Top Albums, Tracks, EPs & Gigs of 2017

IMG_7112.jpg

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.

*

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.

 

Advertisements

The General Synopsis at Midnight

IMG_2009.jpg

To the best of my memory, I have only ever been on a sailing boat once. Or, I have only been happily in control of a sailing boat once (there was a time we had to try windsurfing in primary school, a time whose details have, thankfully, long been repressed).  It was 2005, I was twelve years old, and had won a competition through the local youth club to go on a sailing trip to Oban. I don’t remember anything about what I must’ve learned regarding sailing, but I do recall a beautiful suite of seafaring terms: a special vocabulary which transformed previously mundane structural features into curious artefacts of mysterious potential: cleat, keel, stem, rudder, transform, tiller, clew, boom, shroud, telltale, jib, winch, deck and spreader. The man in charge was a hardened fisherman type; I don’t recall his name, but we called him the skipper. He was dismayed to learn I was a vegetarian, having packed little in the way of vegetables for our journey. I was happy to live off Ovaltine, jam rolls and digestives for the following days. It was such an odd combination of children—were we still children?—on that trip. No popular kids, but a few of the scarier misbehaviours (probably not okay to still call them neds), the freaks and geeks—then me, wherever I fit in. ‘Goth’, which in the case of my school was generally singular. Somehow, we all bonded rather than fought in the tiny space of that boat.

One boy, who would always be in fights, bullying and hunking his weight around, was so sweet to me. He saw I had eaten barely anything and gave me a whole bar of Cadbury Mint Chocolate, insisting I had all of it. It was such a kind gesture that I remember it still. Everyone was different at sea: softer, more honest. We were willing to admit our social vulnerabilities; there was no-one, no context, to perform for. A boy I’ll call L. opened up to me about his love for 2Pac, and when Coldplay came on the skipper’s stereo (it was their first truly mehhhh album, X&Y), we shared a little rant about how cheesy it was. We ate fruit out of tins, pulled scarves over our faces on deck and watched the coloured houses of Tobermory loom closer. The skipper let us all have a go at the tiller; he told us stories from previous trips, about how the weather had turned nasty and they’d had to pull themselves through miniature hurricanes. I found myself craving the wild mad weather, even as I was shivering in some inadequate waterproof jacket (I have a history of coming ill prepared to such outings). The skipper and I sort of oddly bonded, since I was usually the first one up in the group. He’d put the kettle on and we’d go out on deck to watch the sky. He’d point out things to look for in the cloud patterns, the colours that bloomed on the horizon. It’s this kind of practical knowledge that I thirst for. Chefs talking to me about how to sharpen knives, bake brownies; motorcyclists betraying the secrets to keeping your speed; engineers talking about formulas and team rivalries and how to build a bike wheel. I’m completely incapable of almost anything practical, so it’s always a magic alchemy to me. When people ask what I want to be when I grow up, I say shepherdess, even though I have little idea of what that entails, beyond reading the excellent The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and occasionally listening to The Archers. I think I’d just be content to wander around hills.

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…

I awake to steady rainfall, first day of November. I have been thinking a lot about that sailing trip recently, mostly because I’ve been doing writing workshops in Greenock, and the nature of the place as a harbour town has everyone often turning back to boats and fishing topics. I talk to a chef at work about fishing, not because I’m all that interested in fish but because there’s something about its psychology that reminds me of times gone by. Once, I took myself out to Cardross on the train, following the road up to Ardmore to sit on the point which was a good spot for anglers. It was so quiet and still, the beaches strewn with lumps of quartz. I sat there for an hour or so, listening to the steady lap of the estuary, then slowly made my way home, tearing my skin on all the brambles. It had the feeling of a secret, overgrown place. A little out the way, a nest you could curl into: an almost island. I recall those tiny islands on the Swan Pond at Culzean Castle, where we used to leap across to. As a kid, I’d hide among the bamboos and rushes and feel entirely in my own little world. The pathways and grasses were lit with secret creatures, this 12th World I’d created—it was over a decade prior to Pokemon Go, but here I was in my augmented reality. I’d sit up on the top of the stairs reading for as late as possible, imagining that I was on top of a waterfall, and all before me was water cascading instead of carpet. I’d lie upside down and the ceiling became the first planes of a new universe. I’d wake up early and write it all down; but those pages are lost to whatever antique sale of the past stole my youth.

Now I am adult, less governed by diurnal rhythms. I find myself lost in the long bleed of night into day, up far too late in the bewildering recesses of the ocean online, the oceanic internet. Far corners where articles smudge their HEX numbers in true form down the page and I am rubbing my eyes to see beyond light. Time, perhaps, to rehash that old metaphor, surfing the web. Occasionally, some page would bring me crashing back down in the shallows; I’d wake up, ten minutes later, groggy on my keyboard. Press the refresh key. Instagram has me crossing continents at bewildering speed, lost in Moroccan markets, Mauritian beaches and Mexico City. In the depths of some nightclub then the heights of a Highland peak. So many fucking faces. Closeups of homemade cakes, delicious whisky. Memories. Oscillations I can hardly breathe in, watching my thumb make its onward scroll without my direction. The rhythms become flow, become repetition. I need an anchor. It’s been hours and hours and maybe I’m hungry.

On the boat, whose name I have sadly lost, we slept by gender in two separate cabin rooms. They were tiny, low-ceilinged, and we were just a handful of slugs pressed tight in our sleeping bags. It was better than a sleepover, because there was no pressure to stay up all night and we were all too exhausted from the sea air to talk much. I’d close my eyes and feel the steady rock of the boat’s hull as it bobbed on the water. There was a deep throb of something hitting against the walls outside, maybe a buoy or rope; it felt like a heartbeat. Sleeping in many strange places, the floors of friends’ flats and houses, in tents and on trains, I try to revisit that snug tight room where sleep was difficult to separate from consciousness itself. It was all of a darkness. Something Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space:  ‘We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images.’ There was no mirror in that boat, so all I remember are smells and objects. No sign of my own pale and windswept face. Everything we ate was an old-fashioned brand; it made me think of rationing and traditional values. I wasn’t quite sure what that even meant.

I need an anchor. A place to dock in.

Governed by some primordial instinct, I go to make my dinner around the same time most nights—which happens to be one in the morning. The shipping forecast used to be the last thing on the radio, before a sea of white noise till dawn. When cutting veg, my fingers weak from another long day, I switch on the radio and there are the familiar intonations. I listen as I would a poem or a shopping list, a beautiful litany of place names, nouns, directives. I have no idea what any of it signifies. It’s been a double shift, perhaps, or an extreme stint in the library, a walk across the city. My mind is full of words and sounds, so many conversations. The debris of the day threatens to spill out as a siren’s cry, and how easily I could slump against the kitchen cupboards, wilt upon the floor. Make myself nothing but driftwood, no good turning till morning. But instead I chop veg, listen to the shipping forecast. It’s difficult to think you deserve food, even when your body’s burning for it and you haven’t eaten for hours. But there are so many other things to read or do! You need an anchor, a reason.

The general synopsis at midnight.

Many of my childhood lost afternoons, bleeding to evenings, were spent playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on a GameCube I shared with my brother—avoiding the narrative quests and dungeons in favour of epic ventures across that cobalt ocean. What I wanted was that rousing sense of the wind’s spirit, the freedom to glide and find new islands. Whirlpools, tornados and Chtlulu-like creatures hurled me out to stranger lands. It was all so beautifully rendered, an expansive thalassic field of possibility; with each route I was fashioning some lovelorn story for my lonely hero. The ocean has always represented for me some point of erasure where reality dissolves into imagination. I think maybe it’s this perceptive meshing that we need to attune to in order to make sense of the vast scale effects of the Anthropocene. How else to grasp those resonant shockwaves of consequence, whose manifestations often transcend our human grasp of time and space?

Headache, Viking, southwesterly veering. The same refrain, moderate or good. When occasionally poor at times, do I picture the sailors with rain lashing their faces, rising through mist towards mainland? Is that even where they want to head? Rain at times, smooth or slight, variable 3 or 4. The dwelling conditionals; always between, never quite certain. The weather being this immense, elusive flux you can guess at, the way paint might guess at true colour. Cyclonic 4 or 5. In Fitzroy are there storms circling around the bay? Very few of these places could I point to on a map. I like the ambiguity, the fact of their being out there, starring the banks and shores and isles of Britain and beyond: Shannon, Fastnet, the Irish Sea. There’s a sense of being ancient, from Fair Isle to Faeroes.

I went to a talk last week for Sonica Fest where a girl from Fair Isle talked about climate change, how her home island would probably one day be swallowed by the sea. I can’t help picturing a Cocteau Twins song when she says it. She dropped handmade bronze chains in different oceans so you could see the divergent levels of oxidation, relative to saline content. It was beautiful, this abstract material rendering of elemental time. The world rusts differently; we are all objects, exposed to variant weathers. Her name was Vivian Ross-Smith and she talked about ‘islandness’, a project which connects contemporary art practise with locality and tradition. The term for me also conjured some sense of the world as all these archipelagos, whose land mass is slowly being ravaged by warming waters. The pollutants we put in. Islandness betrays our vulnerability, the way we were as 12-year-olds at the mercy of the tides, the weather and our gruff skipper. I had little conception of what climate change was, but even then I didn’t set a division between humankind and nature.

Back on the boat, I traced my own moods in the swirls of those mysterious currents, dipping my fingers in the freezing North Sea. Who are we before puberty, pure in our childish palette of pastel moods? When I think about how that sea spreads out to become the Atlantic, so vast and impossibly deep, I grow a bit nauseous. Maybe that’s the sublime; an endless concatenation of seasickness, feeling your own weakness and smallness in the face of great space, matter, disaster. How easy you too could become debris.

Increasingly, that waltzing Cocteau Twins song feels more like an elegy, haunted by the shrill of soprano, those shoegaze guitars resounding like notes through a cataract. A line from Wordsworth’s  ‘Tintern Abbey’* I always remember, ‘The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’. Interplay between feeling and form, sound and vision. The ocean warming, the beat steady and mesmerising. Are we sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, over and over again, a lurid repetition compulsion? Why we keep burning up fossil fuels, emitting our plumes of carbon, senseless in the face of a terrible sensorium? I crave solid objects that show up the archives of history, those plastiglomerates of Frankenstein geology, the warped materials of the Earth’s slow and drawn-out hurting. Liz Fraser’s operatic howls are maybe the mourning of the land itself, begging to be swallowed by the sea. A saving? If originally we came from water, hatched out of amniotic sacks or evolved from subaquatic origins, then maybe we return to its oceanic expanse, its blue screen of death. When I’m anxious and needing to write furiously, write against the tides of exhaustion or time, I listen to Drexciya—Detroit-based techno that harks back to Plato’s mythology of Atlantis, via Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. There’s this crazed evocation of diaspora, drowning, a mysterious race of merpeople. What evolves below water, what is spawning in the recesses of subculture; what resists the mainstream, the violent currents of everyday life. This subterranean city is a ‘sonic third space’. I can’t help but think of my own other planet, that 12th World separate yet attached to daily reality; somewhere distant but still impossibly intimate. That resonant intensity that drives you from sleep and into midnight discos of the mind, all pulsation of lights, wonder, horror.

There’s a sense that sound itself can be physically embracing. This is maybe how it crosses over into sonic third space, where embedded mythologies flourish in resonant affect. Where sound becomes tangible, making vibrational inscriptions of code upon the body like transient hieroglyphs of an assemblage’s trellising energy. In Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010), the protagonist Serge is obsessed with hacking the radio to tune into the ether. Alongside the obvious supernatural connotations, there’s a more pressing suggestion that Serge is able to make his entire being become channel for sound. He lays on a ship as I once lay on a boat, listening to the warm stirs, the conversational blips and signals of objects:

The engine noise sounds in his chest. It seems to carry conversations from other parts of the vessel: the deck, perhaps, or possibly the dining room, or maybe even those of its past passengers, still humming through its metal girders, resonating in the enclosed air of its corridors and cabins, shafts and vents. Their cadences rise and fall with the ship’s motion, with such synchronicity that it seems to Serge that he’s rising and falling not so much above the ocean per sea as on and into them: the cadences themselves, their peaks and troughs…

McCarthy’s lyrical clauses accumulate this notion of sound as spreading, seeping into words and orifices, surfaces. Presences, absence. A lilting simultaneity between the movements and pulses of objects. Sound becomes material; is spatialised as cadence, lapping the edge of Serge’s senses with lapidary, enticing effect—always tinged, perhaps, with a lisping hint of danger. The sounds, after all, also evoke the dead. There’s a radio drama by Jonathan Mitchell, where the protagonist has developed a device which allows you to extract sound from wood. There’s the idea that wooden surfaces absorb sounds from their surroundings, and the time and quality of storage depends on the type of wood. It’s a brilliant sci-fi exploration of what would happen ethically if we could extract auditory archives from material surroundings—the problems and possibilities of surveillance, anamnesis and so on. Consequences for human and nonhuman identity, the boundaries between life and death, silence and noise.

https://soundcloud.com/jonathan-mitchell-1/the-extractor

Do the walls hear everything? I think of rotting driftwood, how porous and light it is. How its every indent, line and scar marks some story of the tides, the stones and the sea. Robinson Crusoe, chipping the days away as notches on wood. I think of the hull of that boat, perhaps coated in plastic, sticky with flies and algae.

On the last day of our sailing trip, we were sitting round the table of the cabin, docked in Oban harbour, reading the papers and having a cup of tea. Our youth club leader got a text from a friend back home. She was informing us of the London 7/7 bombings. This was a time prior to having internet on our phones. We weren’t so wirelessly in tune with everything everywhere always. But that little signal, a couple words blipped through the ether, brought the sudden weight of the world crashing back down upon our maritime eden. I had family in London who escaped the attack by the skin of their teeth, a fortuitous decision to take that day a different route. How everything was at once the dread of hypotheticals. I did not understand the vast arterial networks of terror that governed the planet; these things happened in flashbulb moments, their ripple effects making what teachers called history. Somehow it didn’t seem real. Bombs went off all the time on tv; I grew up with the War in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those televised wars were the ambient backdrop to everything on the news. Later, my friends would wile away their teens shooting each other on Call of Duty. It was all logistics, statistics, the spectacle of bodies and explosions. Nobody explained it. We were distracted by MSN Messenger, then those boys with their controllers tuning in and out of conversation, signing online then drifting away into present-absence. X-Box (Live). Signifier: busy. It was good to be away from the telly in the relative quiet of the boat, startled instead by foghorns and seagulls. But even then, we remained connected.

⚓️

The Shipping Forecast has been issued, uninterrupted, since 1867. Its collation of meteorological data provides a map of sorts, a talismanic chart of patterns and movements, currents, pressures, temperatures—something that helps millions of sailors out at sea. I look at such visual charts and truly it boggles me. I prefer grasping such data as sound, delivered in the hypnotic lilt of that voice: its clear diction and poetic pace, calling me home. I think of the west coast, the bluish slate-grey of the sea. Becoming variable, then becoming southerly, rain or showers, moderate or good. Always between things’ becoming, becoming. There’s the pitch-black womb of a cabin again, the childlike promise of dreams and sleep, a genuine rest I’ve forgotten entirely. Listening makes it okay to be again, buoyed up halfway between where I am and where I’ve been. A constellation of elsewheres to placate insomnia’s paranoia; to be in winter’s dark heart or the long nights of summer, endlessly tuning to atmosphere, cyclonic later, slowly veering from the way. My present tense is always eluding, like ‘In Limbo’ with Thom Yorke’s seaward crooning, the morse code of emotion in whirlpool arpeggios, closing and bleeping and droning on a wave far away, the spiralling weather, the fantasy…Another message I can’t read.

*Full title, of course, being ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.

IMG_2735.jpg

Nostalgia for the Future: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Love’ and the Cultural Politics of Celestial Hauntology and Queer Temporality

Nostalgia for the Future: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Love’ and the Cultural Politics of Celestial Hauntology and Queer Temporality

[this essay arose out of Tumblr & IRL discussions with Scott Coubrough & Douglas Pattison; all images taken as screen-caps from the ‘Love’ video unless stated otherwise]

look at you kids with their vintage music
coming through satellites while cruising
 you’re part of the past
but now you’re the future

Lana Del Rey finally dropped a new song. Critics are calling it ‘uplifting’, ‘radiofriendly’, ‘an ode to allowing yourself to feel’. They aren’t wrong: on the surface, ‘Love’ does what it says on the tin. It’s a pop song dripping with sentiment, evoking that sense of yearning, the fragile desire of a typical Lana ballad, the kind of retro-culture sadcore found most prominently on Born to Die (e.g. ’Videogames’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’). However, as with all of Lana’s material, there’s more going on beneath the surface. This isn’t just a saccharine ballad about love. In fact, this is probably the most poignant address to millennial angst I’ve experienced in pop music so far.

In the video for ‘Love’, clad in a white dress, dark hair studded with sixties-style daisies, Lana’s figure fades into view out of blackness. The mood is monochrome, but the song and its video deal in more than one mood, one temporality. As Scott Coubrough puts it, ‘it totally depicts the experience of the cultural anachrony of now’ (citation: Tumblr chat). The black-and-white vintage Hollywood vibe is lingered over with sensuous closeups of smouldering cigarettes, dust swirling on a rain-streaked window, a handsome man pulling shapes from his vintage guitar. In the first half of the video, Lana’s performance is spliced around footage of kids living in a pastel-hazed Instagram version of the sixties, skateboarding and drifting in couples around graffitied streets. While most of these teenagers carry sixties iconography—huge plastic shades, cropped haircuts, Ginsberg-glasses—there are the odd anachronisms, the kind of hoodie-clad ambience of a Blink 182 video romanticised in slow-motion. Smartphones make an appearance only as cameras. It’s not a selfie that’s taken, but an old-fashioned snapshot of a friend. Why invoke this vintage idea of relationships, of summer afternoons wasted innocently without the distracting paraphernalia of everyday technology? Who are these kids, who have time to lean seductively over trucks, to laugh arm in arm in glorious LA sunlight?

This is all a deliberate exercise in nostalgia. The warm haze of an Insta-filter showers these moments in the warm glow of preservation, the stylised memorabilia we accumulate daily with our social media feeds. There’s a sense of the future anterior to everything that happens: such visual flickers of perfection, snapped as photos, remind us that youth is always about imminence: knowing that this won’t last forever, that soon it will slip away. We are always finding ways to preserve, to prolong it. Youth. Even as we’re living, we’re thinking of ways to capture the moment.

So far so ordinary. Nostalgia for lost youth and lost love isn’t exactly a new theme in pop music, from Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ to Del Rey’s own back-catalogue, notably her offering on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, ‘Young and Beautiful’: “will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” What’s different about ‘Love’ is its relentless insistence on the temporal deferrals within presence. “To be young and in love” she sings over and over, a collective rallying cry to her fans that urges its utopian possibility through the infinitive, rather than present tense. There’s no actual sense that these kids are all in love, but Lana explores what that love really means. She references the confusion of modern dating, mired as it is in the conventions of various apps and different types of hookup (“signals crossing can get confusing”). She repeats the word “crazy” like she’s trying to conjure it into being from the word’s invocation of chaos. But other than that, ‘Love’ doesn’t explicitly explore what it means to be in a conventional relationship; there’s none of the vivid imagery of masochism and defeat, none of the apostrophised Brutish and Beautiful Men you might find scattered around previous albums. Instead, love figures on this song as a kind of energy, the channels of desire that seem to pull us out of our current reality and into nostalgic futures.

The problem is, this desire isn’t a simple longing for a lost object, the loved one who slipped from our grasp; it’s a kind of depression, the Freudian melancholia that lacks an identifiable source, that eats away at our sleep. Beneath the sugary imagery of couples sharing walks and drives together, there’s that restless unease. The dark pulse of Born to Die-era strings. The heart of the song is a sense of self-reflective stasis. The camera pulls outwards to reveal the teenagers in the ballroom, watching Lana perform with reverent awe in their faces. Already, the singer is reflecting on the cultural presence of her music as it spreads into the future through the track’s own duration. This is a song which never seems to build to obvious climax, which rejects that teleological impulse towards the goal of release and decline, the cycles of reproduction which compel us to consume more and more as we start again each time. Instead, ‘Love’ wallows in the shallows of its strange, haunted swing, mesmerising us with cinematic production, with delicately repeated refrains that twirl like spun sugar. Onstage, Lana is bathed in white light, this ethereal beacon from the past or future, existing in the timeless space of an auditorium. It’s like the set for a Beckett play, that dark space of absence and aporetic timelessness where anything might happen. Beckett, only with sex, beauty and audience adoration. We’re encouraged by a playful, irresistible wink to fall for this surreal and breathless dream.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 13.05.41.png

The kids slowly sink into Lana’s music, lolling their heads in time, blinking in meditative motion as they stare at her swaying onstage. When we see the starlight reflected back through Lana’s eyes, the kids begin seeing the same celestial beauty. A huge moon rises above them, the walls of reality shattering as the ceiling becomes a super-imposed night sky. The truck starts spinning in space, a truly lost object, like the kind of anachronistic cultural products scattered across Back to the Future, divorced from their temporal ‘home’ and washed up elsewhere, the debris of a lost present. In space, the truck’s radio says ‘No Service’. We’ve entered Beth Orton’s ‘Galaxy of Emptiness’, the starry space where we’re detached from the everyday. “Back to work or the coffee shop”; these banal facts of daily life are usually excluded from the typical Lana song, which is more likely to feature gangsters and bad boys and probably a branded soft drink or declaration of deeply personal romantic sadness. This song feels more universal, generational, though nonetheless affective. The ordinariness of work and coffee (made more poignant by the obvious fact that many millennials combine the two as baristas, again reinforcing this idea of a dull labour cycle) infiltrating a LDR song? Woah. Her previous work explores the saturated hyper-dreams of consumer capitalism, with presidents dripping in gold chains, Lana herself resplendent in expensive pastel Jackie O suits, or riding across sunset highways against the vintage billboards advertising various American Dreams. The haunting quality of ‘Love’ is that it sort of rises above the glitz and glamour. Smartphones aren’t product placements but rather become anachronistic, incongruous relics, twirling out of time. The youth depicted in ‘Love’ are caught in a static reality, never growing old. By floating into space, they are cast adrift from capitalism’s materialised temporality.

You get ready you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular”. With this line, I’m reminded of an endearing extras video from the Skins series, called ‘Cassie’s dark dates’. Cassie, the ethereal and bittersweet anorexic character, announces to her flatmates that she’s going on a date, slicks on lipstick and smiles nervously in the mirror. She sits in the park smoking in her mustard socks, hair blown back wispy in the wind, watching a red balloon caught in her tree, fragile as her own wee heart. She wanders the city alone till it gets dark, then finds an old man lying on the ground. Thinking he’s dead, she tries to talk to him, then lies down beside him after he says he’s ‘listening to the pavement’. The pair wander home and she helps him make beans and toast; they share a cigarette and some laughter. It’s a lovely depiction of two lost souls from different generations finding temporary peace in their lives. He falls asleep on her knees while she reads an old book. It’s wistfully delightful; watching it now reminds me that those teenagers we watched grow up grotesque and vivid onscreen are somewhere, someone else now. The girl I was ten years ago (literally, wow) is equally lost. Part of her thought she would return to Mars. But she didn’t (or did she?) and instead she faded through the years, through the ether.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 13.04.35.png

Reality is a Stage Set/Baby the World’s Ending

 J. G. Ballard famously said that ‘one of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality was a stage set’, whereby ‘the comfortable day-to-day life […] could be dismantled overnight’. I’m reminded of the closing scenes of Ashes to Ashes, where Daniel Mays’ devil-like character starts smashing up the office ‘stage set’ and revealing that this reality is really just a kind of limbo, suspended in starry space—all the characters, we suddenly realise, are already dead. This is a series that, as with Life on Mars, is constructed on the premise of a sort of techno-hauntology, where the characters find themselves cast back in time but connected to the present through various forms of twentieth-century media. Signals start crackling with uncanny resonance, spirits and voices carried across the ether.

In ‘Love’, the film’s stage set is revealed as suspended somehow in the rather grandiose setting of space. Seeing the truck spinning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Hunt’s Quattro, this retro object that acquires nostalgic significance for the contemporary viewer. Why is it hurtling, in Lana’s video, towards the smouldering sun? The faces of the young folk in the car are seen glowing amber as the sun approaches, but they look happy rather than frightened. Somehow the video ends with the cool kids frolicking in this strange environment which could be anywhere, any planet. There are several moons in the sky. There’s a diner in the middle of nowhere. It feels a bit like Mars, all red canyons and desert sands. But there’s the blue water. These sublime landscapes evoke a sense of both fear and wonder as all the characters, including Lana, stare up at the sky. Are they scared of what lies beyond? For a generation whose futures are likely to be less well-off than their parents, whose hopes and dreams are clouded with rent-markets, dead-end jobs, cycles of unemployment and crippling student debt, the world of phantasmagoria evoked by the planets and stars seems a welcome retreat.

Like Clay in Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, they spend endless time just floating. While Clay drives about on the LA freeways, these characters drive about in their trucks, then frolic in the wastelands of space. What Gen X and millennials have in common is that sense of suspension and boredom. Where millennials differ, perhaps, is in their urge towards something greater, a less jaded sense of existence. When pushed to the edge, where else to go but down into that abyss? Simon Reynolds explains this sense of suspended progress in the twenty-first century, where the problems Ellis’ characters faced in the eighties are even more accelerated within culture and social life:

our belief in progress itself has been shaken badly recently – by the resurgence of faith-based fundamentalisms, by global warming and toxic catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, by evidence that social and racial divisions are deteriorating rather than improving, by the financial crisis. In a destabilised world, ideas of durable tradition and folk memory start to appeal as a counterweight and a drag in the face of capitalism’s reckless and wrecking radicalism

(Reynolds 2011: 404).

It’s this drag that Lana’s languid beat creates. She assures us: “It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough / For the future or the things to come”. This is a bold statement in the goal-orientated universe we live in; a time when everything has to be justified, ticked in boxes, underlined with attaching transferable skills. ‘Love’ allows us to dwell on just being, on the non-instrumental connections we make with other humans. Like many LDR videos, ‘Love’ offers a form of escapism from reality, but unlike those other videos this is an escape we all live everyday. The anonymous teenagers/young adults featured in the video could be any of us; they are scaled down, their insignificance is made vivid by the appearance of huge celestial bodies. We literally transcend the Earth. So why not make it spiritual? After all, our planet is itself on the edge. We are living in the time of the Anthropocene. Isn’t it about time our pop-cultural heroine consulted the oracle and told us how best to look westwards?

1531eyu.jpg
From the ‘Born to Die’ video. Source: MetroLyrics
1396259-lana-del-rey-delrey-viral-617-409.jpg
From the ‘Born to Die’ video. Source: Billboard.

“Baby don’t worry”: Lost in the Chora

Take previous LDR videos. ‘Born to Die’: the American flag, the imperial palace, the denim shorts and red baseball sneakers, tattoos and stretched ears, tigers and headlights, a lost highway, vampy red nails, the virginal white dress, sex, silence, a crown of summer flowers. A glut of signifiers. Money, power, glory. Oh wait, that’s another Lana song. The point is, we’re used to this sort of postmodern meta-play of signifiers when we’re watching a Lana video or listening to a Lana song. Like Ariel Pink, she works with readymade styles, retro-fitted fashions, vintage imagery and iconography. While Pink tends to work with a lo-fi, rough-edged, VHS aesthetic, the juicily plastic styles of the eighties, Lana favours the melancholy Hollywood dreams of the sixties. Those dark lashes, irresistible grin, hair so perfect you could frame it. ‘Love’ is a cinematic video; its very cover art suggests an old-school Hollywood film more than a new single. It’s got grandeur, it rises to what might be called ‘an intergalactic space opera’, although that sounds more like something Muse would get up to. We’re watching shooting stars stream silvery blue over a pyramid. What is a shooting star? A wish? And aren’t wishes necessarily orientated towards the future?

In opposition to an easy play of signifiers, ‘Love’ favours the expansive space of the sensuous and strange. Space itself, understood as whatever that mass of stars and matter that exists beyond our planet, is a bit like Plato’s chora. Or at least, the way it functions in Lana’s video (hell, I’m no astrophysicist). The chora is a kind of ‘mobile receptacle of mixing, of contradiction and movement’ (Kristeva 1977: 57); it is a womblike space which drive flows of renewal and infinite multiplicity within and beyond the subject. Think of a space in perpetual motion, no stasis allowed in its play of atoms. There is always a shimmering, a flickering between being, self, other. The language we use to describe this deconstructive flickering is, as Timothy Morton reminds us, ‘highly accurate’ at ‘a quantum scale’ (2015: 71). ‘When a verb is intransitive,’ he continues, ‘like flicker is, does the fact that it has no direct object mean that it represents a state of being or does it mean that it represents a state of doing—and if so, doing what to what?’ (Morton 2015: 72-73). What if ‘love’, as it appears in Lana’s new single, is an intransitive verb. To be in love is different from saying, ‘I love you’, ‘I love chocolate’ or ‘I love sunsets on the hottest days of June’. You’re not attaching the state to an object. There’s a sense of transition, passage, deferral between expression and feeling, the manifestation of a signifier. The space we inhabit in Lana’s song is a kind of chora, always undergoing some kind of self-rupture.

‘The chora, as rupture and articulations (rhythm), precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality’ (Kristeva 2001: 2170). Phantasmagoria are necessarily virtual images, superimposed on reality; the flicker of a hologram, a light display, a shower of fireworks, a neon sign flashing in the darkness. The blur of street-lamps in rain, the light of your phone glowing through a pink gauze of candy-floss, shimmers of fairy lights in a stranger’s window. There’s a sense of being seduced by the other side, by the beyond of the looking glass; nearly getting through but not quite. The allure of the surface, its invitation of depth that mistakes perception for layers of mirrors. The cameras filming ‘Love’ rupture time and space as they burst between different scenes, different worlds. Staring up at the stars is an old-fashioned Romantic image, but it seems less like the humans are projecting themselves onto the landscape, declaring their love as Keats did to the stars: ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—’. Rather, this is more an experience of the sublime: the camera’s focus is more on the characters’ eyes, which become reflective screens to the visual dramas unfolding. The world impresses itself upon us, we become but reflective surfaces in the endless refraction of this mysterious universe, its scintillations of colour and light, of divided time.

We view the subject in language as decentering the transcendental ego, cutting through it, and opening it up to a dialectic in which its syntactic and categorical understanding is merely the liminary moment of the process, which is itself always acted upon by the relation to the other dominated by the death drive and its productive reiteration of the “signifier”

(Kristeva 2001: 2175).

With the word ‘liminary’, I can’t help but think of luminary. Is light necessarily a transitive state between presence and darkness? Can one have presence in darkness? A luminary is someone who shines light, who inspires or influences others; but of course it is also a light-giving body, the sun and moon and stars. Lana, clad in white and seeming to emanate light from the stage, is easily the video’s luminary. I also can’t help but think of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, ‘turning away from the future to face the ruined landscape of the past’ (Love 2007: 5); she’s caught between past and future, deliberately shadowing the future with her turn to a retro-fitted past.

Liminary, on the other hand, is that which is placed at the beginning of the book; it is the instating moment of ‘the process’. ‘Love’ is the start of something new, even as it is grounded in retro culture. The mise-en-abyme of its central ballroom performance instates a rupture in discourse, the sensuous invitation to revel in its temporal infinitude, the possibility of abyss offered by sudden expansions of space-time, the spreading out into the galaxy. How do we relate to one another in this reconfigured universe, this endless opening of the book that leaves us stranded in the interval between what exists and future artistic possibility? The faces we encounter in the video are always Other, always slipping from our grasp as the camera gives us insufficient time to retain them. What is the signifier so constantly reiterated in ‘Love’? Why, love of course! And here, love is inseparable from death.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 13.06.11.png

No Future: Rejecting Reproductive Futurity

The video’s inertia and the song’s refusal of the little death of musical climax enacts a kind of non-consumerist pleasure. Take a standard pop, rock or indie song. There’s the buildup, the verse/chorus repetitions, the climax (with its attendantly indulgent, masturbatory solo) and the middle eight, a swift denouement. It’s all over before you know it and there you are, gorged and glutted but ultimately empty as you were to begin with. It’s the standard model for masculine sexual desire, which is pretty much always ego-centred. You keep going back for more but the high lasts only as long as the song. ‘Love’ strains towards something more intangible, elastic; both evanescent and eternal, a sensuousness moving between bodies, minds, times—never entirely confined.

I think a clue to the video’s strange temporal dynamics is, perhaps, its conspicuous lack of non-heterosexual couples. If it’s a paean to love, it’s a very straight one. Why have her characters plunge into the fiery planet? Is this a heteronormative apocalypse?

tumblr_m8bnxbqzp81qevm0qo1_1280_0.jpg
Paul Klee’s ‘Angeles Novus’–the painting Benjamin used to explain the Angel of History. Source.

There is a sense that this video is ghosted by a queer temporality. This opens up questions about identity, sexuality but also a more epochal sense of where we are now in terms of our experience of being and time.

According to Walter Benjamin (1940), one of the hallmarks of the modern era is a constant movement through “homogenous, empty time,” as opposed to the hauntings and co-occurrences of premodern civilisations and religious times. Attention to queer temporality explodes the idea of such homogenous and empty time, indicating the public face of white, heterosexual Western normativity as its vanguard.

(Cho 2015: 49)

Another striking thing about ‘Love’ is its white-washing. There are a few mixed-race characters but overwhelmingly these kids are the white youth. Maybe not quite Made in Chelsea-level, but nevertheless the video is pretty white. Now, while there’s been some controversy about Lana’s performative stylisation of racial tropes (and that’s a whole other essay on the topic of cultural appropriation), I don’t think white-washing is an inherent problem with Lana herself; she’s worked with people of colour in previous videos and in her touring band. So this instance of whiteness seems potentially deliberate. It’s part of a more general invoking of this hegemonic bloc, the young folk who we expect to have a wild youth and then grow up and settle into settled, middle-class heteronormative, reproductive lives. But what happens instead? They end up in this performative limbo, this space of the sublime, which is by definition ‘limitless’: ‘the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’ (Kant, A Critique of Pure Reason). Lana offers us this impulse to strain beyond what the world, in all its narrow clarity, offers. She urges us to relish in the shadows, even as she emanates light and knowledge.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 13.06.20.png

What are these shadows? Where are the queer and non-white hiding? As Lee Edelman (1998) points out, culture and society translate desire into temporality, into narrative; specifically, into the heteronormative teleological narrative of reproductive futurity. Fall in love so you can settle for a single partner, bind your desire in a capitalist social contract based on ideas of possession and commitment (marriage) and then help perpetuate the social order by having children and raising them to share your heteronormative ideologies. ‘Love’ unravels this teleological narrative of love. Those who fall out of the heterosexual camp are considered negative, ghostly, associated with the death drive since they do not reproduce. Lana, with her asynchronous depiction of sixties youth in the age of the smartphone, invokes a kind of time out of joint. As I’ve already said, these kids are trapped in stasis. The chora allows a sensuous, non-object related pleasure that goes beyond the consumer ethic or the typical romantic ethic of attachment. As they enter the waters of Mars (let’s just assume it’s Mars), they spread out from their initial couplings and form a collective of shared wonder. We’ve seen them plunge towards the fiery planet, the possible apocalypse that explodes instead into celestial beauty.

For Edelman, the project of queer theory is to embrace this association with the death drive:

Queer theory, then, should be viewed as a site at which a culturally repudiated irony, phobically displaced by the dominant culture onto the figure of the queer, is uncannily returned by those who propose to embrace such a figural identity within the figuralisation of identity itself.

(Edelman 1998: 27)

As discursive space, queer theory allows for ironically retaliating with an embrace of this phobic backwards queer. So imagery associating homosexuality with ghosts, vampires, absent figures and so on is vividly figured as an assertion of refusal, refusal to capitulate to reproductive futurity. In ‘Love’, the time of adolescence is transformed as these early models for future capitalism become ghosts, faces lit up in celestial white as they form a sort of playful colony on another planet. Their anonymous identities are held in stasis, prompting the audience to conjure for ourselves a narrative for their existence, their future.

By its very exclusion, the queer figure haunts Lana’s video. She reminds us that in Hollywood culture, rarely does a queer character get to share screen pleasure; but ultimately, the couples that do get together in ‘Love’ aren’t doing the old R’nB style dry hump in the back of a fancy car, but rather more innocently share in each other’s being. The moment of collectivity towards the video’s end when everyone looks up at the sky, just as before they looked at Lana, Angel of History, initiates a different kind of shared love. Friendship, perhaps, is just as important as romance. It’s all about a shared openness to the wonders around us. Maybe this is a sort of jouissance, that joy and bliss that cannot be pinned down simply to signifying object relations, ‘the sense of a violent passage beyond the circumscriptions inherent in meaning’ (Edelman 1998: 27). An experience of rupturing pleasure that can poke a hole in our normative sense of reality. However, as with most of Lana’s output, jouissance is inherently tied to the death drive, since by unravelling our symbolic reality, it also peels apart ‘the solidity of every object’, including the subject—making us painfully aware of our finitude, the void that stares back at us through the torn gauze of everyday signification (Edelman 1998: 27).

tumblr_mai7l9cLwG1qewhoso1_500.gif
Source: Rooster Magazine.

The Loop of Depression

Often referred to as ‘Hollywood sadcore’, Lana’s music is always inflected with a tragic undertone, a flirting with death (notoriously, she claimed in a Guardian interview that, ‘I wish I was dead already’), an atmosphere of darkness and depression. Depression works often by a loop logic. As Timothy Morton points out, the problem with depression is that it restricts temporality ‘to a diameter of ten minutes’: five in the past and five in the future. This narrowing translates into a kind of loop where one’s inability to think long-term forgoes the possibility of interrupting and re-directing the cycle of negative thought. The beats on ‘Love’ are tensely held; the song rarely develops beyond its repetitive ah-ah-ahs and it’s refrain of young and in love; while on the surface it seems affirmative, really it operates by a loop logic which betrays its cultural claustrophobia, its haunting. As my friend Scott points out, ‘Love’ also has a sound effect ‘that sounds like a metal bolt being locked’ which ‘reinforces how trapped we are in this loop’. And what exactly is this depressive ontology in which we are caught? How does Lana make it so seductive, even as she deconstructs its sources in heteronormative futurity and the existential despair of our millennial generation?

Depressive ontology is dangerously seductive because, as the zombie twin of a certain philosophical wisdom, it is half true. As the depressive withdraws from the vacant confections of the lifeworld, he unwittingly finds himself in concordance with the human condition so painstakingly diagrammed by a philosopher like Spinoza: he sees himself as a serial consumer of empty simulations, a junky hooked on every kind of deadening high, a meat puppet of the passions.

(Mark Fisher 2013: 61)

Being depressed highlights how much of a serial, looped existence we live on a daily basis, regardless of our mental health. It’s just capitalism. Only, unlike their ‘healthier’ or ‘more adjusted’ comrades, the depressed are unable to pursue this consumption of ‘empty simulations’ with any exuberance, feigned or otherwise. What’s the point in washing our hair when we’ll only have to do it again, when we’re not even sure what this body is or who it belongs to or what the fuck it’s doing in the world. When you don’t give a fuck about looking like that girl in the Loreal advert? Sylvia Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood, falling into clinical depression, says:

I hadn’t washed my hair for three weeks, either.

I hadn’t slept for seven nights.

The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.

I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.

It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.

It made me tired just to think of it.

I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.

(Plath, The Bell Jar)

The way Plath’s sentences spill out like lines of a poem, of code or fragmentary diary entries, indicate this sense of a loop: Esther can’t think beyond the next five minutes, and when she tries, she sees the infinitude of a ‘desolate avenue’. This is the future of the depressive, an endless repetition of mundanity that has no release from its shade. Esther has lost a sense of purpose or instrumentality: she cannot buy into the ideologies of femininity or self-care that justify the washing of one’s hair. She is, in body and mind, utterly exhausted.

What’s the point in having any faith in television, love, novels—the everyday detritus, landscapes and people of life itself—when everything reveals its inner hollowness, its lack of presence. The depressed see the emptiness in everything, the way everything concatenates, leads back round to the false positive of consumer logic. Maybe it’s a bit like seeing the world through Derrida’s eyes, but without Derrida’s flourishing ability to express it. Being depressed is actually—aside from the myriad debilitating physical and serious mental side effects—about having a very incisive and mostly, sadly, accurate view of the world. The problem is that there are ways of thinking through this loop and creating an alternative, positive subjectivity from the surrounding ruins; but when you’re stuck five minutes into the future and five into the past, this is pretty difficult to achieve.

So in a sense, ‘Love’ fetishises not death per se, but a depressive ontology which overshadows its surface celebration of exuberant love and celestial futurity, the astrological symbolism of possibilities to-come—future predictions. As with Esther Greenwood’s white boxes and black shade, Lana works with a monochrome logic of feedback loops (the audience viewing the artwork which we as audience are presently viewing), the symbiotic, repeated exchange between black and white, presence and absence, past and future. We are gifted with her “vintage music”, with the siren song of the past spreading into the celestial bounds of tomorrow. The sixties were a decade of utopian promise, representing the hope of future freedoms being realised in the present through protest, communes, youth culture—putting new ways of living into practice. In ‘Love’, the stylised invocation of the sixties represents the lost futures which our generation has been outcast from by the structural logic of late capitalism, its favouring of those who came before us, its refusal to invest in the infrastructure of youth and its possibility. The sixties can only appear here in the cinematic vintage of nostalgia.

The sound that comes “through satellites while cruising” could refer to the satellites of the present, the ones that structure the global interconnectedness of the internet, of broadcast television, the possibility of a rhizomatic exchange of divergent (and, hopefully, ideologically and temporally subversive) dreams that goes beyond the one-way projection of Hollywood’s cinematic vision of heteronormative LOVE. The word ‘cruising’ evokes the sense of pointless drifting, the sensuous and pleasurable experience of sailing around without definition of purpose that we find in the chora; in the way the characters float without gravity in space, surrounded by the suspended debris of identity, with smartphones and skateboards. It also, however, connotes the act of wandering around in search of a (casual) sexual partner, a practice often associated with gay culture. Once again, the spectre of the non-heterosexual returns to haunt this vision of sensuous, anti-teleological pleasure. Casual hook-ups rupture the reproductive marriage logic of possession; they instate a consumer attitude of recycled desires. Yet Lana’s video, unlike many contemporary music videos, doesn’t portray a vacuous array of club meet-ups leading to casual sex. It moves towards something sensuous, visionary and strangely warm and beautiful. There’s genuine affect, as Lana smiles and sings her way through this weird journey. She celebrates a kind of jouissance which seems to exist outside of reproductive futurity, outside of capitalism, outside of the Earth as we know it. Is this where we Millennials are headed? Will only the choice, privileged few get to share in this utopia, as is apparent in the video? Whose vintage dream is this, anyway?

Further Reading

Cho, Alexander, 2015. ‘Queer Reverb: Tumblr, Affect, Time’, Networked Affect, ed. by Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen and Michael Petit, (London: MIT Press), pp. 43-59.

Fisher, Mark, 2013. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Alresford: Zero Books).

Freud, Sigmund, 1914-1916. ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement: Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, Vol. 14, trans. by James Strachey, (London: Hogarth Press), pp. 243-258.

Heather Love, 2007. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (London: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2015. ‘Sparkle Time Time Sparkle’, in Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, Chtonic Index (Southend: Focal Point Gallery), pp. 66-79.

Reynolds, Simon, 2011. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (London: Faber and Faber).

On Diary Writing

On Diary Writing

“I guess it’s like, for the past seven months, I’ve felt like I don’t exist.”

A friend and I are standing down by the River Kelvin, watching the dark sloshy water unravel itself below us, the purplish October twilight settling around in the shadows and leaves. Part of our friendship has always been this: trying to fill in meaning and substance amongst the ghost-worlds of our lives. The drifting, disappearing act of routine. We agree that we are lone wolves; we pick apart the significance of things, every social occasion an attempt at just living. It isn’t easy. We write letters to each other with little drawings and pictures, sometimes forgetting to dot our i’s and cross the t’s. It doesn’t matter. The point is to communicate things, to write about the weather and the changing colour of the leaves and the way we are feeling. Relationships crumbling, people leaving. What stays the same is the insistence on memory. Remember this time. The walk we took out to Glasgow Green, sitting for hours in the glasshouse with the ripe spring sun so clear and gold on our skin, our talk of the future striving towards something tangibly positive. That night when the boy was sick and when the music was so loud it crashed in our ears for days afterwards; that night you dropped a pill and waited for the high to come, waited so long that you were outside of time, you were in a bubble with the world around you nebulous, distant, the high never coming and only that sense of being washed ashore, exhausted, after a long journey. I always sensed an ending and left the party early.

We write letters and they pile up in a shoebox in my bedroom, tacked together with coloured rubber-bands, as if candy-wrapped, waiting to be opened again after their first moment of preservation. Each one contains the microcosm of a whole moment, month, a jewellery case of feelings that glimmer in the arrangement of words, jotted down so simply but now rich with possibility. I can read this in your handwriting. I wonder if you do it too, if you like to trace the curls of my y’s and m’s. I am obsessed with materiality, as if it was the writing itself that keeps us being—making a record is insurance of existence, the future reassurance that I am alive, I did these things, I existed like this—once. I doubt anyone in the world cares so much about the little things as I do. It’s strange; I suppose it works against my exaggerations.

When you are sad, I say: keep a diary. It’s something I’ve done for years. Part of me truly believes there is no use in telling people certain things. I wonder, is this because I treasure secrets? Yes, I love to hoard. I keep jotters stuffed full of primary school scribblings, drawings of stick-figures falling from buildings. I keep clothes that no longer fit me, broken pencils, lipsticks long since soured but still heady with the smell of wintry, glittery evenings in bars I cannot visit again. There’s a box full of Game Boys, ancient crystals on the windowsill, fantasy novels whose worlds I feel cast out of forever, too old, too cynical.

Keep a diary. Is this my catchall advice for the lost and lonely? What is a diary? Why keep a diary…? Such questions are cast in the meaningless swirl of words; they float to one’s consciousness every time one sits down to write another entry. What is the point in this useless recording of words? Words, words, words. How hypnotic they are, how pointless! In keeping a diary, we make secrets. The secret lies behind every word. It is all decipherable possibilities that lead us back to the realm of the undecipherable. Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, in their playful, lyrical essay, ‘A Silkworm of One’s Own’, draw attention to the slippage between secret and secretion. There is something decidably intimate, eremitic, perhaps insect-like, about the human will to autobiography. As a silkworm or a spider spins its gossamer web, as the Lady of Shalott sits in her tower weaving her tapestry of the world, the diarist retreats to her solitary lair and writes of the day—that which has happened, that which is yet to come.

Unlike the fictional novel, the diary is more or less necessarily bound by the clock and calendar, as opposed to narrative time which might follow the personal experience of time, a more Bergsonian sense of duration. For Henri Bergson, our sense of time is not a mishmash of broken moments, memories to be recalled at will as if accessed from some inner harddrive, but rather that of duration: the accumulation of the past in the present, a ceaseless flow of unbroken moments. ‘The truth is we change without ceasing,’ and duration itself is ‘the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’ (Bergson 2013: 69-70). There is a sense of our personal time as being in flux, more fluid than the linear progression of calendar time would suggest. The diary form negotiates between this structuring of days and months and the impressionistic rendering of moments, which flow between past, present and future. We experience the present through the memories which populate our past and colour our senses. I walk through these streets, which are palimpsests of years gone by, a split screen of seasons, the autumn leaves and Christmas frost, the corner where we stopped…the desk by the window on level four of the library where I first cracked the notion of différance, the place by the pond where the bluebells grow, the shop which used to sell ribbons and now lies empty, gathering lumps of broken plaster and dust. This place has a bittersweetness, a depth of shadows, which it did not have the first time. A diary grows fatter by the year; as time goes by and I read back old entries, the words have acquired a weight they lacked when first written in all instancy and innocence.

The Britannica Encyclopaedia Online defines the diary as a

form of autobiographical writing, a regularly kept record of the diarist’s activities and reflections. Written primarily for the writer’s use alone, the diary has a frankness that is unlike writing done for publication. Its ancient lineage is indicated by the existence of the term in Latin, diarium, itself derived from dies (“day”).

This foregrounds the essential relation between the diary and dailyness. We write to contain the day, to compare our days, to express the day, to make sense of the day, to merely record the day. Not everyone writes on a daily basis; nor are all diaries structured in a daily sense. Sometimes, vague and impressionistic renderings of a summer, a month or week, might be jotted down as an amalgamation of sensations and feelings. The summer a loved one died, when it rained for weeks on end, when the news was full of insufferable political travesties. A patch of time defined less by rigid temporal boundaries and more by a general mood, which like watercolour paint bleeds into its edges.

Writers use various metaphoric images to make sense of time. In a diary entry from 22nd July 1926, Virginia Woolf writes, ‘[t]he summer hourglass is running out rapidly and rather sandily’, an image which coalesces the objective measure of time with the abstraction of a summer and its accompanying texture—sandily—giving some experiential hint as to the abrasive ‘feel’ of that particular passage of time, ‘[h]ere nothing but odds and ends’ (Woolf 2008: 216).  In a single entry we might note a month of great personal achievement, rapturous words on the fulfilment of a new job or relationship or project. For me, this style of diary-writing falls more into the remit of a journal. A diary, for me, probably has to be associated somehow with the daily. This is what makes it interesting, since in recording the day, the writer has little chance to reflect with all the hindsight of distance upon the events of the day. They are more raw, honest; they contain the energies of the present moment as it is borne upon by the immediate, pressing past.

img_0852

Maurice Blanchot usefully if not obtusely describes the everyday as that which escapes: it is ‘the residual life with which our trash cans and cemeteries are filled: scrap and refuse’; however, ‘this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived – in the moment when, lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity’ (Blanchot 1987: 13). There is then a sense that it might be impossible to represent the everyday as the everyday. In our experience of dailyness, we are so blinded by habit, routine, ritual, that we cannot step back to discern what actually happens. There is a strangeness to the everyday, its mediation of spontaneity and routine, which seems to elude attempts at representing the exact experience of encountering it. All reports of the everyday, whether fictional or in the form of a diary or ethnographic report, seem to fall prey to retrospective narrative organisation of some form or another. The truth is that in our daily lives we experience a particular texture to the passing of time, the passing through space and place. It depends on our job, our friends and family, our use of leisure time, our responsibilities. Time is experiential as well as ‘objective’. The diary, to some extent, captures this, with its vague sense of immediacy (something Samuel Richardson cashes in especially in his novel Pamela (1740), where Pamela is literally writing ‘to the moment’, as he puts it). The gush of sitting down to write before bed: here, I must capture it all before it fades into memory. The diary is a willingness to preserve the past, a form of archive fever, a possibility of dumping or offloading memories to be dealt with later. It is often prescribed to those undergoing psychological difficulty for that very cathartic reason: the possibility of sorting out the chaos of one’s thoughts and experiences by simply writing them down, thinking them through.

Diaries abound in literature. I will never have time to talk of them all.

There is a queer slippage between presence and absence in the diary. Think of Tom Riddle’s diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which Harry finds himself writing onto, into, watching ink dissolve and then materialise on the page after his own scrawled print, as if he were having some primitive MSN conversation with the realm of the dead. Riddle speaks through the diary, but it is a specific fragment of his character, the Riddle of the days when the diary was written. The diary is a puzzle to be solved; it is full of secrets (as the name Riddle suggests). We read a diary and we are confronted with a problem: it is chockfull of names, places, references that are never explained, since the person writing is writing not for an understanding readership but for herself alone. As readers we have to decipher the shorthand, the elliptical allusions to things that have happened, people who appear briefly but are then never mentioned again, though their unexplained presence haunts the diary like a ghost. You don’t have to justify your inclusion of certain characters when you’re accounting for a day. It’s just what happened. She did this, he had a go at me, the man that sits beside me at work, my favourite cafe, Mr. S and Mrs. C etc etc. We redact, unconsciously, as we write our lives (for reasons of repression perhaps but also brevity). The reader has to scour through page after page, trying to decode all the references. For what purpose, however? It’s not like in a novel, where you might be searching towards some argument, some overall notion of what the text is about. Doesn’t the diary elude this, in its very fragmentary nature, its resistance to the definition of closed art, its status as a kind of found object documenting a life (maybe even still living and thus not even closed off by death!), never intended to be published, let alone poured over by a curious reader or critic?

Perhaps, then, the diary is the perfect method through which to represent the unknowability of the everyday.

krapps-last-tape.jpg
Img source: twi-ny.com // John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape (photo by Richard Termine)

Think of the tape ‘diaries’ of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Every year, on his birthday, Krapp indulges in the ritual of making a tape recording in which he accounts for the events of the year, his general impressions of life, hopes for the future and so on. Every year, on his birthday, Krapp also listens back to previous tapes. Some of the tapes thus constitute a dialogue between tapes, as the Krapp of the present or past tries to make sense of the Krapp of a more distant past. Much of this dialogue, this ‘reading’ of the tapes and their various temporal selves, is an encounter with moments of aporia, with references that don’t make sense anymore. Krapp scours his personal memory, but often the cognitive dissonance persists. The uncanniness of the diary is that it reminds us that we are always strangers to ourselves; there are things in our memory, buried subconsciously, that we cannot access or understand, and yet they are part of us. They are the other within us. As such, writing, as one form of what Derrida calls ‘originary technicity’, is a key technological mode which humans have used for thousands of years to generate and make sense of their being (there can be no outside text). Early humans recorded their memories and made sense of the world through cave paintings; later came language as such, the gramophone, the typewriter, the tape recorder (so far, so Friedrich Kittler). Memory and being, therefore, have always already been technical. The prevalence of the diary as discursive form throughout history attests to this.

The diary can be intimate and confessional, but also performative. Not performative in the sense of a memoir, which has the luxury of retrospective maturity to aid its arrangement and sculpturing of events (a diary has the rawness and disarray of immediate record), but performative in the sense that in language all attempts to express the self are inevitably cast into the play of difference and deferral. Let us make no mistake about the representative problems of writing. In writing, the self dissolves. This is the basic Lacanian assumption that when I identify myself in language, I also split myself as Other (‘I’ am no longer the ‘I’ of writing), just as when in the Mirror Stage, the child recognises their mirror image for the first time and sees herself as a coherent object—the initiation of the decentering of the human. It is perfectly possible to refer to ourselves in the third or second person, creating an even greater distancing effect (think back to our most emo of teenage diary entries: you’re so selfish, fat, useless, you might as well give up now and so on). So in writing, the self splits. It is referring back to itself from the position of another self. Blanchot attests writing as a kind of space of death:

The truth of the journal lies not in the interesting, literary remarks to be found there, but in the insignificant details which attach it to daily reality. The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed

 (Blanchot 1982).

All year I’ve felt like I don’t exist. There is a sense in which writing a diary is a desperate attempt to pin down the self, to attest to your existence—here, look, see all the things I’ve done so far!—but in doing so, the self stays fluid, under the signifying movement of language. You can’t pin it down and then mount it like a butterfly. The writer’s self undergoes this ‘dangerous metamorphosis’ in the play of words, a transformation and dissolution that she indeed ‘suspect[s]’ even as she writes. A diary indeed, is partly a performance, even if you never intend another soul to read it. You can’t quite get the right words to come out. You’re striving towards an ideal expression of an experience or feeling or even just the sense of your own personality. Perhaps that’s why diaries are full of repetition. Dates, names, phrases. I’m always talking about how sound a person is, how lovely the leaves are at this time of year, how nice to sit in bed like this at three in the afternoon, listening to Arthur Russell albums. Sometimes the music changes, but the habit doesn’t, the phrases might modulate but they’re mostly the same.

Flicking back, painfully, through some diary entries from 2012-2014, I’m struck by how much I just write about the weather. Lyrical descriptions of rain, the promise of summer, the ephemeral beauty of daffodils. Maybe there’s a way in which diary writing is also a kind of phatic speech act, in Roman Jakobsen’s sense of a deliberate establishment of communication for communication’s sake. Communication to whom? The self of the future? Some entries seem to me reluctant; angry somehow, pissed that I’m even having to write this stupid thing at all. The phrase ‘But I will keep writing for the sake of writing’ comes up a lot…Why then do I keep writing? It’s like I’m trying to work through things. I spend sentence after sentence rambling on about the books I’m reading, formulating half-baked ideas which in retrospect often seem deliciously twee and naive. I exert grand claims for my continued writing: ‘I need to find purpose and order in things again, instead of being content with chaos’; claims that are ironically followed with the rambling chaos of self-deprecation and a rather banal outlining of my day, as if I had never made such grandiose assertions of existential realisation a few lines before. I think the diary attests to existence itself and memory more than it does to subjectivity and self-awareness. This is partly why reading one’s diary is always going to incur cognitive dissonance. Yes it’s good to write things down, to work them out, but often the world gets even more confusing in the process of writing.

It’s not a problem of empathy, it’s a problem related to the nature of subjectivity itself. Read back through old entries and yes the memory is stirred, you get a vague impressionistic matrix of sensations that to some extent recall the moment. But can you really remember what it was like to live it at that moment, with that particular naive frame of mind, untainted by everything that has happened since? I don’t think you can really. You get this sharp sense of empathy with the version of you in the diary, but in a way it isn’t really you. It’s quite sad actually. It forces us to deal with our own mortality, the irrevocable passage of time, that melancholy sense of the person we once were, the innocence we have lost. The diary is a record of traces of existence. They’re not necessarily mine. Maybe they’re filtered through dreams or literary narratives or imagined versions of what really happened. They’re attempts to make sense of the everyday, doomed always to fall back on the concrete detail which is its own story of surfaces over depth. As Jacques Lacan put it, the signified always slides under the signifier. The event always shifts under its representation in language. To make sense of one thing, you refer to another and so on, ad infinitum. There is an impossibility to the diary: is it bound to the self’s mortality? And yet it lives on, haunted with its revenants. The diary is always also a writing towards the future, a writing against death, a resistance to the ephemeral that extinguishes at the very level of the ephemeral. For in capturing a moment, perhaps you erase its elusive presentness…

In literature, the diary form is frequently used to make sense of the duality of personal time and clock time (which is itself historically, culturally and technologically relative). The metafictional chaos of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759) is a constant spillage of clock time, leaps between temporalities, anachronisms, the time of writing, the spanning of a lifetime, of a narrative. Its self-referentiality gives its time-space a maddening, recursive quality. One of the most famous encounters with the literary journal, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), is partly a rendering of the need to record time and daily rituals in order to maintain order and stability in a world outside of society. On his desert island, Crusoe marks the days in notches on a makeshift cross of wood but also notes with Puritan precision the days and dates and changing seasons. A significant chunk of the narrative is constituted by Crusoe’s journal, as he relates:

And now it was that I began to keep a journal of every day’s employment; for, indeed, at first I was in too much hurry, and not only hurry as to labour, but in too much discomposure of mind; and my journal would have been full of many dull things; for example, I must have said thus: “30th.—After I had got to shore, and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of salt water which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”

Some days after this, and after I had been on board the ship, and got all that I could out of her, yet I could not forbear getting up to the top of a little mountain and looking out to sea, in hopes of seeing a ship; then fancy at a vast distance I spied a sail, please myself with the hopes of it, and then after looking steadily, till I was almost blind, lose it quite, and sit down and weep like a child, and thus increase my misery by my folly.

But having gotten over these things in some measure, and having settled my household staff and habitation, made me a table and a chair, and all as handsome about me as I could, I began to keep my journal; of which I shall here give you the copy (though in it will be told all these particulars over again) as long as it lasted; for having no more ink, I was forced to leave it off.

(Defoe 2015)

I love this passage. You get the actual tangibility and physical limitations of the journal (he runs out of ink – another indication of writing’s material and temporal basis). Defoe provocatively renders Crusoe’s sense of real terror—‘fear of being devoured’—alongside his grand exaltations and little self-congratulations. There is a touch of pathos in his solitary situation, but also a self-aware sense of humour. Crusoe sometimes interrupts his journal to give over the ‘present’ narrative to philosophical and religious musings which connect the reflective mode of his present self with the self of the journal, encountering trials and tribulations of solitary island life firsthand. This interplay is what gives us a sense of Robinson Crusoe’s Protestant work ethic, a work ethic which Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) defines as that of being thrifty, ordered, productive, rational, self-controlled. Crusoe is not only deeply religious and ascetic but also a rather zealous capitalist, a merchant tradesman who dabbles with various colonial trades, and the novel negotiates the ideological balancing of these two positions through its shift between journal and narrative reflection. As Thomas Kemple argues, ‘in spite of the boundlessness of nature, Crusoe budgets his time, rations his resources, and keeps a strict account of the tools he has been able to save from the shipwreck in a way that does not exemplify but only prefigures the logic of investment and savings which will later drive the expansion of capitalism’ (1995: 249). Part of this budgeting and rationing is conducted through the journal.

There is a sense in which keeping a diary or journal is a means of keeping the self in check. Disciplining the self in the Foucauldian manner of applying internalised beliefs and discourses of control to the self, which becomes an external product to be in a sense ‘worked upon’. Listing one’s eating habits, exercise, love interests and so on is a way of tying them to the day, making them concrete. There can be some things that are embarrassing to write about, and the diary forces us to moralise ourselves, to justify our actions in writing. This isn’t always pleasant and there is a sense in which keeping a diary reinforces our panopticon-like internalisation of morality, our self-surveillance on a daily basis. It is true that the wilder our lives get, the less we write in our diaries, and perhaps this isn’t just a practical issue of lacking the time, but a more evasive, psychoanalytic phenomenon. Crusoe is deeply reflective about his ‘journal self’ and by putting our own lives in writing, we are subjecting ourselves to a similar internal discipline. Think of how much Jane Eyre loves Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. Think of Pamela, in Richardson’s eponymous eighteenth-century novel, where the young servant protagonist writes both letters and a diary as an assertion of her virtue, a way of sorting out her emotions and assuring herself that she is not in the least tempted by the licentious advances of her master. Yet she must hide her papers delicately in her underwear, always on her person, raising the question as to whether we carry our secrets, our personal burdens, with us always. Even if our diaries are hidden under a mattress, at the back of a drawer or in some old box, they still speak of their very existence. Perhaps that’s why so many people burn them.

The diary then, has a deep connection to inner morality, to self-justification, to the secret. One diary that is seductively rich with secrets is The Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), written by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, co-creator of the early 1990s tv series Twin Peaks, from which Laura Palmer is drawn. Without delving into too many Twin Peaks spoilers, we can say that The Diary of Laura Palmer is compelling partly because it gives voice to a character whose absence defines much of the television show, far more than her presence. Laura’s death in the first episode overshadows the action of the Twin Peaks’ narrative; she is an object of memory and memorial far more than a subject in her own right: she’s the Homecoming Queen portrait; the beautifully still and glittering corpse, iconically wrapped in plastic; the name on everyone’s lips (I always think of that Bat for Lashes song, ‘Laura’, and the implications of the trace in the metonymic lyrics which attempt to grasp her presence as absence: ‘You’re the train that crashed my heart / You’re the glitter in the dark, oh, Laura / You’re more than a superstar / You’ll be famous for longer than them / Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin’). In Lynch’s diary, we get access to Laura’s voice, which is a strange experience after knowing her only through the stories told by other characters. She gives detail and flesh to the entity known as ‘BOB’ and the psychological breakdown associated with her encounters with this torturing spirit. If you weren’t familiar with the tv series, you could probably read the diary as a standalone account of someone who suffered possibly schizophrenic tendencies, but with the weight of the show behind your reading, BOB is loaded with more sinister metaphysical and narrative implications and is certainly not just a psychological projection of Laura’s mind. Laura gets involved in all sort of sordid activities: lurid jaunts in the wood with a number of men, involvement with the local porno business (the creatively named Fleshworld magazine) and taking cocaine like it was cotton candy. What is haunting about Laura’s diary is that it troubles our easy narrative of corruption from small town innocence to debasement; the diary reveals that desire and its darkness were in Laura even as a child, as we see in her first entry:

Dear Diary, July 22, 1984

My name is Laura Palmer, and as of just three short minutes ago, I officially turned twelve years old! It is July 22, 1984, and I have had such a good day! You were the last gift I opened and I could hardly wait to come upstairs and start to tell you all about myself and my family. You shall be the one I confide in the most. I promise to tell you everything that happens, everything I feel, everything I desire. And, every single thing I think. There are some things I can’t tell anyone. I promise to tell these things to you.

(Lynch 2012: 1)

 

Lynch lets us into the taboo world of preteen sexuality which grows even more visceral as the diary progresses. Stylistically, we have the enthusiasm of someone very young, the peppered exclamation marks, the excitement, the promise. Towards the end of the diary, an entry from four years later, Laura remarks: ‘The girl who received this diary on her twelfth birthday has been dead for years, and I who took her place have done nothing but make a mockery of the dreams she once had’ (Lynch 2012: 167). This self-conscious sense of a fundamental splitting of self is not merely a moralising narrative about the loss of innocence, but is characteristic of our human condition as decentred subjects. With the archive fever of the diary (distinct from other forms of archivisation such as the blog or the social media profile by its privacy, its overt association with the intimate, ‘authentic’ self), we are forced to realise more vividly what we have gained and lost in the years, the sense of alienation that occurs when confronting the thoughts of our younger selves.

The secret is always a communication, even as it is concealed as such. You cannot have a secret without a hint of communication, otherwise it hardly exists. The promise of Laura’s diary entry is its seduction: ‘I promise to tell these things to you’. We are led to believe we are reading something intimate, never designed for public consumption. Yet as the diary progresses, we find that Laura is increasingly insistent on her narrative as narrative; she wants to write the diary to tell her story. When she realises she is in grave danger, she gives the diary to her friend Harold ‘for safekeeping’ (Lynch 2012: 184). She wants people to know how she ended up in such a twisted, seedy situation. Although Laura sometimes goes into detail about her trips into the woods with various shady characters, her dalliances in the Double R diner and hangouts with best pal Donna, the diary is often elliptical—especially elliptical in relation to Laura’s erotic fantasies: ‘ I went into a deep, drugged, happy, thoughtful, nasty, and still-innocent fantasy. I’ll have to tell more later…I feel so dreamy right now…’ (Lynch 2012: 120). The chain of adjectives is as bewildering as it is suggestive, the oxymoronic play between nasty/still-innocent disturbing our easy sense of the binary between good-girl and bad-girl. There is a sense of playful performance not unlike the deliberately seductive tone of someone selling phone sex, the elliptical gaps indicating that breathy space of erotic silence. Laura’s refusal, or inability, to disclose the details of her strange and alluring fantasy, seduce us with the promise of a secret. At some points in the diary, she lapses into poetry and what resembles a kind of displaced dramatic script, furthering the sense of the deferral of meaning, the weight of the secret and the struggle to articulate it which is the masochistic scene of both pain and play.

Indeed, some of the pages of the diary are noted by the editor as torn out, and often Laura alludes to something but never explains it fully. In a sense, this enables to maintain power over her secrets. As Jean Baudrillard says of the secret:

Everything that can be revealed lies outside the secret. For the latter is not a hidden signified, nor the key to something, but circulates through and transverses everything that can be said, just as seduction flows beneath the obscenity of speech. It is the opposite of communication, and yet it can be shared. The secret maintains its power only at the price of remaining unspoken, just as seduction operates only because never spoken nor intended.

(Baudrillard 1990: 79)

How unseductive it is to be explicitly seduced! Some cretinous man in a nightclub approaching you with his sloppily explicit sonnet of adoration. It is in the price of a glimpse, a smile or a chance, enigmatic word, that we are seduced. Seduction unravels in the realm of the clipped, the elusive and cryptic. Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita (1955), is written as a diary and its beautiful language is not the only thing that seduces the reader: its disturbing seduction is the uncertainty as to how much of the narrative is truth, how much the projection of Humbert Humbert’s zealous, harlequin imagination. Think also of Amy Dunne’s diary in Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl (2012), which provides a reflective counter narrative to her husband Nick’s present control of the story. Later, we learn that her diary entries were fabricated in order to incriminate Nick in her disappearance. The diary here becomes a tool of seduction, the private sphere designed to cause events in the public. Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel disguised as a diary, satirising the cultural representation of the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype by having her blonde protagonist, Lorelei Lee, cannily trick men into various racketing schemes (including buying her diamonds), at the same time as negotiating a trickstery language which shamelessly embraces its spelling errors and grammatical faults, and as such pokes fun at both the Patriarchal Laws of Discourse and the whimsical gendering and power performance of Lorelei Lee herself.

pdvd_384
Img source: http://entertainmentguidefilmtv.blogspot.com // Laura Palmer & her diary

The diary, as I have already said, is actually a form of communication, whether we like it or not. As a text, there is the implicit potentiality of its exposure to the world; a frisson between public and private that worms its way into the diary and infects the way we read and write, encouraging us to hold back or expose more, constantly engaged in the game of the secret, its slippage between presence and absence, silence and revelation. Perhaps no clearer is this visible in Laura Palmer’s diary than in her final entry, which is noted (presumably by the ‘editor’) as one of the torn pages:

Dear Diary, Undated

I know who he is. I know exactly who and what BOB is, and I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe.

Someone has torn the pages out of my diary, pages that help me realise maybe…pages with my poems, pages of writing, private pages. 

I’m so afraid of death.

I’m so afraid that no one will believe me until after I have taken the seat that I fear has been saved for me in the darkness. Please don’t hate me. I never meant to see the small hills and the fire. I never meant to see him or let him in.

Please, Diary, help me explain to everyone that I did not want what I have become. I did not want to have certain memories and realisations of him. I only did what any of us can do, in any situation…

My very best.  

Love, Laura

(Lynch 2012: 184).

The fact that Laura does not reveal the true identity of BOB is compelling, because why should she? If this is a diary merely for herself, then there would be no need to recount the agony of his name in writing. She does not disclose the truth, but rather marks the pain of a burial. ‘I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe’: and yet we know she will never get to tell the secret, since, as the editor tells us, after this final entry Laura is found dead days later. This drive for knowledge which seduces us as readers, sends us scattering back over the text, searching for clues and codes as to the true nature of the entity that has tormented Laura for most of the entries. It is probably for this reason that the creators of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and David Lynch, were so reluctant to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer halfway through season two, as their network pressured them to. What keeps us watching and reading is partly the seductive possibility of the secret; we don’t really even want to know, we just want the pleasure of trying to find out…

Still, while Laura’s diary was evidently written as an exploration into trauma and the problematic pleasure of voyeurism and secrecy, a similar teenage drug diary from the early 1970s raises questions about the ethics and polemic uses of the diary as a writerly form. Published by ‘Anonymous’ as Go Ask Alice (1971), but later discovered to be written by Beatrice Sparks; while initially marketed as nonfiction, it is now widely sold as fiction. There is some controversy over whether Sparks based the diary on the real diary of one of her patients, and the persistence of this controversy attests to our obsession with the slippery division between fiction and reality, a line that the diary form negotiates with only the most tender of distinctions. Like Laura Palmer, Alice is a young teenager who soon finds herself embroiled in a darkly muddled world of drugs (coke for Laura, LSD and heroin for Alice) and prostitution, made darker still by the hints of physical and sexual abuse incurred by both characters/diarists. There are striking similarities between the two diaries, but the crucial difference, to me, is that while Lynch wrote Laura’s diary to extend the thematic explorations of Twin Peaks, to give Laura a voice and deepen our knowledge of her character, Sparks wrote her diary novel with the didactic purpose of teaching an anti-drugs message to its avid teenage readers.

200_s
Img source: obviously Tumblr [screencap from Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 2001 film adapation of Prozac Nation]

When I first devoured Go Ask Alice, a whole six years ago now, I found myself sucked into the sinister allure of Alice’s adventures, which were at once so far away and yet perilously close to my life in a rural Ayrshire community where many of us were bumming out on toxic legal highs purloined from the local sex shop. I found myself rather terrified of my edition of the book; after reading it I shoved it to the back of the shelf, behind my equally harrowing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, and tried to forget about it. The cover has a picture of a skinny girl, face turned away from the camera, buried in her hand. It is all shadows; the title has ALICE and ANONYMOUS printed in harrowing block capitals. It reminds me of similar covers from the anorexic and depressive memoirs of Wasted (Marya Hornbacher) and Prozac Nation (Elizabeth Wurtzel). It cut a bit too close to the bone; I was worried that I’d get lost in the text somehow, the way I used to find myself lost in things that horrified yet seduced me.

Maybe part of this devouring was like Crusoe’s fear of being devoured: what scares him is the thought of being eaten alive by some unknown beast (think also of the Beast that haunts the boys in Lord of the Flies…). The fact that the corrupted fable of a contemporary Alice was meant to be anonymous probably made it scarier for me, because she was the everygirl, the possibility that anyone might be seduced by a life of self-destruction. Alice is the horror of the other within; the self-hating, monstrous self.

md19494886398
Img source: AbeBooks

Reading it back now, however, with my vaguely improved and university approved capacities at close reading, I can see the slippages where the text reveals its true author, the moralising American therapist who wanted to push her opinions on sexuality and drug abuse. Maybe as a teenager I was too close to the subject matter to think about the tone and style, the actual form of the diary. Some of it is pretty accurate: the in-depth reflections on diet and weight and self-image which prompt Alice’s first trip down the rabbit hole of self-harm and addiction. However, it’s obvious to me that it couldn’t be the authentic discourse of someone Alice’s age. There are so many points where you have to stop and think, would a teenage girl really say that?  Like when she reflects on her mother’s youth and whether her mother got so hung up on boys as she did: ‘I wonder if boys were as oversexed in those days as they are now?’ (Sparks 1994: 9). ‘Oversexed’ reads like the kind of word that would crop up on Mumsnet if it was around in the 1970s. There’s a general tone to the novel, a kind of failed attempt to script the logic of a teenage mind through an emphasis on ‘cool’, that reminds me of those 1970s and 1980s sex ed documentaries they used to wheel out the telly for in Personal Social Education at school. You’d be so distracted by the bad haircuts and the terribly stunted dialogue that you forgot about what the documentary was supposed to be teaching you, even as the narrative hammered it home so overtly that you’d have to be asleep to miss it. The ‘editors’ of Go Ask Alice claim the book to be ‘based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user’; ‘It is not a definitive statement on the middle-class, teenage drug world. It does not offer any solutions’. Nevertheless, the definitive statement that you can extract from Go Ask Alice is clearly: don’t do drugs. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t runaway from home. Alice does all these things and it only ends badly from her and occasionally, Robinson Crusoe-style, she chides herself with an almost religious morality for falling into such vices and immoral behaviours. Sometimes, Alice’s anxiety is rendered with such clunkiness it’s surprising the reading public didn’t pick up on the diary’s inauthenticity sooner:

I hadn’t thought about being pregnant before. Can it happen the first time? Will Bill marry me if I am or will he just think I’m an easy little dum-dum who makes it with everyone? Of course he won’t marry me, he’s only fifteen years old. I guess I’ll just have to have an abortion or something. I certainly couldn’t stand it if I had to leave school like_______did last year. The kids talked about absolutely nothing else for weeks. Oh God, please, please make me not pregnant!

(Sparks 1994: 30-31)

You could take those first few sentences as the cover quotes on leaflets from a vintage NHS ad on pregnancy and birth control advice. It’s so obviously contrived. There are other parts of the text where the slippage between teenage imagination and cringe-worthy adult representation is a bit more ambiguous; for example her description of sex with her drug dealer boyfriend, Richie, as ‘like lighting and rainbows and springtime’ (Sparks 1994: 43), which is naively refreshing at the same time as being a little too absurd for someone who is supposed to premise her existence on being a hyper-cool teenage dropout.

While Laura’s last diary entry is genuinely pretty harrowing, Alice’s is laced with a queasy sense of self-awareness that seems filtered through textbook rhetoric on adolescent mental health, as if the wiser voice of Sparks (therapist and Mormon youth counsellor) were speaking through her:

I used to think I would get another diary after you are filled, or even that I would keep a diary or journal through my whole life. But now I don’t really think I will. Diaries are great when you’re young. In fact, you saved my sanity a hundred, thousand, million times. But I think when a person gets older she should be able to discuss her problems and thoughts with other people, instead of just another part of herself as you have been to me. Don’t you agree? I hope so, for you are my dearest friend and I shall thank you always for sharing my tears and heartaches and my struggles and strifes, and my joys and happinesses. It’s all been good in its own special way, I guess.

See ya.

(Sparks 1994: 151-152)

Would a teenage girl really use the word ‘strifes’? Would she really, in the midst of a drug-addled breakdown, sound as lucid and lofty as to say ‘I think when a person gets older’? There is though some genuine pathos in the simple, casual ‘See ya’ followed by the overtly political and moralising register of the epilogue:

The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.

Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead. They called the police and the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do.

Was it an accidental overdose? A premeditated overdose? No one knows, and in some ways that question isn’t important. What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of approximately 50,000 drug deaths in the United States that year.

(Sparks 1994: 153)

This overtly cold and clinical passage is obviously rendered as a contrast to the preceding philosophising from Alice herself, who is here transformed into the impersonal ‘subject’, whose identity is subsumed into a broader narrative about drug problems in the U.S. However, the canny reader should be suspicious of the way that Sparks clearly set up Alice’s ‘epiphany’ as the ironic precursor to her death, which was obviously meant to emphasise the tragedy of her wasted life, the cause of which is explicitly rooted in drug abuse. There’s that famous phrase of second wave feminists, the personal is political: it resonates throughout Go Ask Alice in the sense that Sparks is making a political statement on sexual morality through the denigrating circumstances that Alice finds herself in as a result of reckless, premarital sex—which in the diary’s narrative is almost always tied to drug abuse, to being irresponsibly stoned out your head. The familiar narrative of suburban girl gone bad appears as a microcosm for a wider point about the ‘50,000 drug deaths’ across the rest of the U.S that year. Thus the diary in literary fiction serves to blur the line between fiction and reality, the personal and political.

_tl_223_1809228u
Img source: New York Public Library // Virginia Woolf’s diary

This blurring of the personal and political is also evident in the actual diaries of various authors. I take as my example Virginia Woolf, who wrote on the brink of World War II a vision of a perfect pastoral afternoon in the English countryside as a counterpoint to the ominous coming of war:

I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what? On this possibly last night of peace. Will the 9 o’clock bulletin end it all? – our lives, oh yes, and everything for the next fifty years? Everyone’s writing I suppose about this last day. I walked on the downs; lay under a cornstack and looked at the empty land and the pinkish clouds in a perfect blue summer afternoon sky. Not a sound. Workmen discussing war on the road – one for it, one against. For us its [sic] like being on a small island. Neither of us has any physical fear. Why should we? But there’s a vast calm cold gloom. And the strain. Like waiting a doctor’s verdict. And the young – young men smashed up. But the point is one is too numbed to think. Old Clive sitting on the terrace, says “I don’t want to live through it.” Explains that his life recedes. Has had the best. We privately are so content. Bliss day after day. So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls. No feeling of patriotism. How to go on, through war? – that’s the question. Yes, its [sic] a lovely still summer evening; not a sound. A swallow came into the sitting room

(Woolf 2008: 459).

There is something rather uncanny about reading this passage, blessed and cursed as we are with retrospective knowledge of what was to come in the war, its atrocities, its rupturing of this simple, innocent life forever. Woolf is clearly already aware of what is to come; she has learned from the first war: ‘young men smashed up’, a ‘vast calm cold gloom’ – images which seem incongruous against the ‘perfect blue afternoon sky’. Woolf effectively evokes that awful limbo feeling of waiting for something terrible to happen. The diary form is especially suited to capturing such moments, the in-betweenness of present and future, the ‘strain’ of this waiting, writing as if to pass time. Woolf notes the futility of writing at such a time: ‘I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what?’, the dash emphasising that aporetic sense of meaninglessness in the face of the unknowable war to come. It is the granular details of everyday life that remain concrete, that seem to ground her, as they ground the reader against the shadowy abyss of war that hangs over our reading of this piece: ‘cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls’. The strange interruptions that mark a routine day: ‘A swallow came into the sitting room’. That Woolf flits indecisively between describing the beautiful pastoral scene and thinking ahead to the war suggests the struggle to capture the everyday, the struggle to pin down in language that elusive sense of momentary calm which is swept up in the grander historical events. I wonder, if I had kept a diary as far back as 9/11, would I have written much about the event itself? One of the few ‘flashbulb memory’ events from my lifetime that I remember vividly is the London 7/7 bombings. I was on a boat on the way to Tobermory and the youth worker who was looking after us got a text about it. I think she had the same Nokia 3220 phone as me. She mentioned the terrorist attack briefly but I have no recollection of how I felt about the event itself, whether I was stricken with grief or worry for London family members. I seem to remember more the fact that someone was playing 2Pac on a crackling ship radio; we were drinking watery Ovaltine and sharing a bar of Cadbury’s Mint Chocolate. I remember feeling very calm and safe, being rocked to sleep in the dark little cabin with the boat moored at some bay, the feel of the water sloshing up against the walls so comforting. Perhaps it’s only the tangible details we can cling to.

Woolf’s diary entry brings us to the question of the cultural function of the diary. The diary gives us a bottom-up, microcosmic insight into a specific experience in a specific time and place. Woolf: the middle-class writer’s view of the interwar years, told from the position of poetic eloquence and reflective precision. Then there’s perhaps the most famous of all ‘historical’ diaries: Anne Frank’s. Arguably, what draws people back to Frank’s account of living as a Jew in that perilous moment in German history is not the overall backdrop of historical and personal trauma but the focus on everyday detail. We want the tangible reality of how someone like Anne lived, survived and loved at a specific, dramatic moment in time. It’s the classic liberal humanist narrative of empathy. The Diary of Alice James (1934), sister of Henry and William James, is an interesting case as a ‘real life’ diary, not only because it was published after her death (and thus raises interesting ethical questions about whether one’s diary is up for grabs after one’s passing), but also because of its representation of illness. Alice’s struggle with physical illness plays out in the diary as a conflict of mind and body, will and impulse, power and impotence. She describes abandoning her body in order to preserve her mental sanity. It is a candid account of illness that shirks away the need for sympathy and never skirts around the difficult issues of assuming the ‘sickness’ identity. It is also rather funny in parts (as in Frank’s), delivering an array of scathing opinions on figures known to the James circle.

tumblr_kyzh5alMhc1qadfqfo1_400.jpg
Img source: Tumblr // Lorelei Gilmore reading Sylvia Plath’s journals

The diary form, then, has a clear lineage within ideas of trauma and authenticity, gender and genre. If the diary is associated with dailyness and immediacy, it seems the ideal form to express the experiential ‘reality’ of everyday life, which is at once the most obvious and most elusive aspect of our existence. Most of the texts I have discussed so far have been written by women, about women (including themselves). Dorothy Wordsworth wrote several beautiful journals rich with everyday description and nature writing, imagery which her brother William plucked scrupulously for his poetry.She talks about illness, frustration, the loveliness of her garden. While William’s poetry is hugely famous and taught in school curriculums, Dorothy’s journals remain a niche interest for Romanticists and academics. While William enters literary stardom, even into the twenty-first century (though Carol Ann Duffy seems to have overtaken him in the Higher English poetry stakes…), Dorothy remains cast aside as a kind of fragile, queer and weak Victorian woman.

Dorothy-Wordsworth-journal1.jpg
Img source: numerocinqmagazine.com // Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal

I could reel off a list of other texts by women writers which use the diary to thematise and dramatise psychological and/or historical trauma: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982) being two strong examples. When we think of writing a diary, do we think of teenage Sylvia Plath wannabes (Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You), wearing all black and scribbling furiously, alone in a bedroom adorned with Cure posters and feminist slogans? Do we think of the innocent young woman, maintaining a diary to make sense of transitions in their life—Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949), Marielle Heller’s 2015 film The Diary of a Teenage Girl? Why is the diary form traditionally associated with women? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that women are traditionally associated with the everyday as such. This is because, as Rita Felski (2000) has suggested, women (because of their biological ‘rhythms’ and link to domesticity) are connected with repetition, with tasks that repeat day after day; whereas men are associated with the dramas of the public sphere, the dynamism of war, work, politics and so on.

There is obviously a rich array of texts which fit into this gendering of the diary. When one tries to think of a masculine tradition of diary writing, one realises that diaries by male authors tend to be subsumed into the category of historical artefact, rather than the comparatively ‘feminine’, domesticated diary. Think of Samuel Pepys’ diary for instance, which was certainly focused on details of everyday domestic life as much as it was on the politics and social events of the time, but is largely considered as a loftily important historical document. Think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), which is modelled on the 18th-century fictional convention of presenting itself as a diary, but in fact is generally conceived of as a philosophical novel rather than a diary as such. There are far more texts to be discussed here and critical issues at stake, but clearly there is a lot to be said about the gendering of the diary as ‘genre’ (genre in the sense of form but also content, i.e. philosophy, everyday life, adventure, young adult etc).

…Admittedly some people live more than others. The excitement curve of a telephone operator, white-haired, lumpy as a pallid pudding with knots of blue arthritic veins for raisins, would no doubt be shallow = a slow undulation with a monotonous mechanical basis, heightened by a slight bump for a movie or dinner with the “girls.” But the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf – – – would it not be a series of rapid ascents and probing descents into shades and meanings – into more people, ideas and conceptions? Would it not be in colour, rather than black-and-white, or more grey? I think it would. And thus, I not being them, could try to be more like them: to listen, observe, and feel, and try to live most fully

(Plath 2011:  44).

As Sylvia Plath muses in her diary entry above, everyone has different ways of living, and in a sense, some people ‘live more than others’. Why do we (as the consumers, the reading public — to use a rather gross term) lust after the details of famous people’s lives, while leaving the case of ‘people like us’ to the ethnographers, to the experimental sociology of the Mass Observation project? Perhaps it is because of the magical realisation that such extraordinary people actually led ordinary lives: Virginia Woolf cooking her dinner, Sylvia Plath enjoying a couple of sherries before bed, Beyoncé perhaps clipping her toenails and settling down to an evening with Big Brother (okay, that last one is clearly fantasy – Beyoncé surely wouldn’t clip her own toenails?!). While Plath makes the point that some people have more colourful lives than others, she also usefully foregrounds the role of the diary as a way of rendering one’s life as more exotic, regardless of how famous or exciting one is. Plath refreshingly admits to ‘try[ing] to be more like them […] and try to live most fully’. Maybe there is a sense in which the impulse to record the daily occurrences of your life encourages you to live more fully, to embrace the moment, to linger over the good things and make their significance more concrete in writing, to start weaving a web of associations that will linger on in memory and perhaps provide the treasure of discovery for a future reader…

And even if nobody ever reads your diary, I still think it’s a useful form of self-expression. I’m pretty sure it’s done wonders for my own mental health, and also it means that nobody has to listen to me bang on about my problems for too long, because I’ve already sorted them out in writing, stashed them away at the back of a drawer. Decanted them, like Krapp, if only temporarily (the written has a habit of breaking out into the real, as anyone who has read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart will attest). Anyway, sometimes it’s fun to have a casual flick through old diary entries. While it generally feels self-indulgent, there’s a certain pleasure in being reminded of wee embarrassing and maybe endearing details of your old life that you’d have totally forgotten otherwise. Like celebrating sixth year exam results with ‘Pimms in the West Kirk’ (Ayr’s finest…), like writing a poem called ‘The Sirens of Ibiza’, like having a weird addiction to sweet’n’salt popcorn, star jumps and Downtown Abbey, like ‘feeling nostalgic for Comic Sans’. Like the morsels of venom or wit I must’ve mustered in the flush of the moment, describing the ‘wankery South London yuppies who didn’t tip’ ; the silly wee quirky conversations you had with people: ‘I stopped at the bridge to gaze at the near-full moon and told Douglas it made me feel primal somehow so he told me when he was twelve he used to have a Ghostbusters calendar which told him to go outside and howl at the moon. I just adore Douglas’. It’s an opportunity to revisit your first impressions of people (who later become friends or enemies), albums, poems, novels, political events (the 2015 election and 2014 election gaining a particular amount of page coverage–Brexit being too depressing to even write about), travesties and celebrations. Sometimes, my diary makes absolutely no sense to me, often because I neglect the provision of context— ‘At the Burns party upstairs, I talked to people about brewing magic crystal meth, learning Japanese, and postcolonialism, among other things’—but I think I’m comfortable with the mystery. I like that there’s a part of myself that I might never know again; it’s like the relieving of some burden. Maybe that’s the beauty of the diary in general: its sense of controlling one’s life but also its possibility of escapism, paradoxically, through reality. 

A Select Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean, 1990. On Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives).

Bergson, Henri, 2013. ‘From Creative Evolution’, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), pp. 68-72.

Blanchot, Maurice, 1982. The Space of Literature (University of Nebraska Press).

Blanchot, Maurice, 1987. ‘Everyday Speech, Yale French Studies, Vol. 73, pp. 12-20.

Cixous, Hélène and Jacques Derrida, Veils, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington, (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Defoe, Daniel, 2015. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Available at: <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/521/521-h/521-h.htm> [Accessed 23.10.16].

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. ‘Diary’, Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/art/diary-literature> [Accessed 23.10.16].

Felski, Rita, 2000. ‘The Invention of Everyday Life’, New Formations, No. 39, pp. 15-31.

Kemple, Thomas M., 1995. Reading Marx writing: melodrama, the market, and the “Grundrisse.” (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Lynch, Jennifer, 2012. The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (London: Simon & Schuster).

Plath, Sylvia, 2011. The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962, ed. by Karen V. Kukil, (London: Faber & Faber).

Sparks, Beatrice, 1994. Go Ask Alice (London: Mandarin Paperbacks).

Woolf, Virginia, 2008. Selected Diaries, abridged and ed. by Anne Olivier Bell, (London: Vintage).

Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

stranger-things-title-pic.jpg

(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)

***

In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics

(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).

In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?

What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 02.29.52.png
Screencap: Netflix

The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.

However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.

Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.

With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.

What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.

My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutes such taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.

One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?

Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.

Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.

Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.

netflix
Screen cap: Netflix

In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.

7.jpg
Spilt blood…Screen cap: Netflix

Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.

(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)

The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.

Netflix.jpg
Screen cap: Netflix

At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.

Netflix.jpg
Screen cap: Netflix

As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.

The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy… Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17). The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.

At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.

Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).

On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.

While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 02.44.51.png
Jonathan’s photography. Screen cap: Netflix

Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series, photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:

Photography is a mode of tekhnē – a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.

(Dick and Wolfreys 260)

There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.

sheryl-lee-twin-peaks.jpg
Laura Palmer’s homecoming photo from Twin Peaks

Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights. 

Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:

Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.

(Derrida 1989: 61)

In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.

2.jpg
Phantasmagoria…Screen cap: Netflix

At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.

What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:

[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]

(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).

There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.

I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:

The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.

(McCarthy 2010: 78)

Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:

As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.

(McCarthy, Tom 2012)

Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…

There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?

img_1864
Facing the limits of space-time…Ashes to Ashes. Image source: jimcofer.com

In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.

Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:

The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’

 (Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)

What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:

Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.

(Bridges 2016)

Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.

 (Kristeva 1982: 1)

Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).

Bridges, Elizabeth, 2016. ‘The Perils of Childhood – Stranger Things, Season 1’ <http://uncannyvalley.us/2016/07/stranger-things-season-1/&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1798. The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts. <http://www.rc.umd.edu/sites/default/RCOldSite/www/rchs/reader/rime4.html> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Connor, Stephen, 2006. ‘Her Light Materials’ <http://stevenconnor.com/phantasmagoria.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Creed, Barbara, 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1982. ‘Différance’ in Margins of Philosophy, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 3-27.

Derrida, Jacques, 1989. The Ghost Dance: An Interview with Jacques Derrida by Mark Lewis and Andreas Payne, trans. by Jean-Luc Svoboda (Public, 2).

Derrida, Jacques, 2002. ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), trans. by David Wills, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 369-418.

Dick, Maria-Daniella and Julian Wolfreys, 2015. The Derrida Wordbook (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Kristeva, Julia, 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press).

McCarthy, Tom, 2010. C (London: Vintage).

McCarthy, Tom,  2012b. Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, [Kindle edition; accessed: 23.8.14] (London: Vintage Digital).

Morton, Timothy, 2007. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics

Morton, Timothy, 2010a. ‘Hyperobjects are Viscous’, Ecology Without Nature <http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/hyperobjects-are-viscous.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Morton, Timothy, 2010b. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Posthumanities) (University of Minnesota Press).

Sconce, Jeffrey, 2000. Haunted Media: Electronic presence from Telegraphy to Television (London: Duke University Press).

Shelley, Mary, 2009 [1818 edition]. Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics).

Warner, Marina, 2006. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Watts, Peter, ‘The Things’, Clarkesworld Magazine <http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Woolf, Virginia, 1921. ‘Henry James’ Ghost Stories’, The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1040, 22nd December, pp. 849-50.

S21.jpg
Screen cap: Netflix

Seven Songs from the Vault (1)

IMG_1691.jpg

~ Seven Songs from the Vault (Version 1) ~ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunflowers

img_1599

The glow of the oil lamp
melts through the misting dust
that coats the light in the kitchen,
all airy, greyish, mossy and ochre
as the painted walls

(…In the evenings and mornings there are the same
slants of sun or moon, geometries of the cosmic
playing games upon the carpet).

Two weeks ago, the gloom was cut
with a bunch of sunflowers, hacked clean with a knife;
their extravagant heads all smiles and brightness.

They lifted the mood when you entered the room,
skin acquiring that olivine hue
from the plants and the shadows;
reflection of the radio, whose channels
remain static, always, in lieu
of music, or a television crackling,
or a body that would clutch
you so tight in its sadness
as to suck away your own.

Crumbs from the dead hours
grow a fur of mould; the pages curl
on a stack of magazines,
whose gloss lacks immunity to dust,
which scuttles and settles
between the pages, closely closing
leaf after leaf, an army of tiny hermit creatures—
Frankenstein splices of insect shells, fragments of lashes,
fibre and skin.

To sweep it would be merely
to cast a new dance of twirling particles.

It is exhausting, keeping things clean;
exhausting
to warm the stove, to watch the hours
unfurling
through the clock on the wall.

The sunflowers fade now; it is properly autumn,
bronze and darkening green.
Their time has been
and I collect the topaz petals, shrivelled slightly
as they catch on the carpet, the stacks of magazines.

September spreads its beautiful disease through the streets
as the leaves begin to fall, oozing soft fire,
the sweep sap of decay.

In the window, the sunflowers have lost their vigour.
They drop; their heads slump down,
defeated, as if shy at their deaths.
Their filaments wither, every yellow floret
sinks, crisp; a victim of gravity.

Every entrance to the room augments their sorrow.
We have forgotten the day we bought them,
or even where they were from.
There is just the slant of light, the green and ochre
smell of cooking, the smoke across the road,
and the knowing that probably
I will throw those flowers away tomorrow.

— 23/9/16

img_1601