The Greatest Loss: Lana Del Rey’s Anthropocene Softcore 

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

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

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

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

(Lispector 2014: 39)

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

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

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

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

(Bon Iver, ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Bolland 2019: 78).

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

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

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

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

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

Janis Joplin — ‘Kozmic Blues’

Dennis Wilson — ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’

Sublime — ‘Doin’ Time’ 

David Bowie — ‘Ashes to Ashes’

Jeff Buckley — ‘Last Goodbye’

Leonard Cohen — ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’

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

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

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

(Nelson 2009: 43)

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

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

I want to say:

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

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

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

(Lana Del Rey, ‘The greatest’)

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

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

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

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What we look back with: 

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

(Cohen 2017: 246)

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

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

(Lennon 2003: 434)

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

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

~

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

~

Works Cited: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lana Del Rey & Hope’s New Dangerous Lyric

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hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have…

She walks through the monochrome film like its skin were a gauze, but as she walks, nay drifts, the film acquires technicolour, it flushes. You see there is a mirror, a chokepoint where the lipstick comes off or else thickens, the crater fills with lavic fluid, the watery eyes well up with green. And she speaks, the wax sticks words to red and pink. It is what it is to be utterly possessed by lust, lost in the Himalayas where chasms of location push the self from itself. This is the film Black Narcissus but it is also the new Lana song, which plays on the meaning of black as the word for depression, and the void we draw into with insucking chorus, YouTube wormhole. The title names hope as the treacherous entity {}. Hope is a dangerous thing in a world which makes of hope a scornful pharmakon at the centre of living, its molten centre that elides wherever you bite too hard and bleed a little. Is it dangerous to the self or the world, something wielded or something wounding? Can I anticipate the narrative arc of Lana’s new album? Closing my eyes for Gemini affect, pure intuition, telepathy maybe. Butterfly smudge of your lipstick is the end of the movie. This is the first small caps Lana; it bears the modesty of a b-side even, but it is so much more, lost ballad preempted. She delivers it for her fans, who eat into the brocade of its soft, fragile fabric like so many moths. I cannot help my own devouring.
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I’ll say that Lana’s piano is smooth and minimal, it belongs in the country, to a realm of only ardent followers. Perhaps I meant flowers. It is the piano you imagine at the concert arena where the scale of the concert itself is a country, because it is contained just there, because everyone breathes on the equal pause forever. There will be an inevitable release and collapse. And silent adoring. Her song is ‘for a woman like me to have’, and who is the woman like, a woman with ‘my past’, a woman who is only like a woman, not the ur-woman, sad girl of ‘quiet collusion’ who sits in her gender wanting to weep with the sleep monsters under her sleep. What does it mean to have a song? Somewhere in my heart the possession. ‘I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath’. This Plath that Lana summons is, I can’t help thinking, the Plath portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia (2003): sex scene Plath in all-American drag among pale English ghosts; Plath in Cambridge plus satchel; screaming Plath with the hairband and honeyed curls and all the fat cakes in the oven, the jealousy and gild. Pearl necklace and cigarettes, essentialism. Plath as product. This woman we have.

This hope Lana sings of, she sings between I have it, I had it, I have. What is the tense of this hope. It is less to-come than simultaneous. We have been waiting all winter for our powers to return. To have and to hold this hope, to taper off into quiet. People are calling it her NEW MINIMALIST TRACK, and the replicated figures in white dresses, yes the turquoise yacht continuum, the usual LDR aesthetic; poolside photography of Slim Aarons, who gets name dropped in line one with the insouciance of The Bell Jar’s opening line, of course, ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…’ which still gives me chills, like a midsummer comedown, like strangling yourself in the sheets again, each of memory’s creased reflections, a separate sleep. I didn’t know what I was doing in New York, in Maryhill, in Hyndland, Woodlands, insitu. She wants this to be country and century and certainly there is sufficient polish, and I think of all the new soft songs on vinyl, and sharing her old stuff, the MermaidMotel fan vids that we share in small hours via WhatsApp convos. Collage of all flickering source image, coverlet for my painted dreams.

Grief is the thing, hope is the thing. If Lust for Life was a compendium of hope, the happiness turn in Lana’s career, now we have a fresh reflexivity. At the bridge she sings of revolution, evolution; it’s a generational awakening and all that jazz, and all that messy spirit she tried to conjure before, and yet being a modern day woman, the one we all want. The producer says ‘listen at night alone’, I walk home from the south side listening, listening. Single beautiful vocal take: ‘Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not / But at best, I can say I’m not sad’. This is the Disney lyric, the princess in the tower relaying her liminal condition, the Angela Carter heroine forever admitting her addiction to poisoned love and morphine dreams that keep her buoyant, baby blue. She writes in blood on the walls and scorns her notepad, like all the ink in the world had run out of work. It is not nearly enough to contain us.

A womanly scream from the body, akin to the way it feels up all night screaming with menstrual cramps, unable to scream to enact one word of how it feels, like to just write is to tweeze the remnant congealing of pain. This little ink blot, this little image. But also like simply the imperative to write everything repressed that goes on in the body, especially desire, yes, Molly Bloom of Ulysses in her writhing array of yesses, Hélène Cixous’ beautiful écriture féminine: ‘woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies’ (‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, 1975). We require pop heroines that bring women, those who identify as such, to writing. Cixous says we should write in white ink, mother’s milk; Lana says she writes on the walls in blood. Well, if anything, it makes things pop. 

Sorrow, for Lana, was always ever a semiotic affair. It was always of the body, always of culture, culturation; it was that which is written on the skin, something you cover with luxury but you can’t uncontinue. That grows among things. So she paints herself a gothic heroine, ‘fucking white gown’, Plath on heroin, Plath on the painkilling charge of writing, domestic dwelling. This painkiller is different to the heavy, sweet-dreaming Topanga one on Lust for Life, the one described in ‘Heroin’: ‘I’m flying to the moon again / Dreaming about marzipan / Taking all my medicine / To take my thoughts away’. If there’s anything that happens in ‘hope is a dangerous thing…’ it’s the grim certitude of domesticity, beautiful microcastle in which the heroine dwells, circling platitudes of hope you can mull in repetition of lyric. Quiet collusion in all that contains us, we secrete our mutual conspiracy. It’s not the silver needle that opens sidereal blooms of the future, it’s ‘Servin’ up God in a burnt coffee pot’, recalling both AA meetings and fraternising in practical terms with gangsters, ‘for the triad’.

 

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When I said Grief is the thing, I was of course kinda referring to Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015), which is a book about the unbearable melancholy of losing your mother at a young age, and follows the father’s attempt to console his motherless boys and himself. The father is a Ted Hughes scholar. This is one half of whatever pairing we make of the starcored twentieth-century literati, the Plath/Hughes mythos that enters into the strip of a Hollywood drama, fifty years later (I think of that Neutral Milk Hotel lyric, talking to Anne Frank, ‘Will she remember me, fifty years later / I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine’). In ‘Edge’, Plath begins: ‘The woman is perfected’. What woman is she, with her coiled dead children and ‘Pitcher of milk, now empty’? What bodily fluids do we still have to write with, do we wither in toxic futures? Reproduction’s entangled chemical reality. A woman like me, a woman like me. Is Lana asking for empathy? She is the model unto herself, while the woman as such continues.

She sings ‘Hello, it’s the most famous woman you know on the iPad / Calling from beyond the grave, I just wanna say “Hi Dad”’. This simple admission for a longing for connection indicates a state of grief, but it’s also the crisis of adulthood, and it’s this distilling of all the daddy issues Lana ever sung about into something beautiful, quotidian, sweet. Pick up the call say hi now. We are moving towards a wholesome turn in Lana’s career, where yes she pens songs about flower-crowned girls at commercial festivals trying to survive another shitty year, but she still sings about heroin, there is this chiaroscuro texture through all her paeans to hope, the darkness remains, it is modern America, it is the fault lines in lyric we might claw for resolution but will yet slip with our fingernails gleaming. ‘Hello’, well of course it is Adele in 2015 with her flip phone, her heartbreak. The soft piano is the size of a stadium or a bedroom at once, this tardis expressiveness of porous emotion. The dust comes off when you shout loud enough. But the irony is there are no phones, just the smooth texture of screens, she is dead and she talks through pixels, she is always already the perishing heroine, and would that be Sylvia haunting the walls, Emily Dickinson maybe; or some actress’s paltry impression, best attempt yes, linen and pearls. Words can dry up like milk, but as long as they are sung this way they are syrup, they are golden, soft-popping inside starry-eyed imbibed celestials, celebrity. I think of Marianne Morris’ gorgeous, golden poem ‘KO’:

Gold falls out of my bra when I stoop to pick up the gold
that fell out of my hair. My skin is gold, my fingernails, ideas
are gold my refusal is gold, my refusal is gold, it goes
from rock to gold to golden, the path I am walking
         along is golden

This constant slippage and shift between noun and quality, adjective yearning in the gilding of language, wanting to become all form, preservation, sheen of riches and health. Golden girls, the ideal image of Plath in her beach bikini, Lana draped over a motorbike, gold California sunrise. Katy Perry on holiday. Do you say gold or golden, do you say hello this way, when you speak is your voice of cash or of credit, does it jangle? What is it Jay Gatsby said about Daisy, her voice is ‘full of money’? She was a golden girl as well. But all this gold we can’t contain, we women, we leak, we are weeping gold, it falls out of our bras, we bronze and burn, we are darker than you could ever imagine; it is the gold iPhone lost under our pillows, the gold in our voices we wanted to convey to you, molten in the night; our skins are multiple; gold multiplicity of time that watches in furnished piece; it is the beam of hope on the path that is golden; it is Dorothy’s Kansas; it tries to resist shadow, it refuses; it is so different from the gilded palaces of the Trumpocene, it is not the same capitalist gold as all that, it is solidarity, gold as solid, it is not white by any necessity; it is what, as Morris puts it, ‘leads to gold’, it is mineral transformation everywhere; it is the liquid qualities we need to be strong in this world that would crush us. I would say every chord is sprayed with gold, and then it is knock out.

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Lying down splicing the self on a morphine dream, which is the infinite conjurations of a possible future, which is the way you feel drunk and beside someone in a sleep that feels truly like falling, consciousness making a latticework of itself through indigo hours; this most beautiful sleep is golden also. Seek an equation to the crying that occurs in the sheen of gold, which is the climate at limit, the climactic lyric. Remember Ariel was light as heat, fever 103 degrees. Forever young and young forever. I pick over the lines that define the figure, like the body of a woman made perfume bottle, glissando of scent and curve. Spritzing us back to originary innocence. Tasting whole rainbow memory futures. Skittle the knockout, KO over.

Someone on YouTube writes: ‘Lana Del Rey makes me mourn for childhood memories I literally do not have’. Someone else is crying while high as they type. To admit this, to just write it. We exist simultaneous upon the bright webpage, acquiring a million plus. I literally lack, I lack the literal memory. So Lana is always conjuring; I’m dying everyday, I wanted to say thank you for everything. Fall through the comments section until you hit the beautiful loophole. Hope hope hope is a hope and I have it the hope. Hope is a thing that I have and it has me. It is a Steinian ring that you wear like a rose round the finger long scarred by the rose again. It it it, it shifts. To say hi to the father but turn towards self, to just make the gesture, and home is performance, is hope from the stage; hope seen from the stage, the lights shone back at you; the photographic as one capturing of rainbow to the next, liquid and light, resolved on the glass of the iPad, which is fairy-tale portal, twenty-first century, FaceTime continuum. Summon one memory as sleep paralysis, suspend, end song. This could sting. To light this, smoke, the wisps around your eyes are time. It is just a little descent of piano, it is sweet and sore at once.

 

Radical Tenderness: An Interview with Kiran Leonard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Western Culture is out now via Moshi Moshi.

 

Album Review: Josh Thorpe, Scrappy Art Rock You Can Dance To

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It’s quite something when a record makes you want to reach across your lazy morning lie-in for a Frank O’Hara poem and a cup of coffee. Canadian artist, painter and songwriter Josh Thorpe has made good use of his relocation to Glasgow and put together an album of rock songs, that isn’t really just an album of rock songs: Scrappy Art Rock You Can Dance To reflects the city’s DIY, collaborative impulse with creative input from a long list of artists (Ian Wallace, Sandra Meigs, Geoffrey Farmer, Trevor Shimizu, Shaun Gladwell, Lily Ross-Millard, and Renée Lear), with fellow musicians Mike Overton on bass and Jay Anderson of Comet Control on drums. Thorpe uses the pared-down concept of a rock album to open a space for accessing myriad moods, imaginary landscapes, memories and musings. 

Lead single ‘The Light’, for instance, is a soft-sung ode to likeable things, the kind of shimmering residues of daily life, reflected in the ‘underwater disco world’ of Sandra Meig’s accompanying video. The O’Hara poem I reach for, naturally, is ‘Now It Is Light…’, with its lulling enjambment and lines like ‘the cadenza of dull things / which the moon had summoned with / its guitar-like gutters’. If the moon had a voice on such nonchalant nights, maybe it would sound like Thorpe’s, clear and silver with just enough gravel to betray a degree of terrestrial experience. If Lou Reed smoked less cigarettes. Throughout Scrappy Art Rock…, there’s a sense of things refracting: the feeling of being in love, being high, being fast, being fascinated, being in a rush, being laconically slow, being in time. Thorpe’s dynamic tones and kinetic guitar-playing take us veering between moments of brightness and sheer oddness, joy, reflection. In songs like ‘I Can’t Slow Down’, he makes us dwell in steady friction, then rewards us with a good crunchy solo. I think of airy rooms and an open evening, early summer. The prospect of prospects. Looking out to the park, noticing, taking time: ‘I see seasons in the sky / They’re spinning around’ (‘Time’).

While masquerading as a straight-up rock album, among the light-touch slacker sentiment there’s a diversity of influence: from the Feelies to Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Mary Margaret O’Hara and experimental composer Robert Ashley. That combination of sugary melodies, strong rhythms, romantic but often sharp, witty lyrics (a la Scritti Politti) and simple noise is backed by a very Canadian sense of play and space (the album was recorded in a single day in Toronto, at Palace Studios). A touch of post-punk toned down to make way for the suaveness and light, retaining a little grit, a little mess.

Mostly it’s the off-kilter spirit that makes this record seductive. Whether experimenting with flat major thirds or lines nicked from Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical epic A Thousand Plateaus — ‘God is a lobster’ (‘Lobsters’) — Thorpe really pushes the scale and scope of what can be achieved with a rock project, splashing psychedelic hues without upsetting the laidback jangle of a decent beat. There’s a summertime nostalgia that runs throughout (‘Turn up the gas baby’), but rather than paralyse the music, it instead frees up lyrically the listener’s indulgence. It makes you want to notice the good things, smell the roses, strike a conversation, kiss someone you might like, enjoy the rhythm of just walking on concrete.

~

 

Albums & EPs of the Year 2018

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So I haven’t had time this year to do blurbs or cut down the list into a ‘top X’ kinda thing. This is just a list of the albums I listened to and liked a fair bit this year, in relative alphabetical order.

You can also check out my previous EOY lists for 2015, 2016, 2017.

If there’s anything I’ve missed you think I should hear, feel free to drop a message 🙂

 

~

 

 

Courtney Marie Andrews — May Your Kindness Remain

Arctic Monkeys — Tranquility Base Hotel Casino

Autechre — NTS Sessions: 1-4

Daniel Avery — Song for Alpha 

Beach House — 7

Daniel Blumberg — Minus

Anna Burch — Quit the Curse

Brian Jonestown Massacre — Something Else

S. Carey — Hundred Acres

Clarence Clarity — THINK: PEACE

Cloud — Plays with Fire

Clouds —  EDLX.056 Heavy The Eclipse

Lucy Dacus — Historian

Daughters — You Won’t Get What You Want

Sarah Davachi — Gave in Rest

Death Grips — Year of the Snitch 

Aisha Devi — DNA Feelings

Field Music — Open Here

Nils Frahm — All Melody

Frankie Cosmos — Vessel

Gang Gang Dance — Kazuashita

GAS — Rausch

Geotic — Traversa

GoGo Penguin — A Humdrum Star

Good Morning — Prize//Reward

Grouper — Grid of Points

Half Waif — Lavender

Haley Heynderickx — I Need to Start a Garden

Laurel Halo — Raw Silk Uncut Wood

Let’s Eat Grandma I’m All Ears 

Tim Hecker — Konoyo

Hiro Kone — Pure Expenditure

Julia Holter — Aviary

Iceage — Beyondless

The Innocence Mission — Sun on the Square

Damien Jurado — THe Horizon Just Laughed

Kathryn Joseph – From When I Wake the Want Is

Kiran Leonard — Western Culture

Lylo — Post Era

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks — Sparkle Hard

Peder Mannerfelt — Daily Routine

Manic Street Preachers — Resistance is Futile

Many Rooms — There is a Presence Here

Martha Ffion — Sunday Best 

Mastersystem — Dance Music

Mitski — Be the Cowboy

Connan Mockasin — Jassbusters

Modern Studies — Welcome Strangers

Devi McCallion and Katie Dey — Some New Form of Life

Noname — Room 25

North Sea Dialect — Local Guide

Oneohtrix Point Never — Age Of

Blood Orange — Negro Swan

Parquet Courts — Wide Awake!

Perko — NV Auto

Pinegrove — Skylight

Porches — The House

Portico Quartet — Untitled (AITAOA #2)

Cat Power — Wanderer

Rival Consoles — Persona

Ross from Friends — Family Portrait

Saloli — The Deep End

Schultz & Forever — Grand Guignol

RF Shannon — Trickster Blues

Sigur Rós — Route One

SOPHIE — Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides

Robert Sotelo — Botanical

Spring Onion — I Did My Taxes for Free Online

Sun June — Years

Tomberlin — At Weddings

Yves Tumour — Safe in the Hands of Love

Emma Tricca — St. Peter

Laura Veirs — Year of Meteors

Kurt Vile — Bottle It In

Hana Vu — How Many Times Have You Driven By

Yo La Tengo — There’s a Riot Going On

The 1975 — A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

~

 

Top EPs

 

Aphex Twin — Collapse EP

James Ferraro — Four Pieces of Mirai

Gillian Frances – Born Yesterday EP

Free Love — Luxury Hits

Jacques Green — Fever Focus 

Mazzy Star — Quiet, the Winter Harbour

Savage Mansion — Document EP

Songs, Ohia — Travels in Constants [reissue]

 

Review: No You Without – Melanie Letoré

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Separation is something that passes through your body. It happens on scales that feel biological, because at once so intimate and distant, clear and mysterious. The vertigo sensation when you see a diagram of the heart, or someone’s face fading in the moving window of a train. When I learn the words for things I can’t articulate. When someone says Brexit or mentions faraway disasters, or power lines being laid deep under the sea. Scientific processes that I can’t reach. Separation, transmission, event repeating. A curiosity towards ominous energies. I’m not just talking about the endless, five o’clock stories, beamed through radio waves. Brexit is as Brexit does. Most analogue hour. How many of us woke up that Friday morning, after the fact, with stomach aches? The undigest of all our country, rent broad and familiar on all the news.

~

As history seems to be compressing, rapidly, in a chaotic present which seeks to smooth with legislative violence the rich diversity of our past, stories of migration and change become vital.

With vague direction, I walk over the motorway bridge twice to get back to Glasgow  city centre. The trees in Kinning Park are singed with vermillion; it’s early October. I ascend the footbridge, just slightly hungover. The sight of the traffic fills me motion again, after a night of luxurious slosh and dark of stasis. Screen light and honeydew shoegaze. Cars are barely there, but they go places. They leave a carbon trail behind. Watching from the sun-drenched bridge, I carry my stories and see them swept up in lines I can’t manage. Later, I try to write. I am looking for a flow, a sense of circuitry. The sentences whir.

Then I step into the exhibition. There is the clarity of photography, more like a series of windows. Windows I see inside windows. The glass steams up in certain types of feeling, translated as light.

~

The themes of the recent Lightwaves exhibition at Street Level Photoworks, featuring the work of Mat Hay, Josée Pedneault, Bertrand Carrière, and Melanie Letoré, are moving histories: those of heritage, migration and the storytelling inherent within. I have a special familiarity with Letoré’s work and practice, having served as her hospitality comrade back in 2016 and since then having worked with her on a personal project: a weekly Google doc record of our lives and thoughts, sprawled in text, image (art & photographs), questions, lists, poetry, fiction and essays. The name of our project remains tendentiously secret, a bright hard candy. Keeping a ledger with someone who I tend only to encounter IRL on chance occasion (gliding bikewise down the motorway, drinking OJ in basement bars) feels a bit like an odyssey. An orbit of thought. Each week we find out more about each other’s pasts, our present fears and desires, our personalities. It’s a bit like trading journals at weekly sleepovers, except there’s the sense that each post on our shared document is less a private thought and more like something that needed airing, that needed figuring out in the shared forms of writing and visual expression. Writing as performative output, the act alone a delectation. I love the sense of sisterhood that comes with this kind of sharing, like when I was wee and my cousin and I would read each other’s palms and tarot, tell our futures.

I proposed the project to Melanie after many months of following her blog, Rectangledays, whose premise is the daily post of a fresh photograph. The blog goes back several years and serves as a sort of photo diary, a luminous archive of many little windows into moments in time. Some I recognise from the days we worked together at the restaurant: pictures of a decimated wedding cake, a lonesome chair in a stairwell, a bunch of crutches propped against the fence, another colleague’s bloodied toe, wadded with cotton. I love these photos as a testament to the physicality of hospitality, the importance of objects and tools (knives often feature) to our work, the endurance required: poor Shelby with the bloodied toe, acquired on a wild night out, would’ve hobbled along serving tables with her injury, no complaints, shift after shift.

It’s a total treat to see Melanie’s work in an exhibition context. Stories that maybe she’s written about in our ledger come to life in the distillation of pictures in a bright clean room. Privacy rents a very public space. The other photographers in the exhibition have their work blown up, pressed across the white, whereas Melanie’s are much smaller, identical in size, sitting parallel on a wall. The pictures are thick, giving the impression of little books, the three-dimensional aspect implying that the story is more complicated than the image allows. The image contains itself, and then the negative space of all these stories, quietly sporing. Much of her work is about shining a light on the intricacies of identity: Melanie’s grandparents migrated from North America to Europe in the 1950s, and she herself has moved from childhood Switzerland and found a home in Glasgow, as an adult. Her work feels like a dialogue with the everyday world around her, and maybe the people back home, the family who live their own lives many miles away. Photography as postcards without text on the back. Or maybe photography captioned with invisible ink, ink that only some people can see; others parsing their own specificity from the image. That’s the beauty of Melanie’s work: it’s tender and personal, but there’s a humanist impulse in there somewhere too, rent with a complexity that asks us to think about where people come from, how they live, where they touch the lives of others. Feelings, adventures, intimacies, routines, leisure and food.

A certain nourishment. I feel privileged to have access to some of the thoughts behind these images. Reading Melanie’s writing, I find myself adrift on all these planes of migration. The title of her exhibition, No You Without, comes from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. When told of the Wintu in north-central California, who use the cardinal directions rather than the words left and right to capture their bodies, Solnit writes, ‘I was enraptured by this description of a language and behind it a cultural imagination in which the self only exists in reference to the rest of the world, no you without mountains, without sun, without sky’. With this perspective, we realise our own contingency in the context of a relatively stable world. Recently, I’ve been wondering about where the ‘you’ is situated in my own poetry, who exactly it is I’m addressing. Who is the ‘you’ in a photograph, what kinds of hailing occur when we look at a portrait, or perhaps a landscape. Where are we situated and within whose vision. There’s a piece in No You Without where a woman, I think in fact Melanie herself, has awkwardly levitated her body by propping it between two counters or surfaces. I’m struck with the fact of the body suspended so precisely this way, making a new morphology of her being. Like when you are a child and find ingenious ways to get across a room without touching the lava-strewn floor, or like lying upside down for too long and seeing how precarious your sense of space is. When you are forced to appreciate gravity, pressure, connections. The objects that make us by dint of negation.

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In Melanie’s images, I seek fresh orientations. These are subjects which reflect process rather than point; they are a document in the quest for self in a sea of myriad reflections, a very real sea which threatens with its sweep. I see red ribs of meat, black curls through black curtains, a strand of hair overlooking an island, the pinching of elbow flesh, a rainbow, the gnarled remainders of landscape’s heap, two boys rolling around on the beach. Each image demands its own sense of scene, of identity in place. I have a sense of capturing, that one slight second that splits and releases: the clouds come in, the flesh smooths back, the rainbow ceases to be.

While the images do not document explicit ‘narrative’ as such, it’s clear there’s an intimacy threading between them. I wonder if we are encouraged to pick up the images and study them, the way you might lift family photos off the mantelpiece, stealing a look at the back for captions. In the exhibition notes, it’s suggested that the migration of Melanie’s grandparents to Europe, and all their associated trauma, comprises ‘another layer to her search for identity’. What we lose or leave behind. What we carry with us. A memory of blue, of sky, of something that represents the not-knowing, but nevertheless the feeling. That which comes, regardless of narrative or language. I planted a thought. Photography bears the visual seeds.

I’m reminded of a passage in Sophie Collins’ book small white monkeys, one that Melanie and I have discussed often:

Patterns of shame can of course be inherited, be broken, halted, but mostly they are carried on through, like mottos, or emotional heraldry.

Maybe we carry something of what our parents and grandparents taught us, or experienced. The learned behaviours, observational ticks of outburst or repression. Frequencies and cycles of confession or pain, the arguments which pixelate our childhood memories with varying degrees of trauma. A traumatic tartan, stitched to the furniture of our daily lives; a ravelled print of practices and patterns of thought and feeling.

We find ourselves reenacting the affects of others, those we are close to. Mostly, we don’t mean to. There are just these things we remember, ticking away in our brain and blood.

Such memory persists like a stick of brighton rock with the motto carried through, except you can break off the stick at any point, you can shatter the neat black letters. The rock of the shards tastes sweet and mint, is cleansing.

But it sticks to your teeth. Shame sticks also.

You can cut yourself on your own quick memory.

When I learn the words for things I can’t articulate. Surely ‘emotional heraldry’ captures this miasma of maybe incalculable feelings I might attribute to family experience? A coat of arms to bear, whose pattern is fading before me, or intensifying within me. Heraldry, inheritance. Jewishness on my mother’s side, ethnicity unrecognised, religious cycles and traumatic pasts; a kind of implicit migrancy that is only tangible in visiting. Stories my nan tells about ancestors whose names are like keys to dust-filled chests, mildewed letters, somewhere deep and distant. But then livable: a trip to Amsterdam, family graves and suddenly the pulses of history might glow in my veins. That heat is a shame. Peeling yourself from the easy determinism of ‘family’ and then finding family wherever you read. Recently I was struck hard by this essay by Daisy Lafarge on maternal approaches to poetics, or looking to whatever texts provide a sort of mothering supplement, rich with emotional truths. The wrestle with essentialism, with forms of belonging. I am someone’s daughter when I read a poem or look at a photograph. Sometimes I am otherwise lost. I am that altogether vulnerable.

I guess I’m an immigrant too of sorts. Moving from England to Scotland at a very young age, being acutely aware of my Englishness and thus playground shame because of the markers of accent, and yet proud at the difference, to be different. Melanie’s photos teach me to sympathise with other kinds of present, and presence. They are fleeting and insouciant, playful in one sense, but otherwise make me want to stockpile and archive with a kind of serious fever. I want to know everything about the people in these images, scour their diaries and ask them their names. But I also want to leave them alone, up on the shelf where their lives can be quiet and still, and yet somehow heard, in the seeing. Maybe an image is a kind of speech; it allows us to separate, and to parse our connections. To halt in the flow of feeling, to carry a place or a person; to illumine.

~

Lightwaves is on until 25th November at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow.

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Review: CAIM Collective – An Orkney Odyssey

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The word odyssey, like journey, is of course a literal and figurative force. We might have many journeys in our lives, real or imagined, actual or wished for, but how many attain the status of odyssey? What memories, eras and changes must pass for a thread of narrative to thicken as odyssey? Joyce, in Ulysses, showed us we can have an odyssey of everyday life. If you scale things close enough, the simple act of going out to buy a bar of soap is rich with the complexities and diversions and conflictions of odyssey. Wandering the city streets, akin to being lost at sea. Perhaps odyssey itself is more about a sustained act of noticing, looking backwards while intently in the present. Dwelling in memory’s rich oscillations; when we are aware of our lives having epic proportions, imbuing our actions with this freight of consequence. Maybe the more aware we are of our fragile world, or our fragile existence on this world — how proximate we are to a world without us! — even the simple life, so-called, seems massive, significant, difficult.

But I am not here to talk about the Anthropocene, which we are already passing through, wearing within our skin. Finding the label as though a sticker on an apple, formerly known as, familiar variety almost forgotten through ubiquity — well pressed on various surfaces, deferred. It was a Thursday, the day after Storm Ali wreaked havoc on Glasgow, tearing down trees and scattering leaves, stealing what green of summer was left of leaf and letting it blow forth upon roads of concrete — you might say free, if leaves have an internal stammer for separation, a need for self-definition. I’m not sure the beautiful, connected things do. A foliate thought unfinished. I guess I needed to be free as well, there was a lot of text, swimming around me all morning I couldn’t quite fathom. A thicket of text. Dwell upon ellipsis and offline symbols. So I slathered oil on my creaking bike chain, cycled along the Clyde and found myself at South Block studios for a new exhibition, An Orkney Odyssey, by the CAIM Collective. An Orkney Odyssey features the multi-disciplinary works of Ingrid Budge (photographer), Alastair Jackson (haiku), Moira Buchanan (handmade booklets) and John Cavanagh (sound installation). I recently returned from my first trip to Orkney and was eager to immerse myself in something of those islands again.

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South Block studios is a white room, part café, a place smelling pleasantly of coffee. The rest stop between things, east of town. I’ve been here before with a friend, when we were discussing the early days of a new publication. It feels clean, airy, a place of potential. The exhibition consists mostly of Budge’s photographs, presented along the wall with Jackson’s poetic snippets beneath. I say snippets, because one gets the sense that all these impressions and snapshots are fragments of a broader story, a grander drama. My own time on the Orkney islands was limited to the mainland, but as the ferry curved round past Hoy, I sensed that to really experience life here, you have to think in archipelagos, rather than discriminate, bounded islands. A multiplicity of coastlines connected, reflected, glimpsed across these strips of tide. I experience each piece as both separate and connected: they resemble a sort of Instagram post, the supplementary clue to a world elsewhere, a stop beyond. The possible scroll, the anticipatory mirage of other places, beckoning like hyperlinks.

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Looking at these images, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Susan Sontag’s On Photography: ‘to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’. Many of these photographs capture landscapes from a skewed perspective, a step away from anthropo-familiarity. We may be unsure where to place our gaze, looking for a horizon or coastline. Sometimes there is a blur, a smudge of cloud and beam of light; a looming mass of weather. An almost unnatural colouring. We are forced to think in terms of diurnal shifts, glitches in time, moments of elemental transition. They are nothing like the picturesque of the brightly saturated tourism brochure, the pamphlets I flicked through idly as I waited for the ferry to Stromness. These images are ghostly, strange, a little ‘off colour’. They challenge my own memories of the unique, misty and windswept atmospheres of Orkney. Budge experimented with different cameras — digital film, iPhone, pinhole — and various chemical processes to capture a sensuous, personal perspective on her native island. She exploited the apparitional potentials of lumen printing, in which objects are positioned on light-sensitive paper and exposed for hours, never quite fully developed. Rather than ‘capturing’ or stilling, rendering her subjects, Budge allows them to unfold in their own way, symbiotically in tune with their luminous environment: stealing its shadows, imprinting a smudge, a glow of time in process. It is almost as though, in taking those photos, she performs a material empathy with climatic change on the island: the shifts in light, all external markings of geologic time and the time of seasons. I am allowed to read into this, because the images abstract from subject, they ask us to find psychic states amid landscape, they do not fetishise the specifics of locality. They do not simply state: here is a field of sheep as we, as humans, see it. They challenge us to rethink perspective, authority, subject and photographic temporality.

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Jackson’s poems, which each accompany one of Budge’s images, really draw out this elemental drama of perspective, time and abstraction. Instances of familiar infrastructure become the tuning posts or sounding board for the dead, ‘Ghosts of past talking’ through telegraph poles. Attuned to the nuance of island soundscapes and landscapes, Jackson deftly parses the aesthetic reactions of one object to another, using anthropomorphism in the strategic way suggested by Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter: ‘We need to cultivate,’ she argues, ‘a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world’. Anthropomorphism can draw out the multiplicities of sensory experience, crossing the phenomenological ‘worlds’ or ‘zones’ of various enmeshed beings and species.

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The haiku might be an appropriate form for ‘capturing’ the Anthropocene because it flickers into being like a sound-bite, it contains a certain authorial anonymity, less of the singular lyric ‘I’ than the lyric I’s environed chorus. Not to mention its traditional association with ‘nature’ as such. Presented like a sort of Instagram caption beneath these images, each haiku seems a transmission from elsewhere, sparking into presence. There are several kinds of aesthetic overlay, a synaesthetic experience of scenes: ‘Glissades and rolls of eighth notes / On a summer breeze’. The smooth legato of wind stuttering up into quavers, could this be birds or the stammering tide where it sloshes in breakwater, interrupts all smoothness of lunar rhythm? I’m reminded of Kathy Hinde’s 2008 work Bird Sequencer, where she worked with Ivan Franco to scan videos of birds resting on telegraph lines into music, after noticing how much the positioning of the birds on the lines resembled a musical score. Each bird would trigger a note or audio sample from a music box and prepared piano, in the manner of a modern step-sequencer: Hinde was literalising a form of nonhuman aesthetic attunement, surrendering compositional control to the whims of the birds themselves, their arts of arrangement. That Jackson’s poetic vision parses the elemental landscape through musical metaphors says something of our ecological inclinations towards attunement. As Timothy Morton puts it:

Since a thing can’t be known directly or totally, one can only attune to it, with greater or lesser degrees of intimacy. Nor is this attunement a “merely” aesthetic approach to a basically blank extensional substance. Since appearance can’t be peeled decisively from the reality of a thing, attunement is a living, dynamic relation with another being.

Since music is our strongest metaphoric apparatus for noticing strategies of ‘attunement’, its poetic invocation allows us to access those processes of intimacy, coexistence and agency at an aesthetic level. The aesthetic level where, as Morton puts it, causality happens: an operatic voice shatters a wine glass, a match smoulders and eats up a piece of paper, the BPA in plastic seeps into the water, alters its chemical makeup, affects the food chain.

This is a fairly minimalist exhibition, despite its multisensory components. It opens space. I can take almost whatever time I want in front of the plainly mounted images and text, the white card a sort of beach I can linger on, skirting the image. These are dark and striking scenes, mostly of nonhuman subjects. I get to share in ‘time’s relentless melt’ as it happens at the pliant, archipelagic scales of an island, stripped away from the carnivalesque rhythms of urban leisure, or capitalist imperative.  

Crucial to all this, of course, is Cavanagh’s sound piece. Keen to avoid the bland oceanic ambience of New Age relaxation CDs, Cavanagh makes things weirder. This is the sea but not quite the sea, nature more than nature. Composing or rendering ecological soundscapes requires more imagination these days, a keen ear towards plurality: as every ocean is inflected with both danger and precarity, a poetics of toxicity thanks to our dumping of marine plastics, there has to be an affective current underneath, a mixing of human and nonhuman rhythms, forces, pleasures and tragedies. A force of both presence and loss. Place is no longer one thing, but stamped with the stains of elsewhere. ‘Here’, as Morton puts it, ‘is shot through with there’. Living in a time of hyperobjects means that we can’t think of, say, the seas around Orkney without thinking about the pollution that comes from mainland cities, the energy generated in these waters subject to political decision-making further south, the marine populations around these coastlines affected by agricultural, infrastructural and consumption processes going on elsewhere.

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Upon entering the exhibition, I’m handed this beautiful piece of hardware

It would be easy to respond to this collision of times, spaces and places with a sort of abrasive, dystopian mix of disorder. Cavanagh, however, responds to the sonic challenge with degrees of beauty, humour and playfulness. His soundscapes swirl around the spoken words of Jackson’s poems, anchoring us vaguely to a sense of present as we pass round the room, viewing the images and poems. Sure, I can hear the waves, the howl of the wind, but these are mixed with a certain distortion akin to kitsch, electronic warp and reverie that glistens with past times, feels retro. This operative aesthetic is achieved with the piece’s main component, an EMS VCS3 synthesiser from 1973: a model familiar to fans of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. Cavanagh’s music literally ‘translates’ Jackson’s poems and Budge’s images, themselves translations of Orkney scenery, by plugging the syllabic layout of Jackson’s haiku and the locational map data accorded to Budge’s photographs into a patchbay which generates from number sequences a variety of different rhythms, instruments and delay effects. Cavanagh’s ‘authentic’ or ‘raw’ field recordings from Orkney’s landscapes are thus programmed around the audiovisual, semantic stimuli of Budge’s and Jackson’s work. The act of remixing nature in this way exposes nature’s very artifice, a cultural construction dependent upon our aesthetic representations. I think of a very beautiful line quoted in a recent Quietus review of Hiro Kone’s new album, ‘“Nature sounds without nature sounds”’. As a challenge to passive eco-nostalgia, there is an active pleasure in this exposure, in realising the multiplicity and material vibrancy of a term we once took for background and static, mere sonic wallpaper for mindfulness meditations.

Faced with something as ineffable as the Anthropocene, we often respond, ironically, with lyric excess. The Anthropocene, it gets in edgeways, it knows we are porous. Whose odyssey is this anyway? Exhibitions like this are important because collaboration and innovation are vital means of tapping into the processes by which we, as human observers, might access nonhuman processes, glimpse the scales of time and place in a world where our significance dwindles into material trace. The fossils of future capital, always already fossils. What might a sonic fossil look like, sound like, a ghost trace of retroactive reverie, a broken sonogram, an elegiac bleep of machine or sea? An Orkney Odyssey, for all its portent towards the epic, is actually a rather humble exhibition. It offers the human perspective of memory and affect, holding wonder for these geographies and scenes, but there’s nothing too showy or sublime about it. And the micro focus is important too. Moira Buchanan’s handmade booklets draw us back to the beautiful details of wildlife around us, the simple pleasures in the act of binding and stitching the evidence of our everyday ecologies. She names in her booklets various species and places, prints poems and photos, mingles materials. There’s a real material enchantment here. Rather cutely, I wrote of these booklets before in a post on Buchanan’s 2016 exhibition, All Washed Up:

I think in today’s world, where global warming feels like something vast, incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, it’s so important to focus on the little things. The material details that remind us that we are part of this environment, that the ocean gives back what we put into it. There’s a feeling of salvage to the pieces, whose composition seems to perfectly balance the artful openness to chance at the same time as reflecting a careful attention to arrangement and applied form and texture.

I was still grappling with the Anthropocene with a sort of innocence then. I mean, I was still calling it global warming. The booklets in South Block catch the light of a late September afternoon, luminous in the window. Taking pictures of them, I can’t get the angle or the light right. I can’t quite translate, my iPhone proximate to its physical extinction, stubbornly refusing photographic clarity. During my trip to Munich this year, I was given a five-leaf clover picked from a lovely Bavarian meadow. I pressed it between the pages of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather. That, I suppose, was an act of salvage also. Symbolic recycling. A little token of some unspoken odyssey.

Unsure of the rest of the night, what to do, awaiting replies, I cycle through rush hour, heading south with only vague destination. Peddling hard, I cross the water as though crossing the sea. Later I will fall asleep with electronic sounds rasping my headphones, mixing with the wind outside which batters the window, until sleep becomes its own causality…

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Exhibition Details:

Venue: South Block, 60-64 Osborne Street, Glasgow, G1 5QH

Exhibition Continues: 14th September – 5th October 2018 (Mon Fri 9-5).

Top Albums, Tracks, EPs & Gigs of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TOP ALBUMS:

Bonobo Migration

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Grains’

Conor Oberst, Salutations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)’

Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

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

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

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

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

 Feist, Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Third of May / Odaigahara’

Four Tet, New Energy

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Lush’

The Horrors, V

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Something to Remember Me By’

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

Johnny Flynn, Sillion

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Hard Road’

Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness

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

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

 Takeaway track: ‘Sleepwalker’

Lana Del Rey Lust for Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘White Mustang’ 

 

Laura Marling, Semper Femina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘The Valley’

LCD Soundsystem, American Dream

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘oh baby’

Lee Gamble, Mnestic Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘A tergo Real’

Lorde, Melodrama 

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘The Louvre’

Moses Sumney, Aromanticism 

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Lonely World’

Phoebe Bridgers Stranger in the Alps

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Smoke Signals’

Portico Quartet Art in the Age of Automation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘A Luminous Beam’

 

Slowdive Slowdive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway track: ‘Sugar for the Pill’

*


Top Tracks:

Alt-J – 3WW

Angel Olsen – ‘Special’

Arcade Fire ‘Creature Comfort’

Beck‘Up All Night’

Bjork – ‘Blissing Me’

Breakfast Muff – ‘Babyboomers’

Coma Cinema – ‘Loss Memory’

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – ‘Over Everything’

Ellis May – ‘Father’

Fazerdaze – ‘Shoulders’

Ffion Regan – ‘The Meetings of the Waters’

Fufanu – ‘Sports’

Golden Teacher – ‘The Kazimier’

Good Good Blood – ‘Fallen Leaves’

Grizzly Bear – ‘Aquarian’

Ho99o9 – ‘Neighbourhood Watch’

Japanese Breakfast – ‘Machinist’

Jay Som – ‘For Light’

Julien Baker – ‘Appointments’

Kevin Morby – ‘City Music’

Kiran Leonard – ‘Could She Still Draw Back?’

Lanark Artefax – ‘Voices Near the Hypocentre’

Lomelda – ‘Interstate Vision’

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

Martha Ffion – ‘We Make Do’

Mogwai – ‘Coolverine’

The National – ‘Dark Side of the Gym’

Nugget – ‘Watermelon’ (Human Bones cover)

Out Lines – ‘Our Beloved Dead’

Penguin Café – ‘Cantorum’

Perfume Genius – ‘Slip Away’

Pronto Mama – ‘Arabesque’

Roddy Woomble – ‘Jupiter’

Sacred Paws – ‘Strike a Match’

Saint Sister – ‘Causing Trouble’

Spinning Coin – ‘Raining on Hope Street’

Sufjan Stevens – ‘Tonya Harding’

Total Leatherette – ‘Faux Fox’

Wuh Oh – ‘Hairstyle’

The XX – ‘On Hold’

* 

Top EPs:

Alice Glass – ‘Alice Glass’

Amber Arcades – ‘Cannonball’

The Bellybuttons – ‘Wires’

Bicep – ‘Glue’

Burial – ‘Subtemple’

Cate Le Bon – ‘Rock Pool’

CCFX – ‘CCFX’

Djrum – ‘Broken Glass Arch’

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

Frightened Rabbit/Julien Baker – ‘Recorded Songs’

Half Waif – ‘form/a’

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

Joy Orbison – ‘Toss Portal’

Lanark Artefax – ‘Whities 011’

Minor Science, ‘Whities 012’

Sega Bodega – ‘Ess B’

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

 *

Top Gigs:

Com Truise, Wuh Oh @ Stereo

Conor Oberst @ edinburgh & ABC

Happy Meals/Pictish Trail @ Edinburgh Caves

Johnny Flynn @ Saint Lukes

Julien Baker @ CCA

Laura Marling @ O2 ABC

Lana Del Rey @ Hydro

Lanark Artefax @ The Glue Factory

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

Martha Ffion, ULTRAS @ The Glad Café

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

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds @ Hydro

Phoebe Bridgers @ Broadcast

Rachel Sermanni, Jolie Holland @ Mackintosh Church

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

Roddy Woomble, Kathryn Joseph @ Mackintosh Church

SWANS @ Oran Mor

Tenement Trail (especially Spinning Coin & Savage Mansion)

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

*

Top Gig Moments:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dark Chocolate Auras and Strange Ecologies: Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air 

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Sylvia Plath wrote many of her Ariel poems in the wee hours before dawn, sucking in the cold and inverse crepuscular air, its colourations of sinister lilac and absent sleep. We have a cliché of the poet’s spontaneous overflow, but instead with Plath there’s a sharp intake, a suspension of air, of breath: ‘Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.’ We have to think through the impossibility of a substanceless blue, as everything must be a component of something; we are all of a sort as perilous hybrids, weak in some place with the viral code of our own demise, shimmering within and outside us like a beautiful aura. The speaker paralyses herself on the brink of sublime, of suicide. Tor: a hill or rocky peak. Vertiginous depths to erase the scale of the self on earth. Tor: a free software project which protects your privacy online. Where history bounces back, is the elaborate sarcophagus that traps the foul air of your history. Think of layering, onions, peeling stench of purple flesh. Indulgent recipes for regret; the cloying addresses of cheap pornography, of midnight Amazon deliveries. Inside the deep centre a secret, liquid sweet as Timothy Morton’s chilli-dark core of chocolate ecology. Chilli, chilly; a shiver in the air that is freeze or fiery. I have been googling your name in my sleep. A shivering, unsettled enmeshment. The encryption an insufficient addition to the substance of memory, its thick brain mulch of skin and image. Such protocol stacks are hypothetical only, nested as the heavenly day that will not die. Wordsworth singles his day from a tangle of others, the onion clot and rot of forgettable hours. To dwell forever in that substanceless blue! To wear innocence on the sleeve of freedom! Plath’s line breaks are harsh and sharp, they flake off the page in their skinly abscission of sound and sense; the body is imposed on grander scales, made to stretch then wither in variable ‘dead stringencies’. All of a space, the thin poem shivering down a spacious page. All of this is so much of air. Take me to the edge, go on, it’s a dare.

An understudy is someone who learns another’s role in order to act at short notice in the person’s absence. You lurk in the background, an absent presence of possible flourishing. The poem as understudy: recipes perhaps in the absence of breathing. What we read when there is no air left to breathe. Poems in reserve for a gradual apocalypse. What exists as core substance, what complements the element whose insouciance charms the lungs without thought. Derrida’s maddening supplement: neither presence or absence, something added and something in place of. An understudy for air, a rehearsal of air’s function. Anthropocenic, tarry air, stung with coal and thickly textured.

Robert Macfarlane asks that we find a ‘thick speech’ for articulating life in the time of climate crisis. Enter Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air (Sad Press, 2017). This is not a collection, ostensibly, about ecology or even the end of the world. It is a phantasmic scaffolding of words and lines for living, breathing, being. Its epigraph takes the axiom of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes: ‘The source of all things is air.’ Air being then the ubiquitous neutral substance, something available for occasional roles in physical process. A reluctant but capable actant, developing itself or forced upon by other natural causes. Air’s principle shifts bring about the other main elements: flicker into fire through precious density, condense into wind or water, earth then stone. Anaximenes articulates this through a simple example: if you relax your mouth and blow on your hand, it’s hot; if you do so with pursed lips, the air is cold. So rarity correlates with heat, density with cold. A beautiful, quiet, material intimacy. Everyday action, for Anaximenes, here forms the source of a theory of matter, and yet ever with time this matter recedes. There’s a scarcity of air, something sparse and grasped for in the gelatinous enjambment of Lafarge’s lines.

Precision of form: shortness of breath. When we pause at caesura, pause to breathe, when we lilt our words over the ambiguous interval of a line-break, we are forced temporarily to think about air. I recall the little ticks my brass instructor would make on a sheet of music: remember to breathe. The ticks would supplement a conventional musical pause; I guess I just needed more time to breathe. Breathing is temporal, but also material. There’s a precision to Lafarge’s form, a negotiation of reflective lyric transposed through material effects and affects. In ‘sapling air’, a sense of childhood’s loss is articulated as nonhuman ailment, the ‘first outbreak’ which is a poisoning of the air or the bark of trees. At first I think ash dieback, but then we are taken somewhere more grandiose, planetary, magmatic. Lying in the liminal space between ‘child / and whatever came next’, the speaker is in the bath, ‘gazing up through the skylight / as a plane passed overhead’. This sense of temporary epic scale, its vanishing écriture of ‘vapour trail’, is a writing of fleeting sheen. I think of glassels: those stones which appear glossy beneath water (in river or sea) but when picked and brought home they revert to dispirited dullness. It is as if life has left them, where momentary they truly appeared as vibrant matter, appealing to the senses with electric connection. Is this the fate of the bath-varnished body? How beauty consists in the wounded part of a thing, a fragile glitch in the viral code—what makes death inevitable. Stones ground down by the sweat and chafe of salty water, the sky a landfill for carbon dreams, modernity streaked across substanceless blue.

The speaker glimpses the oscillating scales of panorama and miniature: the passing plane and the ‘passengers’ eyes’. She sees through the eyes of others; a vertiginous, fleeting sublime in which she is the one looking down and the one looked down upon. Humans become binary nodes in this networked communion of sound and sense: ‘the passengers’ eyes flickered on and off / with signal’. Air carries, air travels. Air miles, as both temporal noun and verb. I find myself tangled in the space between transitive/intransitive. Air signifies the dialectic flickers of presence/absence. Accumulates, billows. What the speaker notices is a peculiar distortion, a toxicity overlaid with her own poisoned body: ‘I looked down. the bath water / was the colour of porphyry and I could no longer breathe’. The excess of the skin flakes away as feldspar, silicate rich and igneous, carrying traces of radial or volcanic exposure, imperial purple or deposited copper. Containing within it divergent scales: wee matrix crystals and larger phenocrysts. The speaker experiences her body as this suddenly alien thing; the sight of the bathwater steals her breath. Is it the first glimpse of what the outside does to the inside, the staining within us we leave on the world in a permanent toxic chiasmus? But I can’t help think also of period blood, given the speaker’s interlude adolescence: something tricky to articulate that nonetheless clots in the mind as childhood’s instated loss of innocence, a condensation of excitement that clings then turns readily and stickily to red, to blood. That moves in turns, cycles as the waxing mist of the moon. What is this substance, this iron-rich bodily flood? Where matter confuses, we turn back to air.

She tries to express to her father a bewildered grief, ‘there’s something wrong with the air’, but her ‘words went through to dial tone’. There’s a delay, language meeting its buffer at difference: through what? Gender, generation, divergent points of vision? Her special melancholy is something that lingers down the line, seeps inside the passage of time. The poem closes: ‘I still wonder, how many months, years from now / he will listen to the message’. Throughout Understudies for Air, Lafarge uses this technique of unfurling: instead of saying simply, ‘how many years from now’, she adds in the months, practices a sort of delay or lag. I think of smoke billows, slowly dissipating. Of what it means to say, there was chemistry between us, an atmosphere in the room. The way voiced words vibrate momentarily in meaning then once again settle to silence, stasis. An almost electricity, crackling then out. Compare this to the written word’s more permanent, inevitable viscosity. Language sticks: you can tease it over and over, read the same thing till centuries down the line the ink wears off from the page. You can replicate. Speech is quite a bit more fleeting, unless you set it down on wax or tape, find new ways to materialise language’s spit, crackle, lilt. The forcing of sign and shape from sound.

Air in Lafarge’s collection is a sort of pharmakon, in Jacques Derrida’s sense of an undecidable fluctuation between poison and cure. It is a substance acted upon with the medical impetus of invasion: in ‘desecration air’, ‘brittle waves of grit’ are ‘growing, syringe-like / into the air, and in so doing suckle / and cleave the dunes around them’. There’s a sense of maternal genesis and geologic violence, an injection of force into air’s spaciousness. For air at once signifies space and density of matter at the brink of scattering, sparking, forging. I start typing what is air into my search bar and it suggests, where can it be found? I am suddenly struck by air’s mystery, the possibility of everyday deception as to its ‘nature’. What is taken for granted has elusive substance; after all, can we view air in the object-oriented sense of ‘object’, or even, at transcendently nonhuman scale, ‘hyperobject’? For air blends and bleeds, both substance and accident. The painting or glass had an airy quality, we talk of a room as light and airy. Does this mean more air, or air less dense, more receptive to breath and space and quiet? Air is rich with the silt of existence: dust being its materialised twin, these myriad phantasms of hair, fibre, textiles, minerals, meteorites, mostly skin. Air is nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide flavoured with traces of neon, methane, helium. We breathe air but also pass constantly through it, as our molecules swim in the vast bombardment of other molecules swirling. Ambient air is safe, we pass through it daily; but air can also spark, as fire’s immanent ingredient, awaiting some flagrant chance to burn. We talk of dry air, damp air, air that feels ‘close’. Air signifies both absence (space) and presence (elemental matter, tangible substance). Air is always potentially transformative.

There is a poem called ‘calque air’. Calque means loan translation: a word-for-word exchange of meaning across languages (examples include ‘fleamarket’ and ‘skyscraper’). In French it means literally ‘copy’, derived from calquer: to copy, base on, trace; derived again from Latin calcāre, to tread, press down. Thus in the abstracted xerox of translinguistic exchange, we meet a sense of material rubbing, the friction that exacts its inscription between two substances: stone on stone, wood on wood, paper on paper etched with lead. It’s a physicality that chills the spine. Yet tracing somehow also connotes residue, the excess material produced by this rubbing, the patterning stains set down by a tread, like footprints sunk deep in the sand and preserved semi-permanent by glitters of frost. Lafarge writes: ‘people / were finding messages / in their bodies they hadn’t / written’. Again this sense of material semaphore, whose translation is a phenomenological act of physical reality, a sudden otherness within us that requires an empathy, an excess, a confusion of words rubbing wrongly against one another: ‘it was decided the system was malapropic’. Language spiralling as if in the hands of the nonhuman, the air or machine or book.

Anthropomorphism reaches its textual extreme: ‘the book grew hair, organs, toes’, and so even ‘accurate translations’ become disputed, subjective, active and physical. What is it about air that somehow substantiates the symbiosis of language and matter, its aching and perilous leak? Here we are, tipped in the gaslit eve of twilight, where ‘the sky throbbed / sideways like a haemorrhage’. Matter acts upon us, causing a gulping or gaping as we churn through it, our bodies mucilaginous mulched into altered form, new affect. We can try to discern the nature of air, but in some way its inner essence remains recalcitrant, resistant to the interpretive instruments of other forms, including humans. Lafarge plays on the semiotic plurality of ‘forms’, poking fun at science’s ‘consent and feedback forms’, ethical necessities which prove useless upon the elusive air. This raises the question of how to extend a nonhuman ethics, what forms of consent are required when probing and monitoring their patterns of agency or behaviour? In ‘attempted diagnosis air’, Lafarge concludes: ‘in the end, / you left the forms in the airing cupboard / to let the air fill out itself; it acquiesced / in many hands of mould, dust and heat, / none of which you could hope to translate’. The air transmogrifies into purely itself, is available only as sensation in the perceptive ‘hands’ of other substances. It’s worth quoting Jane Bennett at length here:

 Thing-power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly. It seeks to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap. It emphasises those occasions in ordinary life when the us and the it slipslide into each other, for one moral of this materialist tale is that we are also nonhuman and that things too are vital players in the world.

Air is surely the channel for thinking through this vibrant materiality. Lafarge’s poetics, shifting through sparsity and density, perform this slippage between human and nonhuman at variable scales. Rooted in ordinary life, in personal memory, the poems of Understudies for Air root out these collected knots of ontological ‘torsion’, the ‘bunioned’ meanings that wash up like offerings then shut down all visible meaning—‘they closed in my hand / like eyes’. The lack of capitalised titles renders the poems’ drift into one another, in free-flow without the arche conventions of literary closure, of textual finality. A sense of fractured or wounded text, poems chipped out of a grander object, left now to change and drift. In ‘driftwood air’, driftwood makes a temporary semiology of the shore. Driftwood being perhaps the airiest form of wood, a text well-chewed by aquatic bacteria, lightened and smoothed by the tide; erosion performing its nonhuman act of calque: a copying of wave upon wood, the tiny treads of millioning microscopic appetites, like the imperfect press of a nonhuman telegram. With her spells of air, Lafarge conjures a vibrant ecology of non-anthropocentric process; evocative still as such effects take place through the decomposition of the lyric ‘I’, whose voice drifts out in nonhuman confusions, signals and distance. Human affect returns in glimpses like delicious flotsam, jetsam, moments of reflection gleaned from material debris.

The ‘I’ often shrinks or recedes, but sometimes floats over the ambient scene with declarative assertion: ‘the twin lines of naming and being / run parallel but never touch’. Such philosophic pronouncements then melt away in exploratory thought, lines closely attuned to trans-species process: the swell and lurch and pleat of water, plant, lichen or toxin. Once again we come to air as pharmakon, and so its process arises as a sort of pleasing monstrosity. The odd thing about plants is they just grow, often without purpose, foregoing teleology for an impersonal, gorgeous flourishing. In ‘asbestos air’, the speaker marvels:

lichen and moss
grooming your body;
it is a relief to watch
things grow without
difficulty

End-stopped punctuation is often foregone for free-flowing, morphological enjambment throughout Understudies for Air, so the inclusion of semicolon here is its own kind of force. I think of imagism’s stop-motion visual equivalencies: Pound’s apparitional faces in the metro and wet black petals. The ‘body’ in question could be human or nonhuman. There is a plain admiration of process and flow, the ease of growth that feels significant against the endless stuttering, knotted bolts of human maturity. And what about ‘asbestos’? More silicate minerals invading the air, released by abrasion and enacting a slow-release of symptoms, as deadly fibres clot in the lungs. Asbestos makes its own mark upon air. The speaker clearly craves that insulation, a felting of absence with ‘lichen and moss’ that comes as a ‘grooming’. Grooming being the softening and smoothing of matter, but also tinged with danger: to be groomed is to be seduced towards some form of invasive peril. Twin signals, twin materials; a chiasmus of death and sleep’s electricity. Sucking in air, we sleep towards death; slowly we rove over lines that enamour with deceptive simplicity. We can’t help but breathe in sleep; it’s just evolution. What’s more, nature isn’t mere positive growth, but might be compounded poison, cancerous swells. Tumours accumulating almost mycologically, darkly twisting and rising in the shadowy mulch of the organs, the undergrowth. Behind a benign appearance is the spectre of asbestos; for of course mosses and lichens are indicator species, material harbingers of polluted air. Air is the cure, the restorative; but air can also kill. It is both oxygen and carbon monoxide, its healthiness hinges on a delicate balance.

Air’s undecidability, perhaps, is a deconstructive motion of question and answer, a maddening circuitry of frazzled nerves and linguistic synapses. In Lafarge’s attempt to materialise air, to verbalise its form as supplementary poetics, writing does the work of metaphysics. Enter Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys in The Derrida Wordbook, glossing Derrida’s term undecidability:

If metaphysics teaches us how to read, and reading teaches us metaphysics, birthing each other in a twin maiuetics, then deconstruction also calls us to a reading. To read undecidability is to resist that other resistance which would efface it.

Air’s invisible toxins make themselves known with prickling, painful insistence at the miniature level of surface pollutants, scum left on water or stains on metal. A poet’s Keatsian eye would draw out this material tread of Anthropocene effect, illumine its slow evolution with the linguistic wit of a chemist. The irony of deep-time causation at the hands of humans, those obfuscations of cause and effect that place humankind as geologic agents. Reality, matter, climate change become undecidable. We are being taught, in these poems, the call to the earth that is really a subtle conversation within our own bodies—palimpsests of dangerous nature we tried to fashion but grew otherwise, anyway. Despite melting icecaps, the air grows colder in winter, it thickens.

Lafarge develops this viscous, hyperobjective symbiosis through her descriptions of air’s sticky contaminations. There are ornaments of scattered matter: bitumen, seed heads, the wildfire possibilities of ‘drying leaves’. There is a constant overlay of the biological, spatial and arboreal: ‘we soiled our mouths to mimic / the good fettle of root and seed’; those ‘dark thickets of lung’. I think of the word forest, then ‘for rest’. Places we go to shelter, to cleanse ourselves scented on pinewood air. We can’t see the woods for the trees, or was it the trees for the woods? Morton’s idea that we need a return to parts over wholes, this notion of subscendence: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. A tree more important than a forest. Lafarge strains her ear to every little activity, the expressions of suffering that come from sources beyond the human: ‘on every corner a tree / articulates its script’. Tree language is material too, it is sound in the air unique, and seedlings glistering on rustling rhythms. It is the flail and droop of branches diseased, stung acid by rain or ravaged by leaking methane.

To put words in air implies a sense of declaring, but this is less the enlightened ejaculations of a singular genius and more a sensual symbiosis: ‘the words / identified me as carrier / and now along I go / sowing their imprint in air’. To sow, to plant seed, to let meaning take root and feed upon air and soil, sound and shape. By tuning to nonhuman forms of inscription, Lafarge attempts to answer the call of the absolute other. This is ecological poetry’s luminous tool, its potential ethics.

This is also, to a degree, Michael Marder’s ‘plant-thinking’: a thinking about plants, a thinking through plants, a symbiosis of human and vegetal thought at the level of form and content. Not discursive domination of subject but a perceptive, non-anthropocentric and multisensory modality of what Marder calls ‘transfigured thinking’. I cannot help think of a shadowy, cooperative alchemy in which the baroque foliage of language ravels round the utterances of the absolute other, those bladed shivers and flashes of light, that speak of time felt close in the skin of a cell. It is a metaphysical elixir that deconstructs its own postulated recipe. Metaphysics, for Marder, is unable to think coextensively ‘with the variegated acts of living’ that exist in plants; it seems to ‘affirm the quasi-divine life of the mind’, but actually ‘wields the power of negativity and death’. It risks becoming ‘a cancerous growth’, smothering the plants it attempts to draw ‘vitality’ from in knowledge and energy. I think of the chemical kill that Keats in Lamia implies is the effect of philosophy, which ‘will clip an angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Writing poetically, we must be tender, channel the lurid sounds that fill the sparkling air, nevertheless deathly polluted as a charnel ground. Embrace inexplicable oscillations between the living and dead; challenge binary conceptions of stasis and liveliness, animals and matter. Retrieve a kindred sense of mutual mystery, preserve the lingering aura of species-being. Plant-thinking must instead be ‘receptive’ to the ‘pole of darkness’ within botanical existence. There is a Keatsian sense of negative capability here, a chameleon dwelling in the infinite and multiple, the rhizomatic offshoots of unknown effects, undecidability. There’s a Deleuzo-Guattarian intermezzo too, as Marder puts it: ‘To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and darkness, is not to be confined to the dialectical twilight […]. It is, rather, to refashion oneself […] into a bridge between divergent elements’, to allow that darkness to shine as much as the light of visible knowledge. Remain discursively flexible, morph through variant perspectives.

We have here an immersive rhizomatics, hinting also towards Graham Harman’s assertion of the object’s metaphysical withdrawal. Lafarge’s speaker certainly stands in this middle, exploring ‘a vernacular for pipelines, / circuitry, the fetid grids and systems’. She doesn’t penetrate essences. Stinking like soil mulch, our carbon economy is overlain with what we traditionally take to be ‘nature’: those lichens, mosses, leaves. We are reminded that cancerous growths, chemicals and shameful asbestos are as earthly as the daffodil or ash tree; each to each, irrevocably and intimately enmeshed, from the clinging of air to shared DNA. The speaker lets nonhuman forms speak through her: the shape of those gusts and shudders, those incremental growths and sudden ruptures, take effect in the passage of language. She brings us quietly, unassumingly, to aporetic conclusions, refusing to clasp meaning’s assertion from the lateral sprawl, preferring the precarious, seductive dissolve towards undecidability: ‘I still think of them, their clod eyes / roiled with fever, churning the peat / of a stagnant loop’. Clod: insensitive fool or chunk of mass. A clod of stone, an ignorant clod. An estrangement of nature, a closure of humanity to uncanny matter, churned in the loop of signature tautology—a metaphysics of presence that is ever an ‘argument’, a stagnant pool. How we must dwell, thickly, in these poems, these fleshy pools of blood and sap and dripping air. The declarative trochee like a stone thrown in a pond, ‘roiled with fever’; these shivers on the petrified skin with its fur of moss, toxin, mould. Conveyers of nonhuman temporality. The speaker licks such substances with lapidary language; the effects are circling, strange, recursive as a maddening philosophical problem. She dwells quite certain in uncertainty. Perhaps this makes her the perfect understudy, questioning but never at the point of egotistical revolt.

If all that is solid melts into air, then we know this now to entail less evaporation than transmutation. Solid objects arise elsewhere. What daily we flush, cough and excoriate from our bodies floats out in the hothouse biosphere, only to be reborn as fragrant waste, the fettered matter that is fetid at the point of being/becoming other. In the pamphlet’s final poem, the speaker passes a ‘high-rise’ and in the shrill of its alarm encounters an ‘elderly lady’, naked in her white towel like a terrible angel wrenched from the heavens to corrode on earth. The white signifies a kind of surrender to time and matter; the woman addresses the speaker thus: ‘one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotten flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots’. I’m reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where Peter Walsh witnesses a vagrant woman, ‘opposite Regent’s Park Tube station’, her gurgling vowels speaking in a tongue he cannot understand. Is this a primitive ecofeminist figure from the future-past, her voice ‘bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning’?  She speaks with ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, channels somehow that geologic core, its rupturing pain. There’s Jonathan Bate’s insistence on poetry as ecological dwelling, in The Song of the Earth (2000). Woolf’s eerie, primeval wanderer stirs up the dead leaves from their settled grave, recalls an ancient song that aligns feminine suffering with planetary pain. I think again of Lafarge’s speaker, lying in the bath with a sense of her own body eking out a substance unfamiliar, the water stained a curious, feldspar colour. Poetry as monstrous giving-birth, poetry as vegetal thinking; poetry as lichenous growth or ambient eddy and flow.

There isn’t much pastoral about Understudies for Air, where things are scorched or ‘unspeakable’, full of porous holes and an inexplicable, surveilling gaze, those eyes which absorb and emit reality with cytoplasmic osmosis. There’s a dwelling in-between; a refusal of pastoral’s smoothed surface, its crudely soldered contradictions. Lafarge’s material history is thick, polluted, complex: irrevocably enmeshed with the speaker’s autobiography, a slow enclosure of tainted expiration; the result of some unreachable, originary trauma—the first infected inhalation. As the first poem opens: ‘difficult to pin the beginning / of the bad air’. In the Anthropocene, as with shame and trauma, it’s tricky to find causes, to trace singular beginnings. We have to face the impossibility of the transcendental signified, keep crossing over the same old tracks, tuning to peculiar scale effects in the dust and dirt, shaking the rain from our wilting manes, blades, branches, names. We can hack at the data, break the trees. In the end it is all just mutual suffering, the poem as supplement for what we can’t say, the horror of thought that is personal guilt and environmental blame. Yet somehow, Lafarge stirs sweetness from the wastelands of contamination, a little bit of the old Eliotic ‘breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’, or Morton’s molten, dark ecological chocolate. We move from depression to mystery to empathetic, mouth-melting sweetness. What you bury might come up lavender later; death still tainting, beautifully, the fullness of life. There is a shivering ethical suspension between the one and the other, cheating human text with the infiltrating voice of the strange stranger, where even the poet doubles back on herself, shrinks and fades, becomes alien against her own voice and song. Amidst all these ‘unspeakable things’, Lafarge reflects the coruscating absence, the flicker-to-effect of the dust in the air; motes of melancholy love, life and death, that cluster temporarily in poems and feel like a homecoming, yet always on the brink of becoming unsettled. Forever this ‘speech / impaired through contact / with the air’, the wrenching of justice from staunch aporia.

All this is so much of air. The words clot and float, they are pushed elsewhere as stacks of data, the coded reverie of software forgotten. Dwell in the dark web, a gossamer poetics that drips with the fringe-work of hackers, pirates, spiders. Once again: ‘homes / for unspeakable things’. Protection of privacy, pelt of fur, air that gluts on the temporary flesh of speech. A child’s ‘moonmilk / crusted round its mouth’. Language for future generations, raised on the logic of ‘selenography’; all human attempt to make sense of time beyond the body. There is a rhythm and a dwelling, a child’s bright cry in mica-flecked darkness. We all find overlays for our love or trauma—‘perhaps it was an early leak of the air / that conjured the image of his mother’—but instead of burial there is only entanglement, the sentencing ever excess of ‘a bad root / growing in every direction’. Trouble is, we can’t find it exactly; it grows and grows regardless. It shrouds us, auroral, auratic. Lafarge picks at flakes of flesh and star and paint, travels arterial between filament, taproot, wire, synapse and galaxy. Understudies for Air feels performative, a traversal of myriad sorts that folds back on itself, reflectively prone to spiralling dialogue, a postured void. For, as Steven Connor reminds us, the thing about air is ‘it encompasses its own negation […]. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air’. It’s in this multivariant, phenomenological pulse that Lafarge’s speaker dwells, sparked against the air’s vibrant matter as much as its ever conditional abyss. I read her words over and over, fragments of collected matter; conjuring in the cold winter light some other possible, nonhuman chorus. I’ll vapourise now, leave you trailing in the ‘fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines’ (Connor), for it’s the sheer glut of language, coming in and out of phase with human perception and nonhuman form, that really matters. Matters. Connor again: ‘We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.’

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

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Source: BBC

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

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

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

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Bob Dylan / / Source: Rolling Stone

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

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

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

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Source: lettere-persiane.blogspot.com

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

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

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Gillian Welch / / Source: Born to Listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Source: pinterest

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

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

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Source: crystalinks

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

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

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

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Source: pinterest

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

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Source: YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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American Lyric playlist: