and strain (I imagine the snow rising in tandem with Conor’s blood alcohol content), Salutations feels defiantly social. A salutation, after all, is a form of greeting. Where Ruminations is decidedly introspective, viscerally raw and profoundly sad, Salutations casts these emotions outwards. These are songs you’d sing along to in public too, if this were America maybe and people sang songs other than mangled renditions of ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘500 Miles’ in pubs. Some of the songs are full-band re-workings of tracks off Ruminations, while others are totally new. You can take them as a dialogue between records, between points in your life, or take them simply as they come.

Throughout the album, Oberst inhabits and depicts many characters, those waifs and strays, those broken bodies at the brink of existence. There’s the restless soul with his broken marriage, his expensive penthouse, his drink and his whores (‘Too Late to Fixate’). There’s the dancehall of “sick folks”, the drunk waking up to abstracted reality. There’s the couple who find temporary solace in each other’s adulterous arms (‘Gossamer Thin’) and then the guy with his Old Fashioned, looking out to a wilderness of loss (‘Empty Hotel by the Sea’). At 17 tracks, this album is quite a lot of emotional meat to chew, a lot of references to alcohol to slosh on down like waves of thought. With the help of the Felice Brothers, accordions, electric guitars, choir harmonies and all, the acerbically sad reality checks (“when it’s over I’ll be talking to your grave / you might as well hear what I say”) have a sort of sonorous truth. There’s a lilt, a form of musical acceptance you might not call polished, you might call rising and free. You follow these old country cross-rhythms, follow Oberst’s earnest warble, his poetic talk of snowflakes dissolving on a vacant beach. It’s not the same painful self-extinction achieved on the minimalist, crackling production of early Bright Eyes; this is a resigned but still plaintive facing of the day. I’m not calling it middle-age, because it’s not quite that.

I’ve always been attracted to Oberst’s visual lyricism, but it feels particularly mature here, a kind of precision. He’s referencing Paul Gauguin, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Muir. I pace around a restaurant named after the latter author, rehearsing bright lines in my head while light comes in blurred through the clumsily coloured glass. I look at his eccentric, sorta corny portrait and sigh: “Tried to lose myself in the primitive / in Yosemite like John Muir did / but his eyes were blue / and mine are red and raw”. There’s a sense that maybe in all our blue-eyed dreams for wonder and freedom, we’re facing the torrefied remainders of our pasts instead. We’re finding ourselves trapped in singular hue. Maggie Nelson, in Bluets:

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly.

The seduction of colour is its own danger. You’ve got to split what keeps you pent up in your singular sorrow: “Burn down the place where I belong.” Let the ashes roll on. Here’s Conor Oberst, a rollicking sort of Southern rock’n’roll track—‘Napalm’—with its cutting sarcasm, straight out of a sharp Desaparecidos punk lyric: “sometimes you need a vigilante / if you wanna get a just thing done”.

In all that bad nostalgia, that obsessive heartache, those country drawls and Georgian howls, roads to Omaha and highways to the sky, to New York city and the brainwashing lure of celebrity, it’s easy to get lost in the beautiful mess: “I’ve lost my true love.” Oberst stomps around, makes a lot of noise, lets raucous instrumentation do a lot of talking when he’s not delivering the witty lyrics. He’s never afraid to warble or strain against himself. It’s cathartic, it’s a touch punk, it’s kicking the cutlery draw on a Sunday afternoon because everything’s going wrong; it’s looking out to a Don DeLillo sunset, blitzed-out orange of the world’s toxic warming. It’s politicians filling their pockets, or tender-eyed friendships in the unspoken world of suffering, tvs flickering. It’s old bars, fat Americana in its thin-boned figurines, an all-embracing tapestry of the personal and political. It’s one big spit in the nihilist void, in the face of Trump; a celebration of all music can do in its coarsest, warmest, most ramshackle form. There’s the jam, the collaboration, the energy. These are songs that tell stories, that reflect, take time on their subjects.

The front cover depicts Oberst lying face-down in a pool, apparently out of it for good. But then lift the sleeve and he’s got the life-ring, he’s being saved, he’s breathing. There’s that ironic play on a recovery narrative, sure, but it’s hardly draped with insincerity. There’s still a weight, a weariness, a distance—as on ‘Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out’, where Oberst sings in second-person.

What gets me the most, however, is the genuine sense of revelation that sometimes unfurls on this album. It’s not surprise at the world’s change, it’s not the extravagant burden of the blues. It’s the traversals of everyday survival and human connection: “sometimes it’s the simple things that make it all okay”. It’s the tentative gesture towards solution, but also the careful refusal of solution’s possibility; a refusal that allows us to look to the future, while remaining okay with only a sketch, a blueprint for good in a world so fast, so materially precarious, it threatens to smudge all of us out before the end anyway: “I’m not content / but I’m feeling hesitant to build / something that’s sacred till the end”.

Takeaway track: ‘Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)’

Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

Father John Misty is one act I did get to catch at the 6 Music Festival. Alone on stage with just guitar and piano, he cut quite the showman, wowing even a Glasgow crowd into 15-minute silence for showstopper ‘Leaving LA’. I want to hate FJM for being so damn smooth, I really do, but the sarcasm is proper magnetism.

A year or so ago, I wrote about FJM’s metamodernism, that knack for writing about serious subjects with a healthy dollup of irony. Where Misty’s previous two albums were often honed on the personal tales of narcissism and love, Pure Comedy feels societal, expansive. Whether he’s singing about Taylor Swift as some celestial, oracular sex figure, widespread iron deficiency, fluctuating gender roles or a social media troll checking Twitter on his death bed, Misty is ever irresistible. This record is maximalist and grandiose, with tracks stretching as long as 13:12 minutes (not to mention the Leonard Cohen-style endless accumulation of verse). His melodies are pitch-perfect, blending old school folk with that vague Everly Brothers rockabilly and that flawless sheen of a Bublé croon. Lyrically, things get bizarre but remain pretty sharp, surrealist.

It’s hard to work out what music to make in the age of social media, the age of Trump, the age of memes and clinical, cultural depression. How do we negotiate our predilections for cynicism and sarcasm alongside a burning need for some personal, not to mention aesthetic, sincerity? With an eye for quotidian detail and technology gone mad, the sweeping vision of a sage for the age (“Narcissus would’ve had a field day if he’d got online”), Misty has established himself as one of the slickest voices of a generation. His commentary would feel biblical, if not for its self-conscious absurdity. For Misty knows full well his own economic position in this strange churn of capital and madness. Pure Comedy is at once commercial pop at its most frank and tender, its most politically vicious and ambitious. Its most ridiculous. When your lyrics are as witty as Misty’s, who needs the hyperbole of punk—I’ll take an extravagant piano ballad, for once, over a 2-minute testosterone guitar romp.

Takeaway track: ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’

 Feist, Pleasure

I was working one of those gross and sweaty, plate and pain-balancing shifts at work when a friend on the bar popped his head around the door and asked if I’d heard the new Feist album. Of course I went home that night and listened all the way through, sunlight still flooding rich amber through my window because it was early in the year and everything was flourishing and beautiful. There’s nothing better than someone recommending you music.

Pleasure effortlessly combines early Feist’s light-touch folk with splashes of saturation that feel almost cinematic in impact, yet never take away from the sparse and spacious production. This is a record you’re permitted to work into slowly, like being at a party full of relative strangers and trying to get a handle on little bright bursts of conversation, as everything echoes internally. A record in watercolours. Pleasure is a room full of voices, of memories resounding. Everyone around you is dazzling and interesting, but you’re trying to hold onto some very pure feelings. The result of this oscillation, this tuning between solitude and company, is a sort of flagrant euphoria—the kind you might get from tossing roses upon an empty motorway, or kissing someone wildly in the rain.

It’s always a delight to hear Jarvis Cocker cropping up somewhere unexpected and he’s no unwelcome stranger here. Those northern, caramel tones edgily complement Feist’s quirky feminine shrill on ‘Century’. What first made me think, somewhat warily, of Alain Badiou and overly-complicated philosophical metaphors, became foot-stomping and raucous, with its weird and floaty spoken-word interlude. I’m melting under Cocker’s breathy voice, “almost as long as one of those endless, dark nights of the soul”, descending into a whispered refrain: “the century / the century. I look back at the 20th century, the meagre seven and a half years I lived in it, and despite all the culture and history I’ve swallowed on those times, they seem dim and mysterious in comparison to the luminous stories that haunt Feist’s album.

Whatever the affair of this record, it’s by no means an easy one. Feist documents the complicated dynamics of a crush or a love with unabashed honesty and vulnerability: “In the same city I hope you’re not / ‘Cause the town has shrunk to the size of my thoughts”. In a way, Pleasure is the beautiful result of time-wasting in the wake of a failed love; it’s the languid, wilting flower that Feist pours her tender vocal honey into, softening the pain with reverb, slowing down time. Making time for yourself, painting your own sunrises. With traditional Feist style and minimalist detail, she captures that bittersweetness on ‘Get Not High, Get Not Low’, and even nails that old-school, Sunday slowdown soul on ‘Young Up’, luring us back into a sweet-moaning organ nostalgia. I live for the soft twang of those acoustic solos, wind-chimes shimmering in the background.

The sparseness of accompaniment across the album—mostly just a few raw strums—sets the stage for that distinctive, airy voice and all its more corrosive breakdowns. Whether she’s singing of ‘The Wind’, of ‘Lost Dreams’, or leaving any party for the sake of bae, Feist is subtly precious and quietly heart-breaking. I feel fragile in the space of that album; it doesn’t exactly heal so much as it makes feeling brittle, then sparkle quite oddly. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, it’s beautiful after all.

Takeaway track: ‘I Wish I Didn’t Miss You’

Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up

I started getting into Fleet Foxes about a year too late; they’d pretty much already split by the time I was obsessively sound-tracking my summer with their verdant brand of chamber-pop pastoral. I’d decided that this was a band outside of the cultural present—surely—a band that had existed in some dimension and maybe even played gigs once upon a time, but ultimately their songs were from a place where reality smoothed into plashing fountains and anonymous fields of green. I guess that’s the effect of pastoral: its ability to resolve conflict, to press out present agonies with a certain nostalgia. What Fleet Foxes offered was a promise of total authenticity; there was little irony, it seemed, to their melodic, soulful, harmony-laden pop. It’s hard to remember that (ironically) the king of sarcasm, Father John Misty, was once their drummer.

Where Fleet Foxes swayed in its pensive dwelling, Helplessness Blues was a rush in the wind, a bit breathless and in love with a sense of presence in the earth. Crack-Up, a precious gift that came packaged in the lonely foliage of June, sees Fleet Foxes yoke their trademark sound to greater depths, richer complexities that find brief heights and shower like just so much blossom and seedpods and rain across billowing landscapes. The sound itself has grown vastly, acquired a new intricacy; whether in Pecknold’s vocal range, the textured instrumentation or truly orchestral scale of these songs. The vocals make garlands of uplifting chords, the sometime swell of an interlude drawing us irrevocably to stranger places where percussion thrums in like a sleety landslide. I’ve realised recently that listening to the record, I barely follow any of Pecknold’s words, except perhaps when he slows to a refrain. For me, they exist as performative instruments; not quite to the extent of Elizabeth Fraser’s mysterious, dadaist trills, but largely estranged from sense nonetheless. The general gist seems a more heavy, philosophical perspective; paranoid perhaps, tense and self-aware, though unafraid to burst into frustration or quiet, fleeting reflection. I don’t feel the need to linger on his lyrics the way I frankly wanted to on previous records, falling for repeated, visually abstracting lines like “Apples in the summer are golden sweet / Every day a passing complete”, as if I were reading Dylan Thomas or Yeats, my mouth full of lemon drops, sweetly devouring Cider with Rosie in all tart naivety of youth.

Crack-Up takes you far away from youth. There’s a sonorous maturity both musically and thematically, a refusal to placate you with pretty images—where meteorological grandeur—a climatic pause or crash or swell—is favoured over imagist detail. The record is eclectic, disarming; at times simply beautiful, at times frustrating and provoking in the way good solid music should be. Occasionally I’m alienated by the inscrutable references to classical mythology, other times utterly convinced by a plain meta-commentary on lyricism itself, with its careful, tender dissolve: “But all will fade / All I say / All I…”. It certainly feels like a passage, a slow ripple across a complicated tapestry of sense and sound. There’s all the filigrees of mythology which flicker below the surface, trellised among harps, Middle Eastern melodies, creeping bass, wavelets of piano, krautrock synths and clap rhythms that somehow work in tandem although maybe they shouldn’t. It’s the kind of record you need to give a lot of time too, to walk yourself through—linger and contemplate. Not everyone will want this and sometimes I don’t or can’t. I can’t give the attention it requires. Other times, it’s this very esoteric intricacy that utterly seduces. The range of moods is pretty stunning, from sweeping, time-shifting takes on regret (‘Fool’s Errand’), to introspective, soft-strummed and tightly-held ballads (‘If You Need To, Keep Time On Me’). The shifts in time signature or key across the album’s various suites have the feeling of a cycle.

There’s a sense that the standard 3 or 4-minute pop song is no longer capable of holding together the dissonant fragments of reality that Pecknold grasps at. I don’t know whether he named the album after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1936 Esquire story of the same name (‘The Crack-Up’), but the link does seem striking. Fitzgerald describes ‘all life’ as ‘a process of breaking down’, but there are special blows that come ‘from within’, blows ‘you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it’. True intelligence, Fitzgerald relates, is the ability to hold simultaneously contradictory ideas. Maybe that’s the secret to dealing with these grandiose, existential fissures that leave us gaping at the past, thirsting at the retroactive possibilities of youth.

The multi-faceted, generous and sensuous complexity of Crack-Up seems to offer itself to the slow, reflective blow; the crisis that comes over us at a time in our lives when we don’t realise until it’s too late. And then all we can do is pick over what happened, sort the fragments as they make their way through us, internally, like water slowly stained with wine. We can try to fashion something elegant from these gossamer entrails of memory: the way Pecknold relishes with long notes his clipped lines in penultimate track, ‘I Should See Memphis’, over lush and flourishing strings. There’s something about that mournful delivery, “I miss the highway”, that ekes out a need for resolution’s possibility, over resolution itself. For ultimately, in all its self-reference, introspection and visionary sweep, Crack-Up is really about a journey—inwards and outwards, this Mobius pull of a weary and yet curious eternity, as complicated and displaced as ever the present should be.

Takeaway track: ‘Third of May / Odaigahara’

Four Tet, New Energy

Earliest Four Tet memory: curled up in the backseat of my mother’s car, listening to Rounds scrolled up to full volume on my iPod classic, trying to slip into a deeper sense of what happens in the glide between street-lights, letting thoughts ebb ever closer then slosh back down where I can’t find them, buried like sweets between velcro seats. Sometimes the world feels piecemeal, and perceiving it that way is a kind of sublime, where fragmentary ambience keeps me in sync with ethereal rhythm. I’d never heard anything quite so hypnotic before; where many teenage years involved traipsing the vacant crossroad fields surrounding my town, listening to Aphex Twin to avoid the squawk of the gulls, this was something less visceral, but somehow maybe more immersive in its accessibility. There was less imperative to intensity, so you could slip in and out of tune with those lush melodies, the finely-woven instrumentation, the sense of a seamless collage that re-animated musical styles I hadn’t even dreamed of before: Jungle, breakbeat, gamelan, garage, deconstructed hip hop.

Being a teenager in the mid-noughties meant coming up when dubstep was emerging as a thing: this spooky midnight genre with its traces of rave culture, its 2-step glimpse into wobbling, alien drum and bass simultaneous with the reggae I knew much better, already loved. Hell, how many girls my age didn’t for a moment want to be Effy Stonem, sneaking out her bedroom window and stuffing her pyjamas in the neighbour’s bin while disappearing to some warehouse with crimped hair, LSD and fishnets? While dubstep’s debt to garage is more potent than Four Tet’s psychedelic underpinnings, the attraction to strangeness that prompted my first forays into underground sound is the same attraction that led me to Kieran Hebden’s eclectic, downtempo records. Listening to Rounds, I’m taken to otherworldly places set within this very world. All those harp arpeggios on ‘My Angel Rocks Back on Forth’, prettily assembled over that industrial drum click, conjure a motorway bridge with a white-clad girl leaning over, counting the lines in the traffic. Her hair is blown back by an unseen breeze and I wonder whose angel she is. There’s the squelchy, metallic Aphex synth refractors on ‘As Serious As Your Life’, which genuinely lift my heartrate; make me check around the room to ensure no massive upheaval of material existence has occurred (sometimes disappointed when it hasn’t). When things lift and there are smatterings of jazz (‘And They All Look Broken Hearted’) or post-rock breakdowns (‘Slow Jam’), melancholy landscapes become rooms without walls, opening onto new plains of imagination.

I’ve always found a gorgeous sort of sentiment in Four Tet’s music, a certain warmth that’s different from the darker, eerier style peddled by many of his contemporaries. New Energy promises more of this, and there’s an almost Balearic euphoria on tracks like ‘Two Thousand and Seventeen’, with its dulcimer glissando dragging us soothingly through the future by way of history. Could you link this album to a sort of new age/ashram trend in electronic music (cf. Happy Meals, Full Ashram Devotional Ceremony) or a more general celestial turn? Regardless, New Energy is a vibrant and truly kaleidoscopic effort: tenderly evoking new phases of life in the somnolent rounds of ‘Daughter’, plunging us into suspended, Oneohtrix Point Never-style lagoons of eerie synths, throwing a nifty garage breakbeat on top and moving towards sumptuous, smooth deconstruction (SW9 9SL) and rounding off on something pulsing, aquatic, sparkling with sitar sounds and the anonymous chorus of female sirens, a la Burial (‘Planet’). It’s quite the spiritual passage, best enjoyed at sunrise with lashings of tequila or tropical light to further enhance that ideal, future-looking rapture of plaintive mind.

Takeaway track: ‘Lush’

The Horrors, V

The Horrors are a long way away now from how I first encountered them, aged 14, while scouring the glossy pages of the NME. Back then, the shaggy hair and goth aesthetic was enough to make up for the eerie and sexily vintage but somewhat lacklustre garage they were peddling with organs and analogue beats and all (mind you, ‘Sheena is a Parasite’ is still a hit). The Horrors have since been gathering an impressively mature back catalogue of glossier, cohesive rock albums that find themselves tinged with psychedelia, surrealism and pulsing drones (Primary Colours, Skying). V floods your veins like a slow and powerful drug, reaching its surges and then purging fully from your body like a glorious, pain-sucking comedown.

These are tracks glitched with squeaking synths, swathes of retro atmospherics, industrial technics worthy of Nine Inch Nails, scintillating guitar solos and pulsing, all-encompassing beats. It’s a record poised on destruction and creation, a sense of sheer power that forces you towards emotional limits. It’s nastier than the formal coherence of previous records; V is unafraid of breaking up the languid melodies and lending the production some grit. The basslines reach a hefty groove; the rhythms are clean and the compositions highly immersive, like a cleaned-up sorta shoegaze. ‘Machine’ is just huge. Lyrically, things get a twinge dystopian, but Faris Badwan’s sultry, understated vocal delivery has you hooked on the vapourised darkness. Closing track ‘Something to Remember Me By’ has a vernal sense of renewal, a crisply uplifting beat that descends into total emotional catharsis, like hurling your feelings off a cliff.

Something about the whole album carries this feeling of plunging from a plane, everything swept by at high octane, burning in and out of its shifts of perspectives. Urgent, broken geometries, sustained by artful synths and keys, by tightly held beats. Music to walk fast to, letting the wind rip innocence from your cheeks as you try not to cry. Music that feels cool and distant despite its emotion—planetary, even. Maybe that’s why it’s so good to feel upset to, with its recalibration of all perspectives.

Takeaway track: ‘Something to Remember Me By’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5wYXnkLbD0

Johnny Flynn, Sillion

A surprising thing happened when I switched on the radio recently and not only was Cerys Matthews interviewing one of my favourite writers, Robert Macfarlane, but following the interview was a track from Johnny Flynn’s latest album. Turns out Robert and Johnny like to walk along rivers together. It makes me endlessly happy when intellectual interests crossover with music, especially as directly as this. You might also be interested to know that one of the hardest bouncers at my work—an ex-New York stockbroker, a man who can twist you into an arm-lock in three seconds flat, especially if you withhold his access to homebaked goods—is also a Flynn fan.

Johnny Flynn has always flirted with the pastoral tradition, mixing classical references with everyday musings on landscape and love in the heartsick, windswept mode of the lonely wanderer. Think Laurie Lee, if Laurie Lee had gone to a posh school and learned Shakespeare and made his picturesque idylls with a guitar and piano instead of a pen. Where the likes of Country Mile and A Larum do not stray far from folk, Sillion feels more expansive somehow. Dare I even say theatrical (not mentioning Flynn’s dual career as an actor)? There’s a movement and energy to these songs that feels more urgent; not just emotionally but somehow also physically. Listening to Sillion, I’m travelling through time as much as I am through space. There’s death, mourning, darkness here; much more so than on previous records. I might point you to Macfarlane’s excellent Guardian essay on eerie Englishness.

Sillion: a rare word that means ‘the thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plow’; a description worthy of any coruscating noun plucked from a Robert Macfarlane tweet or tome. There’s a sense that Flynn’s album excavates the past, as much as it turns over the earth and offers new grains to the sun. Toiling, tilling. I think of dust particles rising, seedpods and pollen catching gold in the late summer light, then eventually cracking. I think of a rasping radio, the shipping forecast pulling me onwards to elsewhere, the lure of the broadcaster’s syrupy tones. Westward, deathly, warnings of gales in force, visibility occasionally poor.

When Flynn sings the beginning of ‘Heart Sunk Hank’, it has the scratchy allure of a shanty ballad sung over an old, forgotten radio. A startling sense of the past’s eruption in the present, something you try and tether to on the sonorous choral of Flynn’s voice, its shifts between soft and coarse. There are proper haunting country ballads (‘The Landlord’) which feel very English, very folk (your southern longing to The Unthanks’ airy, northerly sagas). There’s some bold brass (‘In the Deepest’), and I can confirm, from his show at Saint Lukes, Flynn’s effortless ability to lift a trumpet to his lips mid vocal melody. Then there’s the eerie dirge of ‘Hard Road’; its poetry moody and timeless—‘fair thee well my love’—glinting with sprinkles of harp like pieces of quartz in asphalt or riverbank. It’s hard not to find yourself following that road, meeting your voice on its haunted harmony; finding yourself more than a little infatuated. The curse of the road is its endless recursion; the beauty being points where we meet as we do in the chorus, over and under, a promise of momentary, gorgeous presence.

Takeaway track: ‘Hard Road’

Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness

This is a very special record, for a lot of reasons. Sometimes a singer’s voice just touches you as a form of pure enchantment, soulfully rising on a languid, westerly breeze. Listening over and over, you look towards the end of the day with comfort, not sorrow. Sometimes music feels like the weather, except somehow you trust its lilting pressure, its moments of suspension, its showers. Julie Byrne makes music as pure as a valley rainfall in the middle of summer, as a quartz crystal held up to sunlight, as rain on the rusted roof of a farmhouse. The songs on Not Even Happiness are earnest explorations of the self within, as much as they attend to the natural world that permeates, surrounds. The moods of the album fluctuate softly over warming harmonies, minimalist acoustics, delicate strums. All the while, everything is led by the wistful cadence of Byrne’s gorgeous voice, rich as milk chocolate yet also somehow haunting, hollowed out where emotion cuts to the bone. This is a nomadic record, the story of a restless soul and the clefts of existence in which she’s found beautiful, ephemeral comforts. Colours and clouds and remnants of wind-blown melody. The natural world is something that often resonates from within; Byrne draws its energies and in her voice they melt so irresistibly to any listener.

I have written an essay about Not Even Happiness already, having had the privilege to basically explain why this album deserved the position it got as GoldFlakePaint’s Album of the Year, why it’s important and frankly why I love it so much. I don’t want to repeat myself, but equally I want to set down in words how precious this album is. It’s a cycle, a trail across the land. I walk the same city routes, reimagining the pastoral scenes I’m missing so bad, the half-remembered hills and fields of my youth. Here in Glasgow it rains and rains, but sometimes there’s a day of blue, even though tinged with dicey frost, leaf-bitter browns. Listening to Julie Byrne, I slow right down. It’s like she says, feel for the beauty between things. I look for the blue, the verdant green that blooms from the rain, and maybe for a while it’s all okay.

 Takeaway track: ‘Sleepwalker’

Lana Del Rey Lust for Life

With Lust for Life, Lana Del Rey declares a turn away from the solipsistic melancholy of yesteryear, towards something more collective, a gesturing to the future: “This is my commitment / My modern manifesto / I’m doing it for all of us / Who never got the chance”. I’ve struggled a lot with this album, ever since its first single ‘Love’ was released and then getting my hands on the full thing, 16 tracks and all. It’s a lot to digest; there are many collabs to stomach. When ‘Love’ came out I thought, my god has Lana just gone and written the sappiest most vapid ballad I’ve heard since John Legend’s ‘All of Me’? (Okay, I wasn’t actually that harsh). Then, after more careful listening, the song’s full thrust was upon me and I saw the complex messages encrypted within its deceptively simple lyrics. I’ve already written a hefty essay on ‘Love’ so I won’t bore you with too much here. Suffice to say, I think the song’s actually a startling, poignant address to millennial angst in the time of narcissism, Tinder and the end of the world—a probing of reality itself as much as the mundane rhythms of zero-hours existence.

As a whole, Lust for Life feels timely and indeed political in a way that no other LDR album has, other than her show-stopping debut, Born to Die. Of course, that cycle from death to life has its own satisfying trajectory, coming full circle to a sense of regeneration rather than total existential despair in the wake of Trump et al. Yet despite Born to Die’s general melancholia, the upshot is: “Try to have fun in the meantime”: Lou Reed’s ancient rock’n’roll adage to come walk on the wild side.

Lust for Life takes up that mantle of pleasure in the face of suffering and adds an ethic of care to the mix. You don’t need to listen closely to realise that ultimately this is a gesture of millennial empathy, a model for generational community. Sure, it’s a largely elite, white world, but Lana enlists her famed support (A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carty, The Weeknd, Stevie Nicks (!) and Sean Ono Lennon) for the ride. What’s more, she’s interested less in identity this time than the crowd. Lust for Life is less dreamy than Honeymoon, less the hard-edged, oft-sardonic introspection of Ultraviolence. Emerging fully-flushed in the midst of July, this record is a meta-commentary on festivals, road-trips, those long afternoons spent with friends killing time. While previously she’s garnered controversy from the likes of Francis Bean and Kim Gordon for fetishizing suicide and domestic violence, making a big deal of bedding the bad boys, this record feels—dare I say it—decidedly wholesome.

Even title track ‘Lust for Life’, featuring Canadian ‘King of Sex Pop’ The Weeknd, which should come across as a steamy duet, feels sort of Hollywood twee. The pair share a chorus, “Take off take off, take off all your clothes”, which seems less sexual than a little odd, estranging. Like, why repeat such an imperative, especially in the languid way she does? Del Rey fashions herself and The Weeknd as a sort of millennial Adam and Eve; this time with Eve in charge, swaying indulgently over fat trap beats. Their wispy, cloying falsettos come together like a sticky fantasy you don’t really want in your head. When The Weeknd sings “we’re the masters of our own fate”, you can’t help but wonder if this is a gesture towards self-empowerment in the age of political oppression and mass surveillance, or simply a cheeky imperative to jump into bed with him. With sparkly arpeggios falling away towards the song’s end, mention of love letters, there’s an electro-Disney vibe that seems to preserve its imperative for romance in the modern world.

Following the odd banality of ‘Lust for Life’ is the soaring, cinematic strings of ‘13 Beaches’. After crackling with a sample taken from 1962 horror film, Carnival of Souls, Del Rey’s distinctive symbolic lyrics take frontstage again, the song building with heavier beats as she hints at a breakdown in the flimsy paradise erected by the previous track’s saccharine lyrics: “Can I let go? And let your memory dance / In the ballroom of my mind / Across the county line”. There’s a sense throughout the album of coming up against these thresholds of self and other, now and forever. The ballad, as usual, is Del Rey’s preferred mode, but these aren’t simple declarations of loneliness and love. Rather, the ballad form contributes to the album’s overall themes of unity vs. fragmentation, public vs. private, self vs. collective: “I fall to pieces when I’m with you”; “it took 13 beaches / to find one empty / to find one that was mine”. She works in these juicy, mysterious symbols: “cherries and wine, rosemary and thyme”, “dripping peaches”. You don’t need to watch Tropico (2013) to realise Lana has a thing for the Garden of Eden in the age of hell and corruption, of caffeinated horror—Trump and his 12 Diet Cokes a day. Still, her fruits are exotic, her dialogue concrete or surreal or silly (“Fuck!” “bitch”) and a far cry from the innocent, gleaming apples of an English yesteryear.

There’s a sense throughout that Del Rey is dealing with the end of the world. I’ve just finished Roy Scranton’s compelling and slightly frightening Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and I think there’s something interesting to be said about how LDR teaches you to die while nurturing that lust for life. She paints her honeydew glaze over things, while brushing up against horror and endings. In Ecocriticism on the Edge, Timothy Clark writes of our attempts to conceive of the Earth as planet as an exercise in aporetic (im)possibility:

Language about the sight of the Earth as a planet forms a singular kind of catachresis, that is, a knowingly inadequate simile or metaphor used to convey something for which no literal or as yet accepted term exists, stretching to breaking point language derived from the seeming coherence of the world of immediate consciousness.

In ‘Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems’, Del Rey’s attempt at a sort of Anthropocene piano ballad, she evokes an aestheticized reality of bewildering scales, at once beautiful and disturbing:

Blue is the color of the planet from the view above
Long live our reign, long live our love
Green is the planet from the eyes of a turtle dove
‘Til it runs red, runs red with blood
 

Blue and green, blue and green. You can trace references to blue throughout LDR’s back catalogue and maybe there’s a case for linking her melancholic imagery to a wider sense of planetary decline. Why is the turtle dove running red with blood? Is this mere symbolism for heartache, or a synecdochical hint at the world’s ecological decay? There’s something deranging and defamiliarising, as Clark argues, about conceiving of our world as object: a ball, a planet or globe. Del Rey isn’t afraid to mangle our sense of presence and being, to stir up a sultry love song that paces her feelings against the world’s intense and interminable hurt, a kind of unknowingness from within and without. And hm, isn’t that what love is too?

The Guardian describes Del Rey’s ‘political approach [as] rooted in escapism’, and certainly there’s a narcotic, trap beat pull to her tracks that finds comfort and a kind of serenity in the age of ever-bleeping phones and 24/7 headlines. You want to sway, swing and drift. In ‘Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind’, she performs a typical Del Rey retro move of superimposing the flower power memories of the sixties with the garlanded crowds of contemporary festivals. While in previous records, this might be an act of hauntological mourning, in Lust for Life it’s a sincere take on feminine solidarity amidst acts of global violence. She prays for their safety and it’s almost maternal, or at least big-sisterly, the way she admires all the young girls wearing flowers. If Sandi Thom feels cynical about the state of contemporary politics, longing to wear flowers in her hair and join the vintage revolution, “I was born too late / to a world that doesn’t care”, then what Lana does is make that statement to her fans: trust me, I care. I’m here in the present.

And you know, for all the album’s flaws, this is what matters. LDR is an artist who’s taken a lot of flak for her risqué aesthetic, and rebuilt herself into a model for hope, without losing her skill for alluring lyrics and irresistible dream pop hooks. She’s unashamedly writing yearning love songs for the famous (‘Groupie Love’, ‘White Mustang’) while committing herself with stadium pop grandeur to female power (‘God Bless America – And All the Beautiful Women In It’). She’s quoting from rock’n’roll history, borrowing John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s son for a Beatles-referencing track (‘Tomorrow Never Came’), demurely reflecting on how the world is just “crazy”. She’s showering herself in celestial images, astrological west coast futurity, alluding to Dylan and F. Scott Fitzgerald in one fell swoop: “Lay Lady Lay / On that side of paradise / In the Tropic of Cancer”. She’s got lyrical cross-references with Marilyn Manson, Morrissey, Elton John, Frank Sinatra. In short, there’s a lot to unpack in this record. Its maximalism is contained, beautifully, in relatively simple and smooth arrangements. The soft-sweet balladry gets its edge from the sort of stadium, trap production found throughout Born to Die.

Overall, Lust for Life is hopeful; it gestures towards a new sincerity even in its subtle irony (isn’t it silly to sing about the end of the world and our constant problems, but only from the POV of beautiful people—for this was Fitzgerald’s version of upper-class universalism, surely?). In all that joy, there’s still the broody, trademark sorrow. Lana can sing “there’s something in the wind / I can feel it blowing in”, but only with the backdrop of a mournful piano, moving reservedly around her voice. It’s this uncertainty, this careful preserving of self-awareness while tuning to the winds of change, that I’m ultimately drawn to—letting go of pretension, feeling a little more earnest and youthful.

Takeaway track: ‘White Mustang’ 

 

Laura Marling, Semper Femina

Like many others my age, I more or less grew up with Laura Marling’s music. Her commentary on life, self and love has long provided a neglected feminine perspective enriched with worldly maturity, something much needed when you’re eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-four and still don’t know what to do with yourself. While the late noughties saw the rise of other female singer-songwriters, no-one does emotional nuance and lyric precision quite like Laura Marling.

With each of her albums, Marling has honed new musical directions, timely outlooks on daily and deep existence from a perspective that has always felt feminine despite its universal reach. A femininity grounded in self-knowledge, emotion and expressive power as much as reserve, coyness and beauty. 2015’s Short Movie felt very Joni Mitchell, expressively rich yet somehow desperately lonely, an album with cinematic reach but at heart conveying the struggles of a soul alone in New York.  Semper Femina is a return to tenderness, but its folky strains are by no means sweet or twee. This is a record, refreshingly, about friendship as much as love (often the slippery space between the two). There’s a sense that Marling’s communicating with her past through the various connections she’s made along the way. While this is no groundbreaking theme, the way in which she expresses her interwoven journeys through pared lyrics with mythological twinge (“the martyr who feels the fire / the child who knows his name”) is beautifully unique. If her previous record had a flavour of New York grit, electric guitars and all, Semper Femina feels like a distinct return to Englishness. The way she turns up her vowels, a little Dylanesque, emits a sort of sagely purity and wisdom. Maybe that’s where the L.A connection comes in: this mythological promise, an airy sheen that speaks of shape-shifting skies, a Californian sunrise.

Still, even with the spaciousness, the declarative power, there’s an intimacy to this record. Alongside her usual confessional lyrics, Marling uses the second-person quite frequently across Semper Femina. The effect is a kind of celebration of the other, a reaching out; a gesture of understanding rather than forcing of distance. You could approach these tracks as a series of letters, there’s a definite addressing in her words which has a mystical, summoning quality. The stories she paints are not, however, explicit narratives, but rather impressionistic, softened at the edges to emphasise emotion. She sings of that which we struggle to articulate: “there is something underneath / something shy and hard to see”. Her evocations of nature, those peculiar green trees, of everyday scenes like passing someone by, are quietly abstracted, allowing the listener to inhabit the album with their own narrative, their own emotions.

She may have taken the record title from Virgil’s Aeneid, but her evocations of femininity’ protean qualities, of psychology and classical reference, are plainspoken and accessible. The complexities of love and loss are rendered with a frankness and passion that is quietly measured, with a clear sense of distance: “Must every heart break / Like a wave on the bay.” She’s enlisted a lovely arsenal of strings and woodwind, with lots of pretty guitars, sorrowful arps and soothing, bluesy pizzicato. None of this feels intrusive; it’s simply the ornamentation that warms Marling’s high reserve, her angelic delivery. There’s a sense on this record that Marling is trying to solve problems, tease out the emotional knots that have swelled somewhat in recent years. She consoles herself with mantras, “At least I can say / That my debts have been paid”, but there’s a sense of dissatisfaction, a longing that lingers.

This is most vividly present, perhaps, on ‘Soothing’, the record’s dark and sensual opener, with Marling’s tightly held sorcerer’s trill entwined around thick and sinuous basslines. With its “creepy conjurer” and “strange discord” this is a song about power, secrecy and love, a song that never blossoms to proper narrative conclusion—and is all the better for this broody unease. For ages, I thought the line from the bridge was “I burnish you with love”, which lent this aching decadence; but I realise it’s actually banish. Are the implications even more striking? Love’s forceful, perilous luxury…

It’s tricky to pick a favourite track from a record that’s as softly eclectic as it is coherent. The songs blend into each other like a perfect narrative, but this doesn’t detract from the unique tone and textures of each one, matching in form the exploration of femininity’s changeability. For a while, my favourite was ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, which had a sort of world-weary insouciance I loved for its country-song lilt, its invocation of time’s bright hinge, the ephemerality of everything: “I won’t forget the late September / Where we danced among the midnight embers / But it’s going like a half-remembered dream.” There is a sense throughout the record of something fading; the vivid immediacy of Short Movie is supplanted by a softening of focus, an abstracted dissolve of scene. Picture yourself passing through trees, amber lights of the town ebbing away behind you. Despite the musical nonchalance, the relaxed off-beats, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ is a very sincere love song, a song about what redeems in the depths of depression. That line, “The only thing I learnt in a year / Where I didn’t smile once, not really”, really sticks in its frank directness. What can you scrape away from experience, the day-to-day performance of normal, the blueness we cover to protect what’s left? Marling asks you to take a chance on the brilliant abyss underneath: “We’ve not got long, you know / To bask in the afterglow.

Upon reflection, however, the track that endures for me is ‘The Valley’. A crystalline waltz that feels timeless and sublime in its rendering of lost connection, of being ghosted by someone whose mourning and loss lies unspoken, lies beyond—is something of a deep, mythological hurt. What’s ostensibly a song about losing a friend on a night out is spun as a dreamy musing on empathy, love and the fresh possibilities in time’s recycling of memory. I can’t help but hear echoes of Leonard Cohen in the line, “I love you in the morning”. There’s a prayer-like warmth and rapture, softened by Marling’s plush and gorgeous lines: We love beauty ’cause it needs us to / It needs our brittle glaze / And innocence reminds us to / Cover our drooling gaze”. This brittle glaze is what we use to palate the world; make it possible to absorb all that uncertainty and pain; the mingling of transcendent joys and everyday pleasures. This is a record about desire, friendship and solitude; but also a reflection on how we reach these, feel these, as mere mortal selves with humanly fissures and memory’s stain.

Takeaway track: ‘The Valley’

LCD Soundsystem, American Dream

As ever, I was working last New Year’s Eve. We finished at midnight and after the persuasion of several tequilas, I found myself in the midst of a drunken Glasgow crowd just an hour into 2017. The DJ’s playlist was a familiar round of Bowie, disco favourites and, inevitably, ‘Come on Eileen’; until suddenly the pulsing synth beginning of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Someone Great’ comes on, unmistakeable through the PA system. The mood shifts in a second. There’s just something about LCD, the way they universalise experience, bring a diverse crowd together in pure exhilaration. This song is connected with a local tragedy that happened in 2016, the loss of a life too young. It takes forever to build, takes a lifetime to build if you’re fully in the moment. But then the xylophone chimes come in, the melody kicks. It’s a song about someone you’ve lost, the butterfly flutters extinguished in an instinct. A whole relationship, a whole love gone. Listening to it at the start of the year was like falling through glass into the emptiest part of myself, and that was an honest euphoria. I don’t know if it’s about death or simple heartbreak. Nothing can prepare you for it. My friend was crying, tears like sequins on freckles, and I probably went outside. Cold air and first felt stars of January, drunks lighting cigarettes.

I was a bit conflicted about a new LCD album. Part of me wanted the mythology of greatness settled to rest, this era-defining, stadium-fat electronic rock that reminded me of Skins and feeling human things as new and the limitlessness of darkness on every night out walking home with the cold in your toes. A sense of massive, American grandeur. The melancholy afterwards; they would pick you up as much as they threw you into abyss. New York I love you, but you’re bringing me down. I was sceptical, suspicious of commercialism. But hell, I guess we didn’t have much to worry about. This is a glossy monster of an album, smooth and beautiful, crunchy and a bit funky, all electronic shreds and squelchy synths and quiet, deathly ambience. All its moods governed by slick beats and layers of sensitive production that feel as ripe for a club as they do for your earplugs, the resonant window-leak of music in streets. Okay, so it doesn’t totally lift; it might be better live, but there’s something here. A smoothness of beckoning mood…

Whether lamenting the death of Bowie (‘black screen’), exploring age and a sense of slipping relevancy (‘i used to’) or fluttering through paranoia with old-school LCD bass-crunching flamboyance (‘other voices’), thematically this record hails a new sincerity. If James Murphy was once the figurehead for Gen-Y hipsterism, on American Dream, he’s paying attention to genuine millennial grief and frustration. Okay, so not everyone had the same personal relationship with Bowie that Murphy had, but he manages to capture something simple, human and shared in his expression of personal grief: “You fell between a friend / and a father / I owe you dinner man / I owe you something.” We’re not all jaded fools, or maybe our jadedness is a justified reaction. There’s a sense of protectiveness (“you’re still a baby now”), built alongside personal vulnerability, the voice drowned out by moaning synth melodies. It’s a record that feels big, spacious; an obvious soundtrack to the end of summer, catastrophic political milestones swiftly approaching. To some degree, it rewards hard work—the committed listener’s attentiveness to emotional nuance—but mostly it’s just immediately accessible. This isn’t something to be sniffed at.

Despite a jagged experimentalism in places (‘pulse (v.1)’), and the more universal smash-hit vibes of ‘tonite’ or butter-wouldn’t-melt, eighties synth-shivering confessional love (‘oh baby’), American Dream does feel of the moment—its implicit politics looms beyond the obvious college-dorm bangers of previous records. ‘American dream’ is a disturbing waltz about the emptiness of everything, “find a place where you can be boring”. It’s maybe something you’d listen to walking home from a failed Tinder date, realising the world is in an infinitely worse state than you are just now: “this is someone else’s pain / so you feel drained.” There’s an admission here, also, that it’s okay to admit your suffering isn’t your own, that it’s maybe as much the media’s, the world’s.

Takeaway track: ‘oh baby’

Lee Gamble, Mnestic Pressure

Atmospheric, glitchy, precise in each beat to the point of beautiful binary, a shuffle of presence and aporia. There’s no way I’m qualified to talk in much detail about the underground background in which Gamble forged his musing computer sound, but I want to have a stab at describing his latest ironclad work of solid and hypnagogic affect.

The funny thing about Gamble’s music is that when you label it innovative, you’re not just making a banal remark about his knack for the mixing desk or sharp ear for a sample. You’re talking about the temporal orientation of this stuff too. It feels like tuning into different scales, the sonic environments of different objects. On first perusal, listening to Mnestic Pleasure with my headphones turned up full, I made an immediate comparison to Burial’s self-titled 2006 debut. Not so much in style as substance: these are records that each feel rooted to an urban environment, the eerie alleys, abandoned bars and smashed-in cars; places where stars melt in puddles of drug-lacquered rain, and posters for nightclubs slowly dissolve in their own acid neon.

But where Burial’s album is precisely the twenty-first century lament for such places, conjuring an elegy for the late eighties’ urban raves, Gamble’s fashions another world altogether. A world that is present without presence; that is infected and inflected by so many other moments, echoes, gestures towards the unsayable, unplayable. Mark Fisher talks of the ‘slow cancellation of the future’, that increasing inability of culture to think in terms of the to-come. Where we might look to Kraftwerk as emblematic musical futurists, few equivalents exist in contemporary times. How do we think the future when the present itself is delayed, deferred and collapsed in the flattened rhizomatics of social media? Is there, as Fisher asks, a ‘present to grasp and articulate any more’?

Mnestic Pressure v i b r a t e s. By which I mean, it literally shivers like something affective, sentient, sparkling. Something potentially nonhuman, and not just machinic. This isn’t science-fiction, steampunk or cyborg techno. I once had the pleasure of a brief exchange with Gamble on Twitter about Graham Harman’s metaphysics, and the basic principles of object-oriented ontology seem worth rehearsing here. We are all objects; there is some unique essence of reality to each object that cannot be accessed by other objects. Mnestic: relating to memory. The residue secrets we bear alone, yet access sometimes through the glimpse of a thing external to ourselves. There’s a potentially deliberate invocation of hauntology here, but Gamble doesn’t go in for utter nostalgia, nor does he paint a hollow, if seductive, Burial-style vision of his favourite city now cast to ruins. He doesn’t withdraw from the world; rather than performing an emptying out, a wallowing in hypnotic and deconstructed versions of retro, he takes a confrontational approach to the times.

With collaged soundscapes, subtle fragments of grimy bass, disorientating impressions of jungle and charged drumwork, there’s a sense of reality throughout Mnestic Pressure as tuned to hyper-pitch. Memory is pressurised, the dial turned up on thought till what occurs is a beautiful entropy of sonic debris. The thump and pulse, campy twists of 808 bass throbbing through sinuous snares. On tracks like ‘UE8’, haunted percussive space is brought to intensity through urgent beats that melt out in occasional interludes for breath. The rhythms are erratic at times, focused at others. Every time you think you’ve settled into something, a mad breakbeat or burst of subbass will throw you again off the scent. Listening to Mnestic Pressure is like being caught in a labyrinth, but one in which gravity behaves oddly and sometimes portals open into the future. What’s there? A lot of glistering industry, punishing darkness, but also insanely mesmerising electricity.

This is a record with room for nostalgia, sure. You’ve got moments of pause among the surge, moments where you could imagine a dry ice misting in and recalling in swirling melody (‘Locked In’, ‘A Tergo Real’) the importance of music as pleasure. For in the eerie soundscapes set up, Oneohtrix-style, in whirring effects and ghostly synths, the underlying arpeggios that flicker towards the surface in genuinely pretty melody, are total redeemable bliss. Take the night-train out west, if you will. Both abstracted and grounded in the concrete jungle of the club, this is a record for in-the-moment or else vicarious experience. I can see something blooming, strange and utopian, in the rearranged pixels of my screen. Maybe I’ve been sleep-deprived a little too long, but I’m totally sucked in by Gamble’s intensity, his artful balance of insistent twists and moments of floaty dissolve, mimicking memory’s mercurial fades and narrative curves.

With a clear nod to Autechre, whatever the technical intricacies of this album, to get lost in its grainy, glitching, melodic fold is by no means a bad thing. If someone made a sonic choreography of strobe. I’m finding my body again like a galaxy, full of all these strange and divergent energies—so expressive and then again recalcitrant. There’s both sweetness and dissonance; a sense of being welcomed but then made alien by sounds that seem to emit nonhuman effects: a digital intentionality that lusts after its internal composition, the complexities of circuitry given voice as a series of blips and whirrs, perfected underneath by lucid, moody synths. Objects unhinged from original source, given reign to flicker towards the future, which opens its sky like the howl of a sun, the neon of a club burning out on its own fly-ridden buzz. Dirty and pure, controlled and Dada-random, stressed and serene; it’s a record that manages many affective dualities with coordinated ease. I picture a map, a map of everything lain down in tiny, synthetic wires and beads; a map bigger than anything a human could ever lay down. A million lit metropolises seen through the heavenly skin of the Earth laid flat. Infinite glassy, crystalline to the touch, rippling with impress of noise, a bit epiphanic. It’s the city again, it’s the figurines of us once-dancing, it’s a place beyond scale we might never have seen.

Takeaway track: ‘A tergo Real’

Lorde, Melodrama 

I have such gushing, unadulterated love for this album. Back in July, I was asked if I wanted to write a wee thing about it for GoldFlakePaint, and it ended up becoming the piece of writing I’m maybe most proud of this year. Masters dissertations are one thing, but you don’t get that emotional reach that you do from a piece that’s published online for hundreds of music fans. You don’t get that glow when someone tweets you to say they liked what you’ve written, that maybe it changed their whole view of the album.

The essay was called ‘Sweetheart Psychopathic Crush: On Lorde’s Melodrama and Pop’s New Maximalist Palette’ and you can still read it online, so I won’t write too much about it here. After binging on Melodrama all through the summer, I gave the record a break for a while and returned to it when winter was dragging me down and I needed something that felt fresh and dynamic, a vivacious kick-start for the senses. Melodrama is both party album and a soundtrack for the afterlife, the comedown: “Bet you wish you could touch our rush / But what will we do after the rush?”. With tracks like ‘Liability’, Lorde will pick you up in her sultry arms and give you the strength to feel whole and good and single again. With tracks like ‘Green Light’ and ‘Supercut’, she’ll have you flailing down a maddening highway of glitz and lights, dancing your way out of negative memory. With slick, glossy production, sharp riffs of brass, luscious synths, trap-inspired boom boom beats, crystalline eighties guitars and bright, breathy vocals, Lorde’s melodic pop never felt so extravagant.

This might be a breakup album, deeply personal in a lot of ways, but you can tell its mastermind is having a whale of a time. It’s the reflection of a young artist getting the creative control she deserves, pushing the boundaries of her genre and being totally flamboyant while staying cool. Lyrically, there’s this super cute earnestness that’s hard not to fall for; she uses words like ‘awesome’ with little irony. This is alongside occasional expressionist flashes of orgiastic violence: “We’ll end up painted on the road / Red and chrome / All the broken glass sparkling / I guess we’re partying”. The love story that runs its neon thread through Melodrama is one that falls apart in brilliant splinters, renews the self that bursts forth from the shattered ashes, shattered ash trays. It’s a heady record, a bit of a whirlwind, unashamedly sweet like a cola-cube flavoured cocktail flaming in some downtown bar where folk dance on tables and the jukebox is strictly r’n’b, pop and disco. Maybe not to everyone’s taste, but frankly I fucking love it. There’s a buzz from living vicariously in records.

Takeaway track: ‘The Louvre’

Moses Sumney, Aromanticism 

I’m not exactly sure what age I was when I first broke through the false consciousness of heteronormative society, the compulsive ideology of forced romance etc. By which I mean, sitting in the back of the car on the way to the supermarket having to listen again to Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs. In my child’s head, I made some blistering connection to the refrain of chocolates and champagne and the cheap sort of saccharine, baby-talk love that was constantly peddled on the radio. Okay, so Steve had a few cute listeners on board, stories about 50-year romances, grannies holding hands and grand reunions. But then it would be some cheesy Motown or soul number crackling through the speakers and I pondered again that question of love. Pondered awhile then realised that if you hadn’t felt it yet—at least not this shiny, diamond-ring kind of love—this was all a bit pointless. I got quite sick of having it shoved down my throat.

A decade or more later and along comes Moses Sumney, redefining what it might mean to write a pop song for solitude. Not just because we’re in some social media-inflicted Age of Loneliness, but simply because some of us are okay to not lust constantly after company. The concept of ‘aromanticism’, Sumney’s own coinage, describes an absence of romantic feeling towards others: an alienation born not from loneliness but from the lack of romantic feeling itself. Most of us at some point have felt a longing to be in love, if not for love itself. But what happens when you realise this doesn’t matter to you all that much, that you’ve broken free of those amorous shackles? Making fresh territory, Sumney’s genre-bending album explores these questions and more.

With succulent falsetto, sensual beats and chordal sweeps, Aromanticism feels like a whirling journey of sorts. Romantic tropes dissolve into fleeting affect; pleasure is pleasure and nothing more, nothing lasting or overly complex. There’s a loveliness to this eremitic existence, even as sometimes the emotion comes up brittle—both melancholy and euphoric. Sumney’s universe is both abstract and intimate, an orbital chorus of jazz, soul, electronica and slickly-produced pop—as good for the club as perhaps the bedroom, whatever the hell you wanna do in it.

Takeaway track: ‘Lonely World’

Phoebe Bridgers Stranger in the Alps

I wrote quite extensively about this record back in July when I got to interview Bridgers for GoldFlakePaint, but I guess it’s good to reflect on how the album’s rooted its way through my life since then. And rooted it truly has; no matter how much I go off in different musical directions, I always find myself falling back into its cool emo glow on long walks home. There’s something about Bridgers’ voice, an incandescent sort of sorrow, that is pretty much irresistible. She’s Elliott Smith rolling over silver boulevards, less star-struck than bummed out on ubiquitous cultural melancholy. It’s millennial frustration at its most tender, it’s pure unadulterated sadness. You might think, god, not self-involved emo again; but this is something totally different.

Like Julien Baker, Pinegrove and others, Bridgers is taking emo’s emotional earnestness and re-articulating it in much more visceral, interesting and lyrical ways. Where the black-clad boy bands of the noughties were all about hating on girls who dumped them, whinging about the world in a storm of self-loathing, the new wave of emo is much more nuanced, empathetic and free. It speaks to wider generational ennui as much to personal conflicts; it wears melancholy on its sleeve not for the sake of teenage symbolic capital but rather as a genuine sense of this is how I am right now, how are you?

Stranger in the Alps is part diary, part pop, part deliberate emotional extremity. Listening to her lyrics, you’re pushed to places you might not want to: the funerals of friends, your brother’s sorrow, being stoned as uncomfortable numbness, reflecting on how things have changed and not always for the better. It’s full of haunted streets, bike bells and trains, burnout towns where the kids just get high and life closes in on a litany of problems, dwindling to total void: “You are anonymous / I am a concrete wall”. Most of these songs are slow, retain elements of the country ballad style which modelled Bridgers’ early work. They might relate speeding in cars through the night, but the pace of Stranger in the Alps is that of the bored flaneuse, jadedly pacing the same old streets of her youth. With lap steel and minimal drums, low pulsing bass, she narrates this atmospheric space where memory bleeds through the present—sometimes with comfort, sometimes pain. Maybe no surprise that I like this record best when I’m tired or hungover, too deadened of sensation to feel much other than this gaping space of what I’m supposed to do but can’t. Tenderly yet sinuously, Stranger in the Alps releases the feeling back in the blood, finds some way to thaw your anaesthetised reality.

The smudgy ghost that adorns the album’s cover is kind of a figure for identity itself, as much as it is for the phantoms that haunt these songs. Do you ever look at yourself in a shop window, the aluminal gleam of a passing car, and think god, who is that? Amid all the crisis and chaos, there’s a meditative precision to your early twenties, something you can attain maybe only midway through a party when almost everyone has left and you’re in the bathroom starting to sober up and staring at a crack in the wall, letting all these memories gush out and rearrange themselves in the strange geometries of the present (okay, so I’m ripping off Tom McCarthy’s Remainder again).

Whether empathising with serial killers, calling up old friends, prison boys and lovers, or nailing a devastating cover of Mark Kozelek’s ‘You Missed My Heart’, Phoebe Bridgers has released maybe the most cathartic debut of the year. It feels very American—Chelsea Hotel and all—but there’s a universalism to its sadness, its references to Bowie’s death, to missing someone so much you imagine them as a can on a string, to blacking out and finding yourself tucked up so small again on your childhood bed. Listening to Stranger in the Alps, it’s okay to feel sorry for yourself sometimes, but equally this is such a richly empathetic album—as much about a broken community of friends and lost connections as it is about the violence that strikes solely inside the self. A record for that time in your life when everyone you love seems to be moving away, moving on, and you just have to find some peace with yourself and where you’re at now, to fathom a sense that the here and now are okay too.

Takeaway track: ‘Smoke Signals’

Portico Quartet Art in the Age of Automation

It would be a shame to talk about the new Portico Quartet without mentioning Walter Benjamin. Author of The Arcades Project, an unfinished, 1000+ page collection of notes and writings on subjects which spilled from the Paris Arcades: fashion, advertising, interior design, Baudelaire, progress, boredom, surrealism and more. These fragments and sketches on notecards became a sort of dossier, the debris of which stands as a memorandum to the project Benjamin was never able to finish, killing himself to avoid being killed in the war as a Jew.

Benjamin also wrote an essay titled ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in which he argues that modernity’s technologies (film and photography) incur a loss of the artwork’s aura, due to its ease of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin’s aura is the originality and authenticity that shrouds a work of art: a painting or a musical performance. A photograph is an image of an image; a phonograph is a recorded replica of a recording. What’s more, Benjamin writes of how the capturing structure of technology can unlock unconscious desires within the viewer: for instance, new camera angles intervene in the assumed immediacy between object and vision, instating a rhythm, pace and structure of voyeuristic tendency.

Art in the Age of Automation taps into Benjamin’s ideas of the aura, of art’s sensory interventions and the possibilities of music as an operational interface of time and space: ‘During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence’. Where Benjamin wrote in the early to mid-twentieth century, a time of mechanical reproduction, Portico Quartet make music in the age of automation, the glossy screens that structure our seamless symbiosis of virtual (and) reality. This is the age of machines which perform everyday functional capacities (your self-service checkouts etc), but also make art. Not just auto-tune; literally machines can generate art through algorithms. Of course, this is not a new revelation: it’s something the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and concrete poets of the 70s and 80s (Bob Cobbing, Charles Bernstein and the like) have already tapped into. Concrete poetry stages itself as both materiality and Event: there’s a sense maybe of recalling the scene of composition as aesthetic and metaphysical rupture.

Portico Quartet are, loosely, well-practiced purveyors of jazztronica, combining electronic effects with ambient, nuanced production, super-melodic composition and jazz improv. Jazz, in a sense, embodies this play between automation, art and time. Improvised in the moment, a collaboration between tool and body (instrument and musician), it’s nevertheless framed by certain systems and limitations of scale, tone, key. There’s maybe a loose, Oulipo quality to it; while slapped frequently with the jazz label, Portico Quartet sound much more focused and polished than old school free-ranging jazz. Their music is about opening hypnotic time-spaces, swirling auratic through sound, while feeling technically slick, a satisfying grandeur that perfectly produces its alignments of mood. If Kraftwerk make robot electronica, Portico Quartet are what happens when you let the mystical back in.

This isn’t something Benjamin was afraid of. Ambience and aura are, inevitably, a question of myth and mystery. Woozy woodwind and brass glaze the album with a sense of the elsewhere, as with sparkles of harp, rising Boards of Canada bass and twinkling electronic percussion. There’s a richness to these compositions, a density of layer and texture. The songs slip between each other with effortless glide, weaving a complex trajectory of hypnotic recline against rise, the slow pull towards a glowing euphoria. Title track ‘Art in the Age of Automation’ nicely encapsulates all these elements found across the album, with its Balearic sunrise synths, sweetly-seething strings and aleatoric peter towards abyss. At times, there’s a sense of spaciousness to the production (‘S/2000S5’ and ‘Mercury Eyes’) that recalls even Oneohtrix Point Never’s otherworldly virtual environments. While saxophones splinter little riffs, there’s a sense of drifting around a bright-lit mall, everything of gloss and perfect surface.

Ending on upbeat ‘Lines Glow’, completing their geometric/HEX arc from ‘A Luminous Beam’ to ‘RGB’, it’s difficult to resist conjuring roving landscapes in your head. Clouds parting to madder pink stained tangerine sky, wisps of breeze to lift your hair, your senses. This is at once a skyward journey and a passage of excavation. This is a return to form, a traversal back to the earlier sound that made Portico Quartet’s name. It’s a polishing of influence, a metamodern sway between irony and sincerity, the serious and camp. Mixing ambience, worldbeat, techno and, most belovedly, experimental jazz, this is something fresh, something strange but pleasing to reawaken the senses. Conjure the aura at your own pleasure.

Takeaway track: ‘A Luminous Beam’

 

Slowdive Slowdive

This record is more of a totalled experience than anything I’ve ever listened to. By totalled I mean, completely abstracted from anything paratextual, anything extraneous like movement or genre or trend. I didn’t really know who Slowdive were until this was released and there was a bout of hype and so I found myself sliding into this mystical, spacious universe, devouring each back record whole before fully listening to Slowdive, the band’s first album in over twenty years.

Slowdive melds everything to love about shoegaze and dream pop with a sort of epic weight, braced on beautiful, soaring melodies. The landscapes of these songs are sweeping, glittering with distance. The intermingling of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s vocals, all masculine sonority with angelic, haunted femininity, raises the music to pure sublime—and this is just track one, ‘Slomo’. With lyrics that gesture towards a beyond, whose words are lost sometimes in the hoary, breathless ascent, this is a record of longing. Themes of love, dreams and maritime imagery—all shipwrecks, coasts and oceans—recall Cocteau Twins at their most dazed and elemental. You can’t help feel as though you were plunging through space and time, listening to this record. ‘Star Roving’ has a crisp, upbeat and energised pop atmosphere that opens the skies to something glossier and greater—a new direction for shoegaze, an injection of zeal within that body of longing. There’s a perfection here, a sheer reach towards euphoria: “Said she’s feeling love for everyone else tonight”.

A record of many moods, Slowdive has an internal meteorology of turbulence and harmony, holding its trials and tribulations in a manner impossibly smooth. A primitive mysticism, secret knowledge contained in the unknowable, buoyed up by comforting, skyward synths on tracks like ‘Don’t Know Why’, with its clustering, urgent drum-beat interludes and layered flails of electric guitar.

What I love most about Slowdive is its ability to simultaneously hold melancholy and joy, moods contained in the molten core of irresistible melodies, whose force draws from lyric simplicity as much as the aporetic implications of vast walls of guitar and thundering drums. I remember something esteemed dark ecologist Timothy Morton wrote in his book Hyperobjects, relating a Keatsian aesthetic experience (that famous chiasmus of beauty and death) to the pioneers of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine:

When I listen to My Bloody Valentine, I do not reach out toward the sound—instead, I am assaulted from the inside by a pulsation that is also sound, a physical force that almost lifts me off the floor. Kevin Shields’s guitar sears into me like an x-ray, scanning me, strafing me. The chords lurch around one another sickeningly, gliding in and out of tune, amassing towers of harmonics through dissonance. Distortion pulps and fragments the sound into a welter of gravel and thick oil. Yet try as I might, I can’t tear my ears away. The music is so beautiful. I wonder how Odysseus felt, strapped to the mast as he heard the Sirens. I think I can hear singing, a quiet, wistful song. Inside the bubble is the pattering ooze of guitar distortion washed with cymbals. I think that this music could liquefy my internal organs, make my ears bleed (this has actually occurred), send me into seizures. Perhaps it could kill me. To be killed by intense beauty, what a Keatsian way to die.

When I listen to Slowdive, I feel caverns within me opening up, the swell and surge of synths brightening my organs to a shiver I don’t know is yours or mine. It’s the very unlocking of desire from without, then as I slip further I’m clasping for surface in the mire of sonic assault. I would like to hear these songs live, played with blistering intensity but then at times so tender it is as though the room’s very atmosphere is the skin of that sound, the soft repetitions, the longing refrains. Where My Bloody Valentine trade in hazy, ear-splitting riffs, Slowdive feels crisper, clearer. The songs are like grandiose sculptures, poised on the brink of their own dissolution; the production recalls something I might’ve cranked out on a tape-deck from the late nineties being transmogrified through some beautiful, clarifying futurity machine.

For a massive chunk of my autumn and summer, I walked around, circling the same old routes, listening to ‘Sugar for the Pill’ over and over. There’s an obsessive, Odyssean quality to this; a desire to return to presence that sustains itself on wave after wave of that painful absence, “all those nights / when you wanted so much more” (‘No Longer Making Time’). It was a song that felt like coming home, but wasn’t home itself. It was comforting in its sense of descent, its resignation; its shrinking that somehow bloomed on another horizon, cracked open the sunset elsewhere that I craved and needed. ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a sultry ride, swaddling inside soft-sweet guitars which draw you ineluctably over steady, crunching bass, opening this space of ponderous sorrow—a dark slow melancholy you could only call love at its most elated, belated and infinitely strange. It makes you realise distance, the space between each existence; the people you miss and the pain of that missing: “Just a rollercoast / Our love has never known the way”. Not all lovers come home, not all feelings can meet as they might beyond a tiny splinter of time. A blushing, eerie quality of sentiment that carries the song is returned, periodically, to the comforting warmth of the chorus, its blissful synths and twinkling, sugary guitar. It’s a gesture towards coming home, but also a glimpse into the abyss of what that might mean, our deep and personal uncertainties.

A record to get lost in, certainly, but one also to be soothed to—by you or him or anyone, as ever the music.

Takeaway track: ‘Sugar for the Pill’

*


Top Tracks:

Alt-J – 3WW

Angel Olsen – ‘Special’

Arcade Fire ‘Creature Comfort’

Beck‘Up All Night’

Bjork – ‘Blissing Me’

Breakfast Muff – ‘Babyboomers’

Coma Cinema – ‘Loss Memory’

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – ‘Over Everything’

Ellis May – ‘Father’

Fazerdaze – ‘Shoulders’

Ffion Regan – ‘The Meetings of the Waters’

Fufanu – ‘Sports’

Golden Teacher – ‘The Kazimier’

Good Good Blood – ‘Fallen Leaves’

Grizzly Bear – ‘Aquarian’

Ho99o9 – ‘Neighbourhood Watch’

Japanese Breakfast – ‘Machinist’

Jay Som – ‘For Light’

Julien Baker – ‘Appointments’

Kevin Morby – ‘City Music’

Kiran Leonard – ‘Could She Still Draw Back?’

Lanark Artefax – ‘Voices Near the Hypocentre’

Lomelda – ‘Interstate Vision’

Los Campensinos! ‘Renato Dall’Ara (2008)’

Martha Ffion – ‘We Make Do’

Mogwai – ‘Coolverine’

The National – ‘Dark Side of the Gym’

Nugget – ‘Watermelon’ (Human Bones cover)

Out Lines – ‘Our Beloved Dead’

Penguin Café – ‘Cantorum’

Perfume Genius – ‘Slip Away’

Pronto Mama – ‘Arabesque’

Roddy Woomble – ‘Jupiter’

Sacred Paws – ‘Strike a Match’

Saint Sister – ‘Causing Trouble’

Spinning Coin – ‘Raining on Hope Street’

Sufjan Stevens – ‘Tonya Harding’

Total Leatherette – ‘Faux Fox’

Wuh Oh – ‘Hairstyle’

The XX – ‘On Hold’

* 

Top EPs:

Alice Glass – ‘Alice Glass’

Amber Arcades – ‘Cannonball’

The Bellybuttons – ‘Wires’

Bicep – ‘Glue’

Burial – ‘Subtemple’

Cate Le Bon – ‘Rock Pool’

CCFX – ‘CCFX’

Djrum – ‘Broken Glass Arch’

Death Grips – ‘Steroids (Crouching Tiger Hidden Gabber Megamix)’

Frightened Rabbit/Julien Baker – ‘Recorded Songs’

Half Waif – ‘form/a’

Hannah Lou Clark – ‘The Heart and All Its Sin’

Joy Orbison – ‘Toss Portal’

Lanark Artefax – ‘Whities 011’

Minor Science, ‘Whities 012’

Sega Bodega – ‘Ess B’

Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – ‘Among Horses I’

 *

Top Gigs:

Com Truise, Wuh Oh @ Stereo

Conor Oberst @ edinburgh & ABC

Happy Meals/Pictish Trail @ Edinburgh Caves

Johnny Flynn @ Saint Lukes

Julien Baker @ CCA

Laura Marling @ O2 ABC

Lana Del Rey @ Hydro

Lanark Artefax @ The Glue Factory

Lomond Campbell & Modern Studies, SOUNDING @ Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh

Martha Ffion, ULTRAS @ The Glad Café

Mull Historical Society, Roddy Hart & the Lonesome Fire @ Oran Mor West End Festival All-Dayer

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds @ Hydro

Phoebe Bridgers @ Broadcast

Rachel Sermanni, Jolie Holland @ Mackintosh Church

Radiohead, Belle & Sebastian, The Vegan Leather, Wuh Oh @ TRNSMT

Roddy Woomble, Kathryn Joseph @ Mackintosh Church

SWANS @ Oran Mor

Tenement Trail (especially Spinning Coin & Savage Mansion)

Withered Hand / A Singer of Songs @ The Hug and Pint

*

Top Gig Moments:  

Conor Oberst part 1) Mesmerising duet on ‘Lua’ with Phoebe Bridgers @ the Edinburgh gig.

Conor Oberst part 2) Surprising everyone by playing ‘Something Vague’ at the ABC, a deep part of my broken teenage soul swooning heavily.

Everyone singing the ‘la la la la’ parts to ‘Religious Songs’ at the Withered Hand gig & a warm fuzzy winter-coming-to-an-end feeling.

Laura Marling commanding everyone’s sorrow with ‘Once’ & making loss something you could melt in a melody.

Suzanne from Happy Meals doing her mad sexy yoga moves on the floor of The Caves.

Radiohead playing ‘Lucky’ as the second track in their set and from those desultory opening strums feeling like I was gonna burst in the lights & the moody memories.

Catching a ten-minute glimpse of Out Line’s stunning, magnetic set from the Gallery at Oran Mor.

Getting an unexpected night off work and ending up seeing Roddy Woomble playing ‘American English’ at the Mackintosh Church, my Idlewild heart bleeding dry.

Erin Rae thanking me onstage at the Hug and Pint in her beautiful country drawl for my GoldFlakePaint feature on her music.

The lovely sonorous duets between Kathryn Joseph and Fair Mothers with the Hug and Pint disco ball spinning silver and slow.

Having my sense of reality shattered apart with the emotional chaos and sheer sonic sublimity of Lanark Artefax’s scintillating Glasgow debut, glistering monolith & all.

 

Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric

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Source: BBC

Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric 

What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.

Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.

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Bob Dylan / / Source: Rolling Stone

Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability.  However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.

Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.

Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?

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Source: lettere-persiane.blogspot.com

Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.

You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.

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Gillian Welch / / Source: Born to Listen

On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.

Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.

I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant  question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.

Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.

But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.

Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit  (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.

But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.

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Source: pinterest

Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.

‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.

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Source: crystalinks

America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.

A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.

But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.

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Source: pinterest

My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through  the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.

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Source: YouTube

My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).

One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.

Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.

It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.

One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.

*

American Lyric playlist:

Haunting the Capitalist Plaza: Making Sense of Vapourwave

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Lindsheaven Virtual Plaza – Daily Night Euphoria. Source.

The resonance is a tinny vintage, anachronistic; tinselled with eighties synths and a vocal sample that never quite begins. That baggy voice, normally soft as milk, becomes jagged, inhuman. Creepily crystallised. Your aunty’s favourite easy-listening is stripped of all coherence and synthesis; the tacky detritus of Steve Wright’s Sunday Lovesongs repackaged for an ersatz world of sulphurous sunsets and crumbling metropolises imploding like the plastic dust of an Arizonan dead mall. Back to the dark desert highway, purple-skied and dripped in molten neon. This isn’t what you’d enjoy on a leisurely car trip to the drive through…Or is it?

Listen to : : :

death’s dynamic shroud.wmv // I’m at the point in the level where the road narrows, curves, swirls upside down. Death is imminent. You can see the gloved fingers slipping a compact disc into the slot of a monster, borrowed straight from the architectures of Digimon. I’m thinking: Elizabeth Fraser’s sweetly haunting soprano (imagine being ghosted by the purest aural distillation of beauty); the chilled techno-ambience resurrected from the nineties. There’s heartbreak ahead. If you jump too far—and you will, won’t you—the space around you will glitch. There you’ll be, suspended in the space twinkles. An empty swimming pool. Climb into the cracks. Why is everything so gleaming, so white? I’m obsessed with getting back to matter. The music restores the filth, the glitch. There’s a vast acceleration of beautiful colour. The soprano grows warped, the orb-like contortions are glowing off kilter, off rhythm. The seven lumps of Galaxy chocolate I’ve just eaten melt sticky bits of sugar in my mouth, refuse to dissolve. They’ll coat my teeth like that.

Vapourwave coats your teeth. God knows how or why you should define it. It’s like cheap candy, utterly sugary but filled with mysterious ingredients, mystic chemicals from another dimension. One minute I’m being instructed about the start of a sequence (it’s the eerie echoes of a sci-fi style video game)- – – loading loading loading  – –  – and then trap style beats come bouncing slowly in, delayed as if strained through some outpouring of weird gravity. There’s a purity to some of it, which feels more like an original composition; the ambient atmosphere of something along the lines of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works…There’s a sense of distortion, disorientation. Hyperreal landscapes lit in luminous pinks and purples. What’s that gleam, is it rain? Tokyo on a postcard, dipped in cross-processing chemicals, in violet acid. Then you’ve got a vague array of p a r a d i s e lighting up the screen. Palms and sand and cerulean sea.

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As soon as you get attached to a sample, you’re away. Rarely does the beat resolve. You’re like, totally always stuck on the pre-beat. To the point that human expression becomes a technological fault, a beep, a burp. Sometimes it sounds like waves are being pulsed through your brain, blurred in a malfunction of some tacky machinery cooked up for a pulp movie of the nineties. Do scanners really look like that? Coated in rhinestones, bathed in pink. Some of it’s dreamier. Arpeggios of bell-scented keyboards (what do bells smell like? Not musty old church bells, but the sonorous chimes of noughties computers). Arpeggios climbing and climbing, dissolving, rising. A pop melody shining through. I’m in a rainforest of futurist skyscrapers, cloud-surrounded, everything drenched in pastel-hued pixels. It’s so serene. 

Vapourwave. What a joke, an internet meme. Didn’t it die a couple of years ago?

I’m so confused. What is this monstrosity that’s eked itself into my life like a viral code luxuriating in my brain? At once disdainfully ironic, crass, tacky as hell; but also painfully sincere, nostalgic, full of a misplaced longing. The metamodern paradox of postmodern irony and modernist authenticity cooking up an endless loop of misplaced longing. I find myself thirsty for shopping malls from the seventies, for grotesque cups of Diet Pepsi, for the glossy pop of the eighties and the apocalyptic reveries of the nineties. I’m drifting through a city stripped of its glitz and left with patches of bright matte colour, refusing to reflect the glass through which dreams have appeared and got lost. I remember polishing a CD with the back of my sleeve, watching the lines of rainbows beam. Slotting it into a computer that hummed and whirred at my touch. I remember when technology felt somehow homely. 

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Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe. Source.

That comforting little Windows XP flourish, how friendly it was compared to the blasé boom of Apple’s triumphant C chord. Glitch, glitch, glitch. I pick the pixels out with my fingertips. The eerie keyed chords of MACINTOSH PLUS’ 地理 fill me with a sinister sense of urgency. It’s an entropic catastrophe of dissonance.

At the heart of vapourwave is a tension between the sweet and disturbing, between satisfyingly vacuous muzak and dissonant, deliberate glitching. This is related to its deterritorialising impulse, by which I mean (borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari lingo), the way it extracts and recontextualises some element of a thing, then placing it elsewhere in a different environment. Vapourwave is a sort of bulimic, abject, rhizomatic discourse. It gorges on the symbols of late capitalism (the glossy muzak and soft rock of the eighties, international brands like Nike or Microsoft, the aesthetics of corporate advertising and so on) and then expels them in a gross reinterpretation that seems to purge them of their original, seamless facade. It might be useful here to mention that sociologist/criminologist Jock Young (2007) once described late modernity as a ‘bulimic society’, where we are all (internationally) included in the dreamlike semiotics of the rich through the opulence and availability of global branding, advertising and popular culture, but increasingly we are structurally excluded from the means which would allow us to achieve such dizzying heights ourselves. This social anomie is jarringly rendered in vapourwave’s shameless embrace of corporate culture; at once poking fun at it but also monumentalising it in an ambiguous way. It’s by no means a didactic movement, but as Grafton Tanner tends to argue in his excellent book Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (2016), it’s symptomatic of its times. The very poetics of vapourwave reflect the uneasy experience of being unable to escape the system, the uncanny effects of our perpetual cultural nostalgia—the celebration and denigration of late capitalist modernity and all its forms of post (post (post) post).

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Outside of their usual contexts, corporate and commercial visuals (the vapourwave a e s t h e t i c) seem absurd, funny, strange, alienating. It hollows out the imagined ‘core’ of the brand and replaces it with a sort of free-floating lack of functionality, a disembodied eeriness. Chuck a logo in with a pastel-hued painting of palms and corny dolphins lifted from a SNES game and there you have it. Old Apple logos might be hovering over a pixellated ocean, waiting to plunge inexorably. Not only the aesthetics, but also the music itself, creates this sense of fragmented capitalism. Tanner talks briefly about the relevance of Derrida’s idea of hauntology to understanding the politics of vapourwave and this seems to me very astute. It’s the idea that the future is irrevocably haunted by the past; that culture and politics are also spooked with spectres from the past—from communism (Derrida’s book is called Spectres of Marx) to old technologies. It’s the idea that things are always-already obsolete, that there’s a sense of being itself as displaced and never quite fully present. It’s an ontology of difference, deferral, doubling, of objects which become ‘a little mad, weird, unsettled, “out of joint”’ (Derrida 1994). Derrida’s gloss on Marx’s analysis of the commodity-table gives us a sense on the ghostliness of consumer objects:

For example — and here is where the table comes on stage — the wood remains wooden when it is made into a table: it is then “an ordinary, sensuous thing [ein ordindäres, sinnliches Ding]”. It is quite different when it becomes a commodity, when the curtain goes up on the market and the table plays actor and character at the same time, when the commodity-table, says Marx, comes on stage (auftritt), begins to walk around and to put itself forward as a market value. Coup de theatre: the ordinary, sensuous thing is transfigured (verwandelt sich), it becomes someone, it assumes a figure. This woody and headstrong denseness is metamorphosed into a supernatural thing, a sensuous non-sensuous thing, sensuous but non-sensuous, sensuously supersensible (verwandelt er sich in ein sinnlich übersinnliches Ding). The ghostly schema now appears indispensable. The commodity is a “thing” without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the senses (it is invisible, intangible, inaudible, and odourless); but this transcendence is not altogether spiritual, it retains that bodiless body which we have recognised as making the difference between spectre and spirit. What surpasses the senses still passes before us in the silhouette of the sensuous body that it nevertheless lacks or that remains inaccessible to us.

(Derrida 1994)

Vapourwave, of course, exploits this ‘ghostly schema’ of consumer objects. ‘Woody and headstrong denseness’, the sheer materiality of the thing is ordinarily supplanted by its mystical, transcendent value as a commodified good or brand. When we think of Nike trainers, rarely do we care for their actual material structure; usually it is the symbolic resonance of the brand that captures us. In Vapourwave, materiality comes back, vicious and strange. Fredric Jameson laments the way that postmodernism presents us with a meaningless concatenation of cultural nostalgia, often without context—BuzzFeed’s noughties nostalgia lists perhaps being a case in point. Vapourwave takes this ‘out of context’ randomness and runs with it. Art objects, textures, corporate iconography and screen-saturated colours combine in a collage of irony and contrasts. The mishmash quality of the vapourwave aesthetic lends it to easy manipulation and re-creation. This is the DIY ethic of the movement, its impulse towards constant theft, the cut and paste fun of sampling, the wilful shredding of distortion which creates a contemporary rendering of William Burroughs’ literary cut-up method or the random-making ‘recipes’ of Dada poetry, as described by Tristan Tzara.

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Vapourwave Collage (note the hashtags on the link). Source.

Now, the effects of this mixed-bag of internet treats aren’t just weird and humorous, but weird also in an unsettling way. The samples become points of focus in a manner that strips away the normal cultural values of the original song; the easy soft-rock of the eighties becomes haunted with lo-fi feedback and interruption, compression and echoes. It sounds like it’s being heard through a cave or the underwater atrium of an abandoned mall, after the apocalypse. One of vapourwave’s most prominent releases to this day remains Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe (2011) and on this record the production warps its soul music with a surrealist synth-driven dreamscape, in which R&B beats become slow and trippy and human voices are dehumanised into drawls and robotic calls. Often a sample starts but never resolves its line, constantly stumbling over itself. Tempos are spliced and no song follows conventional structure, but instead runs on repetitions, overlaps, interruptions; completely jarring changes in rhythm and key with no transition. Funk and soul from the eighties are no longer smooth and satisfying radio filler, but are turned inside out, their inherent weirdness exposed. Some of the highlights include ‘It’s Your Move’ by Diana Ross and ‘You Need a Hero’ by Pages. The effect of listening to this album is sort of like pushing a shopping cart round a supermarket and gazing around in wonder at the saturated pastels, the pointless products, the detritus of cluttered consumer madness. Glitches, twinkles, the beats of unsteady feet. Random tannoy announcements like a call from some parallel universe, the underground, the flickers of the internet ether.

Tanner’s Babbling Corpse usefully makes a connection between the dehumanisation of human voices in vapourwave music and contemporary philosophical movements such as speculative realism and object-orientated ontology. Both movements share the fundamental rejection of correlationism (the dominant, anthropocentric idea in Western philosophy that views reality only in relation to and projection from the human perspective). Instead, they turn to the world experience of the nonhuman, the sentient and foreign perspective of matter and objects. They expose the contrived nature of our distinction between self and world, showing how we are world, entangled in a way that is inextricable and disturbing (Timothy Morton, for instance, points to the crustaceans that live in our eyelashes or the bacteria in our gut as examples of how we are the environment, rather than self-complete and separate beings). Vapourwave in some way manages to evoke this weird world of objects, at a level only barely accessible to humans. Its use of glitches and looped samples disrupts the ordering of people and things. As Tanner puts it,

Glitches interrupt our expectations while deceiving and annoying us. They undermine our notion of what the machine is supposed to do for us, not without us. In this way, our electronic machines take on lives of their own and appear capable of functioning perfectly well without humans – a complete transcendence into other-worldly sentience.

 (2016: 11)

We might consider this in relation to Martin Heidegger’s (2008) idea that we only notice a tool as a thing when it stops working. A broken hammer suddenly becomes a strange entity in its own right, rather than just one chain link in the process of a means to an end. Chuck Persons Eccojams Vol. 1, for starters. The very name: Eccojams. It implies the jams are a product of this Other: the ecco, ecology, echo…The title derives from an old Sega Megadrive game called Ecco the Dolphin, an action adventure game which featured dreamy music and a very minimalist gameplay narrative. You made Ecco sing to attract and interact with other objects and cetaceans; you could evoke echolocation in order to unfold a map of your oceanic surroundings; you could call to special crystals (glyphs) which in various ways controlled Ecco’s access to different levels. There is a beautiful otherworldliness to this game, and not just because Ecco ends up at the City of Atlantis. It’s created its own mythology, and the emphasis on song (like The Legend of Zelda’s ocarina melodies, which initiate effects in the game) opens up the possibilities for a nonhuman conscious or logic. Music, perhaps more than language, has effects on nonhuman consciousness. At a certain pitch, it can shatter a glass, or cause buildings to rumble with bass. It opens up its own logic of cause and effect.

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Hauntology, in a sense, is about being stuck on the loop of the end of history.  Technology constantly dislocates our awareness of time and space, so that linearity is replaced with instancy, repetition and reiteration, the constant recycling of former styles and events. Repetition is uncanny partly because, as Freud argues in ‘The Uncanny’, it’s the structure of the unconscious. When we notice repetition, we notice how our whole psyches are built on the compulsion to repeat even that which is most traumatic to us. It also violates our sense of identity and experience as singular and unique (an idea that liberal democracy and consumer capitalism likes to perpetuate). Identical twins are uncanny for this reason, as is deja vu. We feel that the normal order of time and space has been distorted (this is of course made explicit in films like Donnie Darko, which deal with parallel universe theorems). Repetition is also uncanny because it suggests that things we thought were unique to a moment, imbued with their apparent transience, are actually lingering and potentially eternal. It’s unsettling to have the buried constantly disinterred and broken out into the open present. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) is a novel which explores the logic of repetition in relation to a trauma narrative in which the protagonist becomes obsessed with re-enacting events to the point of absurdity and violent conclusion. It’s that overlap of the real, where dreamlike remembrance meets actual performed repetition, that is the orgasmic satisfaction of the psyche.

Listening to vapourwave enacts this perfectly. We might start to recognise the songs from which these samples were drawn, but our recognition is distorted along with the samples themselves. The past floats uncannily into the future. Eccojams Vol. 1 drops its tinkling beats on a loop and the vocals from eighties ballads are stripped of their velvet and become mournful, minor, distorted. Inhuman, odd. There’s a sense in which our contemporary experience of reality in the face of apocalypse and pathological nostalgia is both dark and sweet. Morton’s branch of object-orientated ontology, dark ecology, perfectly captures this experience (in fact, in Dark Ecology (2016) he describes the process of dealing with this ‘grief’ as sharing the structure of a ‘dark ecological chocolate’). Vapourwave is at times incredibly saccharine, mapping itself through the cheerfully smooth loops of Muzak; but it is also jarring, dissonant, deeply unsettling. It takes dirty club techno, the complex tempos of intelligent dance music, and puts them through the cheap production of the GarageBand blender. Vocals echo like a broken tannoy machine. Vapourwave, as both visual and musical aesthetic, fundamentally opens an aural space in which past, present and future become a haunting echo chamber of one another. No longer is this the mere surface play of postmodern collage, but instead it’s the material manifestation of a specific cultural hauntology. As Tanner puts it, hauntology ‘is unlike Jameson’s pastiche in that it complicates the past (specifically, the past’s image of the future) in order to call attention to capitalism’s destructive nature as a subjugating force that only fools others into thinking it came to eradicate “history”’ (2016: 35-36). Capitalism is hollowed out, its signature brands become lost echoes in a vaguely recognisable, a hypnotically attractive yet alarming vision of our near-present future; blended with the figures of mall culture, the colours of early aughts internet webspaces and the abyssal possibilities of a Tumblr scroll.

I’m interested in how vapourwave re-enacts a different form of consciousness and how this might be ecological, even though the movement’s only obvious engagement with Nature as Such is through the proliferation of palms and potted plants that drift incongruously as consumer goods through some of its artwork. To get at its ecological sweetness, it’s like cracking open a crystal to see its lattice parameters (what a beautiful phrase), the places where the material cleaves (its lines of weakness), its cubic structure. The interplay between structure and embedded weakness is what motivates vapourwave; it contains its own failure, the undeveloped samples, the way a tiny snatch of a song is unfolded into a tranquil sequence of soporific, nonsensical sound. This is not music with a coherent logic. You look for lines and trends and vague traces of structure, but a song will become something more fluid and fragmented. Vapourwave’s material metaphors cannot be coherent; it’s at once free-floating, vaporous, seeping, gelatinous, oozing, splitting, cracking, choking, pulsing, dissolving. Hard matter, soft matter, chemical, vapour, waves and glitches and tiny explosions.

Sometimes, the structure is completely frustrating. On Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, for example, the slowed-down, reverb-heavy sample from Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ repeats endlessly and never resolves itself into the next line: ‘another year and then we’ll be happy / just one more year and then we’ll be happy’. The twinkle signifies the glimpse of a transition and there’s a blip of the ‘b’ which should resolve into ‘but you’re crying, you’re crying now’ and yet here never does. Instead the song becomes an endless loop of implied futurity, the future conditional, ‘we’ll be happy’ that doesn’t get to complete itself but instead hangs. We’re taken out of time and left in this limbo. Here, the repetition isn’t soothing, it’s unsettling—mesmerising in a disturbing way. We question our longing for the song to resolve and before we have a chance it’s skipped to the next track. So we go back, search out the original version. Is it satisfying? Listening to Raferty’s original now feels weird in a way it didn’t before. It’s like this lost artefact from the past, spliced across the future ether rendered by Person’s eerie and hypnagogic album. While ‘Baker Street’ implies a specific place, now it’s thoroughly displaced, an effect of the internet’s rhizomatic possibilities.

As Morton puts it, ‘in order to have environmental awareness, one must be aware of space as more than just a vacuum. One must start taking note of, taking care of, one’s world’ (2002: 54). Ambient poetics disturb our assumed distinction between inside/outside, self/other; they show how we are entangled in a shared space of coexistence (Morton 2002: 54). Ambient music, in its sensuousness, its borrowing from the world—for example, by using samples of music concrète and field recordings from both nature and urban spaces—embeds us inside an environment in a way that is at once comforting and disturbing. It literally surrounds our senses. Brian Eno famously sets out a manifesto for ambient music by describing ambience as ‘an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence, a tint’, and ‘whereas conventional background music [i.e. Muzak] is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty […] from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. […] Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think’. As Morton puts it, ambient music as figured by Eno deconstructs the ‘opposition between foreground and background, or more precisely, between figure and ground’. In this sense, ‘ambience could be shown to resist the reification of space in capitalism’, ‘at once fill[ing] and overspill[ing] the ideological frame intended for it by the social structure in which it emerged’ (Morton 2001).

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Abandoned mall / / Source.

Think of it this way: could you get away with playing vapourwave in a mall or a supermarket or diner? Sure, it would ‘fill’ the space in one sense, but also exceed it, rendering all our cultural and material associations with this space uncanny and distorted. It would become a sci-fi space, a space displaced into the future. We would be inhabiting a doubled world, a doubled temporality. I tried playing Floral Shoppe in the restaurant where I work once (obviously when there were no customers) and the effect was actually very comforting. I felt like I wasn’t trapped in the familiar twenty-something existential limbo and instead inhabiting a plane of dreamlike contemplation, like the Rainbow Road level on MarioKart: Double Dash. I close my eyes and the scratched wooden floor spills out into a highway of colour; the tables I’m bumping against are bright yellow stars and fragments of unknown matter. I’m back in the supermarket, trolleys wheeling away from me and products falling off the shelf. I open my eyes and there’s the mirror and a reflection of someone that might be me, wearing a uniform, the chairs and tables flashing around me like holograms. I’m not exactly sure where that association sprung from (it’s been a long time since I’ve turned on the old GameCube), but I guess that’s the free associative impact of the music itself.

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Rainbow Road / / Source.

Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), vapourwave is about an experience of travel and movement without necessarily describing that movement itself. Crucially, the emphasis is on slowing down, on dwelling in a moment; a moment which is looped, repeated, pondered over, exhausted, reflected on. ‘I undertook to subject my life to a severe examination that would order it for the rest of my days in such a way as I wished to find it at the time of my death’ (Rousseau 2011: 24). Vapourwave subjects the e v e r y t h i n g of capitalist late modernity to such self-reflexive inner scrutiny. This scrutiny enacts a slowing down of perception, a sense of looking around and absorbing one’s place in the environment. Through an uncanny distortion, doubling back and becoming the environment. Vapourwave allows us to adopt both a blasé and a highly perceptive attitude to the ad-saturated world in which we exist; the metropolis of the internet becoming some great labyrinth in which we linger at every turn, mesmerised by the neon palms swaying in time to the untimely music, to cans of diet coke and the universal resonance of that bold tick logo. Everything surrounds and coagulates, connects.

This aesthetic dwelling is crucial for ecology because it forces a recognition of the world which we are and in which we live, a recognition that notices patterns of interconnectedness and coexistence. For Gregory Bateson (2016), aesthetics means ‘responsiveness to the pattern which connects. The pattern which connects is a meta-pattern’; both cities and their parts form part of this pattern, of the patterned aesthetic of vapourwave. The metropolis, the mall, the fountain plaza, the computer screen, the window of a building, the burnished, pixellated sunset. All are the environs of sound and vision, the movement between figure and ground, the deconstruction of synecdoche. The part and the whole are constantly supplementing each other (the song, the sample; the symbolism, the surface aesthetic). It’s a bewildering, shape-shifting experience. It forces us to take notice of our world. There’s something about vapourwave which always suggests to me a sort of endless highway, where the vehicles move as if through some viscous substance that drags the experience of time and space. Our perception becomes blurred and starry, with blips of unconsciousness and moments of epiphanic reverie. Things around us fade or glow. The radio rumbles in the darkest cavity of our chest. Am I even breathing? I don’t feel human. Is this freedom?

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Alongside this dwelling is a certain playfulness of a way unique to vapourwave. James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011) might be the classic here. It blends together the inane and cornily flourishing samples from Muzak with automated audio speech stolen from corporate contexts and sound effects from everyday tech life—the message-send swoop, a mouse click, laptop crashing sounds and start-up tunes. The result is something that might reflect Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as ‘eclecticism’, the ‘degree zero of contemporary general culture [where] one listens to reggae, watches Westerns, eats MacDonald’s for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothing in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games’ (2004: 76). This eclecticism is made playfully manifest in Ferraro’s lively, atmospheric and at times downright trippy record, where twinkles of commercially-drenched, techy synths give way to stuttering keyboards, ringtone effects and twirls of familiar message noises which become maddeningly synced with finger clicks and conversations between robotic voices. A CONUNDRUM article argues that ‘since vapourwave functions namely as commentary, it loops, pitch-shifts and “screws” the utopia of the virtual plaza, creating a harsh, grating sound in away that brings each muzak sample’s faults to the forefront of the track’. This is certainly true of Ferraro, but I’d also suggest that vapourwave is more than mere commentary; Ferraro especially revels in the silliness of corporate culture (check out ‘Pixarnia and the Future of Norman Rockwell’, with its drink slurping sound effects and jingly, kids tv-worthy melody), at the same time as revealing its peculiar utopian unreality, a world of shimmering sound and holograms. There’s a self-consciously affective and pleasurable aspect to the music. Sometimes it sounds like the demonstration music on an art channel, to the point where I’m expecting some beautiful, sellotaped creation to materialise with every musical flourish.

On the other hand, there’s the total weirdness of ‘Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi’, which takes us through a scintillatingly bizarre encounter with a ‘touchscreen waiter’ who explains the ordering process at a sushi restaurant—apparently in Times Square, with Gordon Ramsay as chef—to the backdrop of exuberant synths and glitchy effects which sound like a Windows 95 laptop gone haywire, or merely said customer making her selections from the menu software. The result is to render a future where restaurants and coffeehouses are devoid of human interaction, becoming impersonal encounters with creepily enthusiastic machine waiters (creepy not just because they’d put me out of a job). The contrast between this manic happiness, this constant focus on choice, with the maddening music is to create a deep sense of unease, to reveal the artifice of such utopian tech constructions. Do we really have a choice? Is life being boiled down to a series of computer menus? Is the future bound to the unsettling intonations of such robotic encounters? I can’t help but escape into the absurdity of the music and try to forget this hauntological disaster is always-already constantly happening…

The comparatively meditative ‘Bags’ weaves its entrancing ambience from an early Windows startup theme, dipping into sonorous caverns of sparkling synths and lifting for air bubbles and irregular, incongruous finger clicks. I am reminded here of a beautiful essay by Steven Connor on the magic of objects, specifically here bags: ‘because they are in essence such fleshly or bodily things, bags enact as nothing else does our sense of the relation between inside and outside. We are creatures who find it easy and pleasurable to imagine living on the inside of another body’. There’s an amniotic vibe to Ferarro’s ‘Bags’; the swaying, dreamy pace that makes us feel as though we are inside those palms, or encased within a glossy plastic number, bouncing away against some glamorous knee. Just as humans have a sort of supplementary, life-giving association with bags, we also have this relationship with the plazas of capitalism and the affective world they render. Ferarro has said that he conceived of Far Side Virtual as a series of ringtones, a musical form which inherently suggests consumer transience, tackiness, kitsch, the whims of passing fashions (not least because the polyphonic presets change with each phone upgrade). He’s also said that he loves the idea of the album being ‘performed b a Philharmonic Orchestra […] Imagining an orchestra given X-Box controllers instead of mallets, iPhones instead of violins, ring tones instead of Tubular bells, Starbucks cups instead of cymbals. All streamed online, viewable on a megascreen in Times Square’. That’s what’s special about vapourwave: its commitment to the endurance of art and the a e s t h e t i c alongside an ambiguous relationship with the ephemerality of corporate kitsch. The artistic rearrangement of these samples, alongside their visual presentation and marketing as alt music through sites like Bandcamp, completely reterritorialises their original framework of meaning.

There’s a sense in which this music—with its self-conscious materiality, the recognisably tacky mattering of its samples, its embrace of the ambient disruption of foreground and background—is inherently committed to some kind of hauntological ecological project, the kind advocated by Tim Morton’s dark ecological poetics. As Ferarro himself says of his album, it’s a ‘rubbery plastic symphony for global warming, dedicated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Vapourwave recycles culture, proliferates both beauty and trash, endlessly parodies itself and its references. It renders explicitly what Marc Augé calls the ‘non-places’ of supermodernity: the anonymous malls, airports, offices and stations where cultures blend and collide and become foreign places of blank existence, of non-place, of disembodied temporality and physical and social experience. Places emptied out of cultural specificity. Places where one might eat Japanese sushi in a New York airport restaurant, concocted by a holographic rendition of a grumpy English chef and served by a robot developed and programmed by a Chinese tech company. Vapourwave is melancholy and strangely displaced. The frequent use of anonymity by many of its prominent artists (Xavier, for example, is responsible for more than just Macintosh Plus), alongside the Eastern characters for song titles, creates again a dehumanised, uncanny and culturally displaced understanding of identity. It weaves an almost Orientalist mystery through its art, so that we can’t quite geographically place the origins and players of this musical movement. It’s all about dissemination, reappropriation, the instancy of recycled production; but it’s also about slowing down to notice the flaws inherent in our everyday, consumer lives. The heavily sampled, rhizomatic nature of vapourwave forces you to become a more active consumer of both music and other forms of material pleasure, from picking your morning coffee to choosing your desktop screensaver. Perhaps it’s this recognition that gives vapourwave the vague trace of disruptive impulse; the way it strips away the uneasy pleasures and pink mist of the late capitalist plaza and replaces it with a mystique that haunts us back from the future. Objects and humans withdraw from our grasp and we are left with the surface detritus of crushed coke cans, defunct MacBooks, coffee cups and robot voices stuck on repeat, cleaning the floor of the mall to a vicious gleam that threatens to bounce back like a screen and remind us that we haven’t left the room at all – we’re still on the internet, chasing our dreams.

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#existentialwave / / Source.

Bibliography

Augé, Marc, 2009. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso).

Bateson, Gregory, 2016. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Available at: http://www.oikos.org/mind&nature.htm. [Accessed 22.1.17].

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx. Extracts available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/derrida2.htm [Accessed 22.1.17].

Eno, Brian, 1978. ’Music for Airports liner notes’. Available at: http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/MFA-txt.html [Accessed 22.1.17].

Freud, Sigmund, 2003. The Uncanny, trans. by David McLintock, (London: Penguin).

Heidegger, Martin, 2008. Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (New York: Harper Perennial).

Jameson, Fredric, 1991. Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press).

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, 2004. Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2001. ‘“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as an Ambient Poem; a Study of a Dialectical Image; with Some Remarks on Coleridge and Wordsworth’, https://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/ecology/morton/morton.html

Morton, Timothy, 2002. ‘Why Ambient Poetics? Outline for a Depthless Ecology’, The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 52-56.

Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 2011. Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. by Russell Goulbourne, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics).

Tanner, Grafton, 2016. Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (Winchester: Zero Books).

Young, Jock, 2007. The Vertigo of Late Modernity (London: SAGE).

Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty

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Father John Misty/Josh Tillman. Image Source: Bristol 247

Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty

The recent crowning of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel prize for literature exemplifies our cultural obsession with authenticity. Sure, there are many other reasons for awarding Dylan the prize: the sheer volume of material he’s produced over several decades; his stature as an icon for the sensitive singer-songwriter; the influence he’s had on a whole variety of other musicians, writers, poets (hell, Joyce Carol Oates even dedicated a short story to him, and that was back in 1966). What’s striking about Dylan though is that he captures a certain lonesome troubadour aesthetic, taking the oral folk tradition of storytelling and the Beat generation aesthetics of immediacy, emotional expression and sensory impressions, and applying them to the sphere of popular music. In an age of auto-tuning, the ironic Cyborgism of Lady Gaga, the sheen of Kardashian perfectionism and the rise of the electronic sample, Dylan is held up as a figure of raw humanism, a celebration of flaws, a messiah for authenticity: its historical legacy, the possibility of its imminent return – the road myth stretching out into a kind of flame-red 1960s sunset, drenched in the nostalgia of a generation sick of techno and Twitter. I’m not so interested in whether Dylan should or shouldn’t have won the award; I’m more interested in what it says about our culture – namely, the nostalgia for the Real, the Authentic.

In an age of reality tv, true crime novels, of voguish memoirs and the confessional impulse of social media, it’s no wonder we keep craving the apparent honesty and pastoral romance conjured by a wild-haired young man standing lonesome in the canyons and warbling some wistful ballad documenting a troubled exploration of the soul, the wasted conditions of modern life. Yet while Dylan triumphs in the popular imagination, what are contemporary artists doing to subvert the system? In an age of hyperreality, hyper-pornography, liquid modernity, the Internet of Things, postpostmodernity – whatever you wanna call it – what can the pop singer do to achieve genuine controversy? Do you have to pull a Miley Cyrus and gyrate against a giant foam finger whilst performing a duet with a man dressed like an oversized humbug? Is irony and ludic poststructuralist riddling the only solution to capitalist existence, or have we gone beyond into something more? Where does the future lie for subversive performance art and indeed music?

Metamodernism, a term crystallised in Luke Turner’s 2011 manifesto, is a term which attempts to solve the problem of what comes next, what follows the snazzy, wisecrack playfulness of postmodernism. Instead of suggesting a temporal leap from postmodernism into something else, metamodernism argues for the notion of an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, embodying at once the ‘sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect’ of modernism’ with the lessons of postmodernism, its ontological questionings, its artistic techniques of ‘deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives’ (Turner 2015). This wavering between irony and sincerity, I argue, aptly characterises the music and performance of Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer). Misty is significant because of his trajectory from earnest, melancholic folk singer in the mould of Nick Drake/drummer in a band that made earnest, pastoral chamber pop, to a kind of bombastic, Hollywood shaman persona who mixes Neil Young with magic mushrooms and an ever-present iPhone. Much has been said on the likes of James Franco and Shia LaBeouf as metamodern performance artists. Franco’s film The Interview (2014) refuses to provide viewers with a fiction filter and leaves us despairingly perplexed as to its real-life veracity. As Seth Abramson puts it, ‘[d]oes The Interview “sincerely” intend to romanticise the murder of a real-world political leader, or is it “ironically” depicting an imaginary scenario in which that murder occurs? The viewer, of whatever nationality or political affiliation, is left to fend for themselves’.  LaBeouf’s whole existence seems to consist predominantly in deliberately stirring controversy through performance art, including  turning up to the premier of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag over his head, proclaiming the words ‘I am not famous anymore’. Is it a cheap ironic trick, or a genuine stab at the fickleness of celebrity culture? The reticence and lack of context provided for such art leaves the answers – and often the questions – up to the viewer. It’s not quite Brechtian estrangement, but it certainly has enough of that surrealist, absurdist quality to leave us reflecting critically on our established aesthetic definitions of what constitutes good taste, meaning, or indeed art altogether. While Franco and LaBeouf have been suitably lavished over in metamodern critique, I think it’s time Father John Misty had a spin under the hot lights.

For starters, naming. As soon as an artist adopts a moniker, they fall victim to an endless cycle of questioning which regurgitates the tired litany of phrases: ‘true self’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’. Band names which suggest authentic expression: the Manic Street Preachers (literally, they are people of the street, preaching a raw, unadulterated, ‘manic’ message). Richey Edwards famously took a razor blade and carved ‘4 REAL’ on his arm after NME interviewer Steve Lamacq playfully questioned the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers’ aggressively critical punk aesthetic. The notion of the REAL, then, is so pressing that it must be etched into one’s skin to prove one’s credentials. While David Bowie was widely celebrated for his queering of identity and invention of a whole host of alter-egos, Lana Del Rey is constantly lambasted in the media for being fake, inauthentic, a sham. Videos of songs from her Lizzy Grant days are dug up and splayed out online like some kind of police file. Look: this is the REAL Lana Del Rey! Even her lips are fake now! Perhaps the difference in response is because with Bowie, the fantasy quality was obvious – Ziggy Stardust was a character leapt out of some wonderful, coke-fuelled 1970s disco super-dream – whereas with Lana and Father John Misty, the line between ‘character’ and ‘true person’ is blurred. Tillman has denied (quite vehemently) that Father John Misty is simply a fictional creation, or merely an extension of personality; he sees it as a conveniently funny name which does the trick of ornamenting the desired psychedelic vibes of his music, it’s simply ‘a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt’.

For Misty, ‘most people’s idea of real authenticity is pork pies and vests and banjoes and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone uses their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity’. This points to the cultural relativism of authenticity. In our current era, it is manifested in the torn-shirt, heart-felt indie band epitomised perhaps most vividly by the Libertines, with the Pete’n’Carl rock’n’roll shambles of a double act coupled with poetic lyricism and the ‘authentic’ (but indelibly nostalgic) imagery of Cool Britannia. Once, it was curly-haired Dylan, or sickly, sensitive, visionary Romantic poet, John Keats. That Misty plays with so many cultural signifiers indicates his awareness of this relativism and indeed deliberately disrupts our understanding of authenticity itself. It’s embodied in his very music, which combines lyrics about redemptive love, self-loathing and cynical society with honey-sweet chamber pop. What does it mean to have this slightly ridiculous, towering, internet-trolling hipster figure sing genuinely sensitive ballads about romance and the tragically fucked-up consequences of a drop-out lifestyle, woven alongside songs about digging up graves and having sex in the Hollywood cemetery, ‘with Adderall and weed in my veins’? One thing’s for certain: authenticity is not something that’s fixed, and we might think about the cultural politics of who gets to decide what’s considered authentic…

With Lana Del Rey, the Ghetto Lolita persona isn’t just a persona, but in a similar vein to Tillman’s FJM, constitutes a whole arrangement of cultural codes mixed specifically with the enticement of death and sex appeal. Del Rey’s fashion alters in her videos, from 1960s baby doll to biker bad girl, trailer trash harlot, president’s wife and the melancholic hip hop angel on ‘High by the Beach’. Questioning her authenticity seems to miss the point, drawing us into a recursive and probably reductive debate about identity politics. What matters is how she adopts these different styles and weaves them through her performance; how using elements of trap, hip hop and soul within her lush landscapes of electric guitars and slowly melodic, ethereal vocals, prompts the listener’s awareness of a bewildering but certainly exhilarating mesh of symbolic values which cut across race, class, sexuality and gender, drawing us back to that central ideological problematic: the American Dream. As Karen van den Berg (2013) puts it, in a discussion of Del Rey’s video for ‘Ride’, ‘on the one hand Del Rey’s visual aesthetics celebrate the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.

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Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty in the video for ‘Freak’. Image Source: Pitchfork.

Well, if LDR is busy swathing us in the hypnotically dangerous luxuries of our consumerist superficiality, Father John Misty playfully deconstructs the Dylanesque vision of the Authentic American Troubadour. Boasting a slick of unkempt hair and overgrown beard, clad in oversized blazers and psychedelic shirts unbuttoned to the chest, Misty embodies a certain skewed archetype: the balladeering minstrel meets the ironic fashion codes of the hipster. Part shaman, mystic and lumberjack, with a name that belongs on the church fronts of some dazzling circus marquee of hell, Misty preaches lyrics which veer between the madly sarcastic, derisive and painfully sincere. Significantly, he had a cameo appearance in Del Rey’s video for ‘Freak’, playing a psychedelic, acid-gobbling 1960s mystic. He sings about love, married life, American culture, Hollywood glamour, sexual encounters and dodgy drug trips. His lyrics are a heteroglot mix of discourses, from religion to sentimental love songs to internet/text chat: ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ describes how a chance encounter in a ‘parking lot’ ends up in a ragged and passionate love affair and the dream of sharing a ‘plantation house’ because it’s ‘cheaper in the South’. Here, the classic Beat dream of heading south or west is repackaged as the ironically doomed trajectory of a metamodern love affair, where the singer’s genuine passion and emotion – ‘don’t let me die in a hospital’ – concludes with a terse ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years’ which seems to belong more in some experimental flash fiction piece than it does in a pop song. While Jeff Buckley reworked the troubadour ethic embodied by his folk-singing father, Tim Buckley, by combining its heartfelt honesty with the raw, Iron Maiden-style grating expression of the electric guitar and the howling vocal, Misty often dabbles in the meta, endlessly reminding us that we are listening to a FJM record, with all the symbolic contextual discourse that entails. On ‘Bored in the USA’, he weaves in a laugh track, which twists what could be a Dylanesque ballad on the dystopian state of our present society into a cynical self-reflection on the potential meaningless of art that strives to counter or represent this meaninglessness in the rest of culture.

Which brings us to the question: how successful can pop cultural art be when it is so far engrained in the corporate machine? Frankfurt school philosopher Theodore Adorno was fairly sceptical of its potential. He argued that

attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial […].

Thus as soon as an artist starts singing critically about the Iraq war, the current political system and so on, they risk turning these elements into commodities, and in the process cheapening not only the impact of their critique but also risk making light of the events themselves. Mathijs Peters uses the example of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) album to illustrate how pop-cultural protest gets transformed into simply another commodity. Green Day’s album, where the very title was a stab at pop culture (American Idiot/American Idol), presented a damning attack on the Bush administration and the wasted life of the junk-filled suburbs in the wake of late capitalism. Released on a Warner Bros. music label, it shot to great success, collecting a bunch of Grammy awards along the way. In the process, Peters (2015: 1348) argues, the band ‘became part of the same sensationalist establishment they tried to critique […] of the consumption culture and the corporal establishment that they explicitly distanced themselves from in the lyrics of American Idiot’. Indeed, I remember, as an avid young fan at the time, being able to buy Green Day merchandise in Claire’s Accessories (and on Ayr High Street, nonetheless). Obviously this is a perennial problem for punk in general and Green Day themselves addressed the alienating experience of being considered ‘sell-outs’ much earlier in their career; specifically, on ’86’ – a song from Insomniac (1995) which attacks the band from the perspective of the grassroots punk community from which they sprung.

One way to tackle the problem of being a sellout is to whole-heartedly embrace chart success and the exposure and coverage it brings. While some bands act cool and sly in the shadows of underground punk scenes, others deliberately whore themselves out to the mainstream. The question here is whether or not this can be considered an act of Situationist critique; Situationism being Guy Debord’s (non)term relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations (it’s not a movement exactly but perhaps best considered a set of critical practices). The specific mode of Situationist statement which musicians can employ is that of détournement: a method of propaganda which integrates existing artistic productions into a new, revised assemblage of a social milieu or event. An example of this would be to take the iconography of some element of mainstream politics or discourse and embody it to an extreme in new contexts so as to parody and reconfigure its meaning in a critical sense. We might think of the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield on Top of the Pops, performing Faster in between funeral pyres, clad in a terrorist balaclava. By bringing this aggressive masculine iconography into the commercial camp of Top of the Pops, and coupling the sinister symbol of the balaclava with the childish chalk scrawl ‘JAMES’, the band succeeded in challenging our existing conception of military imagery, estranging it through a combination of extremity and playful absurdism. Peters argues:

In line of Situationist thinking, the message [the Manics] tried to get across was not expressed in subtle arguments: the band sought to hijack the sloganeering techniques of consumerism, more specifically of tabloid journalism, presenting their message in the form of a radically distorted consumerism, turning its own techniques against itself.

(Peters 2015: 1357)

Yet in turning consumerism against itself, this aesthetic-political impulse is not simple postmodern irony; there is genuine sincerity, fury and passion in the performance. As with metamodernism, there is an oscillation between the postmodern collage of images and a kind of modernist sincerity, a slightly Eliotic misanthropy. Indeed, most Manics albums are plastered with quotes with all the great modernists, from Nietzsche to Camus and e.e. cummings (later albums, such as Futurology (2014) were also overtly influenced by German expressionism).  The modernist imprint is coupled with the performative playfulness of postmodern Bowie or Talking Heads, and the effect is one that is jarring and alienating while also heated and emotional, a far cry from the ironic cool of postmodernism.

NPG x87840; Manic Street Preachers (Richey James Edwards; Nicky Wire (Nick Jones)) by Kevin Cummins
Culture Sluts? Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire of the Manics. Image by Kevin Cummins; source: NME

The Manics have often explicitly stated their desire for chart success, describing their 2010 album, Postcards from a Young Man, as a ‘last shot at mass communication’. This explicitly Adornian imagery of mass communication suggests an explicit engagement with the ‘culture machine’ for the purposes of widespread societal critique, using the platform of pop culture to put forward a political message. While Nicky Wire is pretty forthright about his politics, giving an earnest, engaged (and let’s face it, depressingly rare these days) left-wing energy to many of his interviews, Father John Misty is far more elliptical. The lines between performance and authenticity are continually blurred. Misty blithely admits to his penchant for merchandise, stating with deadpan seriousness in a somewhat disastrous BBC 6Music interview that he and his management ‘have come up with an algorithm [for crowd-surfing] that more or less correlates to march sales’. The interview becomes a kind of performance art, with Misty critiquing Radcliffe and Maconie for ‘leading me with blunt questions’ at the same time as deliberately berating them with obtuse or self-aggrandisingly bombastic answers. Once again, we have that bewildering oscillation between irony and sincerity: how seriously does Misty take his art? It’s quite possible that Misty, an American (and thus supposedly without irony), has trumped the British interviewers with his enigmatic sarcasm, a kind of David Foster Wallace-esque intellectual posturing. At once, he’s arguing for the genuine ‘empathy’ he hopes to achieve in his songs, and talking about how he loves the idea of having merchandised jeggings. He bitterly denigrates music that has a didactic message critiquing society or popular music, saying, ‘any kind of didactic hair splitting post punk competing ideologies make me want to puke’ – we’re looking at you, Half Man Half Biscuit.

Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking Misty is a bit of a hypocrite on this. After all, didn’t he famously disrupt one of his festival performances this summer to embark on a tirade against the role of the entertainment industry in propagating the impulse of the Trump presidential campaign? It’s worth listening to the whole speech to get a flavour for whether it’s a genuine spontaneous rant or a scripted act of performance art. While (if YouTube comments are anything to go by) Misty was widely lambasted and ridiculed for his speech – there’s the whole commercial thing of we’ve paid for a gig, we expect some music – there’s something eerily authentic and indeed rousing about it. The crowd starts cheering (somewhat limply, but still) and at one point a guy shouts out, as if in a gospel church, ‘preach Father, preach!’. We can’t tell if he’s being ironic, merely citing and regurgitating religious discourse out of context for fun, but the effect is still palpable. It becomes a kind of surrealist visual event, where even the audience start to channel the symbolic implications of Misty’s name. We usually associate rockstars interrupting their performance for garbled declarative speeches with some kind of ensuing personal breakdown (The Libertines, Green Day and the Manics have all been caught up in this), but here Misty’s speech is both controlled and has the rhythm of natural pondering. He gets into the rhythm of complaint and disgust; it’s broad daylight, bright sunshine, and he’s shouting,

[…] do you people realise we have an entertaining tyrant [TRUMP] right now…like, HILARIOUS. I don’t know how I can rationally respond right now…do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution? […] how entertaining should this be right now? […] how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense?

And in fact there’s a definite poignancy to this speech now that Trump has in fact become President of the United States. The hilarious tyrant has won. He’s no longer a cartoon character. Misty is deliberately pushing us to at once take the hilarious approach (why stage this absurdist political intervention at a gig, and not a political convention?) and to critically assess our complicity in letting this happen, in at once not taking Trump seriously but also normalising him as part of discourse, allowing him to settle comfortably among the daily media news cycle. He confronts full-on the problem of singing more explicit protest songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ in a context where nothing seems real anymore, admitting the struggle to make this song entertainment (and thus as much worth as Trump’s speeches) by singing it live to an audience. Misty’s lyrics to ‘Bored in the USA’ capture post-recession America with a wry cynicism which deconstructs and modernises all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ for the prozac-numbed Millennial generation. By bringing up his unease at playing the song, Misty hints at Adorno’s suspicion of pop music’s limited powers of protest. In doing so, he adds a layer of further meta-critique, which benefits the overall thrust of his performance. There’s a romanticism, a kind of soap-box politics which is refreshing and comes across as both sincere and slightly poke-the-online-lion’s-nest kind of IRL trolling.

This is a man who can perform a heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ with absolute, devastating emotional conviction, who speaks in the lingo of the college boy, littering his interviews with ‘dude’ and ‘man’. Who can doll out such colourful and risqué phrases as ‘hickory smoked abortion’ to describe the state of current US culture. Who can express dreamlike fantasies of masochism alongside the cutesy cuddly scene of bringing two (probably organic, thrice roasted) coffees back to the domestic bliss of his girlfriend’s bed (as in the video for ‘Nancy From Now On’). Who can evoke New Age mysticism and the blisses of married life at the same time as derisively mocking a lover from the perspective of a condemning, world-weary academic: ‘She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that’. While songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ could be considered postmodern, in the sense that a) it’s meta, referring to Tillman as if he were an outside character and b) it’s lyrically ripping apart the female love object in, perhaps, a riff of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ c) it’s also musically self-consciously deconstructing a love song, twinkling xylophone and yearning strings ’n’ all. However, you could also consider it a sincere rendering of the shallowness of identities in a relationship that’s no longer working/never worked; as Misty bluntly admits, ‘I feel so unconvincing / when I fumble with your buttons’. I particularly love when he plucks a piece of internet lingo like ‘convo’ and rhymes it sublimely with ‘cosmos’. There’s a sense that these are love songs repackaged for the cynical age of Reddit, but flavoured with a conviction that suggests genuine empathy with the character(s) in the songs (Misty himself?) and the act of songwriting as an authentic act of self-expression or cultural engagement (so here more Tumblr than Reddit). After all, the polished production and tight arrangements suggest less jagged punk aggression/destruction and instead a sophisticated reworking of various musical discourses.

Like Lana Del Rey, Misty likes to skirt on the line between Hollywood glamour and its dark underbelly of heartbreak, superficiality and personal travesty; between a deliberate reworking of commercial codes and cultural images and the sincerity of genuinely heartfelt songs in the tradition of the tragic romantic songwriter (Neil Young for Misty, Billie Holliday for Del Rey). The old American road song is reworked (‘Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ for Misty, ‘Ride’ for LDR). The whole purpose of a pop star is reworked. What is unique and provocative about these artists is their insistence on refusing to concede the binary between fantasy/reality, performance/authenticity, their constant negotiation and deliberate reworking of cultural codes. In an age where a HILARIOUS TYRANT can become President of the United States, where radical politics is shrouded in apathy, where most discourse on celebrity culture is profoundly pessimistic and negative, maybe it’s time to recognise the celebrities who are subtly challenging the system from within, and start taking seriously (with a bittersweet pinch of playful cynicism) a new Situationism?

Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks): 

Peters, Mathijs, 2015. ‘Adorno Meets Welsh Alternative Rock Band Manic Street Preachers: Three Proposed Critical Models’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 48, No. 6, pp. 1346-1373.

Turner, Luke, 2015. ‘Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction’, Notes on Metamodernism. Available at: http://www.metamodernism.com/2015/01/12/metamodernism-a-brief-introduction/ [Accessed 15th November 2016].