In a sense, April will always be exam season. It is a month of friction, one season rubbing against the next; only eventually the better qualities of spring bleeding through the residues of winter. April snow and April showers. April light, April gloam. It is perhaps the most poetic month, beautiful to say aloud, a little like peeling the sticker off an apple. April. It trills round to a crisp. April of anticipation, April of burgeoning knowledge. April is the sweetest, the cruelest month. Somewhere west of summer. There was a song from my childhood about a boy called Jack and a girl called Marie, young and sweet, this jangly song from the country about the city, tambourines and easy chords; a song about lovers who know one another so well, who fall asleep in wishing wells. It’s kind of simple but a strange song still, the chorus marking the passage of time and the sense that such love alters the landscape within you: ‘And the days will pass like falling rain / And the tide will turn both feeling strange’. Every good lyric contains a potential eternity. The song was ‘Flames’ by Roddy Hart and I burned it off a CD my mother bought at a festival, an early version of whatever the song would become on his debut album, Bookmarks. I always thought that song began in April, the skyline burning bright. April is the first month of that proper, bittersweet feeling that emanates from every street corner. The sense of memory, pungent and leaking through the pores of the city. Here is this place, here is that. Where we walked or kissed or did not. Where you stopped to buy cartons of mango Rubicon, lit a cigarette, slipped your fingers through the new baby leaves of the lindens. Fresh strains of pollen to catch in my eyes, my nose, the membranes of sight and scent. Where we turned over conversational stones that would build up our friendship, the lain-out exchange of opinions on class and politics and art that would form a foundation for seven years hence.
Yesterday, I hadn’t really slept for two days and was riding on a total sleep high until around 7pm. The dawn chorus accelerates a temporary insomnia. Neutral Milk Hotel: ‘How the notes all bend and reach above / The trees’. Sleep deprivation has a similar effect to many drugs: there is a delirium, a rush, a plunge, a sense of depersonalisation or detachment from the world around you. Dreams process all the nonsense of your unconscious and so when you don’t sleep, it just blurts out of you–the ramblings better saved for a diary or song. I have been bumping into things, bruising myself; I have been knocking over glasses of water. It is as though the arrangement of matter in the air around me is out of whack. It is somersaulting and shimmering clumsily into and against my body. It’s not an entirely unpleasant feeling, a sort of letting loose.
Last night, walking home from Yo La Tengo with the sky a violent Prussian blue, split yolklike to a pool of moon, I walked very fast and everything passed and blurred around me. That was the neon unremembered, the smearing of sense that refused all narrative. I passed a girl walking towards me, nearing home in a familiar neighbourhood. It was that thing were vaguely she looked like someone I’d know, I knew, but dressed kinda different. I glanced at her face as I passed and she glanced up at mine and our eyes met and that sort of threw me. Her eyes were intense and glittering, the same Prussian blue as the sky. They were fierce pools twinned by a feeling. When someone has their turbulence beaming through them, that was such a moment. As though someone wrenched a new crevasse inside me and all this new worry, pouring out like liquid gold. It will dry and crackle again in the sun, I’m sure.
This morning, fluttering in and out of treacly sleep, I dreamt I was serving tables at work except work was more like a train carriage, and I was stumbling around carrying trays and plates of food, trying to be nice. The layout of the floor at OM was superimposed upon this narrow train space. I served a table of two young girls and their mother. The girls were imploring their mother to take them to the aquarium. One of them had on a turquoise jumper spotted with tiny white clouds, a bit like the cover of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather, pressed in miniature. They were talking about the aquarium so I split in with my two cents, telling them about the one at Loch Lomond. The last viewing’s at four though, I said. You’ll maybe have to wait till the summer holidays. They didn’t seem perturbed by that. They started asking questions about the aquarium I could not answer, like Is there a tank of mermaids? Do they have sharks? Are there Nemo fish and what do they eat? Are there fish that eat other fish? Mindlessly, I brought to them three sticky toffee puddings meant for another table. They were talking about their summer, chattering away, the clouds moving brightly on Girl One’s jumper. I turned away, facing the other tables as I moved back along the carriage. I suddenly found myself weeping, those hot wet tears you know will take ages to shake. I was weeping for girlhood, for summers off school. Summers I’ll never get back. I felt sticky and silly; I cried in the kitchen and a hundred white checks swirled off the pass and sank down around me. I was too tired to lift a thing. I cried for summers I gave up for regiment, work and illness. I woke up pathetic on a true April morning, pale gold sun and the sound of someone in the distance, mowing their lawn. Everything else very still, a faint murmur of hard-drive hum, my body aching with the unspent sorrow of stupid dreams. Did I even give them the bill, in the end? What do I owe the company?
John James: ‘Looking for a new geological disposition’. I feel the deep, cramping pains of something within me changing, almost tectonic. I remember once a lump of moonstone, unpolished, ripe with numerous accessory minerals, making of its rainbows a plural extravagance. I snap pictures of the oil’s vibrant spectrality on the surface of grey city puddles. Good news arrives in emails. Little electricities go off within me. I soar for new mornings, longing to be smoothened from sleep. I walk around Stockbridge in the quiet hour of twilight, a thin moon eking over the sandstone buildings, the cobbled mews. This is a month of desperate turnings. I am always late, on some sort of overflow or else delay. I run for trains, backpack bumping against denim, catch my breath on the platform. The shops and houses are already thumping away into distance, as the train pulls out of the station. Drifting across the Central Belt’s perpetual rainfall, I am between two cities. Each hold a wonder I’m still trying to claw at, time after the fact. Hugging my knees. The city like a scratch-and-reveal picture, coming up multi-coloured when the carbon-black stuff flakes away, becomes merely the clastic textures of years forgotten. Some people use a penknife for greater accuracy, cutting apart the shapes of their lives. Prising. The black stuff ends up somewhere, lodges all constipated within us. I try not to think too much about Georges Bataille. The man who owns my restaurant shows off to his associates a pop art rendition of severed eyes, hung resplendently obscene among his art nouveau portraits of Burns’ adolescent lovers. He refers to the eye painting, quite obsequiously, as breathtaking. A little piece of me shrivels like a rose; I prise off a piece of cuticle and I know there are similar petals hidden all over this place, slowly rotting. Every eyelid a petal, peeled back and hidden. Someone in a pub somewhere is talking about bull fights. My mouth tastes like grapefruit and alcohol, souring.
There is the blood rush of filming a video in the cold. We spin each other round on shorelines, under subway tunnels, our yellow bags bump and clack in the dark. We run up Garnethill for the camera, we peer among the foliage of evergreen trees, needles sparkling darkness around us. The air is grey; it is thin and cirrussy, deprived of light. We are the only luminous colour, earth and fire and little ideas of pods in Tiree, black coffee, stop signs, cheese sandwiches imprecision of (!!!) that is elsewhere.
At once the blossoms appear. The white one outside my flat is luminous against the azure blue sky. I remember the endless pink blossoms of Maybole Road in Ayr, those bus stop mornings walking to Belmont, or to my father’s office, aged fourteen on my way to work experience. The lilac blossoms of my childhood garden, toasted Escherian limbs of the tree, the bluebells beneath; something beautiful I’ll never see again. Do lilacs even grow in the city? The cherry blossoms seem kind of tired this year; after all, it has been such a winter. They have pushed through snow and cold to get here, little withered blooms whose buds would drink the misty heat. Normal isn’t optional. I grow nostalgic for lunches of the past, eating apples on my break among the daffodils at Botanics. Feeling true sun on my skin, before retreating inside to a world without windows. The world of dust and vinegar.
I read W.S. Graham and make fortnightly pilgrimages to Greenock. I get off the train at Central and we wander Morrisons then back along the road for our workshops. This is a very peculiar Morrisons; it sells unnatural flowers, grafted in alien colours like the genetically-glitched foliage of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. In our workshop, we cover the theme ‘Journeys’. We learn new ways of listening; we map the skeins and twists of our lives, absorbing the lives of others. There are so many strains it’s like those skeins were severed along the way by numerous barbed wires. It hurts to get back on the train and be okay again, but then the late afternoon of sunshine in Glasgow takes our breath away. We are so alive and dazed. There are no scones in my pocket; not even almonds or acorns. I skim over maps of the land around Greenock, wondering about Loch Thom. As I wait for the train, the same time each week, I hear another train, parallel to ours being announced. It is the Ayr train, pulling away before us. I follow the straight road to the loch on the map, ‘stretching away across / Into the blue moors of Ayrshire’. We are surrounded by forest, then real forest. I am deepening by Galloway’s greens. I long like Graham, like ‘the man I made for land’, to somehow ‘Drown in the sudden sounding trees’. A greening comes over me, swallows me like sea.
I arrive at work with plastic-packaged slices of Pink Lady apple, holding them like a prize. Nobody takes up my offer, the crunch out of character, the taste of pesticides.
Buying a secondhand bike, I have started cycling again! It is a wonderful thing. I talk about it and listen to people’s cycling tales, their tidbits of advice; but mostly following the way their faces change when they talk about cycling, the smiles and the light in their eyes reminiscent of freedom. We share stories of bike-glimpsed sunsets, passing scenery, receding buildings, the wind off the Clyde alive in our hair. The wind off the Clyde a grey kind of blue, like the blue in my eyes, the blue that cried salt-licks of oceans. When I am cycling, my heart changing pace, I think less and I feel more free.
It is May tomorrow, and we are nearly in Gemini season. Season of air and light, of psychic twinship.
‘Sometimes all I need / Is the air that I breathe / And to love you’ (Simply Red)
‘And every breath that is in your lungs / Is a tiny little gift to me’ (The White Stripes)
For earnest asthmatic words I’m sorry.
Drawn from the eerie Louisiana marshland of True Detective to the hinterland gothic of Bates Motel to fading memories of the rain-sodden kirkyards bordering Amsterdam, I’m trying to look forward to burnished summer noons, the car that would drive us, the lavender pillow. Detail he remembered. I wear bright colours, then inexplicably black on Sundays. I stand up in gigs with an exhaustion that threatens to topple me, the music pulling my body onwards and backwards again like a tide, a forest susurration—‘Drown in the sudden sounding trees’. Mostly fantasies of falling asleep and waking up somewhere different. Taste the sesh. Everyone loosens in presence on Saturday, glazing the town on my way home with ice-sweet memory; hovering on the bridge to watch traffic lights pull fluoro taffy over the motorway. I listen to your voice recordings in the hour before dawn, darkness furling green and blue at the edges of dreams, a sonic mottling soothing to ambient forest. ASMR. An ecotone in which this quiet euphoric feeling meets flesh, sun-drenched song, rehearsal of sheltered Julys, been and gone. Elsewhere, he is coming off ket, listening to the new Grouper. Outside a same sky fills with similar shimmerings. Gifts of lemon-flavoured San Pellegrino, the aluminium pull that clicks out of sync. Meet or don’t meet your heroes. Nostalgia for dad-rock on a highway dragging you west where summer begins, a hot lump of sun in your throat.
Starts to melt, petals shed, a sugar glow…
Bjork – All is Full of Love
Junto Club – Shiviana
Oneohtrix Point Never – Black Snow
Grouper – Blouse
Porches – Country
Elvis Depressedly – Weird Honey
Vashti Bunyan – I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind
Broadcast – Valerie
Spring Onion – I Did My Taxes For Free Online
wished bone – reasons
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Simple and Sure
The Sundays – Here’s Where The Story Ends
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions – Let Me Get There
The resonance is a tinny vintage, anachronistic; tinselled with eighties synths and a vocal sample that never quite begins. That baggy voice, normally soft as milk, becomes jagged, inhuman. Creepily crystallised. Your aunty’s favourite easy-listening is stripped of all coherence and synthesis; the tacky detritus of Steve Wright’s Sunday Lovesongs repackaged for an ersatz world of sulphurous sunsets and crumbling metropolises imploding like the plastic dust of an Arizonan dead mall. Back to the dark desert highway, purple-skied and dripped in molten neon. This isn’t what you’d enjoy on a leisurely car trip to the drive through…Or is it?
Listen to : : :
death’s dynamic shroud.wmv // I’m at the point in the level where the road narrows, curves, swirls upside down. Death is imminent. You can see the gloved fingers slipping a compact disc into the slot of a monster, borrowed straight from the architectures of Digimon. I’m thinking: Elizabeth Fraser’s sweetly haunting soprano (imagine being ghosted by the purest aural distillation of beauty); the chilled techno-ambience resurrected from the nineties. There’s heartbreak ahead. If you jump too far—and you will, won’t you—the space around you will glitch. There you’ll be, suspended in the space twinkles. An empty swimming pool. Climb into the cracks. Why is everything so gleaming, so white? I’m obsessed with getting back to matter. The music restores the filth, the glitch. There’s a vast acceleration of beautiful colour. The soprano grows warped, the orb-like contortions are glowing off kilter, off rhythm. The seven lumps of Galaxy chocolate I’ve just eaten melt sticky bits of sugar in my mouth, refuse to dissolve. They’ll coat my teeth like that.
Vapourwave coats your teeth. God knows how or why you should define it. It’s like cheap candy, utterly sugary but filled with mysterious ingredients, mystic chemicals from another dimension. One minute I’m being instructed about the start of a sequence (it’s the eerie echoes of a sci-fi style video game)- – – loading loading loading – – – and then trap style beats come bouncing slowly in, delayed as if strained through some outpouring of weird gravity. There’s a purity to some of it, which feels more like an original composition; the ambient atmosphere of something along the lines of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works…There’s a sense of distortion, disorientation. Hyperreal landscapes lit in luminous pinks and purples. What’s that gleam, is it rain? Tokyo on a postcard, dipped in cross-processing chemicals, in violet acid. Then you’ve got a vague array of p a r a d i s e lighting up the screen. Palms and sand and cerulean sea.
As soon as you get attached to a sample, you’re away. Rarely does the beat resolve. You’re like, totally always stuck on the pre-beat. To the point that human expression becomes a technological fault, a beep, a burp. Sometimes it sounds like waves are being pulsed through your brain, blurred in a malfunction of some tacky machinery cooked up for a pulp movie of the nineties. Do scanners really look like that? Coated in rhinestones, bathed in pink. Some of it’s dreamier. Arpeggios of bell-scented keyboards (what do bells smell like? Not musty old church bells, but the sonorous chimes of noughties computers). Arpeggios climbing and climbing, dissolving, rising. A pop melody shining through. I’m in a rainforest of futurist skyscrapers, cloud-surrounded, everything drenched in pastel-hued pixels. It’s so serene.
Vapourwave. What a joke, an internet meme. Didn’t it die a couple of years ago?
I’m so confused. What is this monstrosity that’s eked itself into my life like a viral code luxuriating in my brain? At once disdainfully ironic, crass, tacky as hell; but also painfully sincere, nostalgic, full of a misplaced longing. The metamodern paradox of postmodern irony and modernist authenticity cooking up an endless loop of misplaced longing. I find myself thirsty for shopping malls from the seventies, for grotesque cups of Diet Pepsi, for the glossy pop of the eighties and the apocalyptic reveries of the nineties. I’m drifting through a city stripped of its glitz and left with patches of bright matte colour, refusing to reflect the glass through which dreams have appeared and got lost. I remember polishing a CD with the back of my sleeve, watching the lines of rainbows beam. Slotting it into a computer that hummed and whirred at my touch. I remember when technology felt somehow homely.
That comforting little Windows XP flourish, how friendly it was compared to the blasé boom of Apple’s triumphant C chord. Glitch, glitch, glitch. I pick the pixels out with my fingertips. The eerie keyed chords of MACINTOSH PLUS’ 地理 fill me with a sinister sense of urgency. It’s an entropic catastrophe of dissonance.
At the heart of vapourwave is a tension between the sweet and disturbing, between satisfyingly vacuous muzak and dissonant, deliberate glitching. This is related to its deterritorialising impulse, by which I mean (borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari lingo), the way it extracts and recontextualises some element of a thing, then placing it elsewhere in a different environment. Vapourwave is a sort of bulimic, abject, rhizomatic discourse. It gorges on the symbols of late capitalism (the glossy muzak and soft rock of the eighties, international brands like Nike or Microsoft, the aesthetics of corporate advertising and so on) and then expels them in a gross reinterpretation that seems to purge them of their original, seamless facade. It might be useful here to mention that sociologist/criminologist Jock Young (2007) once described late modernity as a ‘bulimic society’, where we are all (internationally) included in the dreamlike semiotics of the rich through the opulence and availability of global branding, advertising and popular culture, but increasingly we are structurally excluded from the means which would allow us to achieve such dizzying heights ourselves. This social anomie is jarringly rendered in vapourwave’s shameless embrace of corporate culture; at once poking fun at it but also monumentalising it in an ambiguous way. It’s by no means a didactic movement, but as Grafton Tanner tends to argue in his excellent book Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (2016), it’s symptomatic of its times. The very poetics of vapourwave reflect the uneasy experience of being unable to escape the system, the uncanny effects of our perpetual cultural nostalgia—the celebration and denigration of late capitalist modernity and all its forms of post (post (post) post).
Outside of their usual contexts, corporate and commercial visuals (the vapourwave a e s t h e t i c) seem absurd, funny, strange, alienating. It hollows out the imagined ‘core’ of the brand and replaces it with a sort of free-floating lack of functionality, a disembodied eeriness. Chuck a logo in with a pastel-hued painting of palms and corny dolphins lifted from a SNES game and there you have it. Old Apple logos might be hovering over a pixellated ocean, waiting to plunge inexorably. Not only the aesthetics, but also the music itself, creates this sense of fragmented capitalism. Tanner talks briefly about the relevance of Derrida’s idea of hauntology to understanding the politics of vapourwave and this seems to me very astute. It’s the idea that the future is irrevocably haunted by the past; that culture and politics are also spooked with spectres from the past—from communism (Derrida’s book is called Spectres of Marx) to old technologies. It’s the idea that things are always-already obsolete, that there’s a sense of being itself as displaced and never quite fully present. It’s an ontology of difference, deferral, doubling, of objects which become ‘a little mad, weird, unsettled, “out of joint”’ (Derrida 1994). Derrida’s gloss on Marx’s analysis of the commodity-table gives us a sense on the ghostliness of consumer objects:
For example — and here is where the table comes on stage — the wood remains wooden when it is made into a table: it is then “an ordinary, sensuous thing [ein ordindäres, sinnliches Ding]”. It is quite different when it becomes a commodity, when the curtain goes up on the market and the table plays actor and character at the same time, when the commodity-table, says Marx, comes on stage (auftritt), begins to walk around and to put itself forward as a market value. Coup de theatre: the ordinary, sensuous thing is transfigured (verwandelt sich), it becomes someone, it assumes a figure. This woody and headstrong denseness is metamorphosed into a supernatural thing, a sensuous non-sensuous thing, sensuous but non-sensuous, sensuously supersensible (verwandelt er sich in ein sinnlich übersinnliches Ding). The ghostly schema now appears indispensable. The commodity is a “thing” without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the senses (it is invisible, intangible, inaudible, and odourless); but this transcendence is not altogether spiritual, it retains that bodiless body which we have recognised as making the difference between spectre and spirit. What surpasses the senses still passes before us in the silhouette of the sensuous body that it nevertheless lacks or that remains inaccessible to us.
Vapourwave, of course, exploits this ‘ghostly schema’ of consumer objects. ‘Woody and headstrong denseness’, the sheer materiality of the thing is ordinarily supplanted by its mystical, transcendent value as a commodified good or brand. When we think of Nike trainers, rarely do we care for their actual material structure; usually it is the symbolic resonance of the brand that captures us. In Vapourwave, materiality comes back, vicious and strange. Fredric Jameson laments the way that postmodernism presents us with a meaningless concatenation of cultural nostalgia, often without context—BuzzFeed’s noughties nostalgia lists perhaps being a case in point. Vapourwave takes this ‘out of context’ randomness and runs with it. Art objects, textures, corporate iconography and screen-saturated colours combine in a collage of irony and contrasts. The mishmash quality of the vapourwave aesthetic lends it to easy manipulation and re-creation. This is the DIY ethic of the movement, its impulse towards constant theft, the cut and paste fun of sampling, the wilful shredding of distortion which creates a contemporary rendering of William Burroughs’ literary cut-up method or the random-making ‘recipes’ of Dada poetry, as described by Tristan Tzara.
Now, the effects of this mixed-bag of internet treats aren’t just weird and humorous, but weird also in an unsettling way. The samples become points of focus in a manner that strips away the normal cultural values of the original song; the easy soft-rock of the eighties becomes haunted with lo-fi feedback and interruption, compression and echoes. It sounds like it’s being heard through a cave or the underwater atrium of an abandoned mall, after the apocalypse. One of vapourwave’s most prominent releases to this day remains Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe (2011) and on this record the production warps its soul music with a surrealist synth-driven dreamscape, in which R&B beats become slow and trippy and human voices are dehumanised into drawls and robotic calls. Often a sample starts but never resolves its line, constantly stumbling over itself. Tempos are spliced and no song follows conventional structure, but instead runs on repetitions, overlaps, interruptions; completely jarring changes in rhythm and key with no transition. Funk and soul from the eighties are no longer smooth and satisfying radio filler, but are turned inside out, their inherent weirdness exposed. Some of the highlights include ‘It’s Your Move’ by Diana Ross and ‘You Need a Hero’ by Pages. The effect of listening to this album is sort of like pushing a shopping cart round a supermarket and gazing around in wonder at the saturated pastels, the pointless products, the detritus of cluttered consumer madness. Glitches, twinkles, the beats of unsteady feet. Random tannoy announcements like a call from some parallel universe, the underground, the flickers of the internet ether.
Tanner’s Babbling Corpse usefully makes a connection between the dehumanisation of human voices in vapourwave music and contemporary philosophical movements such as speculative realism and object-orientated ontology. Both movements share the fundamental rejection of correlationism (the dominant, anthropocentric idea in Western philosophy that views reality only in relation to and projection from the human perspective). Instead, they turn to the world experience of the nonhuman, the sentient and foreign perspective of matter and objects. They expose the contrived nature of our distinction between self and world, showing how we are world, entangled in a way that is inextricable and disturbing (Timothy Morton, for instance, points to the crustaceans that live in our eyelashes or the bacteria in our gut as examples of how we are the environment, rather than self-complete and separate beings). Vapourwave in some way manages to evoke this weird world of objects, at a level only barely accessible to humans. Its use of glitches and looped samples disrupts the ordering of people and things. As Tanner puts it,
Glitches interrupt our expectations while deceiving and annoying us. They undermine our notion of what the machine is supposed to do for us, not without us. In this way, our electronic machines take on lives of their own and appear capable of functioning perfectly well without humans – a complete transcendence into other-worldly sentience.
We might consider this in relation to Martin Heidegger’s (2008) idea that we only notice a tool as a thing when it stops working. A broken hammer suddenly becomes a strange entity in its own right, rather than just one chain link in the process of a means to an end. Chuck Persons Eccojams Vol. 1, for starters. The very name: Eccojams. It implies the jams are a product of this Other: the ecco, ecology, echo…The title derives from an old Sega Megadrive game called Ecco the Dolphin, an action adventure game which featured dreamy music and a very minimalist gameplay narrative. You made Ecco sing to attract and interact with other objects and cetaceans; you could evoke echolocation in order to unfold a map of your oceanic surroundings; you could call to special crystals (glyphs) which in various ways controlled Ecco’s access to different levels. There is a beautiful otherworldliness to this game, and not just because Ecco ends up at the City of Atlantis. It’s created its own mythology, and the emphasis on song (like The Legend of Zelda’s ocarina melodies, which initiate effects in the game) opens up the possibilities for a nonhuman conscious or logic. Music, perhaps more than language, has effects on nonhuman consciousness. At a certain pitch, it can shatter a glass, or cause buildings to rumble with bass. It opens up its own logic of cause and effect.
Hauntology, in a sense, is about being stuck on the loop of the end of history. Technology constantly dislocates our awareness of time and space, so that linearity is replaced with instancy, repetition and reiteration, the constant recycling of former styles and events. Repetition is uncanny partly because, as Freud argues in ‘The Uncanny’, it’s the structure of the unconscious. When we notice repetition, we notice how our whole psyches are built on the compulsion to repeat even that which is most traumatic to us. It also violates our sense of identity and experience as singular and unique (an idea that liberal democracy and consumer capitalism likes to perpetuate). Identical twins are uncanny for this reason, as is deja vu. We feel that the normal order of time and space has been distorted (this is of course made explicit in films like Donnie Darko, which deal with parallel universe theorems). Repetition is also uncanny because it suggests that things we thought were unique to a moment, imbued with their apparent transience, are actually lingering and potentially eternal. It’s unsettling to have the buried constantly disinterred and broken out into the open present. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) is a novel which explores the logic of repetition in relation to a trauma narrative in which the protagonist becomes obsessed with re-enacting events to the point of absurdity and violent conclusion. It’s that overlap of the real, where dreamlike remembrance meets actual performed repetition, that is the orgasmic satisfaction of the psyche.
Listening to vapourwave enacts this perfectly. We might start to recognise the songs from which these samples were drawn, but our recognition is distorted along with the samples themselves. The past floats uncannily into the future. Eccojams Vol. 1 drops its tinkling beats on a loop and the vocals from eighties ballads are stripped of their velvet and become mournful, minor, distorted. Inhuman, odd. There’s a sense in which our contemporary experience of reality in the face of apocalypse and pathological nostalgia is both dark and sweet. Morton’s branch of object-orientated ontology, dark ecology, perfectly captures this experience (in fact, in Dark Ecology (2016) he describes the process of dealing with this ‘grief’ as sharing the structure of a ‘dark ecological chocolate’). Vapourwave is at times incredibly saccharine, mapping itself through the cheerfully smooth loops of Muzak; but it is also jarring, dissonant, deeply unsettling. It takes dirty club techno, the complex tempos of intelligent dance music, and puts them through the cheap production of the GarageBand blender. Vocals echo like a broken tannoy machine. Vapourwave, as both visual and musical aesthetic, fundamentally opens an aural space in which past, present and future become a haunting echo chamber of one another. No longer is this the mere surface play of postmodern collage, but instead it’s the material manifestation of a specific cultural hauntology. As Tanner puts it, hauntology ‘is unlike Jameson’s pastiche in that it complicates the past (specifically, the past’s image of the future) in order to call attention to capitalism’s destructive nature as a subjugating force that only fools others into thinking it came to eradicate “history”’ (2016: 35-36). Capitalism is hollowed out, its signature brands become lost echoes in a vaguely recognisable, a hypnotically attractive yet alarming vision of our near-present future; blended with the figures of mall culture, the colours of early aughts internet webspaces and the abyssal possibilities of a Tumblr scroll.
I’m interested in how vapourwave re-enacts a different form of consciousness and how this might be ecological, even though the movement’s only obvious engagement with Nature as Such is through the proliferation of palms and potted plants that drift incongruously as consumer goods through some of its artwork. To get at its ecological sweetness, it’s like cracking open a crystal to see its lattice parameters (what a beautiful phrase), the places where the material cleaves (its lines of weakness), its cubic structure. The interplay between structure and embedded weakness is what motivates vapourwave; it contains its own failure, the undeveloped samples, the way a tiny snatch of a song is unfolded into a tranquil sequence of soporific, nonsensical sound. This is not music with a coherent logic. You look for lines and trends and vague traces of structure, but a song will become something more fluid and fragmented. Vapourwave’s material metaphors cannot be coherent; it’s at once free-floating, vaporous, seeping, gelatinous, oozing, splitting, cracking, choking, pulsing, dissolving. Hard matter, soft matter, chemical, vapour, waves and glitches and tiny explosions.
Sometimes, the structure is completely frustrating. On Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, for example, the slowed-down, reverb-heavy sample from Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ repeats endlessly and never resolves itself into the next line: ‘another year and then we’ll be happy / just one more year and then we’ll be happy’. The twinkle signifies the glimpse of a transition and there’s a blip of the ‘b’ which should resolve into ‘but you’re crying, you’re crying now’ and yet here never does. Instead the song becomes an endless loop of implied futurity, the future conditional, ‘we’ll be happy’ that doesn’t get to complete itself but instead hangs. We’re taken out of time and left in this limbo. Here, the repetition isn’t soothing, it’s unsettling—mesmerising in a disturbing way. We question our longing for the song to resolve and before we have a chance it’s skipped to the next track. So we go back, search out the original version. Is it satisfying? Listening to Raferty’s original now feels weird in a way it didn’t before. It’s like this lost artefact from the past, spliced across the future ether rendered by Person’s eerie and hypnagogic album. While ‘Baker Street’ implies a specific place, now it’s thoroughly displaced, an effect of the internet’s rhizomatic possibilities.
As Morton puts it, ‘in order to have environmental awareness, one must be aware of space as more than just a vacuum. One must start taking note of, taking care of, one’s world’ (2002: 54). Ambient poetics disturb our assumed distinction between inside/outside, self/other; they show how we are entangled in a shared space of coexistence (Morton 2002: 54). Ambient music, in its sensuousness, its borrowing from the world—for example, by using samples of music concrète and field recordings from both nature and urban spaces—embeds us inside an environment in a way that is at once comforting and disturbing. It literally surrounds our senses. Brian Eno famously sets out a manifesto for ambient music by describing ambience as ‘an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence, a tint’, and ‘whereas conventional background music [i.e. Muzak] is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty […] from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. […] Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think’. As Morton puts it, ambient music as figured by Eno deconstructs the ‘opposition between foreground and background, or more precisely, between figure and ground’. In this sense, ‘ambience could be shown to resist the reification of space in capitalism’, ‘at once fill[ing] and overspill[ing] the ideological frame intended for it by the social structure in which it emerged’ (Morton 2001).
Think of it this way: could you get away with playing vapourwave in a mall or a supermarket or diner? Sure, it would ‘fill’ the space in one sense, but also exceed it, rendering all our cultural and material associations with this space uncanny and distorted. It would become a sci-fi space, a space displaced into the future. We would be inhabiting a doubled world, a doubled temporality. I tried playing Floral Shoppe in the restaurant where I work once (obviously when there were no customers) and the effect was actually very comforting. I felt like I wasn’t trapped in the familiar twenty-something existential limbo and instead inhabiting a plane of dreamlike contemplation, like the Rainbow Road level on MarioKart: Double Dash. I close my eyes and the scratched wooden floor spills out into a highway of colour; the tables I’m bumping against are bright yellow stars and fragments of unknown matter. I’m back in the supermarket, trolleys wheeling away from me and products falling off the shelf. I open my eyes and there’s the mirror and a reflection of someone that might be me, wearing a uniform, the chairs and tables flashing around me like holograms. I’m not exactly sure where that association sprung from (it’s been a long time since I’ve turned on the old GameCube), but I guess that’s the free associative impact of the music itself.
Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), vapourwave is about an experience of travel and movement without necessarily describing that movement itself. Crucially, the emphasis is on slowing down, on dwelling in a moment; a moment which is looped, repeated, pondered over, exhausted, reflected on. ‘I undertook to subject my life to a severe examination that would order it for the rest of my days in such a way as I wished to find it at the time of my death’ (Rousseau 2011: 24). Vapourwave subjects the e v e r y t h i n g of capitalist late modernity to such self-reflexive inner scrutiny. This scrutiny enacts a slowing down of perception, a sense of looking around and absorbing one’s place in the environment. Through an uncanny distortion, doubling back and becoming the environment. Vapourwave allows us to adopt both a blasé and a highly perceptive attitude to the ad-saturated world in which we exist; the metropolis of the internet becoming some great labyrinth in which we linger at every turn, mesmerised by the neon palms swaying in time to the untimely music, to cans of diet coke and the universal resonance of that bold tick logo. Everything surrounds and coagulates, connects.
This aesthetic dwelling is crucial for ecology because it forces a recognition of the world which we are and in which we live, a recognition that notices patterns of interconnectedness and coexistence. For Gregory Bateson (2016), aesthetics means ‘responsiveness to the pattern which connects. The pattern which connects is a meta-pattern’; both cities and their parts form part of this pattern, of the patterned aesthetic of vapourwave. The metropolis, the mall, the fountain plaza, the computer screen, the window of a building, the burnished, pixellated sunset. All are the environs of sound and vision, the movement between figure and ground, the deconstruction of synecdoche. The part and the whole are constantly supplementing each other (the song, the sample; the symbolism, the surface aesthetic). It’s a bewildering, shape-shifting experience. It forces us to take notice of our world. There’s something about vapourwave which always suggests to me a sort of endless highway, where the vehicles move as if through some viscous substance that drags the experience of time and space. Our perception becomes blurred and starry, with blips of unconsciousness and moments of epiphanic reverie. Things around us fade or glow. The radio rumbles in the darkest cavity of our chest. Am I even breathing? I don’t feel human. Is this freedom?
Alongside this dwelling is a certain playfulness of a way unique to vapourwave. James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011) might be the classic here. It blends together the inane and cornily flourishing samples from Muzak with automated audio speech stolen from corporate contexts and sound effects from everyday tech life—the message-send swoop, a mouse click, laptop crashing sounds and start-up tunes. The result is something that might reflect Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as ‘eclecticism’, the ‘degree zero of contemporary general culture [where] one listens to reggae, watches Westerns, eats MacDonald’s for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothing in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games’ (2004: 76). This eclecticism is made playfully manifest in Ferraro’s lively, atmospheric and at times downright trippy record, where twinkles of commercially-drenched, techy synths give way to stuttering keyboards, ringtone effects and twirls of familiar message noises which become maddeningly synced with finger clicks and conversations between robotic voices. A CONUNDRUM article argues that ‘since vapourwave functions namely as commentary, it loops, pitch-shifts and “screws” the utopia of the virtual plaza, creating a harsh, grating sound in away that brings each muzak sample’s faults to the forefront of the track’. This is certainly true of Ferraro, but I’d also suggest that vapourwave is more than mere commentary; Ferraro especially revels in the silliness of corporate culture (check out ‘Pixarnia and the Future of Norman Rockwell’, with its drink slurping sound effects and jingly, kids tv-worthy melody), at the same time as revealing its peculiar utopian unreality, a world of shimmering sound and holograms. There’s a self-consciously affective and pleasurable aspect to the music. Sometimes it sounds like the demonstration music on an art channel, to the point where I’m expecting some beautiful, sellotaped creation to materialise with every musical flourish.
On the other hand, there’s the total weirdness of ‘Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi’, which takes us through a scintillatingly bizarre encounter with a ‘touchscreen waiter’ who explains the ordering process at a sushi restaurant—apparently in Times Square, with Gordon Ramsay as chef—to the backdrop of exuberant synths and glitchy effects which sound like a Windows 95 laptop gone haywire, or merely said customer making her selections from the menu software. The result is to render a future where restaurants and coffeehouses are devoid of human interaction, becoming impersonal encounters with creepily enthusiastic machine waiters (creepy not just because they’d put me out of a job). The contrast between this manic happiness, this constant focus on choice, with the maddening music is to create a deep sense of unease, to reveal the artifice of such utopian tech constructions. Do we really have a choice? Is life being boiled down to a series of computer menus? Is the future bound to the unsettling intonations of such robotic encounters? I can’t help but escape into the absurdity of the music and try to forget this hauntological disaster is always-already constantly happening…
The comparatively meditative ‘Bags’ weaves its entrancing ambience from an early Windows startup theme, dipping into sonorous caverns of sparkling synths and lifting for air bubbles and irregular, incongruous finger clicks. I am reminded here of a beautiful essay by Steven Connor on the magic of objects, specifically here bags: ‘because they are in essence such fleshly or bodily things, bags enact as nothing else does our sense of the relation between inside and outside. We are creatures who find it easy and pleasurable to imagine living on the inside of another body’. There’s an amniotic vibe to Ferarro’s ‘Bags’; the swaying, dreamy pace that makes us feel as though we are inside those palms, or encased within a glossy plastic number, bouncing away against some glamorous knee. Just as humans have a sort of supplementary, life-giving association with bags, we also have this relationship with the plazas of capitalism and the affective world they render. Ferarro has said that he conceived of Far Side Virtual as a series of ringtones, a musical form which inherently suggests consumer transience, tackiness, kitsch, the whims of passing fashions (not least because the polyphonic presets change with each phone upgrade). He’s also said that he loves the idea of the album being ‘performed b a Philharmonic Orchestra […] Imagining an orchestra given X-Box controllers instead of mallets, iPhones instead of violins, ring tones instead of Tubular bells, Starbucks cups instead of cymbals. All streamed online, viewable on a megascreen in Times Square’. That’s what’s special about vapourwave: its commitment to the endurance of art and the a e s t h e t i c alongside an ambiguous relationship with the ephemerality of corporate kitsch. The artistic rearrangement of these samples, alongside their visual presentation and marketing as alt music through sites like Bandcamp, completely reterritorialises their original framework of meaning.
There’s a sense in which this music—with its self-conscious materiality, the recognisably tacky mattering of its samples, its embrace of the ambient disruption of foreground and background—is inherently committed to some kind of hauntological ecological project, the kind advocated by Tim Morton’s dark ecological poetics. As Ferarro himself says of his album, it’s a ‘rubbery plastic symphony for global warming, dedicated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Vapourwave recycles culture, proliferates both beauty and trash, endlessly parodies itself and its references. It renders explicitly what Marc Augé calls the ‘non-places’ of supermodernity: the anonymous malls, airports, offices and stations where cultures blend and collide and become foreign places of blank existence, of non-place, of disembodied temporality and physical and social experience. Places emptied out of cultural specificity. Places where one might eat Japanese sushi in a New York airport restaurant, concocted by a holographic rendition of a grumpy English chef and served by a robot developed and programmed by a Chinese tech company. Vapourwave is melancholy and strangely displaced. The frequent use of anonymity by many of its prominent artists (Xavier, for example, is responsible for more than just Macintosh Plus), alongside the Eastern characters for song titles, creates again a dehumanised, uncanny and culturally displaced understanding of identity. It weaves an almost Orientalist mystery through its art, so that we can’t quite geographically place the origins and players of this musical movement. It’s all about dissemination, reappropriation, the instancy of recycled production; but it’s also about slowing down to notice the flaws inherent in our everyday, consumer lives. The heavily sampled, rhizomatic nature of vapourwave forces you to become a more active consumer of both music and other forms of material pleasure, from picking your morning coffee to choosing your desktop screensaver. Perhaps it’s this recognition that gives vapourwave the vague trace of disruptive impulse; the way it strips away the uneasy pleasures and pink mist of the late capitalist plaza and replaces it with a mystique that haunts us back from the future. Objects and humans withdraw from our grasp and we are left with the surface detritus of crushed coke cans, defunct MacBooks, coffee cups and robot voices stuck on repeat, cleaning the floor of the mall to a vicious gleam that threatens to bounce back like a screen and remind us that we haven’t left the room at all – we’re still on the internet, chasing our dreams.
Augé, Marc, 2009. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso).
It’s never easy to compile a list like this. Albums by their very nature are dynamic; like books, their significance shifts over time as we build up new associations from listening to them over and over. I know it’s corny but I can’t help but think of that quote from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: ‘I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind’. Well, you could say the same thing about records. Any good album stays with me a long time and it’s so interwoven with memory and place and emotion that I could no longer just glance at its cover in a shop and shrug, it’s a good album. Give me a copy of American Idiot and I’ll wax lyrical about my political awakening, aged eleven; when I first discovered what teenage angst meant, when I decided it was hot to wear eyeliner and complain about dead-end jobs. When I realised you could make stories with music and create characters from songs; in fact, a whole mythology.
It’s becoming increasingly important to me to keep track of what I listen to. Month by month I’ve started to save new stuff onto Spotify playlists, where once I would fall back on the same old iTunes favourites, playlists I’d made years ago. Relying on shuffle or rehashing albums I loved five years ago and never bothering to look out anything new. Having a year away from university gave me the time to focus on music again; I realised that it used to be this massive part of my life that I’d since abandoned in favour of obscure literary theory (now I know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive…). I’ve started to write reviews for RaveChild , which has sort of taught me to listen to a song the way I’d read a text. I want to find the hook, the arrangement, the way all the different parts work together to evoke something. I’m listening for detail, texture, weirdness. It’s fun and sometimes hard work, but always rewarding. Now, often an actual musician will read a thing I wrote and maybe they’ll retweet it or like it or in some way show their appreciation. For someone whose writing has always been a solitary thing – confined to notebooks and extinct LiveJournal and MySpace accounts and only more recently a grownup blog – I can’t tell you how nice it feels for my writing to be out there, being noticed somehow. It’s so lovely. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a new outlet, and to discover so much good music while I’m doing it!
Anyway, to mark the end of the year like I did last year, here are my top 16 albums of 2016. I’m going to try and do them in order this year, bearing in mind the fact that this ordering probably changes in my head on a weekly basis. Basically, the first 16 are pretty arbitrary; I love all of the stuff listed and know that as soon as I’ve written this I’ll want to shuffle it around again.
1) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
This is such a beautiful, highly-crafted album. For someone whose favourite Radiohead record is probably In Rainbows, but who also loves the jaggedelectronica of The King of Limbs as much as Jonny Greenwood’s cinematic compositions, A Moon Shaped Pool is a real treat. I remember when In Rainbows first came out and there was so much media controversy over its distribution method. I read about it constantly in NME magazine, without much sense of what the music was. Radiohead were a distant entity to me then, a kind of musical megalith that I wasn’t quite ready to approach. Well, a few years down the line I gave In Rainbows an actual proper listen (not just because ‘Nude’ was used in a Skins advert, I swear), and then fell in love. If you’re not properly acquainted with the band, you probably don’t realise how truly eclectic their music is.
A Moon Shaped Pool came as a surprise album to many, the prize release to all those who panicked over the band’s social media blackout. Still, the gimmick takes nothing away from the music. It’s so multi-layered, with orchestral textures and many lovely moments. It doesn’t reach the aggressive pitch as on some previous albums, and in turn feels more honest, stripped of the usual cynicism. A song like ‘Daydreaming’ feels like reaching a moment of nirvana-like sublimity, but it’s not an entirely happy state – its a kind of uneasy contentment, a bewildering dreaminess. ‘Burn the Witch’ is a fable for our times that provides a warning against falling back into what we so dismissively call the dark ages, when in fact 2016 bears the ugly imprint of small-minded times from history. ‘True Love Waits’ has been kicking around a long time now but I really love this mellow, slightly haunting yet effortlessly tender version.
I listened to this record all summer, walking home through the park after nights out, feeling the chords form soft over my inebriated senses. I began to crave Thom Yorke’s voice, the subtle croon and the way it bends so elastically over the high notes like rivulets in the tide. ‘The Numbers’ is a beautiful environmental song: ‘we are of the earth / to her we do return / the future is inside us / it’s not somewhere else’. Yet this is no hippie-dippy one world holism; there’s something unsettling about the future being inside us, about the world being up close, physically within us. The song’s rife with uncanny images, where anthropomorphism is reversed and where the boundedness of the human body is dissolved: ‘it holds us like a phantom / the touch is like a breeze’; ‘you may pour us away like soup’. Yorke forces us to confront these truths, but his tone is wistful rather than dramatic or didactic. You actually feel like you’re being carried away by that breeze as strings shimmer around you.
You can really fall into these songs, and they have a breadth (and breath!) that carries you away. The album feels loose, adrift, a little weary; but this refusal of tight structure and convoluted imagery is what grants A Moon Shaped Pool its sincerity. Pitchfork calls it ‘everyday enlightenment’, which seems fitting, since this album is less about cyborg dystopias and paranoid androids and more concerned with its humanist bent: whirlpools of emotion, the simple epiphanies reached in ordinary life. That’s not to say it’s lost its political freight; if anything, the themes of agency, government control, ecological disaster, technology and societal breakdown gather more strength for being more subtly disseminated.
Another album that more or less soundtracked my summer, or at least the tail-end of it. Olsen’s musical style really matures on this album but for me it was definitely a grower. I rather unusually fell first into ‘Heart-shaped Face’, a kind of quirky, languid ballad, sugar sweet even as it delivers something mournful. I love the album’s overall retro feel. ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ is livelier than Olsen’s usual fare and is decidedly catchy and playful, with that haunting country voice doing its best gymnastics. ‘Intern’ feels a wee bit Lynchian, all atmospheric synths which satisfyingly never really build to a climax and instead dissolve into the jangly croons of ‘Never Be Mine’. It’s music to listen to while lying in a park, sure, or strutting down a preciously sun-drenched city street on your way to meet someone exciting. It’s also sophisticated enough to work really well live (Olsen had at least three guitars on her recent tour) and also to wrench your heart out in all the right places. Jewel in the crown track ‘Sister’ is a complete masterpiece. I might even go so far to say it’s my favourite song of the year. It builds up to this glorious solo and then the release that comes with the refrain all my life I thought I’d change is so cathartic, like doing something wild – plunging your head in freezing water to get over heartbreak. The video is glorious too – Olsen just has this devastatingly cute smile and the vibe is all cactuses, desert plains, pinkish skies and turquoise swimming pools. My Woman has a hint of psychedelia mixed in with its alt-country and indie folk, but ultimately it’s that beautiful warbling voice that really makes the record shine.
3) Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
I first came across Kevin Morby on recommendation from a friend, and the song that hooked me was ‘Slow Train’, a lonesome, leisurely track which is duly adorned by the smooth melancholy of Cate Le Bon’s vocals towards the end. Singing Saw sees Morby developing the craft of atmospheric singer/songwriter folk, mixed in with a distilled tinge of Americana. Morby’s songs have an old worldly vibe, devoid of contemporary references and shrouded in a kind of wilderness mythology. A lot of the songs on this album are more upbeat than previous offerings and ‘Dorothy’ is really fun, a pop nugget as much as it is a song about music and the road. There’s a more expansive sound and the bass feels nice and crunchy, the harmonies always on point. Morby’s voice always has a kind of haunting depth to it which shines through as he stretches his vowels, as he threads his hypnotic melody over the pulsating beat of ‘Singing Saw’. An album for listening to around a camp fire on a beach or rocky hillside; an album for toasting the end of summer to and glancing out towards the gathering darkness of winter.
4) Beth Orton – Kidsticks
This album, conversely, was perfect for kicking off summer. It’s bright, electronic; a little bit feisty, with plenty of pause for languid reflection. Orton has a way with surreal images, with unfolding a kernel of detail into an elaborated, looping song, as on ‘Petals’. Sometimes the album feels trippy, sometimes it feels very 1990s folk-tronica in the best way possible, all saturations of bass woven around Orton’s distinctly wispy voice. Still, the more focused commitment to synths feels properly contemporary, as on songs like ‘Falling’ which dabbles in a kind of bewitching minimalism. ‘1973’ feels super retro, while ‘Snow’ and ‘Moon’ are truly celestial super tracks, complete with super crunchy bass. It’s an album that you can listen to lightly, but also one that rewards more sensuous attention; its percussion and electronic elements are richly textured, with interesting effects. Overall, this album reminds me of all the sunshine we had in May, and all that time I sat lying in Botanics among the daffodils while on my break, looking forward to everything ahead.
A late-comer to the table, released less than a month ago, nevertheless Swithering managed to shoot its way up towards the top of my list. There’s something about Roddy Hart’s voice, its earnest attention to emotional inflections, its clarity which always sharpens and shines in whatever genre Hart applies himself to. Swithering is a really polished album, rife with loss and memories, with love and regret and empathy. The band have definitely benefited from Paul Savage’s input on production (see his previous work with, for example, Admiral Fallow), as the sound here feels more cohesive than on their debut. You can also tell that they’re growing more confident with expressing more traditional and indeed vernacular roots while having a bit of rock’n’roll fun, wearing their influences gleefully on their sleeve (everything from U2 to Aztec Camera and The National). This album got me through the difficult essay writing weeks when I needed something powerful to cut through the fog on long late night city walks.
Ah, good old Frightened Rabbit. I always think of them at this time of year, mainly because it brings back memories of December 2010 when I had a ticket to see them in Glasgow when I was still at school. All day I was looking forward to it, when during the last period I was sitting in the library and it started snowing. My librarian proceeded to gleefully torment me with the knowledge that all the trains would be cancelled, a fact she confirmed by duly consulting every available travel website and showing that trains between Ayr and Glasgow were having problems owing to the weather. I was so gutted that evening, watching the snow falling and wishing I was at that Frightened Rabbit gig. My friends and I sung ‘Poke’ at every party, deliberately mashing the words.
For a Frabbit fan, this album sort of has it all. As critics keep saying, it definitely sounds more polished; but there’s certainly the same old twist of raw Scottish melancholy. ‘Get Out’ feels powerful and cathartic, while ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’ moves close to old favourite ‘Poke’ and deserves pride of place in the Frightened Rabbit sad ballad cabinet. While the lyrics trawl familiar themes – alcohol, depression, heartache, existential anguish and urban boredom/depravity – there’s a renewed musical energy here which leaves a residue of hope to even the most despairing songs. I find myself yearning for the effortless way in which Scott Hutcheson’s vocals do acerbically emphatic social commentary, soothing harmonies and lyrical witticisms. Few bands could pull off a bitter reflection on the death drive of a broken class system and turn it into a poignant love song, as on ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’. Yes it’s grey-hued, Brutalist, a little bit miserable, but all of these things make sense through Frabbit’s zealously lyrical dissection.
7) Cate Le Bon – Crab Day
If ever there was a better, spikier, weirder art-pop album! Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon isn’t scared of being a bit out there. She compares herself to a ‘dirty attic’ and feels like geometry; her heart’s in her liver, she wants to be someone’s tenpin bowl, love is a coat-hanger. It’s like she’s inhaled a bunch of surrealist poems and swallowed some Cubist art and then vomited it all out in glorious rainbows, complete with very tasteful thumping drums and keyboard trills. Apparently, the album’s title is a reference to a fictional ‘Crab Day’ conjured up from the imagination of Le Bon’s young niece. This childlike playfulness runs through the album and gives it its flying spirit. If it makes sense, you could say that the songs are geometric: all jagged guitars, syncopation, weird angles, tessellating lyrics. The percussion is fun in a kind of skittish, school-practice-room way, all zany, trembling marimbas and thrashing drums. The electric guitars are clean and Le Bon’s voice pulls off a combination of artful dodgery, aphoristic declarations and crooning, cat-like mews. ‘Love Is Not Love’ provides a slice of relief from the stomping revelry and provides a languid ballad with curious little spikes of guitar and subtle brass. Overall, a record to have fun and enjoy your summer with.
8) Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)
Woah, where to begin with reviewing a Crystal Castles album! I suppose the band had a lot to prove, having replaced iconic singer Alice Glass for a third party, Edith Francis. Nevertheless, Francis stepped up to the mark and it’s certainly possible to listen to this album and still appreciate it as authentically Crystal Castles. Not only are the band donating profits from record sales to Amnesty International, but they’re providing a much-needed blast of searing catharsis to shock us out of the apathetic slump that 2016 has brought upon much of us. Opening track ‘Femen’ develops its looping, rasping rhythms out of a haunting chorus of voices which dwindle and build like sound blowing back against the distant ceiling of a massive church. The heavy pulse of bloated synths is back on ‘Fleece’, and ‘Char’ shows off Francis’ vocals at their purest, reminiscent of the dreamy 80s vibes of disco-indie outfit Chromatics. ‘Enth’ makes you want to thrash your hair and limbs around wildly and fling glowstick fluid across the room. Final track ‘Their Kindness if Charade’ layers fragments of vocal samples over shimmering synths which reach a kind of clubland pulse over muted drumbeats, withdrawing again into the melancholy quietude of Francis’ stripped back rendering of impenetrable lyrics.
I picked this album because it’s such an ambitious piece of art in its musical range, yet manages to return always to its thematic focus on memory, dementia, heartache and lost connections. It’s got an orchestral expansiveness, Peel’s cut-glass voice, the twinkling music box, showers of synths and a dialogue between energetic pop songs and atmospherically experimental tracks like ‘Octavia’. Peel riffs constantly on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and as such there’s a visionary element to her songs which maps the inner space of the mind onto fictional landscapes and metropoles. It reminds me of walking along the Clyde at night with the wind howling in my ears, a sort of mad feeling in the city as it bristles against the death of autumn and the coming of winter, the lights shimmering across the river.
Rather shamefully, I hadn’t heard of Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail, until I opted to review his latest album, Future Echoes. In all honesty I picked the album because I liked the sound of the artist’s name; a customer at work once asked me if I was a pict. I’ve started telling the Mormons in the street that I’m a witch because I can’t be bothered being converted on my way to the shops. Anyway, Future Echoes. What an album! Johnny Lynch is a busy man; he runs Lost Map records which is based on the Isle of Eigg and houses an array of talent, including Randolph’s Leap, Kid Canaveral and Tuff Love. Still, he’s managed to find the time to put together an album which feels tight, exciting and something a little bit different.
It tackles time: history, futurity; things shifting, changing, preserving. It should be called pastoral psych-pop, because that is a generic label worthy of Pictish Trail’s particular brand of Scottish melancholy, based in a strong tradition of indie rock and inflected with ethereal dream pop vibes. Lynch has a distinct, sonorous voice which reaches some really heartfelt expressions amidst dramatic strings, pulsing synths and loops. There’s an honesty to the lyrics and a Twilight Sad atmosphere to many of the songs, but Future Echoes is also splashed with funk and disco. You could actually dance to it, especially on tracks like ‘Dead Connection’ and ‘After Life’. I thoroughly enjoyed dissecting this record for a review and the lesson I learned was to keep picking things I hadn’t heard of before because god knows there’s a lot of good stuff out there to discover.
I have to make another embarrassing musical confession and admit that this is the first Nick Cave album that I’ve really properly listened to all the way through. I once found some mp3s of his older stuff which my Mum’s friend had left on our computer, but I think I was too young at the time to appreciate that dark, resonant voice, the subtlety of Cave’s songs. This record has won me over. It’s rich and melancholic even in its sparsity. I’m detecting a trend this year with a move towards a sort of deep minimalism – think David Bowie’s Black Star and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – which nevertheless maintain sort of jazzy vibes even as the mood is enigmatic and slightly sinister.
This is a very serious album, not to be taken lightly. Cave lost his teenage son in a horrible accident last year, and I don’t think it’s cliché to say that grief seeps through every note, even though most of the lyrics were written before his son’s death. Nevertheless, Cave never loses control; it’s a sustained release of emotion which trickles its mournful truth across spacious and poignant tracks. He paints stark images with thick, vivid brushstrokes, which curl back on each other as the lister is multiply interpellated by the lyrics:
You’re an African doctor harvesting tear duct
You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now
You’re an old man sitting by the fire, you’re the mist rolling off the sea
You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?
Death here isn’t just personal, it’s cultural, global. ‘Anthrocene’ is a riff on the term ‘Anthropocene’ which more or less refers to the current geological age initiated by the human interference in the structure of the earth (basically triggered by the industrial revolution and the extraction of fossil fuels). It’s one of the most unsettling and beautiful songs about climate change I’ve ever heard. Like much of the album, it makes use of loops and dissonant synthesisers. On ‘Jesus Alone’, there’s the repeated drone that sounds like the hurt cry of a glitching, dying bird. ‘Anthrocene’ is spooky and hazy, imagining the dissolution of the earth from the position of dark forces, of animals and plants and the lost people who inhabit this broken earth. It tackles the sense of strangeness that relates to our coming to terms with ecological disaster; which, as Timothy Morton would argue, is a necessary stage of grief, a process of mourning: ‘When you turn so long and lovely, it’s hard to believe / That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene’. What sounds like an address to a woman, a beautiful dancer, probably refers to the turning of the earth, the passing of seasons which still exist, lingering, even as carbon emissions pollute the atmosphere. The song is structured around Cave’s measured vocal delivery and the sweetly sad, rising and falling harmonies. ‘Rings of Saturn’ kind of reminds me of R.E.M (‘E-Bow The Letter’) drenched in a black black oil.
I like music which breaks with conventional song structures and Skeleton Tree certainly does that. It’s mesmerising, atmospheric, strange. You have to listen to it many times.
12) Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
A far livelier offering, yes, but one no less struck with historical trauma. It deals with the ever-prescient issue of racial injustice, but also joyfully samples a vibrant array of black culture, including spoken-word poetry and retro R&B grooves. There’s a fantastic drum solo on ‘E.V.P’ which glides in among the chorus of voices. Hynes’ voice is divine throughout and there’s something so addictive about lots of his beats. It’s quite an eclectic album, ranging from instrumental to the jazzy ‘Love Ya’ to funk to the dreamy nostalgia of ‘Augustine’ and fat synths and male/female dialogue of ‘Best to You’. You could compare this album to something by Michael Jackson or other fresh offerings of contemporary R&B. My knowledge of the genre is so limited that I’m not going to attempt to make comparisons. Freetown Sound feels really unique, a bursting bag of colourful tricks and collaborators. It resonates deeper than most pop records on the charts these days. ‘Hadron Collider’ is a looping ballad which sucks you in with its pure vocals and shimmering piano. I first came across Dev Hynes in his incarnation as Lightspeed Champion and that kind of melancholy blend of humour and sadness is retained somewhat in Blood Orange’s project, only now the message is more cultural than purely personal. It’s an educative album as much as a fun one.
13) Conor Oberst – Ruminations
This album sort of came out the blue for me; I’m normally hyper-aware of any imminent Oberst recordings on the horizon, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear that not only could I get my hands on a ticket for a UK tour date but also that I could access some new material. Ruminations is old school Oberst mixed with a new, bittersweet maturity. Don’t be fooled by the harmonicas; while there is a political undertone to his lyrics (especially on ‘A Little Uncanny’), Oberst is here focused on introspection as opposed to outward-looking troubadour. The recordings feel a little bit strained and raw, but this is the kind of authentic frisson old-school Oberst fans crave. The sort of warbling attic recordings from the pre-I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning era. As the title implies, these songs are all extended thoughts which extend the personal to the political. Despite the minimalism, Oberst doesn’t hold back on the visceral lyrics. Where songs seem to paint a vision of isolation, of wandering confusion, there’s always something powerful to hint at possible connection: ‘Tomorrow is shining like a razor blade / And anything’s possible if you feel the same’. In ‘Tachycardia’, thoughts hit ‘like cinder blocks’.
The passing of time is a major theme of this album but there’s a sense of timelessness to the songs, as if they open up the compositional space of the wee hours where all the dark thoughts pour. It’s quite hard to listen to these songs in daylight; not because of some gothic spirit but because out of the cover of darkness these songs make the real world seem a little too obscene – too cluttered, crowded, vibrant, excessive. While the narrator of Oberst’s songs notices sweet little everyday details – ‘the checkout girl has a thing for me’ – all these miniature epiphanies are swallowed up in a general apathy: ‘I just wanna get drunk before noon’. Still, Oberst’s analysis of modern life bears an honesty which transcends pure nihilism. In ‘Gossamer Thin’, his warbling voice recounts a clandestine relationship where two unexpected partners come together. The narrator admits, ‘it’s no business of mine / They can love more than one at a time’, but this open-mindedness is qualified by an acknowledgment of the thinness of our emotions in an age when we constantly push ourselves to the edge, wearing our identities down as we spread them freely across the world and the internet: ‘you are who you are and you are someone else’. Whenever Oberst brushes up against philosophy, he never seems to make a didactic point but rather leans into the yearning for transcendence: ‘’Cause the mind and the brain aren’t quite the same / But they both want out of this place’.
14) Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
It’s been almost a decade since I last bought a copy of NME with Farris Rotter (aka Badwan) and the rest of The Horrors plastered extravagantly across the cover. I’ve always been slightly in love with his dark, seemingly careless yet somehow still tender voice, the beautiful, New Romantic hair, the hint of eyeliner. Cat’s Eyes are an alt-pop duo, combining Faris’ sultry croon with the ethereal soprano of Rachel Zeffira, an Italian-Canadian composer. Obvious comparisons include 1960s girl groups (The Ronettes), but there’s a haunting dissonance to Cat’s Eyes lulling, cinematic style. Tracks like ‘Be Careful Where You Park Your Car’ and ‘Drag’ epitomise this jangly sixties vibe, but then you’ve also got the celestial minimalism of ‘Everything Moves Towards the Sun’, a song which hinges on delicate xylophone arpeggios, Zeffira’s melodic voice and faint drumbeats. This album feels vintage, a little bit gold standard. I like to listen to it at nighttime, when the sky clears and if you get away from light pollution you can see the stars in the park. Treasure House gilds everything around me in a kind of grandeur. I bought this album after first hearing ‘Treasure House’ which sounds like opening a beautiful music box and melting into the taste of rich Belgian truffles, laced with a kind of muscle relaxant which makes reality slow down into a silken haze. It’s a real treat, a tender record that has its fizzy, upbeat moments as much as its mournfully reflective ones.
15) Palace – So Long Forever
I had the pleasure of catching Palace recently for a headline gig at King Tuts. While they’re a band who really come into their own onstage, all elasticated vocal harmonies and twinkly guitars, So Long Forever is a really solid debut album. It feels polished and atmospheric in the way that The Maccabees’ Marks to Prove It felt more expansive than its predecessors; here, however, Palace have skipped the cutesie twee-pop phase and delivered from the start a fresh kind of bluesy-indie. The record has a lot to offer. There’s the languidly jangly ‘Live Well’, the kind of song you want to listen to on the last day of summer, waiting for the sun to set with your school friends, nostalgia glowing on the distant horizon. Sweet and upbeat. Then there’s the looser ‘So Long Forever’ and the trembling urgency of ‘Break the Silence’. While Palace have an array of decent singles, they don’t crowd their album with them and instead give space to lots of new songs which melt together in a carefully detailed bluesy masterpiece. As you can say, I like the word bluesy, and keep using it because I feel it perfectly describes the loose, hazy feeling of the songs, the way they are tied to their lyrics and melodies like a boat on a complicated river. ‘Bitter’ is just perfect. It’s catchy in a strange way; you find yourself falling over the stretchy chorus, the bright guitar, the clean bass. Plus Leo Wyndham has such a lovely voice. Sometimes it sounds a bit like the lead singer of Little Comets; in fact when I first heard Palace I assumed they were also from Newcastle. There is less of the rush of a fast-paced London indie scene here; instead you have a refreshingly chilled collection of tracks which really take their time and pay attention to detail.
16) The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
Please don’t judge me for choosing the pink-hued bombast of the 1975’s sophomore effort for my list. It’s more than just a guilty pleasure; for me, it represents a glint of hope within mainstream pop music. It shows there’s room to do something interesting beyond constant rehashes of what we now derisively call EDM, the auto-tuned formula perfected in Radio 1-loving R&B. I won’t rant anymore about that (you can hear much more eloquent rants on the subject from Laura Marling on her excellent podcast, Reversal of the Muse). The 1975 showcase an array of influences, from Bowie to INXS, but they don’t just flaunt their inspirations with a citational ironic sneer; rather, they recuperate 80s music, its pomp and flamboyance, to comment on the narcissism of the selfie-era, to make self-referential pop that actually seems intelligent but still deliciously fun and sugar-coated enough to become a chart darling.
From the Pete Wentz-worthy album title to lengthily indulgent instrumental tracks, this is an album which unashamedly revels in itself, in the album as an elastic art form. It’s definitely a love/hate thing, and somehow I’m drawn to it. It’s simultaneously painfully honest and ridiculously silly. The way Matthew Healey sounds so vulnerable on ‘Somebody Else’ and ‘Nana’, the pop crooning of ‘She’s American’ and the melancholy ‘A Change of Heart’. Then there’s ‘Love Me’, the extravagantly OTT and catchy lead single completed with twangy INXS guitars, cheesy 80s synth flourishes and a playful vocal delivery. It’s the kind of album that makes your teeth hurt, but there’s plenty of wee gems in there to savour.
And everything I couldn’t include but still loved dearly:
Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass Biffy Clyro – Ellipsis Black Marble – It’s Immaterial Bloc Party – Hymns Bon Iver – 22 A Million C Duncan – The Midnight Sun Diiv – Is The Is Are DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall Emma Pollock – In Search of Harperfield Fair Mothers – Through Them Fingers Yours and Mine GoGo Penguin – Man Made Object Honeyblood – Babes Never Die Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues King Creosote – Astronaut Meets Appleman Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini Martha Ffion – Tripp (yes, it’s an EP and not an album but I’m gonna cheat with this one) Minor Victories – Minor Victories Modern Studies – Swell to Great Mogwai – Atomic Pinegrove – Cardinal Polica – United Crushers Randolph’s Leap – Cowardly Deeds Soft Hair – Soft Hair Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony Teenage Fanclub – Here TeenCanteen – Say It All With A Kiss The Avalanches – Wildflower The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect Warpaint – Heads Up Wild Nothing – Life of Pause
We arrive at the bus station. It’s four in the morning and god knows why people are still here. Where I’m from, people are in their beds at this hour; the old folk know the truth of properly impenetrable slumber, even mothers draw brief glimpses of sleepy solace amidst the screams of their babies. Chimneys may shudder, walls may fall, but people will sleep. No, the folk where I’m from don’t haunt train stations, unless they’re homeless and know the secret places where you can hide from the rain. Benches scratched with ink and tip-ex, territorial markings. Nowhere to buy spray cans. Nothing interesting to hang around for. Here, I look around and all the same places flash in the ugly strip lights: a Starbucks, a sandwich bar, a Marks & Spencers. Nothing open, except some stand selling donuts, which smell fucking lovely even though I hate donuts. It’s that hot promise of oozy sugar, mouth-melting jam and fluffy fatty dough. Chewy. I can taste it, just as the guitars kick in, clean as the stars which god knows in this city you can’t see.
It’s cold. It’s the beginning of August and I’m homesick like the kid stuck at space camp.
It’s dark as hell in my head, that little sleep on the plane still safe, hovering over my thoughts like a shroud. It’s not all that dark outside; traffic passes, the neon from bars still aglow. Signs reflect back in headlights. I blink, rub my eyes. I have this sense of something vast and black. I want to close my eyes, imagine this spreading, seeping oil spill, disseminating its viscosity out over every surface, every gloss or gleam of grease, the echoes of footsteps melting, the pavements dissolving to nothing. I dream of an oil that is precisely that: nothing. It is matter as nothing, it is fat and black and coats everything, inevitably, inexorably. The chorus builds. I can hear something pulsing, a faint chime that cuts through all the sirens; when you pay attention, the littlest things cut through. You just have to pay attention, I’m telling you.
No water, no sound. I’m following someone else’s footsteps. People are everywhere, bumping and jostling, bags clattering on the vinyl floor, the cold stone steps, the deplorable concrete. Wouldn’t the oil flood over all of this, covering even the star speckled whiteness of gum? There is a lull, there is a slow progression of chords. There is a sense that…no. The sleep will not come back. I fall into it; I’m on the bus now, it’s slow thumping rhythm echoing the song. People get on and off; it goes and stops. I don’t know this place, or that. The high-rises are imprints, no longer there. Innumerable blurrings of nameless shops, bars, boutiques. You wouldn’t recognise them. It is all glass, sharp-cut and brilliant. In it, I see the bus. I don’t see my face. I never see my face…
And yet there is a crushing. The smoothness compresses back upon itself, like someone scrunching an aluminium can. I dream of a Diet Coke, fresh from some fridge-freezer, the snap of its top, crack, clack; the way the fizz bubbles fast in your throat. Mmmm, aspartame. I am in a room that is someone else’s. So sweet, so lonely. When they are gone to the bathroom, I get up to look out the window, a foreign sheet wrapped round my shoulders. I see more of the glass buildings, endlessly reflecting. I cannot see the window, nor my face. I’m waiting to return. It’s like vertigo, all the glass and all the lights. I miss the darkness. Sometimes when I’m in a room like this, lying on the crooked bed with my head far away, I think I hear the meteor showers. They come back again, silvers and silvers of them, lilting and sprinkling like the softest, most intangible fireworks. I have this memory of November 5th, ten years ago maybe, spinning round and round on a roundabout in a park in the middle of nowhere, the sky shattering above me but even then I’m so indifferent, just whirling, singing something very random, the scattering mess of everything swirling in my head. And I could fly off to the soft dark ground and let the darkness fall over me and god I wouldn’t mind, wouldn’t mind one bit, just the last gasp of a drowned sailor and that promise of a ————————-
The organising team for Dundrennan’s Wickerman Festival announced on the 18th November 2016 that they will no longer be continuing the festival. It ran for fourteen years and held its last event in July 2015 (2016’s festival was cancelled). It’s difficult to even know where to start with this one; the festival has such a big place in my heart and I’ll never forget all the weird and wonderful memories I made there. I first attended Wickerman when I was in primary seven. Now I’m 23 and trawling through old photographs of my friends and I dressed as hippies and standing around colourful tents and prayer flags and feeling very sappy about life, the way good things always have to end.
There’s something special about Wickerman, a unique sort of magic you don’t quite get at the bigger commercial festivals. Yes, it’s a cliche to say that now, especially as ‘non-commercial’ and ‘family-friendly’ are terms flung around constantly by startup festivals cashing in on the middle-class nostalgia for folk music and rural picnics, homemade gin and artisan cheese. Wickerman came before all that. It started as a passion project with a commitment to putting on a variety of musical genres and activities ranging from go-karting to circus skills to drum workshops. It never sacrificed its particular brand of pagan carnival for the enticement of getting in bigger bands and hiking up ticket prices. Sure, there was a fairground, but it hardly took up half the arena, and there was something mildly thrilling about seeing all those fluorescent colours flash in the purplish midsummer dusk, alien ships landing tacky mid-noughties style merry-go-rounds and carousels in the middle of ancient farmland.
I’ve been to Wickerman about eleven times. I can’t quite believe I’ll never go again; never get to sit in the car, heart thumping with excitement as we pull up the hill and into the field, directed by cheerful stewards with flowers painted on their faces and wellies splashed with mud. That silent, uncanny thrill when you look up and see the Wickerman itself: giant effigy woven of wicker and mysterious history, standing tall at the top of a mound. We always arrived on Thursday morning, and there was never that mad dash or endless queue or epic quest to drag your stuff across field after field to get set up. Wickerman was big enough to showcase a load of acts across an array of tents, but small enough that you always felt safe, you could always (more or less) stumble through the dark, tripping over guy ropes, to find your way back to the tent.
I’ve made friends for life at Wickerman; I’ve seen bands that I’ve stuck with ever since I first saw them play in the rain; I’ve discovered the wonders of power drinking for warmth; the value of dry shampoo; the importance of custard creams and caffeine pills; the absolute magic of seeing a giant wicker effigy go up in flames while fireworks sparkle around it, a strange sensation rising in my blood as if we truly were channelling the ancient spirits that lay still in the earth and now leap to the sky in torrents of fire.
I think the best way to properly recount all my favourite festival memories is with a list, since there’s so many to go through! These are mostly my own highlights but if anyone has any they’d like to share it would be lovely if you left a comment. I’m hoping this will be a wee bit cathartic, as I’m currently going through a sort of what-will-I-do-with-my-summers-now crisis, as well as the problem of no other festival quite living up to my experiences at Wickerman, and what’s more where else can I properly embrace my witchy identity?
These memories are in absolutely no order and most likely I will have forgotten the actual year in which they occurred, but anyway, hope you enjoy!
GLOWSTICKS – Especially when we were kids, glowsticks were absolutely essential. We’d stockpile them from trips to Poundland and crack them open as soon as the first shadows of darkness fell over the sky, waiting for the strange gooey liquid to start glowing like plutonium. Sometimes we’d bite the plastic tubes to make the stuff come out and spray them all over each other, waking up with luminous neon bleeding all over our skin. Sometimes a stranger would gift you with a bracelet and it felt truly celestial, running around all night with that circle of light sliding up and down your wrist.
MEETING THE SOUTERS – I was maybe eleven years old and my brother eight. We were sitting in the tent waiting for the rain to stop while my Mum hunched over the camping stove, stirring a pot of pasta, when the Souter family arrived at our tent. “Are you Debs?” they asked my Mum, who promptly answered in the affirmative. A mutual friend, Lynn, had generously brought our two wee families together and ever since then we’ve been a bit like cousins to each other, going to the festival year after year (in various combinations, with various extra friends, boy/girlfriends and family members tagging along). The first meeting became a bit of a mythological encounter. I remember sharing some fizzy laces and talking about school and maybe playing football on the grass before everyone came the next day to pitch their tents. Anyway, if it wasn’t for Wickerman, we wouldn’t have met, so I’m very grateful.
MAKESHIFT CEILIDHS – If eight years of Scottish P.E lessons doesn’t drill the rules of ceilidh dancing into you, I don’t know what will (especially as both my P.E teachers across my six years of secondary school were positively militant in their approach to dance demonstration). Mind you, I don’t think my muscle memory stood the test of time. I remember we started some very ad hoc makeshift ceilidhs in the Acoustic Village at one in the morning, jostling into one another and spinning round and round till we fell over, got covered in mud and decided to do it again. Earl Grey & the Loose Leaves and the Trongate Rum Riots were firm ceilidh(ish) favourites.
WEIRD STORYTELLING/SPOKEN WORD – When it rains in the middle of the day, often you end up in the spoken word/poetry tent. There’ll be some guy walking around with a drum, incanting a bizarre story about a bear, or maybe someone giving a both tenderly beautiful and utterly absurd ode to his body fat. Either way, as soon as you’re in, often the warm cosy atmosphere stops you from leaving and it’s nice to just chill.
EMBARRASSING BODIES – I’m not sure what the tv show hoped to find in a field of drunken Scots but they must’ve picked up a few choice samples for broadcast. One of my pals nearly got on telly by showing them his rather delicately-located skin tag, but because he was underage at the time, they had to phone his mum first to check. Bet she appreciated that call!
OUTDOOR CINEMA – Watching the original Wickerman film being projected onto a giant dome in the middle of a field in Dumfries & Galloway is just dreamy. Also very spooky. Watching naked witches dancing round gravestones – well it was enough to curdle my childish blood but it felt like something genuinely horrific, an actual evil that made me very curious…
THE TAMPON APPLICATOR – A weird one this. When we were much younger, we used to jump the fence and play up in the woods up by the quiet campsite. One time, we found what I now know to be a tampon applicator, though back then we were convinced it was a needle. Cue various kinds of recounted horror stories (as the second eldest, with a stupidly wild imagination, I was probably not the best influence). Eventually, one of the adults in our party thought it was about time the needle was checked out, and she informed us with much gusto that it was in fact a tampon applicator and not a syringe. Our wee hearts sunk with disappointment. I don’t know why we liked the idea of junkies hanging around in the woods so much; maybe we’d watched too many Skins episodes. Still, the thought of actual tampon applicators still gives me the creeps; I can’t shake the association with dirty injections, with worms crawling over a plastic shell still resonant with the mysterious vapours of its narcotic contents.
THE TIME LYNN BURST THE WATER PIPE – This was one of the first, if not the first, festivals we attended together as a big group. We were camping near the wall to keep away from the river midges and to shelter from the wind. On the first night, we decided it was fine weather for a bbq, and we’d all brought disposable ones. Lynn got hers lit first and all was going swimmingly as we began fishing out the packs of veggie sausages when all of a sudden a thin spout of water burst extravagantly from the ground, scattering the bbq aside and continuing to spray upwards like a sort of avant-garde fountain. It took us a good five minutes to realise that the bbq had burnt through a water pipe which (Lynn had neglected to notice) lay directly under where she placed the bbq like an alluring blue snake…Cue various comic attempts to tape up the hole while Lynn ran around manically looking for a steward to help.
TOO KEEN – That time my maw made us turn up for Roddy Hart’s acoustic village gig about two hours early so she could get a view from the front, only for it to be announced last minute that he wasn’t gonna play due to a sore throat. Och well, we’ve seen him plenty of times since to make up for it!
SIBLING PROTECTION – That time my pal Jack, aged thirteen at the time, squared up to this creepy stocky middle-aged guy who kept trying to convince Jack’s sister to go on his shoulders.
THE MARGARET THATCHER/TEXAS ENCOUNTER – The year that Texas played, my Mum dragged me along to see them. I stood at the top of the hill and ended up getting stuck in an endless conversation with a guy from Dumfries about Margaret Thatcher. It was quite interesting at first and good to let off some political steam, but pretty soon I realised he was more or less gurning crazily on Mandy and talking a load of pish. Still, it added some flavour to the Texas set.
THURSDAY NIGHT PIMMS – A proper tradition. Get your tents all set up, help each other unload the cars, meet the stragglers off their buses. Eat some crisps, a cereal bar (you’re gonna need your energy). Then crack out the Pimms. We graduated eventually to buying proper plastic wine glasses and loading them with actual strawberries and lemon slices. If I was pouring, the ratio to Pimms and lemonade weighed rather heavily on the former. Afterwards, we’d explore the main arena and probably go up to see the Wickerman itself at dusk, the purplish light falling on the pines and casting the perfect feeling of eeriness over the site. Then maybe we’d get a chippy on the way back to the tent, drink more Pimms and talk until it got too cold.
BROKEN CAMPING CHAIRS – Let’s face it, there’s always a few. I mean, a grown man really shouldn’t try and perch himself on a three-legged stool. Have you seen someone fly backwards on a camping chair, straight into their own tent? It’s rather amusing.
THE BUILDUP – We’d meet at a lay-by near Dalmellington where there was a river and picnic benches and we’d rub our sleepy eyes, drink from flasks of coffee and set out on the road for the Co-op in Castle Douglas. It was the last point of call in the real world before entering the shimmering membrane of the festival site.
LOUISE GETTING KICKED BY A MAD BREAKDANCER – My friend Louise and I were in the dance tents one year and it was all going well until I heard her cry out in wincing pain. Some dude getting a bit overzealous with his crazy dancing had accidentally side-kicked her right behind the knee. Poor Louise went to calm down outside while the entire entourage of this guy’s mates came to apologise to my group, the dancer in question sleeking back into the shadows. It left a bruise as dark as mouldy fruit.
THE SHISHA BAR – There was a guy with dreads who constantly got up and played Pendulum’s ‘Tarantula’ on the mini stage, so much so that the song was stuck in my heads for weeks afterwards. There were shisha pipes which you could rent cheaply and enough pretty tea flavours to cure any hangover. There was also Scrabble, for when you really needed an intellectual lift.
STARTING A CROWD CHANT – I’ll probably never get to say this again but once upon a time I started an actual crowd chant. The whole weekend, we were mocking the fact that The Feeling were headlining (I think on the Saturday as well!) and I encouraged my pals to start chanting ‘Steamin for the Feelin’ when they came on. I don’t remember much (alcohol was involved, yes), but for about five minutes half the crowd were chanting Steamin for the Feelin and yes it was sort of bizarre and wonderful and I was thoroughly, pleasantly ashamed of myself. They weren’t even that bad in the end, and played a nice wee Blur cover which sounded very good in a drunken messy sort of way.
THE FUDGE STALL – Every year, especially when we were younger, we’d visit this poor man who made Galloway fudge and ask to try every free sample before buying a paltry wedge of straight-up fudge worth maybe a £1, our teeth already dissolving under the taste of rum and raisin, hazelnut nougat and caramel. W’d keep little paper bags of the stuff with us all day and dole it out carefully to our closest friends when the blood sugar hit low after hours of dancing.
FALLING FLAT ON MY FACE – One time I really did drink probably a little too much gin and I was on my pal William’s shoulders and we were going to be late for a band (can’t remember who, maybe it was Twin Atlantic?!) so he started running in crazy zig zags down the hill and I was totally fine, held on tight, until he stopped at the edge of the crowd and I went flying over his head to land flat in the mud. I don’t think anyone noticed…
THE PROCLAIMERS – I’m pretty sure they played at least twice. The first time, I was very young, maybe twelve, and high on two cans of Irn Bru, having a rare moment of pure patriotism next to my very ginger very Scottish friend Holly. The second, my brother and Mum got to go backstage to meet them, while I was probably too busy lolling around the reggae tent. Which brings me to…
THE REGGAE TENT – Where else do you go on a Thursday night? You were sorely missed in 2015 and will be sorely missed forever…The sweet smell of a certain magic psychotropic plant, of incense; the trippy bass which vibrated right in your chest, all the people dancing languidly and the warm weightless feeling of being inside. One year I bumped into two boys from school in there, which was weird. Another year, I watched my pal make very awful and awkward attempts (I think they actually succeeded in the end?!) to chat up girls. You could go in there in the afternoons and lie down and smooth out a hangover, no problem. The damp grass just smells so nice, even with all the sweat and bodies, there’s something comforting about light glowing through tarpaulin, the earth right beneath your skin, a heavy bass shaking right through you.
HOME VIDEOS – There’s one of me sticking my finger into a tub of coffee granules and licking them off, and proceeding to do so despite constant yowls of protest. I think I was quite fleein’ indeed after that. There’s another of two friends doing an excellent impression of one of our old teachers which teeters towards complete Beckettian absurdism. Go trawl YouTube for them, I dare you.
OFFICIAL VIDEOS – Every year, the festival organisers assemble a video with footage taken during the weekend. When it came out, you’d always keep an eye out to see if you were in it. Somehow, my friends and I ended up in the 2015 one, and also they used a Little Comets song in the soundtrack, which I’m still pleased about.
LOSING YOUR FRIENDAT NIGHT – Splitting into search groups, talking to the police and forming an elaborate investigative operation…only to find they had stumbled back to the tent to pass out in their clothes, the zip of the porch still half open.
AD HOC GUITAR PLAYING – Yes, there are only so many times you can play ‘Wonderwall’ without driving everyone in your vicinity to thoughts of murder…Still, it’s fun to push it. Again a cliche but nothing beats a wee singalong outside with a group of friends (it helps when you can download Ultimate Guitar for your phone and extent the repertoire beyond Oasis).
PLANNING THE MUSIC – In the run up to the festival, I’d always make an effort to research some of the bands on the lineup. It’s always exciting getting to see bands live, especially when you’re not quite sure what to expect. It would be impossible to list all the great bands I’ve discovered/gone to see over the years at Wickerman, but here’s a few: Frightened Rabbit, The Noisettes, There Will Be Fireworks, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Martha Ffion, C Duncan, Sonic Boom Six, Alabama 3, The Xcerts, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Model Aeroplanes, Little Comets, The Futureheads, The Dykeenies, Fenech Soler, Fridge Magnets, Amphetameenies, Kobi Onyame, 808 State, Utah Saints, Unicorn Kid, Rachel Sermanni, Emma’s Imagination, Fatherson, Admiral Fallow, Withered Hand, Hector Bizerk.
HEADLINERS – Ranging from the Buzzcocks to Arthur Brown to Gary Numan to Echo and the Bunnymen, The Human League, The Charlatans, Scissor Sisters, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Dizzee Rascal, Example & DJ Wire, the one thing you could count on was that you could never predict who would be next year’s headliner, and that probably you’d enjoy it regardless of who the hell it actually was (providing you had enough glowsticks, caffeine pills & tequila).
GOLDIE LOOKIN’ TRAIN – I’d arranged to meet my Mum to watch them on the main stage but my pal Courtney and I got a bit merry and completely forgot, so my Mum had to watch their entire set alone. I’m sure she really appreciated that sensational track, ‘Your Mother’s Got a Penis’. Don’t think she’s forgiven me yet.
SURPRISE BANDS – Discovering bands who were announced last minute, or stepped in to fill an empty slot. I refuse to be ashamed about my Twin Atlantic excitement, but maybe all that jumping around was a bad idea as early as six in the evening.
HAIR WASHING – Specifically, the lack of for me. Letting your hair billow out, just a bit greasy and free. For my male friends, hair washing meant standing underneath the drinking tap or the giant ‘Peeing Cow’ which spouted river water out of its tail, then shaking your head like a dog and spraying everything in your vicinity with water.
THE WICKER FORUM – Nothing like deconstructing portaloo conditions and the effectiveness of security and stage placement with strangers online as a way of quelling your post-festival blues.
WHEN AMY WINEHOUSE DIED – We’d literally just been over at the Summerisle Stage listening to Emma’s Imagination do a lovely cover of ‘You Know I’m No Good’ just as the sun was finally coming out in a shower of faint rainbows. We were back at the tent having some dinner and my pal William checks his phone and says, Amy Winehouse is Dead. It was one of those flashbulb moments.
ELABORATE DRINKING GAMES – Often played in Carol’s big tent when it started to rain. We came up with lots of creative rules, and it did the trick.
VENDORS – Selling everything from cheap Nag Champa incense to pretty silver rings, prayer flags, tarot cards, deliriously tacky 90s rave wear, goth trousers, dubious legal highs, healing crystals, handmade felt bumblebee brooches, sew-on band patches, circus paraphernalia and all the body glitter you could ever need (my wee brother once being scared to death by a lovely couple of Rastafarian men who were offering us pots of body glitter – Joe was convinced it was drugs bless him…Wait, can you snort glitter?).
MAKING FRIENDS WITH STRANGERS – Including strangers who want to sexy dance with your underage pal (and his mother) at two in the afternoon. Aye, go for it love, but please, put some knickers on under those short shorts.
THE DODGEMS – Getting whiplash off aggressive six year olds isn’t generally how I’d like to spend my Friday nights, but somehow it was always fun.
REUNIONS – There were certain people I’d only really see once a year, at the festival. That gave a bit of magic to our friendship; it felt almost religious, that sense of returning for a yearly carnival. Having the time to just walk around and chat and soak up the atmosphere and feel super relaxed and forget that you have a dissertation due or whatever. I’m going to miss that sense of structure to the year, the promise of freedom offered by a single weekend in July. I’ll have to start properly celebrating the summer solstice or something.
GETTING TOO DRUNK AND FALLING ASLEEP AT FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON – Enough said. I’d have to crack out the ProPlus after that.
FAMILY FRIENDLY – You’re constantly surrounded by kids having fun at the festival, and never in a way that seems dangerous or intrusive/annoying. It merely adds to that sort of magic freeing atmosphere. Once, a ten-year-old ginger kid who looked a bit like Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother kept tormenting us and tried to steal our tent pegs, but the wafting smell of fag smoke coming from our wee site kept his ~unadulterated youthful self~ away.
PLAYING STEAMING RED ROVER UNTIL WE ALL FELL OVER – Into a stranger’s tent…
PLAYING TENNIS WITH SAUCEPANS AND APPLES – You smashed it!
STOPPING AT THE CAFE ON THE WAY HOME – My Mum used to always pull into a wee cafe in a nearby village, where you could sit at outside by a gently trickling river under parasols and order a proper lunch (sandwiches with salad and fresh bread!), a pint of water and use a very nice clean toilet. It was part of the ritual of slowly readjusting to society.
NOT WANTING TO READJUST – When I was younger I used to hate having to readjust to social norms. What do you mean I have to have a bath everyday again? 😦 I would hang around town wearing my inappropriate festival clothes for as long as possible until the whole of Maybole genuinely just thought I was a witch.
DANCE TENTS – Enjoying the whole sweaty pulsing maddening sea of bodies thing until you’re forty minutes in, sobering up and realising everyone is over forty, on pills and reliving their glory (rave) days and suddenly you feel like an intruder and have to leave, maybe to hang around the oxygen bar and feel like even more of a twat.
GETTING (ACCIDENTALLY) HOT BOXED AGED ELEVEN – There used to be these really cool Eden tents which I believe were the origin of the actual Eden Festival. They were full of mad tall zanily-coloured mushrooms, sandpits, palm trees and pulsing trippy psytrance. Once, I sat in there a bit too long letting the bass flood through me, sucking in whatever that bittersweet smell was, and when we went back outside I looked around and promptly turned to my Mum: “Gosh, the sun’s bright tonight isn’t it!” It was midnight, and I was looking at a hanging lantern.
TEQUILA MAGIC – Running down hills in pursuit of the mainstage summons of Utah Saints, red hair flowing freely and the drunken wind in my ears, neds somewhere in the distance shouting – “LOOK, IT’S FLORENCE! ! ! !”
HEATWAVE – That freak streak of nature when summer 2014 was so hot at the festival that we had to dip our heads in washing up bowls full of cold water and actually apply suncream every five minutes because there was no shelter from the heat except in the Pimm’s bar and everyone was just mad with it (the sun, that is).
ROSIE LOCKING HER MAW’S KEYS IN THE BOOT – It took a while for the AA to arrive, but we had fun sitting in an empty field eating dry Weetos and playing guitar till then.
MOMENTS OF BEING – I remember last year’s Wickerman I was walking up to the caravan field on the Thursday evening to meet my school friend Connor who was staying in his auntie’s caravan for the weekend. I was excited to see him, it being so long since we’d caught up. The sun was just setting in the distance, a big juicy orange orb spreading its light over the pines and the hillsides speckled with sheep. I could smell the trees in the air and the vague cool coming of nightfall. I don’t think I’ve felt so serene ever since. Connor’s mum ploughed me with several glasses of Prosecco and his whole family were there, steaming and brilliant and buzzing with good craic. We caught up on small town gossip and got very drunk and it was a wonderful and very unique moment (seconded only by the time Connor took me to a Hogmanay party and folk were playing a game throwing tatties at each other to see who could catch them in their mouth?).
MAKING FRIENDSHIP BRACELETS AND TALKING POLITICS FOR HOURS – When else in life do you have the time / inclination to indulge in such activities, simultaneously?
FLOWER GARLANDS – Once, I thought you could only wear them at festivals, but then I gave up caring. Embrace the Pre-Raphaelite vibes!
THAT YEAR YOU FINALLY GET YOUR OVER-18s WRISTBAND – And then promptly realise that the beer tent is like, the worst place to hangout. Plus, beer drinking from cups with bad chart music is lame. Still, the novelty was cool for a while.
WHEN THE MIST COMES DOWN – At quarter to midnight and a bagpipe drone seeps eerily into every particle of air, filling the surrounding valleys and hillsides with its resonant, primordial echoes. A strange glow appears in the distance and fire dancers sweep their maddening patterns round a giant effigy, which already is starting to burn as flames lick hungrily up its legs and stomach and arms, while in the background the neds are chanting BURN THE BASTARD and you’re dying for a falafel and a piss but still none of that kills the original magic.
MY 2003 WICKERMAN HOODIE – It has the smiley rave face, Northern Soul and Ska symbols on it and I still wear it to bed, and fancy that buried somewhere deep in the material is the smell of stale beer, incense, smoke, cut grass and sparkling midnight dreams.
THAT FEELING ON SUNDAY MORNING – Sometimes, when the majority of hungover tent packing is complete, I like to take a lonesome wander over the main arena, where already the Wickerpickers are busy clearing up the weekend rubble, where stall vendors are packing away their goods and folding away tables. There’s that peaceful sense of a good weekend done, of things slipping away and back to normality. The field will be green again and the cows will return. It’s sad but also calming; it brings a nice sort of closure to the festival. Sometimes, picking through the trash left behind by other people, you’d find whole crates of Tennents or packs of cigarettes, a harmonica, unopened bags of crisps, ripe for the taking. Once, a whole teepee. This process is obviously more fun when the weather isn’t awful, which invariably it is – just when you need the wind to let up so you can unpeg your tent.
Wickerman, you were so bloody beautiful. You’ve given me a lot of fun experiences which I’ll never forget, even though most of them were thoroughly soaked in gin. There was something so special about those three days which were spent utterly in the present, in the company of friends and good music and lots of equally crazy and lovely people. It’s not just the breathtaking landscape or the amazing people or the sweet sweet music – you’ve got some mysterious brilliance that I can’t quite pin down. I’ve got a drawer full of wristbands and old programmes at home and even though the fabric is wearing away, my sense of all that mad atmosphere and the enchanting farmland and the fresh Galloway air won’t! I hope one day another festival will come close to what you were, but I don’t think it ever will. Keep the faith! ❤
Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty
The recent crowning of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel prize for literature exemplifies our cultural obsession with authenticity. Sure, there are many other reasons for awarding Dylan the prize: the sheer volume of material he’s produced over several decades; his stature as an icon for the sensitive singer-songwriter; the influence he’s had on a whole variety of other musicians, writers, poets (hell, Joyce Carol Oates even dedicated a short story to him, and that was back in 1966). What’s striking about Dylan though is that he captures a certain lonesome troubadour aesthetic, taking the oral folk tradition of storytelling and the Beat generation aesthetics of immediacy, emotional expression and sensory impressions, and applying them to the sphere of popular music. In an age of auto-tuning, the ironic Cyborgism of Lady Gaga, the sheen of Kardashian perfectionism and the rise of the electronic sample, Dylan is held up as a figure of raw humanism, a celebration of flaws, a messiah for authenticity: its historical legacy, the possibility of its imminent return – the road myth stretching out into a kind of flame-red 1960s sunset, drenched in the nostalgia of a generation sick of techno and Twitter. I’m not so interested in whether Dylan should or shouldn’t have won the award; I’m more interested in what it says about our culture – namely, the nostalgia for the Real, the Authentic.
In an age of reality tv, true crime novels, of voguish memoirs and the confessional impulse of social media, it’s no wonder we keep craving the apparent honesty and pastoral romance conjured by a wild-haired young man standing lonesome in the canyons and warbling some wistful ballad documenting a troubled exploration of the soul, the wasted conditions of modern life. Yet while Dylan triumphs in the popular imagination, what are contemporary artists doing to subvert the system? In an age of hyperreality, hyper-pornography, liquid modernity, the Internet of Things, postpostmodernity – whatever you wanna call it – what can the pop singer do to achieve genuine controversy? Do you have to pull a Miley Cyrus and gyrate against a giant foam finger whilst performing a duet with a man dressed like an oversized humbug? Is irony and ludic poststructuralist riddling the only solution to capitalist existence, or have we gone beyond into something more? Where does the future lie for subversive performance art and indeed music?
Metamodernism, a term crystallised in Luke Turner’s 2011 manifesto, is a term which attempts to solve the problem of what comes next, what follows the snazzy, wisecrack playfulness of postmodernism. Instead of suggesting a temporal leap from postmodernism into something else, metamodernism argues for the notion of an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, embodying at once the ‘sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect’ of modernism’ with the lessons of postmodernism, its ontological questionings, its artistic techniques of ‘deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives’ (Turner 2015). This wavering between irony and sincerity, I argue, aptly characterises the music and performance of Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer). Misty is significant because of his trajectory from earnest, melancholic folk singer in the mould of Nick Drake/drummer in a band that made earnest, pastoral chamber pop, to a kind of bombastic, Hollywood shaman persona who mixes Neil Young with magic mushrooms and an ever-present iPhone. Much has been said on the likes of James Franco and Shia LaBeouf as metamodern performance artists. Franco’s film The Interview (2014) refuses to provide viewers with a fiction filter and leaves us despairingly perplexed as to its real-life veracity. As Seth Abramson puts it, ‘[d]oes The Interview “sincerely” intend to romanticise the murder of a real-world political leader, or is it “ironically” depicting an imaginary scenario in which that murder occurs? The viewer, of whatever nationality or political affiliation, is left to fend for themselves’. LaBeouf’s whole existence seems to consist predominantly in deliberately stirring controversy through performance art, including turning up to the premier of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag over his head, proclaiming the words ‘I am not famous anymore’. Is it a cheap ironic trick, or a genuine stab at the fickleness of celebrity culture? The reticence and lack of context provided for such art leaves the answers – and often the questions – up to the viewer. It’s not quite Brechtian estrangement, but it certainly has enough of that surrealist, absurdist quality to leave us reflecting critically on our established aesthetic definitions of what constitutes good taste, meaning, or indeed art altogether. While Franco and LaBeouf have been suitably lavished over in metamodern critique, I think it’s time Father John Misty had a spin under the hot lights.
For starters, naming. As soon as an artist adopts a moniker, they fall victim to an endless cycle of questioning which regurgitates the tired litany of phrases: ‘true self’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’. Band names which suggest authentic expression: the Manic Street Preachers (literally, they are people of the street, preaching a raw, unadulterated, ‘manic’ message). Richey Edwards famously took a razor blade and carved ‘4 REAL’ on his arm after NME interviewer Steve Lamacq playfully questioned the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers’ aggressively critical punk aesthetic. The notion of the REAL, then, is so pressing that it must be etched into one’s skin to prove one’s credentials. While David Bowie was widely celebrated for his queering of identity and invention of a whole host of alter-egos, Lana Del Rey is constantly lambasted in the media for being fake, inauthentic, a sham. Videos of songs from her Lizzy Grant days are dug up and splayed out online like some kind of police file. Look: this is the REAL Lana Del Rey! Even her lips are fake now! Perhaps the difference in response is because with Bowie, the fantasy quality was obvious – Ziggy Stardust was a character leapt out of some wonderful, coke-fuelled 1970s disco super-dream – whereas with Lana and Father John Misty, the line between ‘character’ and ‘true person’ is blurred. Tillman has denied (quite vehemently) that Father John Misty is simply a fictional creation, or merely an extension of personality; he sees it as a conveniently funny name which does the trick of ornamenting the desired psychedelic vibes of his music, it’s simply ‘a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt’.
For Misty, ‘most people’s idea of real authenticity is pork pies and vests and banjoes and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone uses their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity’. This points to the cultural relativism of authenticity. In our current era, it is manifested in the torn-shirt, heart-felt indie band epitomised perhaps most vividly by the Libertines, with the Pete’n’Carl rock’n’roll shambles of a double act coupled with poetic lyricism and the ‘authentic’ (but indelibly nostalgic) imagery of Cool Britannia. Once, it was curly-haired Dylan, or sickly, sensitive, visionary Romantic poet, John Keats. That Misty plays with so many cultural signifiers indicates his awareness of this relativism and indeed deliberately disrupts our understanding of authenticity itself. It’s embodied in his very music, which combines lyrics about redemptive love, self-loathing and cynical society with honey-sweet chamber pop. What does it mean to have this slightly ridiculous, towering, internet-trolling hipster figure sing genuinely sensitive ballads about romance and the tragically fucked-up consequences of a drop-out lifestyle, woven alongside songs about digging up graves and having sex in the Hollywood cemetery, ‘with Adderall and weed in my veins’? One thing’s for certain: authenticity is not something that’s fixed, and we might think about the cultural politics of who gets to decide what’s considered authentic…
With Lana Del Rey, the Ghetto Lolita persona isn’t just a persona, but in a similar vein to Tillman’s FJM, constitutes a whole arrangement of cultural codes mixed specifically with the enticement of death and sex appeal. Del Rey’s fashion alters in her videos, from 1960s baby doll to biker bad girl, trailer trash harlot, president’s wife and the melancholic hip hop angel on ‘High by the Beach’. Questioning her authenticity seems to miss the point, drawing us into a recursive and probably reductive debate about identity politics. What matters is how she adopts these different styles and weaves them through her performance; how using elements of trap, hip hop and soul within her lush landscapes of electric guitars and slowly melodic, ethereal vocals, prompts the listener’s awareness of a bewildering but certainly exhilarating mesh of symbolic values which cut across race, class, sexuality and gender, drawing us back to that central ideological problematic: the American Dream. As Karen van den Berg (2013) puts it, in a discussion of Del Rey’s video for ‘Ride’, ‘on the one hand Del Rey’s visual aesthetics celebrate the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.
Well, if LDR is busy swathing us in the hypnotically dangerous luxuries of our consumerist superficiality, Father John Misty playfully deconstructs the Dylanesque vision of the Authentic American Troubadour. Boasting a slick of unkempt hair and overgrown beard, clad in oversized blazers and psychedelic shirts unbuttoned to the chest, Misty embodies a certain skewed archetype: the balladeering minstrel meets the ironic fashion codes of the hipster. Part shaman, mystic and lumberjack, with a name that belongs on the church fronts of some dazzling circus marquee of hell, Misty preaches lyrics which veer between the madly sarcastic, derisive and painfully sincere. Significantly, he had a cameo appearance in Del Rey’s video for ‘Freak’, playing a psychedelic, acid-gobbling 1960s mystic. He sings about love, married life, American culture, Hollywood glamour, sexual encounters and dodgy drug trips. His lyrics are a heteroglot mix of discourses, from religion to sentimental love songs to internet/text chat: ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ describes how a chance encounter in a ‘parking lot’ ends up in a ragged and passionate love affair and the dream of sharing a ‘plantation house’ because it’s ‘cheaper in the South’. Here, the classic Beat dream of heading south or west is repackaged as the ironically doomed trajectory of a metamodern love affair, where the singer’s genuine passion and emotion – ‘don’t let me die in a hospital’ – concludes with a terse ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years’ which seems to belong more in some experimental flash fiction piece than it does in a pop song. While Jeff Buckley reworked the troubadour ethic embodied by his folk-singing father, Tim Buckley, by combining its heartfelt honesty with the raw, Iron Maiden-style grating expression of the electric guitar and the howling vocal, Misty often dabbles in the meta, endlessly reminding us that we are listening to a FJM record, with all the symbolic contextual discourse that entails. On ‘Bored in the USA’, he weaves in a laugh track, which twists what could be a Dylanesque ballad on the dystopian state of our present society into a cynical self-reflection on the potential meaningless of art that strives to counter or represent this meaninglessness in the rest of culture.
Which brings us to the question: how successful can pop cultural art be when it is so far engrained in the corporate machine? Frankfurt school philosopher Theodore Adorno was fairly sceptical of its potential. He argued that
attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial […].
Thus as soon as an artist starts singing critically about the Iraq war, the current political system and so on, they risk turning these elements into commodities, and in the process cheapening not only the impact of their critique but also risk making light of the events themselves. Mathijs Peters uses the example of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) album to illustrate how pop-cultural protest gets transformed into simply another commodity. Green Day’s album, where the very title was a stab at pop culture (American Idiot/American Idol), presented a damning attack on the Bush administration and the wasted life of the junk-filled suburbs in the wake of late capitalism. Released on a Warner Bros. music label, it shot to great success, collecting a bunch of Grammy awards along the way. In the process, Peters (2015: 1348) argues, the band ‘became part of the same sensationalist establishment they tried to critique […] of the consumption culture and the corporal establishment that they explicitly distanced themselves from in the lyrics of American Idiot’. Indeed, I remember, as an avid young fan at the time, being able to buy Green Day merchandise in Claire’s Accessories (and on Ayr High Street, nonetheless). Obviously this is a perennial problem for punk in general and Green Day themselves addressed the alienating experience of being considered ‘sell-outs’ much earlier in their career; specifically, on ’86’ – a song from Insomniac (1995) which attacks the band from the perspective of the grassroots punk community from which they sprung.
One way to tackle the problem of being a sellout is to whole-heartedly embrace chart success and the exposure and coverage it brings. While some bands act cool and sly in the shadows of underground punk scenes, others deliberately whore themselves out to the mainstream. The question here is whether or not this can be considered an act of Situationist critique; Situationism being Guy Debord’s (non)term relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations (it’s not a movement exactly but perhaps best considered a set of critical practices). The specific mode of Situationist statement which musicians can employ is that of détournement: a method of propaganda which integrates existing artistic productions into a new, revised assemblage of a social milieu or event. An example of this would be to take the iconography of some element of mainstream politics or discourse and embody it to an extreme in new contexts so as to parody and reconfigure its meaning in a critical sense. We might think of the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield on Top of the Pops, performing Faster in between funeral pyres, clad in a terrorist balaclava. By bringing this aggressive masculine iconography into the commercial camp of Top of the Pops, and coupling the sinister symbol of the balaclava with the childish chalk scrawl ‘JAMES’, the band succeeded in challenging our existing conception of military imagery, estranging it through a combination of extremity and playful absurdism. Peters argues:
In line of Situationist thinking, the message [the Manics] tried to get across was not expressed in subtle arguments: the band sought to hijack the sloganeering techniques of consumerism, more specifically of tabloid journalism, presenting their message in the form of a radically distorted consumerism, turning its own techniques against itself.
(Peters 2015: 1357)
Yet in turning consumerism against itself, this aesthetic-political impulse is not simple postmodern irony; there is genuine sincerity, fury and passion in the performance. As with metamodernism, there is an oscillation between the postmodern collage of images and a kind of modernist sincerity, a slightly Eliotic misanthropy. Indeed, most Manics albums are plastered with quotes with all the great modernists, from Nietzsche to Camus and e.e. cummings (later albums, such as Futurology (2014) were also overtly influenced by German expressionism). The modernist imprint is coupled with the performative playfulness of postmodern Bowie or Talking Heads, and the effect is one that is jarring and alienating while also heated and emotional, a far cry from the ironic cool of postmodernism.
The Manics have often explicitly stated their desire for chart success, describing their 2010 album, Postcards from a Young Man, as a ‘last shot at mass communication’. This explicitly Adornian imagery of mass communication suggests an explicit engagement with the ‘culture machine’ for the purposes of widespread societal critique, using the platform of pop culture to put forward a political message. While Nicky Wire is pretty forthright about his politics, giving an earnest, engaged (and let’s face it, depressingly rare these days) left-wing energy to many of his interviews, Father John Misty is far more elliptical. The lines between performance and authenticity are continually blurred. Misty blithely admits to his penchant for merchandise, stating with deadpan seriousness in a somewhat disastrous BBC 6Music interview that he and his management ‘have come up with an algorithm [for crowd-surfing] that more or less correlates to march sales’. The interview becomes a kind of performance art, with Misty critiquing Radcliffe and Maconie for ‘leading me with blunt questions’ at the same time as deliberately berating them with obtuse or self-aggrandisingly bombastic answers. Once again, we have that bewildering oscillation between irony and sincerity: how seriously does Misty take his art? It’s quite possible that Misty, an American (and thus supposedly without irony), has trumped the British interviewers with his enigmatic sarcasm, a kind of David Foster Wallace-esque intellectual posturing. At once, he’s arguing for the genuine ‘empathy’ he hopes to achieve in his songs, and talking about how he loves the idea of having merchandised jeggings. He bitterly denigrates music that has a didactic message critiquing society or popular music, saying, ‘any kind of didactic hair splitting post punk competing ideologies make me want to puke’ – we’re looking at you, Half Man Half Biscuit.
Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking Misty is a bit of a hypocrite on this. After all, didn’t he famously disrupt one of his festival performances this summer to embark on a tirade against the role of the entertainment industry in propagating the impulse of the Trump presidential campaign? It’s worth listening to the whole speech to get a flavour for whether it’s a genuine spontaneous rant or a scripted act of performance art. While (if YouTube comments are anything to go by) Misty was widely lambasted and ridiculed for his speech – there’s the whole commercial thing of we’ve paid for a gig, we expect some music – there’s something eerily authentic and indeed rousing about it. The crowd starts cheering (somewhat limply, but still) and at one point a guy shouts out, as if in a gospel church, ‘preach Father, preach!’. We can’t tell if he’s being ironic, merely citing and regurgitating religious discourse out of context for fun, but the effect is still palpable. It becomes a kind of surrealist visual event, where even the audience start to channel the symbolic implications of Misty’s name. We usually associate rockstars interrupting their performance for garbled declarative speeches with some kind of ensuing personal breakdown (The Libertines, Green Day and the Manics have all been caught up in this), but here Misty’s speech is both controlled and has the rhythm of natural pondering. He gets into the rhythm of complaint and disgust; it’s broad daylight, bright sunshine, and he’s shouting,
[…] do you people realise we have an entertaining tyrant [TRUMP] right now…like, HILARIOUS. I don’t know how I can rationally respond right now…do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution? […] how entertaining should this be right now? […] how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense?
And in fact there’s a definite poignancy to this speech now that Trump has in fact become President of the United States. The hilarious tyrant has won. He’s no longer a cartoon character. Misty is deliberately pushing us to at once take the hilarious approach (why stage this absurdist political intervention at a gig, and not a political convention?) and to critically assess our complicity in letting this happen, in at once not taking Trump seriously but also normalising him as part of discourse, allowing him to settle comfortably among the daily media news cycle. He confronts full-on the problem of singing more explicit protest songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ in a context where nothing seems real anymore, admitting the struggle to make this song entertainment (and thus as much worth as Trump’s speeches) by singing it live to an audience. Misty’s lyrics to ‘Bored in the USA’ capture post-recession America with a wry cynicism which deconstructs and modernises all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ for the prozac-numbed Millennial generation. By bringing up his unease at playing the song, Misty hints at Adorno’s suspicion of pop music’s limited powers of protest. In doing so, he adds a layer of further meta-critique, which benefits the overall thrust of his performance. There’s a romanticism, a kind of soap-box politics which is refreshing and comes across as both sincere and slightly poke-the-online-lion’s-nest kind of IRL trolling.
This is a man who can perform a heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ with absolute, devastating emotional conviction, who speaks in the lingo of the college boy, littering his interviews with ‘dude’ and ‘man’. Who can doll out such colourful and risqué phrases as ‘hickory smoked abortion’ to describe the state of current US culture. Who can express dreamlike fantasies of masochism alongside the cutesy cuddly scene of bringing two (probably organic, thrice roasted) coffees back to the domestic bliss of his girlfriend’s bed (as in the video for ‘Nancy From Now On’). Who can evoke New Age mysticism and the blisses of married life at the same time as derisively mocking a lover from the perspective of a condemning, world-weary academic: ‘She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that’. While songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ could be considered postmodern, in the sense that a) it’s meta, referring to Tillman as if he were an outside character and b) it’s lyrically ripping apart the female love object in, perhaps, a riff of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ c) it’s also musically self-consciously deconstructing a love song, twinkling xylophone and yearning strings ’n’ all. However, you could also consider it a sincere rendering of the shallowness of identities in a relationship that’s no longer working/never worked; as Misty bluntly admits, ‘I feel so unconvincing / when I fumble with your buttons’. I particularly love when he plucks a piece of internet lingo like ‘convo’ and rhymes it sublimely with ‘cosmos’. There’s a sense that these are love songs repackaged for the cynical age of Reddit, but flavoured with a conviction that suggests genuine empathy with the character(s) in the songs (Misty himself?) and the act of songwriting as an authentic act of self-expression or cultural engagement (so here more Tumblr than Reddit). After all, the polished production and tight arrangements suggest less jagged punk aggression/destruction and instead a sophisticated reworking of various musical discourses.
Like Lana Del Rey, Misty likes to skirt on the line between Hollywood glamour and its dark underbelly of heartbreak, superficiality and personal travesty; between a deliberate reworking of commercial codes and cultural images and the sincerity of genuinely heartfelt songs in the tradition of the tragic romantic songwriter (Neil Young for Misty, Billie Holliday for Del Rey). The old American road song is reworked (‘Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ for Misty, ‘Ride’ for LDR). The whole purpose of a pop star is reworked. What is unique and provocative about these artists is their insistence on refusing to concede the binary between fantasy/reality, performance/authenticity, their constant negotiation and deliberate reworking of cultural codes. In an age where a HILARIOUS TYRANT can become President of the United States, where radical politics is shrouded in apathy, where most discourse on celebrity culture is profoundly pessimistic and negative, maybe it’s time to recognise the celebrities who are subtly challenging the system from within, and start taking seriously (with a bittersweet pinch of playful cynicism) a new Situationism?
Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks):
Peters, Mathijs, 2015. ‘Adorno Meets Welsh Alternative Rock Band Manic Street Preachers: Three Proposed Critical Models’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 48, No. 6, pp. 1346-1373.
There’s something about Bret Easton Ellis. Whether it’s the alluring cool of a literary ‘Brat Pack’, the frisson implied by a 1980s enfant terrible or the fact that he published his first novel while still in college, aged 21 (the canny bastard), I find myself drawn to his presence both as a cultural persona and simply as a man of interesting writerly craft. I have been listening obsessively to his podcast for a few weeks now, engrossed in his attacks on the millennial ‘cult of likability’, on the pop cultural salivation over a tv ‘golden age’ and on the lack of context which accompanies the bandying around of quotes online (and the accompanying Twitterstorm). Part of it, I guess, is the perspective of a millennial (me) feeling they have something to learn from a Gen-Xer. Part of it is simply that Ellis does have his own particular brand of pop cultural and authorial genius. This article hopes to delve into this genius by looking at Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero, which I recently reread.
Turn up the TV. No one listening will suspect,
even your mother won’t detect it,
no your father won’t know.
They think that I’ve got no respect
but everything means less than zero
(Elvis Costello, ‘Less than Zero’).
See above the chorus from Elvis Costello’s song, ‘Less than Zero’, released in 1977 on the My Aim is True album. Costello has written that the song is about totalitarianism and fascism. What does it mean for Ellis to take this song as the title for his novel? – a novel which doesn’t exactly exude the anarchic spirit of 1970s punk, nor does it make any overt political critique. Nevertheless, Less than Zero is a political text on some level, in so far as it deals with the subject/self under late capitalism. Costello sings about something secret, an inner feeling that you can drown out with the static sound of television. What kind of secret is concealed here? The absolute flatness of existence, the alienating depression that creeps and inhabits your bones? I’ve got no respect. For what – the world? What do your parents matter in this life without boundaries, where morality thins to a flimsy image, where selfhood is nothing but the label on your trainers? This is a world of regression, degeneration, of falling from grace, redefining what the hell grace is. It’s the secret inner disgust for all that surrounds you. The sadness bursting in your brain, the endless lines of cocaine…
So goes the life of Clay, the protagonist from Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero. Published in 1985, it’s often lumped together with the likes of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as an exemplary work of the 1980s literary Brat Pack: writers who encapsulated the alienated experience of Generation X, often influenced by journalism and the movies as much as that elusive category of literature known as the Great American Novel. Less than Zero follows Clay’s return to his family home in Los Angeles after his first semester at college. Yes, it could be considered a Gen X Catcher in the Rye, where the apathetic perception of cultural phoniness plays out against a backdrop of sex, drugs and snuff films. However, while Salinger’s novel exposes the adult world as darkly sham and shallow, Ellis’ turns its attention to the synthetic lives of Clay and his fellow adolescents. Unlike a traditional bildungsroman, it lacks plot and narrative and that most perjured and celebrated of terms: humanist subjectivity. The question of character development in the novel is mostly a non-issue, as Clay ‘grows’ only in the sense of growing more detached from the world around him, more aware of his own indifference.
In a way, Clay is the perfect model of a disillusioned teenager, and Ellis nails the setting. Where better to lose all sense of self and reality than in LA, the city where dreams and visions are spun on film reel and everyone’s an actor, or at least the spawn of one. Clay and his friends live hollow lives, gorging themselves at the playgrounds of consumerism offered by the city: fancy bars and clubs, endless bottles of Perrier and expensive therapy. The novel more or less follows a repetitive structure, the narrative moving in a series of vignettes as Clay moves around, calls a friend from a payphone, drops by people’s houses, goes to a club, takes drugs, gets laid, hangs out by the pool, smokes a joint. Little else happens. It’s all in the accumulation.
I’m not saying this is an avant-garde novel, working through ‘accumulation and repetition’ in the way that Zadie Smith said of Tom McCarthy’s debut, Remainder (2005) in her famous NY Times essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. Ellis is less interested in ripping apart the contemporary consumerist (and humanist) literary establishment than in using this establishment, its obsession with pulp (check out the noirish drug/snuff/pimp plot) and branding to unravel the vacuous experience of being young and glitteringly rich in the 1980s. Part of the novel’s point is questioning whether Clay ever really had a sense of selfhood or reality in the first place – whether such things exist at all. The wastefulness of contemporary culture trickles out of Ellis’ minimalist prose, which is just as effective as Joan Didion’s was in capturing the strange alienation of the mid-twentieth century. We are left longing for something more in the gaps between his sparse paragraphs, his dull and vacuous dialogue. This is all culture. This is all politics. Only, you wouldn’t know it from the novel itself.
No, the world of Less than Zero couldn’t be more insular. Its only connection to the world outside Los Angeles is through the brand names, the song lyrics and movie references which trail through the narrative as often as Clay’s car trails along the LA freeways. Yet if literature is about subjectivity, than the subjectivity explored in Less than Zero is irrevocably damaged, fractured and, if you’re a fan of Deleuze & Guattari, schizophrenic. It’s dispersed along the various signifiers that constitute culture. All of Clay’s perception is whittled down to tiny details: the catalogue of brand names, the repeated references to physical appearance (always tan, always blonde) and the drinks that people are cradling, the glamorous food pushed uselessly round a plate. It’s a highly cinematic narrative, which sometimes resembles a screenplay. Sections of prose often begin with brief indications of time and space, the opening words in bold to quickly situate the reader in a social setting, neglecting any poetic descriptions to set the scene in favour of blunt ‘headlines’: ‘It’s a Saturday night’; ‘At Kim’s new house’ ; ‘It’s Christmas morning’; ‘My house lies on Mulholland’.
Perhaps, indeed, it’s not all that far (stylistically) from Made in Chelsea; except take away the tv show’s sparkling jouissance (its soaring indie pop and glorious Instagram-worthy visual filtering) and replace it with the endless merging of barren surfaces which make up Ellis’ novel. Replace the easily sweet pleasures of Made in Chelsea’s gin bars and contorted gossip and romance plots with sleazy LA mansions, snuff films, heroin and bodily dismemberment…While the lack of affect in Made in Chelsea contributes to a kind of narcotic addictiveness, in Ellis’ novel it creates a sheen of unsettling detachment.
‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’ So goes the opening line of Less than Zero. It was only when I first picked up this book, about three years ago, that I realised the connection to Bloc Party’s ‘Song for Clay (Disappear Here)’. The song, an homage of sorts to Ellis’ novel, repeats several phrases, including ‘complete disdain’, ‘live the dream’ and ‘won’t save you’. It’s a song which builds slow and sparse and then suddenly thunders with a sharp guitar riff and pounding drums. It’s sort of the experience of reading Ellis’ novel: the headache, the endless migraine of details, the food and coke and insomniac joints in the early morning. People are afraid to emerge on freeways. What does it mean? Why does it repeat in the text like some fragment from a litany? I guess you could say it’s about the fear of opening yourself to someone else, of sharing problems, being personal and ‘genuine’. You know, take this interchange between Clay and his on/off girlfriend, Blair:
“Clay?” she whispers loudly.
I stop but don’t turn around. “Yeah?”
What the hell is genuine though? Even in the privacy of his narration, Clay struggles to admit any emotional depth. His focus is always on cool detail:
I’m sitting in the main room at Chasen’s with my parents and sisters and it’s late, nine-thirty or ten, on Christmas Eve. Instead of eating anything, I look down at my plate and move the fork across it, back and forth, and become totally fixated on the fork cutting a path between the peas. My father startles me by pouring some more champagne into my glass. My sisters look bored and tan and talk about anorexic friends and some Calvin Klein model and they look older than I remember them looking, even more so when they hold their glasses up by the stem and drink the champagne slowly; they tell me a couple of jokes that I don’t get and tell my father what they want for Christmas.
It’s the immediate present tense. It’s (in)tensely detailed. The sentences drag with repetition, long and slow, heavy and stoned. Clay replaces what would typically occur in such a scene with the mundane reality, pulling out the grotesque from the shiny film of appearance. Sure, to an outsider, Clay and his family would seem like any good looking LA clan out for a fancy meal. Yet it’s immediately clear that Clay feels very distant: not just from the image but from the family themselves. His fixation on cutting a path between his peas is a bit like the cars which won’t merge on the freeway: another symbol of separation, of dividing lines. The self in its shell, stunted. He splits the peas up into meaningless scattered matter. The novel is full of meaningless scattered matter, the endless push and pull of desire, ‘back and forth’. Anorexia is mentioned several times in the novel (Blair’s friend Muriel is hospitalised for it) and the consumption of food and drink is of course central to much of the action (settings; family lunches, dinners, expensive bars). Anorexia, you could argue, is the simultaneous consumption of culture (absorbing absolutely and indeed making literal the beauty of the image, thinness and surface) but also its rejection (literally refusing to consume, to accept the consuming impulse). It provides another symbol of the contradictory imperatives of postmodern culture.
So we have branding, so we have mental illness, disturbed appetites, boredom and beauty and the annual climax of consumerism: Christmas. So far so adolescent bildungsroman. Yet unlike Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Clay is quite content to sit around in a hullabaloo, watching the world swirl meaninglessly on by around him: ‘No one talks about anything much and no one seems to mind, at least I don’t’. The fact that he has to qualify ‘no one’ to refer mainly to himself indicates how easily the micro reflects the macro, the self reflects the culture. Clay feels like his experience of boredom and alienation is pretty much endemic, therefore uninteresting. Ellis doesn’t exactly depict a special snowflake, a depressive uniquely at odds with his society. Sure, there are times where Clay feels particularly ill at ease with what goes on around him (he sometimes leaves the room when his friends’ sex games and suchlike get too unsavoury), but never makes an effort to stop what’s going on.
One way of looking at this aspect of Clay’s personality is by comparing him to Patrick Bateman, the serial-killer protagonist who narrates Ellis’ later novel, American Psycho. While Bateman is an active assailant, Clay is relatively passive. Stuff happens to him; he drifts through life. He never has much of an opinion, openly admits to not enjoying anything. Why does this make him interesting? Maybe he resonates the dullness of culture in such a way as to provide incisions that cut apart the surface sheen of everyday LA life…
Yet we cannot easily develop a ‘cool’ relation to Clay’s narration in the way that we can in American Psycho. The sheer volume of violence and repetition of brand names and daily routines that make up American Psycho’s narrative perhaps forces us to become desensitised to Bateman’s narrative, even to the point of distrusting its ‘veracity’. Is this an effect of Ellis’ intoxicating cataloguing or a defence mechanism to deal with the acts of extreme violence the narrator describes? Either way, there is a lacing of satire in American Psycho, a cynicism perhaps, which is far less, if at all present in Less than Zero. Indeed, amidst the bored, sparse descriptions of similar social encounters, there are moments of genuine poignancy which peek through the narrative. We get these mostly in the italicised ‘flashbacks’ where Clay relates stories about his childhood, about his holiday with Blair in Palm Springs; where he recalls these things with a flatness of affect, yet the sadness of these scenes sheds a kind of melancholy over the rest of the novel, which would otherwise mostly lack in emotion. About halfway through, Clay recalls a time when he thought he saw a child burning alive in a car crash, and how afterwards he started obsessively collecting newspaper clippings about violent accidents and crimes:
And I remember that at that time I started collecting all these newspaper clippings one about some twelve-year-old kid who accidentally shot his brother in Chino; another about a guy in Indio who nailed his kid to a wall, or a door, I can’t remember, and then shot him, point-blank in the face, and one about a fire at a home for the elderly that killed twenty and one about a housewife who while driving her children home from school flew off this eighty-foot embankment near San Diego, instantly killing herself and the three kids and one about a man who calmly and purposefully ran over his ex-wife somewhere near Reno, paralysing her below the neck. I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.
Clay’s involvement with the violent world of LA youth, then, has a root. It’s cultural, it’s endemic. Violence is rife in the media, spreading through the collective Gen X psyche. They grew up realising that they wouldn’t necessary be better off than their parents; that the economy did not owe them the same opportunities it did previous post-war generations. They grew up into a world of job insecurity, of decentred, fragmented wars. They grew up against the backdrop of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, though perhaps millennials are more affected by the latter. In short, a globalised world of messy, liquid or late modernity (depending on whether you prefer your Bauman or your Giddens).
In the above passage, Ellis’ prose garners an almost incantatory sense of endless, meaningless violence being related through the media. All the place names he describes end in the same vowel sound (‘o’), creating an accumulating effect of repetition that desensitises us to the specificity of crime and instead forges a sense of its ubiquity. There is no emotional reaction which accompanies these stories; Clay merely describes them in a matter-of-fact tone. This emotional sparseness (characteristic of the entire novel) leaves an even more chilling sense of our culture’s paradoxical obsession with and indifference to violence. Ellis sums this up neatly with the tautological final sentence: ‘I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.’ No personal, subjective or cultural explanation is given for Clay’s interest in collecting the clippings; the habit becomes one of recursive, self-justifying meaninglessness. The explanation pans out onto Ellis’ novel as a whole, which also constitutes a kind of collection of clippings: vignettes from Clay’s brief stay back in LA, the cataloguing of brands, names, places; scenes of darkness and violence, the lack of a strong narrative thread to connect them.
Yet the kind of cultural and existential emptiness implied by such passages does not preclude the presence of some poignancy to Clay’s narrative. Sure, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of banality; but there are also moments which almost reach the level of personal reflection. We can compare this to American Psycho’s comparatively cold satire and lack of character ‘depth’ by looking at two very parallel scenes in each book. In these scenes, Clay and Bateman go to visit their mothers, who each ask them what they want for Christmas.
My mother and I are sitting in her private room at Sandstone, where she is now a permanent resident. Heavily sedated, she has her sunglasses on and keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas. I’m not surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her.
Less than Zero:
My mother and I are sitting in a restaurant on Melrose, and she’s drinking white wine and still has her sunglasses on and she keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks me what I want for Christmas. I’m surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head up and look at her.
Aside from a few situational details (Bateman’s mother is in a residential home, Clay’s meets her son in a fancy LA restaurant), these passages are virtually identical. Except, perhaps, for one crucial line. In American Psycho, Bateman is not surprised by ‘how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her [his mother]’, whereas in Less than Zero, Clay is ‘surprised’ by the effort. Thus while Bateman fits some kind of definition of psychopathy, utterly indifferent and lacking empathy for his mother, Clay is surprised at his own indifference, his struggle to display some kind of emotion or human connection. To merge on the familial freeway (to use a horrible phrase!). As readers, we can empathise with Clay far more than with Bateman, who locks us out with his construction of a cold and clinical world (see more about this here – an article I wrote a few years ago). Less than Zero is a novel more obviously filled with human pain, perhaps, than Ellis’ later novel, where the pain is certainly there, only more coded, buried inside violence, surface and image in an even more complex way.
Take, for example, the passages towards the end of the novel where Clay revisits his old school:
I used to pass the school often. Every time I drove my sisters to their school, I would always make sure to drive past and I would watch sight of small children getting onto yellow buses with black trim and teachers laughing to each other in the parking lot before classes. I don’t think that anyone else who went to the school drives by or gets out and looks around, since I’ve never seen anyone I remember. one day I saw a boy I had gone to the school with, maybe first grade, standing by the fence, alone, fingers gripping the steel wire and staring off into the distance and I told myself that the guy but live close by or something and that was why he was standing alone, like me.
We can imagine Clay glancing at this other boy, still trying to justify his presence there by means other than a shared moment of sentimentality. The only reason they have visited, Clay tries to say, is purely down to physical proximity. A meaningless walk. LA, then, is made up of intersections, connections and disconnections. Freeways that nobody merges on. You don’t just wander and end up somewhere significant, you drive places. The two could be friends, could’ve been friends, but Clay can only gaze at him from afar, as the boy too gazes on, seemingly at nothing. At distance. The core of the novel: absence. Always caught between meaning, between human connection, lost in the swamp of cultural signifiers that supersede any ‘deep’ emotion.
Clay’s attention to little fragments of visual memory here give us a sense of his warped nostalgia for childhood. His younger sisters are never described as having the innocence that Clay has lost: they steal his cocaine, idly watch porn and greedily snatch cheques from Daddy on Christmas Day. There’s the sweet yellow school bus, the laughing teachers, the familiarity of routine. Those rose-tinted things. You don’t get that kind of sentiment in American Psycho. It’s emotionally painful to read because this passage is sort of an interlude in the midst of the noir plot elements (Clay trying to get his money back from Julian, who is being brutally pimped; the rape of a pre-pubescent girl, foreshadowed by a horrible porno tape). It’s a burst of curious innocence amongst the ugly detritus of Gen X’s consumer lifestyle. Yet the classroom sweetness of yellow has become something altogether too bright, too painful for Clay to deal with. In an early scene in the novel, Clay describes the walls of a diner, Fatburger, as: ‘painted a very bright, almost painful yellow’. The colour of happy childhood has soured. It’s the colour of the Valium pills by his bedside. There’s the ‘grotesquely yellow’ moon that hangs ominously in the sky as Clay looks out over the business district, woozy from too many gin and tonics. As Clay returns to his former school, it soon becomes the yellowing of age, of moral decay:
I go to another bungalow and the door’s open and I walk in. The day’s homework is written on the blackboard and I read it carefully and then walk to the lockers but can’t find mine. I can’t remember which one it was. I go into the boy’s bathroom and squeeze a soap dispenser. I pick up a yellowed magazine in the auditorium and strike a few notes on a piano. I had played the piano, the same piano, at a Christmas recital in second grade and I strike a few more chords from the song I played and they ring out through the empty auditorium and echo. I panic for some reason and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside. A game I forgot existed. I walk away from the school without looking back and get into my car and drive away.
Clay retraces his childhood steps, literally. He’s like a ghost, haunting the corridors of his youth, idly attempting to recreate the simple universe he once inhabited, squeezing the soap dispenser, reading the day’s homework from the blackboard. However he literally cannot locate/identify his former self, as he fails to find his old locker. Throughout the novel, we are given very little indication of Clay’s interests; he never even talks about what subject he studies out in New Hampshire. Yet here we have a snippet of something he once did: playing piano. There is something slightly uncanny about the older Clay standing at the same piano and striking a few notes, as if he were trying to summon up that younger self, the fragile doppelgänger. He even remembers the same chords. Funny how he remembers the music but not the game of handball. The fact that Clay panics is telling: he is literally allergic to his feelings, unable to deal with the sudden pain that comes from memory, from realising the loss brought on by time. His alienation is complete as he drives away, escaping his feelings as readily as all the times before, where he snorts coke to deal with a problematic or potentially emotional situation. The narrative also trails off, moving to another scene, another jump cut. There is nothing left to say, no coherence, no self-development.
This lack of narrative and self development or ‘growth’ is exemplified in Clay’s personal lack of futurity. Towards the novel’s end, Clay meets Blair for a drink and they skirt around the issue of their relationship. In a way, Blair sums up what we have come to learn of Clay: ‘You’re a beautiful boy, Clay, but that’s about it’. Yet we are left yearning for something more than beautiful surface. Sure, Clay as the narrator has given us many beautiful surfaces, but he has also exposed the rot beneath the surface, the absolute black nothing inside each person. Blair asks him up front: ‘“What do you care about? What makes you happy?”’ and his reply is explicitly telling: ‘“Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing. […] I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.”’ This is something we don’t really get in American Psycho. Clay actually admits his feelings, or lack of, and the way it’s expressed doesn’t come across as cold or psychopathic, but human and genuinely sad, a classic case of depression. We get this sort of emotional ‘revelation’ towards the end, after Ellis has carefully laid out the social context of Clay’s psychological and emotional numbness. Unable to think about the future, Clay seems to put off its existence, or anything that might change things as ‘another thing to worry about’. He cannot think positively, cannot be active in his likes or interests.
The question of futurity and passivity is also interesting in American Psycho, as an insight into what Bateman values in his killings. There’s a classically disturbing scene where seemingly at random Bateman fatally injures a young child at a zoo. His reflections follow thus:
Though I am satisfied at first by my actions, I’m suddenly jolted with a mournful despair at how useless, how extraordinarily painless, it is to take a child’s life. This thing before me, small and twisted and bloody, has no real history, no worthwhile past, nothing is really lost. It’s so much worse (and more pleasurable) taking the life of someone who has hit his or her prime, who has the beginnings of a full history, a spouse, a network of friends, a career, whose death will upset far more people whose capacity for grief is limitless than a child’s would, perhaps ruin many more lives than just the meaningless, puny death of this boy.
This view is obviously at odds with the overriding sentimentality and regret publicly voiced in the wake of a child’s death. We put great meaning on the futurity of the child, its association with a new life, with possibilities and an open future, a pure blank slate. Lee Edelman, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, has written on how the child is held up as a glorified symbol of the future, of the onward march of heteronormative culture. We are ideologically forced to take the side of the child and the future because ‘the child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantastic beneficiary of every political intervention.’ Edelman asks what it would mean not to be ‘fighting for the children’, and in a way, Ellis’ novel points towards this. Bateman doesn’t care about what the child stands for as a symbol of pure innocence and possibility to come, of what Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’. The queer, Edelman argues, is always pitted against this social conscience of reproductive futurism, as contrastingly selfish, narcissistic, antisocial and backward-looking – in short, the opposite of a collective drive towards development, progress and the future. Bateman, while hardly a queer hero by any means, interrupts the privileged ideology of futurity.
Indeed, he questions the value of the child because he lacks history. Without a record of decisions, mistakes, actions and memories, the child is reduced to pure matter, ‘small and twisted and bloody’ – he is animal, inhuman. This could obviously be taken as a moment of the novel’s token existentialism, the fact that, as Sartre put it, existence precedes essence: there is no inherent self, but only the values and meaning the human has created for herself through actions. It is also, however, a crucial component of the novel’s critique of various ideologies underpinning the yuppie world of consumerism which Bateman inhabits. Suddenly, a life can be described as worthless, ‘puny’. Bateman takes far greater pleasure in ravishing lives whose deaths entail a broader sweep of social impact. It’s as if he takes pleasure in destroying narratives, the networks of associations a person acquires through life. In doing so, he creates meaning: by destroying, Bateman has the pleasure of interrupting the consistency of social worlds, asserting his power. It’s the venture capitalist gone mad, staking his claim in all sorts of places, schemes and, well let’s face it, bodies.
So I guess I’d argue that part of Clay’s central pain is this disconnect with the future, his queer relationship to temporality. The sense that he’s drifting, which is pretty much now a ubiquitous social phenomenon among young adults, both from Gen X and millennials living in a post-recession world. When Clay’s friends ask each other what they’ve been up to, where they’ve been, the answers are always flat and vague: ‘“Not too much”’, ‘“I don’t know”’, ‘“Like hanging around”’, ‘“Shopping”’. Sometimes they simply repeat the question back to the questioner. One of the phrases that repeats a lot throughout the text is ‘Disappear Here’, which Clay reads off a roadside billboard. In a way, the phrase represents the limit point, the blind spot, the aporia into which meaning is deferred, the space of emotion where Clay cannot go. On a sunny Friday after Christmas, Clay hangs around the beach club, waiting for his friends: ‘I sit on a bench and wait for them, staring out at the expanse of sand that meets the water, where the land ends. Disappear here.’ It’s as if the phrase is dragged up in avoidance of interior reflection; its repetition supplements the kind of psychological detail that would appear in a classic realist or bildungsroman novel. The self has dissolved into the sign: the world of surfaces, of signs referring only to signs described by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations, but also literally the billboard sign, the symbol of capitalism’s flattening of the self. Not unlike the billboard advertising Eckleberg’s eyes in The Great Gatsby. Disappear here: you pour your own meaning into the sign; sign after sign constitutes self. What is it that the eyes see?
And indeed there’s something uncanny about this. Clay’s repetition of disappear here throughout the novel only adds to its temporal sense of an unending present, with the run-on sentences and disjointed dialogue creating the impression of not only a stunted self, but also a stunted world. The more you repeat something, the more it becomes meaningless. The characters’ lives stop and start: plots about drugs and sex climax brutally then fizzle to nothing. As the narrative draws to an end, it doesn’t move towards closure, but leaves the reader with an empty feeling of being lost in the world of LA. Ellis really amps up the gothic elements which have been woven in and out of the text so far. Take, for example, Clay’s description of the Ellis Costello poster at the beginning:
It’s the promotional poster for an old Elvis Costello record. Elvis looks past me, with this wry, ironic smile on his lips, staring out the window. The word “Trust” hovering over his head, and his sunglasses, one lens red, the other blue, pushed down past the ridge of his nose so that you can see his eyes, which are slightly off centre. The eyes don’t look at me, though. They only look at whoever’s standing by the window[…].
The Costello poster substitutes for the spooky portrait which hangs traditionally in a gothic heroine’s bedroom. Presumably, Clay once had an interest in this poster, bought it for a reason – but now it seems eerie. The homely has become unhomely. Clay refers to the hypothetical subject ‘standing by the window’, the ghost who meets the gaze. Clay admits to being too exhausted to even be that subject, to even be the observed – ‘I’m too tired to get up and stand by the window’ – perhaps this is an early hint at his drive (conscious or otherwise) towards disappearing altogether. The elements of gothic which colour some of Clay’s narration give an expressionist tinge to his descriptions, externalising some of the inner fear and turmoil, the hollow sense of fear and emptiness at returning to a place that is no longer home, even when Clay gets his tan and starts to fit in. At a party in Malibu later on in the novel, Clay observes:
There are mostly young boys in the house and they seem to be in every room and they all look the same: thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices, and then I start to wonder if I look exactly like them.
Is fitting in the same as disappearing? The boys appear strangely inhuman, little more than mannequins; uncannily voiced with the same dull monotone. It’s Clay’s sudden identification and self-realisation that startles here. Looking at the boys is like looking in the mirror and seeing many horrible doppelgängers surround you. There’s an opportunity for him to freak out about it, but instead he ‘tr[ies] to forget about it and get[s] a drink’. In short, he dissolves even deeper into the thick glaze of surfaces, spreads himself thinner as an image. When Clay first observes his bedroom poster, he’s feverish and ill, like the heroine in a gothic novel. We may not have the moors of Yorkshire, a la Wuthering Heights, but we do have the desert, the Hollywood hills and the accompanying coyotes.
As the novel starts to close, we get some spooky vignettes. Clay relates how his sister’s kitten disappears, leaving behind only ‘pieces of matted fur and dried blood’. He talks about the coyotes which sometimes come down from the hills:
On some nights when the moon’s full and the sky’s clear, I look outside and I can see shapes moving through the streets, through the canyons. I used to mistake them for large, misshaped dogs. It was only later I realised they were coyotes. On some nights, late, I’ve been driving across Mulholland and have had to swerve and stop suddenly and in the glare of the headlights I’ve seen coyotes running slowly through the fog with red rags in their mouths and it’s only when I come home that I realise that the red rag is a cat. It’s something one must live with if you live in the hills.
That final sentence almost seems un-Claylike in its resonating wisdom. It suggests the tone of a social commentator, reflecting on the environmental conditions of LA and lending a metaphorical weight to his words. The brutally devouring coyotes thrive on instinct; the youths of LA pursue physical gratification out of sheer boredom. How easily for the ‘red rag’ to become a slaughtered domestic pet. There is a surrealist vibe to this transformation of objects. In American Psycho, the transformation of the child into something ‘twisted and bloody’ is more classic horror, whereas there is a perhaps darker, eerier atmosphere to Less than Zero. The sense of emptiness, the canyons at night and the fog. Clay’s description has a slow-motion feel to it, drawing the reader into his stoned-out world. These frequent killings, we are reminded, keep happening against the backdrop of Clay’s friends, endlessly circling the freeways, making calls, popping corks, snorting coke.
Clay himself, as I have already suggested, is a kind of ghost. He recalls the previous Christmas in Palm Springs, sweating in bed and struggling to sleep. The vaporous heat seems to cloy his mind, cloy the narrative. Think of the many references to the palms in Less than Zero: their shadows, their fragmented remains after storms and car crashes, their wildly shaking branches. It’s creepy and atmospheric in the way the swaying pines and Douglas Firs are in Twin Peaks. There’s the omnipresence of MTV, its serial carnival of flashing images, the humming numbness of Valium. Clay describing the ‘strange sounds and lights next door’, ‘visions of driving through town and feeling the hot winds on [his] shoulder and watching the heat rise up out of the desert’. In all the emphasis on Ellis’ interest in sex, drugs and violence, it’s easy to forget the importance of atmosphere. You can tell that the novel is influenced by film, self-consciously soundtracking itself (Squeeze, INXS, U2, the Psychedelic Furs), laying out scenes, drawing us in with its snippets of visual detail. The heat is stifling and everyone is sleepless, wired or stoned. The novel slowly moves towards Clay’s return to New Hampshire, like a fade to black at the end of a film: the final sections each start with some temporal marker in relation to his actual leaving: ‘The last week’, ‘Before I leave’, ‘Blair calls me the night before I leave’, ‘When I left’. In leaving, Clay seems to dissolve. His narrative closes with reference to a song called ‘Los Angeles’. A kind of montage of memories, of visual images stolen from another cultural source. Clay feeds on these images after leaving. The temporality is important. Has he broken into some other dimension, or is this a reference to how memory burns right through you (even memories that aren’t your own, memories from visual media – images and film)? My impression (and I have not yet read the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms), is that Clay is not moving into a new, open future; necessarily he still defines everything in relation to the past, to the dream world of LA, its perpetual, glittering, trashy present:
There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called ‘Los Angeles’ and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.
After I left. After I left. The insistence on the posterior. The sense of grotesque sublimity, the reference point of LA contained in these almost unspeakable images of ‘people being driven mad by living in the city’. They ate their own children. Isn’t this the ultimate violation of linear temporality: literally consuming symbols of the future, one’s own legacy? Hypercapitalism, perhaps, creates its own kind of queerness.