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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Peters 2015: 1357)

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

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Culture Sluts? Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire of the Manics. Image by Kevin Cummins; source: NME

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks): 

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

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

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‘Do something pretty while you can’: The Magic of Belle & Sebastian

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image source: The Guardian

Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful). Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.

For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.

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Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.

In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.

For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).

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ANYWAY,  back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.

Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.

One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.

Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.

He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.

It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?

They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.

Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.

Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.

Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.

You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.

‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915[17]) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’.  Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.

A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:

Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor

And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay

In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt

We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.

Tigermilk, then, isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:

A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.

This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.

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The protagonists of GHTG: James, Eve, Cassie

Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.

Trip to Berlin

I haven’t been ‘abroad’ since Dublin in June 2014, so the prospect of Berlin was pretty exciting. I thought it was about time I spent my birthday somewhere different and I’ve never heard a bad word said about Berlin. We stayed in the Heart of Gold hostel, which is in Berlin Mitte, about ten minutes from Friedrichstrasse train station and a short walk away from Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Museum Island. This was my first time in a hostel and it felt a bit like going on a residential school trip combined with student halls; only unlike a school trip you had total freedom over your time, and unlike student halls people actually respected the place. The decor was kinda cool and space-themed, plus there was a pool table and unlimited free hot drinks and super cheap beer. The slightly rickety bunk beds were worth it in terms of price and location. Also, not many budget hotels will bless you with music ranging from Radiohead to German techno to obscure Cure albums to enjoy over your breakfast. I loved it.

I always forget how funny a place airports are. Their sense of spatial and temporal dislocation. Everyone just waiting; not exactly lounging around, but waiting all the same. Checking their phones, browsing the duty free, trying not to lose each other. If you’re like me and don’t go away much, you forget that whole other culture – that of the British holidaymaker. Screaming families and the endless churning crowds making their way to Spain, their unprotected, pasty skin volcanically craving the crack-over burn of continental sunshine. Groups of lads with Nike snapbacks making their way out to Zante or Magaluf for their sixth year holidays, my brother beside me tearing their outfits to shreds with his devastating fashion analysis.

Berlin kinda has it all. There are vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes everywhere. We came across a place with hammocks that allowed you to concoct your own tea and watch the traffic go by as you swayed from side to side. Cool riverside cafes with bars embedded inside cabana-style sheds. Supermarkets which sell hummus and play Lana Del Rey on their speakers (what more do you need?!). A frankly mesmerising selection of Ritter and Lindt chocolates (the best). Parks where all sorts of people hang out, drinking beer and wine and throwing frisbee for dogs. It’s legal to drink in the street in Berlin and the vibe is always pretty chilled. The streets weren’t covered with litter, and generally the abundance of graffiti gave off the impression that to remove it would be to strip something pure from the city. It’s a colourful place, a dusty place (lots of construction going on), a green place. There’re parks everywhere, not to mention the massive Tiergarten, where you can lay around for hours, make friends at an outdoor bar, go rowing along the pond, check out a statue dedicated to good old Rousseau. There were little stands outside train stations which sold nothing but punnet after punnet of fresh strawberries. Beautiful Brutalism. Boutique coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, fruit and veg stalls everywhere. It’s super hipster, yes, but not in the kind of wanky obsessed-with-‘taste’ Shoreditch way, just in this laid-back, established way of cool. Plus, all the spirits seemed to be served as doubles, which was fun.

We walked around for hours and hours in the heat, sometimes catching a train, sometimes just walking some more. We walked more than 60km in three days, according to my phone! We saw the main shopping precinct, the parks, the lovely laid-back bar areas, the touristy stuff, the artwork at the East Side Gallery. I already want to go back, preferably with a group of pals who are brave enough to explore all the crazy warehouse raves, speakeasies, weird bars (especially The Black Lodge – think this might’ve freaked my brother out too much!)and clubs in the depths of Kreuzberg…

Some of my favourite Berlin things:

  • The place which used a gym bench as a bar top and sold my favourite whisky (Talisker)
  • The riverside cafe with a hairdresser inside a treehouse
  • Double gin & sofa after walking for hours in the sun
  • The laid-back cafe vibe around Mitte
  • The crazy hotchpotch of people at Mauerpark
  • Ritte ‘Nougat’ chocolate, which is like those Guylian seashells only in a block of chocolate, yummmm
  • The African festival at Alexanderplatz (everyone looked cheerful)
  • All the lovely Americans we met at the hostel
  • Vodka bottles for like €1 at the supermarket
  • Seeing posters for loads of cool festivals, even though I won’t be going to them
  • The fact that cigarette machines still exist here!
  • All the bright yellow buildings
  • The solitary man with long black greasy hair playing lovely sad dissonant songs on his cello, sitting under a bridge
  • Not having WiFi for a few days then coming home to lovely birthday messages!

The Dreamlike Nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero

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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. 

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‘Fast Lane’ – Photo of Los Angeles by Neil Kremer

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.

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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?”

“Nothing.”

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.

American Psycho: 

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.

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Sunset over LA — photo by Neon Tommy

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.

Reciting for Burns Night

 

In the room of primary colours and paper
I stood up, small, to read my piece;
shaking like a frond of heather
caught on a hillside breeze, unable
to stop the bite of a lip, the sweat
spreading my skin with its heat.

The vowels didn’t come out right;
I failed to master the harsher diction,
the bouncing consonants, flying fricatives
and tongue rolled r’s luxurious.
Words were tangled in my mouth
like a lump of food I couldn’t eat.

I felt a hundred eyes feast on me.
From the depths of the gym hall,
they watched hungrily
for my stops and splutters, my hesitancy.
For I was different, not like the others.

My English accent rubbished the nuance,
missed the beat of every lilting iamb.
Still, I stumbled on,
falling off the lines like Tam himself,
drunken on his horse, ready to cross
that brig over black water,
taking a final leap from stanza to stanza.

Finished at last, I fiddled with my tartan headband,
lifted my head to slow applause,
felt at once a strange inclusion.

Later, in the playground, I stared out
at the Carrick hills, their mist of violet rain,
and for the first time
I knew a perfect moment,
the one that burns then goes forever,
quotes a song then comes again.

Top 15 Albums of 2015

 

(in alphabetical order…)

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Beach House, Depression Cherry 

It’s moody and melancholy and perfect for Sunday afternoons in winter, where hardly an hour of light graces us with its presence. The singing is woozy and lush, the track titles are typical Beach House (‘Wildflower’, ‘Levitation’, ‘Days of Candy’) and a mellow, dissonant drone seems to drift over most of the songs. There’s a whispery feeling to the vocals and a scratchy-sounding organ keyboard. Also, the album is coated in soft red velvet, so the physical copy is pretty beautiful, and there’s definitely a ‘tactile’ sense to the music itself, with all the sparkling effects and the echoing texture of Legrand’s voice. I like Beach House for the same reason I like Cocteau Twins: the music enfolds you like the atoms (or pixels?) of another world – it doesn’t sound 100% human, there’s something too mystical about it. The band released a website with typed lyric sheets, which adds to the sense that the whole album is a hazy collection of dream poems. It was released in late summer but I have listened to it a lot more in winter; it’s like the sound of  Victoria Legrand’s hazy, drifting vocals is better suited to the cold weather, the whiter light, the sheen of ice.

Favourite tracks: ‘Space Song’,  ‘Levitation’, ‘PPP’.

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Beirut, No, No, No

There were a few weeks where I sort of just played this album on repeat in the restaurant where I work. Generally it was pretty harshly reviewed and there is a sense that single tracks stand out more than the whole. Still, I appreciated that cheerful continental folk vibe to get me through the autumn and winter with its remnants of pastel-hazed summer. Even though the songwriting might not be as *original* or *inventive* as 2011’s The Rip Tide, you can have a lot of fun with some staccato beats and percussion. Plus I love a bit of brass.

Favourite tracks: ‘No, No, No’, ‘Gibraltar’, ‘Perth’.

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Belle and Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Just the sort of lively pop weirdness you need to brighten your January, when the album was released. I love Belle and Sebastian, the way they create simple catchy folk-pop but base it around stories and characters and inventive lyrics about lost girls and ~cutely~ wayward indie kids. There’s a bit more experimentation than usual on this one: from the funky disco atmosphere of ‘The Party Line’  and ‘Perfect Couples’ to the epic near-7-minute dance track ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’, there’s something for everyone. ‘Nobody’s Empire’, which approaches the subject of lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s MS, reveals Murdoch’s general genius for lilting melodies punched through with a weightier-than-usual buildup and bass line. ‘Ever Had a Little Faith’ is maybe the closest song to old-school Belle & Sebastian. Generally this album is full of interesting licks and typically witty lyrics, and its experimentation lends well to repeated listening.

Favourite tracks: ‘Nobody’s Empire’, ‘The Party Line’, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’.

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Blur, The Magic Whip

Blur’s first album since 2003, The Magic Whip is kind of a mystical, surreal experience. Along with the artwork (a neon ice cream and some Chinese lettering), the album’s whole vibe sort of reminds me of this weird game I used to have for Sega Megadrive where you could do fight scenes on top of an apartment roof in the depths of Tokyo. Everything was blurry and glitchy and full of bright lights against the backdrop of glittering darkness. The Magic Whip is set in Hong Kong rather than Tokyo, but it has that strange sense of futuristic metropolitan darkness. It takes away the grunginess of Blur and sonic spaciness of 13 and enters a more self-aware, perhaps even ‘postmodern’ (ugh, the implications of that term) territory.

Well, for one there’s the obvious cultural borrowing from Hong Kong, where the album came together; there’s also the sense of meta-britpop on songs like ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘I Broadcast’ which update the whistle-along laddish bounce of 1990s culture for a more accelerated version of the jaded digital and cosmopolitan era (‘Lonesome Street’ is overlaid with the sound of someone reporting – on the news? – sparkling synths and echoing city street noises). The sense of absurdity and collapse, like in ‘I Broadcast’ where the chorus falls into the repeated line: I’m running being played over Graham Coxon’s sharp guitar. It’s a complex and intriguing album with some sweet bass lines and dreamy Damon Albarn vocals. Listening to it really does sort of take you somewhere else. Also, ‘Mirrorball’, the record’s final song, sounds almost like it belongs on a David Lynch soundtrack.

Favourite tracks: ‘Ghost Ship’, ‘Pyongyang’, ‘My Terracotta Heart’.

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Clarence Clarity, No Now 

From the glitchy, 90s Windows computer aesthetic of its videos to the vibrating bass, disco rhythms and shrieking guitars and falsetto vocals, this is one crazy good album. Not many folk are brave enough to put out 20 tracks on their debut album, but the effect of doing so sort of drags you underwater into a world of sound that’s electric as a field of lightning, as shrieking neon as that purple lava you get in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Chemical Plant Zone. Sorry, is that mixed metaphors? Who cares, with music like this, everything is mixed to fuck. 

Some of the songs have a cinematic feel, which is hard to define except for a sort of atmosphere created by all the glitchy sound effects and samples (listen to the start of ‘The Gospel Truth’, for example). It’s a relief when Clarity strips back into ‘purer’ or softer vocals (see ‘With No Fear’), but also a great feeling when the effects pedals step on again, like having water thrown over you. Cold, shocking, refreshing. Kinda like the whole album. You’ve got references to ‘worm holes’ and ‘cancer™ in the water’ and all sorts of surreal cyber imagery and staccato vocals in reverse (‘Tathagatagarbha’ is straight out of Twin Peaks’ Red Room, right?). ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’ is the kind of psycho disco death funk they would play at the end of the world. I was lucky enough to see Clarence supporting Jungle in Edinburgh this year and I can say that it all sounds sweet as hell live – the band’s energy really plays out the craziness of the album – which isn’t always always the case when the production is one of the best parts.

Favourite tracks: ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’, ‘Bloodbarf’, ‘Will to Believe’.

(Also, I think ‘Hit Factory of Sadness’ is one of my favourite song titles ever).

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Foals, What Went Down 

I guess the critical/commercial success of Foals’ fourth album (in October they were voted ‘Best Act in the World Today’ at the Q Awards) means I don’t need to say much to justify my choice. I’ve been with Foals ever since they were bouncing out math rock on early Skins, and this album was no letdown. For one, it has several tracks which follow in the footsteps of ‘Spanish Sahara’: ‘London Thunder’ is a beautiful, atmospheric track with a lovely build, and even Lana Del Rey has sung her praises for ‘Give It All’, which addresses love as a kind of fragile presence/absence, of digital melancholia – ‘Give me the way it could have been / Give me the ghost that’s on the screen’. ‘Birch Tree’ has that sort of upbeat, syncopated feel reminiscent of ‘My Number’ (from Holy Fire). Other than the softer tracks, it’s a whole lot rockier than previous albums, especially on the frenzied ‘What Went Down’ and jangly guitar rhythms of ‘Mountain at My Gates’. I listened to this all throughout the month it took to move from my old flat, so it will always have that sense of dislocation and haunting futurity for me… (plus the stress of shifting boxes and scrubbing kitchens).

Favourite tracks: ‘Mountain At My Gates’, ‘Birch Tree’, ‘London Thunder’.

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Gaz Coombes, Matador

I have to confess that while Matador was released in April, I didn’t actually listen to this album until about a month ago, when I found out my cousin (the lovely Hannah Lou Clark) was supporting him on his UK tour dates. I saw Supergrass a long time ago when they supported Coldplay at Bellahouston Park, but I don’t remember much of it, especially as I was right at the back! This is such a gorgeous album though, I swear I’ve listened to ‘Matador’ on repeat to and from work for the last fortnight at least. It has great range and depth, another fine example of the maturity that can come out of the Britpop era. Coombes can sound both delicate and powerful, and there’s a certainty, a sureness, to this record. There are songs whose haunting atmosphere is complimented by stunning but simple lyrics (‘Worry fades the soul away / I’ll take the hurricane for you’ – ’20/20’) and climactic choruses. If I close my eyes I imagine this song being played over a dramatic film scene, like someone running through city streets, a breakdown, things exploding, changing. Something like that. I know it’s cheesy but there are definitely songs on this album which you could call sublime in the true sense of the word. Disorientating, awesome, majestic, powerful. Gospel influences, electronic beats, acoustic guitar. I’m still in love with it.

Favourite tracks (this was difficult, and may change): ‘The Girl Who Fell to Earth’, ‘Matador’, ’20/20’.

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Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Going Down

Aw man, there’s just this beautiful twang to Kurt Vile’s music that is so addictive. It’s not just his hair. The country twang of guitars, his sweetly droning, idiosyncratic voice. You can see the influence of Nick Drake, maybe a touch of Dylan, but also a very modern sense of disconnectedness, of goofiness even – the sense of being very self-aware but at the same time alienated from who that self is. Some of the songs sound a bit ballad-like, but there’s always a kind of dissonant, bluesy twist. He really nails his lyrics and imagery too: ‘I hang glide into the valley of ashes’, ‘A headache like a ShopVac coughing dust bunnies’. The twinge and stuffed wordiness of ‘Pretty Pimpin’ proves strangely addictive, as does that developing, repeating, turning, twanging guitar riff. ‘That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)’ is a darker, sadder sort of folk ballad. Generally, it’s an album to listen to dreamily, maybe on a car journey, but also one that goes well in the background of bars, because it’s lively enough, and pretty damn cool.

Favourite tracks: ‘Pretty Pimpin’, ‘That’s life tho (almost hate to say)’, ‘I’m an Outlaw’.

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Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon

I could rave about Lana all day. She has the genius of Lady Gaga, Bowie and Madonna in her creation of the ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ persona, but an old-school Hollywood voice that haunts and croons and glides over dark, sweet melodies. Honeymoon is very much a coherent piece of art. It’s a very visual album, much in the tradition of Del Rey’s previous work (the monochrome vibe of Ultraviolence played out in the gloomy, stripped back energy of the Dan Auerbach produced songs). Picture a summer-hazed beach with pastel huts and neon-signed strip clubs, peeling paint. Lana writhing about in her mint green muslin in the video for ‘High By the Beach’. It’s her dark paradise, a retro realm of sweet pop richly infused with jazz, blues, R&B, trap, disco and poetry. The loveliest recital of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ I’ve ever heard, soft and haunting. A Nina Simone cover. Tracks like ‘Salvatore’ and ‘Terrence Loves You’ really demonstrate the crystal clarity of her voice, as well as the strength of her range. The title track can be described in many ways, but I prefer the terms glimmering and cinematic. Really, it was the perfect soundtrack for a melancholy, post-graduation summer — except I swapped the retro cars and ice cream for long walks in Glasgow rain.

Favourite songs (again, so hard): ‘Terrence Loves You’, ‘Honeymoon’, ‘The Blackest Day’.

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Laura Marling, Short Movie 

It’s quite lovely to witness Laura Marling’s music maturity. From the honest folk pop of Alas I Cannot Swim to the stronger, mythological tones of Once I Was an Eagle, she has really developed and expanded her sound, not just in a literal sense but in a metaphysical one too. Does that make sense? I mean the way that her music opens worlds up. Eerie, dark soundscapes and cessations of space, interruptions and pauses and softly twangling guitars. Opening track ‘Warrior’ is spellbinding, allusive and elusive; full of echoes and misty vocals, guitar licks that curl round and round. It feels distinctively American, as opposed to, for example, the Englishness, countryside sweetness of I Speak Because I Can. There’s a sense of being lost, looking for something (‘the warrior I’ve been looking for’), of endlessly journeying.

For most of the record Marling steps away from the acoustic songwriting (delicate, but sometimes forceful) which won her fame in earlier records; her electric guitar simmers through the tracks, building around her increasingly impassioned vocals. On ‘False Hope’, a track about Hurricane Sandy, she steals us away from the vague landscapes of ‘Warrior’ to the metropolis, the Upper West Side, where darkness falls and electricity fails as she tells us of the storm. The weather plays pathetic fallacy to the storminess of the singer’s mind: ‘Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be at all? / There’s a party uptown but I just don’t feel like I belong at all / Do I?’. ‘False Hope’ slides into a more traditional Marling track, ‘I Feel Your Love’, which rolls along like a nice old folk song, a bit Staves-like maybe, but more haunting. Her more ‘spoken’ delivery of vocals, intertwined with some searingly brief high notes, in ‘Strange’ for example, bring to mind Joni Mitchell. At times she addresses different characters: spurned lovers, young girls who mirror herself, the ‘woman downstairs’ who’s lost her mind. The overall effect is less introspective, and more fleeting, transient: the self behind the voice slips in and out of view, through various narratives and images. There’s a restlessness which contributes to the Americana vibe, but one which is perhaps also simply the natural expression of a successful singer songwriter still only 25, trying to find her way in the world…

Favourite tracks: ‘Warrior’, ‘False Hope’, ‘Worship Me’.

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Little Comets, Hope is Just a State of Mind

My favourite band for kitchen sink indie…I like how Little Comets ease you into their changes in sound through various EPs released throughout the year. With the tingly guitars released on ‘Salt’ and the earnest lyrics, a ballad (‘The Assisted’) and emphatic drumming (‘Ex-Cathedra’) of ‘The Sanguine EP’, listeners were prepared for what was to come on Hope is Just a State of Mind, which seems to head towards what might be called a more eccentrically pop direction. One of my favourite things about this band is how they delve into the political and there’s certainly no avoiding it on this album, from the dig at Robin Thicke’s gender politics in ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’ to the lethargy of rock and roll in ‘Formula’ and the cultural demonisation of single motherhood in ‘The Daily Grind’: ‘You must feel so proud / Stigmatising every single mother / While your own world’s falling down’. Songs like ‘The Gift of Sound’ and ‘Formula’ have a more straightforward energetic pop vibe, whereas ‘B&B’ begins with an accapella moment and revolves around the repeated line: ‘my own mother cannot take me back’. There’s lots of thudding drumming and a swinging sort of emphatic, repetitive melody. The song, incidentally, is about bedroom tax and Robert Coles has eloquently said of the lyrics:

‘Lyrically the words came quite quickly as I always had the “even my own mother cannot take me back” line in my head from writing the melody. I knew it was going to be about politics: specifically the patronisation of people by the political class in both ideology and delivery, and the way that my own region has been altered by the blue hoards of conservatism.

The title stems from a tweet by Grant Shapps regarding the last budget – “budget 2014 cuts bingo & beer tax helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy. RT to spread the word”. Beer and Bingo – because there’s nothing else to do.

I think the first verse is just frustration with the attitude put across by politicians that suggests that they think people are total idiots – policies light on detail, simplistic ideology, framing debates in headlines, constant ill behaviour. Plus from the other end of the scale the total demonisation of the less well off in the swingeing benefit cuts typified by the bedroom tax. I just think it is bizarre and to treat us with this brazen amount of contempt.

It really got me thinking about the north east getting so bashed up in the time of Thatcher – destroying lives and communities because of a need to dominate on an ideological level. I think the second verse tries to convey the depressing notion that beyond this pain, she also eradicated trades and skillsets that had been built for hundreds of years without the prospect of anything new, or transferability. To extinguish a trade, a way of life…. Wow….. That’s a pretty crazy course of action.

It’s almost like she stole those years from us – and it feels a little like it is being echoed now. Taking away what someone relies on is oppression, and this is being felt in communities across our country today – horrified in the knowledge that it will continue until people are so battered that they accept it. The worst part is if you look closely enough, past Grant’s apparent carrot you can see the joy in the eyes behind the ghastly stick, and they look frighteningly familiar” (Source: Little Comets’ Lyric Blog).

I guess I’ve included the quote because I think the politics have become more direct in this album and it’s interesting to flesh out the backstory here. Sure, there have been plenty of ‘northern’ bands before, but rarely have I listened to a pop or indie band who engage with their politics so directly and so articulately (usually this space is reserved for punk or rock – Manic Street Preachers of course, representing a ‘marginalised’ Welsh perspective). Aside from lyrical content, you’ve got the usual pleasures of Little Comets harmonies, shredding guitar licks and bouncy rhythms. ‘My Boy William’ is wonderful live, the way it builds up and everyone following the drum rhythm. ‘Little Italy’ is great fun too, with its cascading melodies (liiiittalll iiiitaaalllyyyyy I reeAAd heeEre) and syncopated rhythm. It’s true, on this album (especially on ‘Salt’), the songs are very up and down, rarely straightforward and often lines are lyrically and melodically convoluted; this isn’t a criticism but more a reflection of what seems to be a desire to push the formulaic boundaries of pop, to infuse guitar chords with lush vocal harmonies and ringing percussion. To represent detailed, difficult subjects in pop is never going to be easy, but Little Comets nail it in their own unique, beautiful way. Look forward to seeing them again live next year!

Favourite tracks: ‘Don’t Fool Yourself’, ‘Little Italy’, ‘The Blur, the Line & the Thickest of Onions’.

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The Maccabees, Marks to Prove It

Well, to be honest I never would’ve thought I’d be including The Maccabees on my 2015 albums of the year. Over the last few years, I haven’t spared much thought for the band other than as another soundtrack to the general indie trend of the last ten years: a band mentioned frequently in NME perhaps, soundtracking lovelorn scenes in movies, but nothing particularly distinct other than in their creation of twee indie pop. However, one night after work I was lying on the floor recovering from a terrible shift with the radio on, listening to X-Posure With John Kennedy on what used to be XFM. The Maccabees were talking through their new album and playing the songs, and I was pleasantly surprised by how intriguing the sound was, as well as how articulate the band were in talking through the writing process and the stories behind the songs. I guess the next day I went out and bought the album. It definitely sounds a long way away from ‘Toothpaste Kisses’, though the added kazoos and varied percussion doesn’t spoil the simple joy of good plain songwriting. The songs have a weight to them, a grander atmosphere, especially the weird dissonance on the likes of ‘River Song’. ‘Silence’, however, is quietly beautiful, drifting along soft piano notes, subdued vocals and a somewhat eerie sample of an answering machine voice.

Where once you would recommend The Maccabees mostly to fans of The Mystery Jets, Pigeon Detectives or Futureheads, this album feels much more grownup, darker somehow, wilder and expansive. The lyrics vary in subject from the gentrification of London’s Elephant & Castle (the band’s hometown) to heartbreak (‘When you’re scared and lost / Don’t let it all build up’) and well, happiness (‘Something Like Happiness’). It’s refreshing to have a song that does just feel like at times like a gentle old ode to joy: ‘If you love them / Go and tell them’. ‘Marks to Prove It’, the opening track, feels confident and bouncy, with a sharp riff and assured vocals. It would fit in with a fast pop set from The Futureheads, but the rallying battle cry that precedes Orlando Weeks’ voice announces something slightly stranger, a record with new edge.

Favourite tracks: ‘Silence’, ‘River Song’, ‘Something Like Happiness’.

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Tame Impala, Currents 

I was introduced to Tame Impala mostly from one of the chefs at work playing it in the kitchen on Sunday mornings, and weirdly enough his psychedelic brand of synth pop seems appropriate preparation for a day serving Sunday roasts to hungover customers. It’s the swelling bass and brilliant synths that really catch you, the smooth falsetto and tingling production. You can tell Kevin Parker is a dream at studio magic, with flawless instrumental arrangement that makes for a sound that could be big or chilled, depending on how you play it. There’s some dark keyboard drama, there’s a lovelorn anthem (‘Eventually’) and what might tenuously be described as weird disco funk. For some reason (maybe all the synths, gossamer vocals and vintage-sounding guitars?) has a ‘bedroom-made’ feeling, but with a much slicker production than the DIY element might suggest. Some songs sound like they belong on a long, atmospheric train journey across a space desert; others sound like they’d fit on the cuts of drama interspersing a video game. There’s a dreaminess to songs like ‘Yes I’m Changing’, but a more radio-friendly funkiness to the likes of ‘The Less I Know the Better’, or even ‘Love/Paranoia’, with its silky beats and finger clicks. As the album progresses, the theme of heartbreak starts to really solidify and I guess that’s the overriding drive of the songs – a heartbreak that slows and stifles, morphs between introspection and the temptation of mild bombast.

Favourite tracks: ‘Yes I’m Changing’, ‘The Less I Know the Better’, ‘Love/Paranoia’.

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Stornoway, Bonxie

This was a lovely album to enjoy in spring, from the hopeful folksiness to the cute origami bird on the cover. I guess it got me through that period of hell in my life that was finals. I would go on walks around Kelvindale where all the cherry blossoms were, listening to the soft acoustic licks and all the soothing bird sound effects. It’s an album to enjoy by the sea perhaps, full of a sort of longing. There’s the noise of distant foghorns, the rolling harp-like guitar and sparkling xylophone over the drifting shimmer of a wave-like cymbal. This is probably my favourite Stornaway album, or at least equal to the debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill because of its more folksy atmosphere, its immersion in nature — the sense of being lost, deliciously lost by the edge of the ocean. ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ especially boasts a shanty-like chorus which adds to the nautical theme and sort of swells up like you’re caught at sea, singing along irrevocably. Melodies build up to climaxes and fall back down into subdued, slower choruses, as if the speaker tries to articulate something about his surroundings (the beautiful environment) but fails to express them entirely. Sweet, comforting guitar licks glide us through (e.g., the start of ‘Sing With Our Senses’). Vocals are never aggressive, only sometimes shrill and generally soothing – like a bird’s? Apparently over 20 types of bird donated their song to the album, and let’s not forget that singer Brian Briggs is a Dr. of Ornithology! It’s just a lovely escapist sort of album, reminding you of seaside holidays from years ago, that childlike ability to sink into your surroundings and find wonder in a leaf, a taste of salt air, a bird call.

Favourite tracks:  ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, ‘We Were Giants’, ‘Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea’.

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Swim Deep, Mothers

It seems everyone has been describing this album as Swim Deep’s foray into psych-pop. You only have to take a glance at the warping colour bleed of the cover art to pick up those vibes. The honey sweet guitar pop of Where the Heaven Are We has morphed into something heavier, more saturated. There are so many influences, but I suppose you could start with psychedelic music, house and kraut rock. Lots of bursting, colourful synths. It reminds me of The Horrors’ Primary Colours, not only because it’s a ‘change-around’ album, but also the subdued, atmospheric reworking of prior image and musical style. Songs like ‘Honey’ and ‘The Sea’ from their debut album were chilled and loose with catchy melodies, and while Mothers retains the catchy melodies, its style has tightened up a bit. The instrumental elements are more complex; songs open up a multilayered world rather than the silver stream of a simple pop tune. ‘To My Brother’ has an epic quality, building up to the chorus with some extravagance – weirdly, the sort of mistiness of the vocals and quirky synths remind me of Seal. I’m not sure why, or whether that’s even an accurate comparison, but the link just popped into my head. I love the way critics have compared ‘Namaste’ to discordant game show music, which obviously fits in with the 1990s vibes of the video. All that beige, those glasses, the sense of mania reflected in the music! It’s more mature maybe, but still fun.

Favourite tracks: ‘To My Brother’, ‘Namaste’, ‘Imagination’.

A few others…

  • Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars (two albums in one year, ‘nuff said)
  • Florence & the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful 
  • The Libertines, Anthems for Doomed Youth (listening to it to drag up the old nostalgia of discovering the first albums, for the lovely production and Doherty vocals on ‘You’re My Waterloo’ and Carl Barat’s very English swagger).
  • Prides, The Way Back Up (Stewart Brock has come a fair way since Drive-By Argument (big up a band from Ayr!) but the wide, electronic sound of Prides has its heart in the original synthiness of Drive-By Argument which developed into more distinctly electronic side-project, Midnight Lion. Obvious comparisons are to Chvrches, but maybe also a bit of Daft Punk. Radio-friendly but I’d imagine really big and energetic live, plus whenever I hear them I get sweet teenage nostalgia for Drive-By Argument).
  • Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell 
  • Years & Years, Communion (sparkly EDM pop with plenty of pluck, from a band whose singer starred in Skins and Stuart Murdoch’s indie flick, God Help the Girl).

The Melancholy of Lana Del Rey

Source: Vogue Australia
Source: Vogue Australia

 I even enjoy dying in the character who is dying.

— Franz Kafka

Every time I close my eyes,
It’s like a dark paradise

There’s something apocalyptic about a Blood Moon. The sense of waste and transient beauty, light and life shedding away. The moon takes its thirty-year delayed menstruation; red cloud wisps over its shining face like clots of blood being pulled across a pool of silver. Somewhere out there, lovers are lying in lush paradise, staring up at this white eye opened by god; far away, drowned in stars. A voice swirls like smoke over soft, shimmery guitar. It’s the eclipse, sometime about now, then, yesterday, and I am or I was listening to Lana Del Rey.

Honeymoon, then going back to Dark Paradise. Insomnia in the space between night and day; between one universe and another, always afloat in claustrophobia. Returning to this song again and again, its repetition, invoking the familiar sadness and masochism that Lana dreamt up only a few years ago, you’re surrounded by an eternal world of neon palms, boulevards dripped in milky dusk, the sickly excess of tequila sunrise against soaring choruses and stripped-back lyrics. In a way, you fall or sink into Lana Del Rey’s music. Like Kubla Kahn, the eponymous Chinese emperor of Coleridge’s opium-provoked fragment poem, you are sucked dreamily into the sultry visual world of dark objects, consumer heaven, the young and beautiful place of honeydew where you are invited to drink ‘the milk of paradise’. Lana’s swooning melodies charm over time, drawing you into an atmosphere of narcotised darkness which evokes a silent movie – even as the interplay between sound and image is as crucial a set of semiotics as anything Roland Barthes might analyse. You could fall back into the darkness, be seduced by the languid timeless sigh which slides over memories, nostalgia for lost evenings, red dresses and cigarettes, lost girls pressed up against bad boys in clubs, feeling like their whole existence is just a vision, propelling their electric bodies on and on as if in tune to Freud’s death drive.

Much of Lana’s music is about desire: the kind of desire that doesn’t leave you cut-up on the kitchen floor in crude emotion (a la Natalie Imbruglia, ‘Torn’), but passes through that place in the heart of culture that falls into absence and darkness. The secret hollow of modernity. It makes sense that she sung the sultry standout track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby adaptation, ‘Young and Beautiful’. Del Rey’s America is so Art Deco, from the typeface of her new album, to her obsession with cars and jazz and girls called Carmen, the fragile magic of Hollywood glamour which often bleeds at the seams. Lana returns to that dull wound and picks at it, indifferently, till it’s fresh again – a more ethereal thing that transcends the rotting body of America’s culture. Sex, violence, money, power, charisma; they all blur together in Lana’s fixated, addictive lyrics. In her performance, she already knows the irrelevance of authenticity; it makes her internet-immune, a kind of perfect. Nobody can critique her, because she’s always one step ahead. Despite the success of Lady Gaga, who wears her gender performativity on her sleeve, American culture remains obsessed with the cult of authenticity. Lana has been attacked for ‘making up’ the stories portrayed in her songs, the easy-love lifestyle she presents; for having plastic surgery and performing under an alias that nods more to Hollywood mythology than the girl-next-door vibes of her real name, Elizabeth Grant. Remember James Frey, the ‘man who rewrote his life’ and was subsequently attacked by Oprah when she discovered he’d fabricated and exaggerated a hefty chunk of his memoir of drug addiction? Lana, like James Frey, like Hemingway, is interested in the interplay between real life and fantasy, performance and authenticity; importantly, however, she shows how real life is itself played out and realised through the lens of mediated fantasy. Her songs betray a Baudrillardian ecstasy of communication, simulacra and simulations, updated for an age where the past is showered with the longed-for shroud of Hollywood glamour, where the present is fragmented, split across the Internet (where Lana first made her success, sensation).

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Isn’t it lovely when somebody makes albums that really feel like art? From Born to Die’s glamorous sadness draped in an American flag, to the monochrome somnolence of Ultraviolence (produced, appropriately, by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys), each of Lana Del Rey’s records captures a persona, but one which shifts and gathers nuance in the filters of crooning choruses and soft guitars, the distinctive colour charts of an album cover. Born to Die: pastel blues and palm trees, red lips and smoky eyes; the glossy, time-travelling Americana of her short film Tropico (2013), whose flashy symbolism mixes purity with moral pollution, the Garden of Eden with unicorns and gangsters. Ultraviolence: black and white, the spare sex of sorrow. Her latest offering, Honeymoon, sinks deliciously a familiar aura of daydreams, heartache and a sense of mesmerising stasis captured in Lana’s recital of ‘Burnt Norton’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which evokes an abstracted and absent conception of time, slipping away into endlessly echoing, impossible memory…

Footfalls echo in the memory. Sound effects; quiet sirens, the soft familiar crackle of static, reminding us of the temporal duration, the space of presence that opens up with each play of the song, then closes again in silence – but always there, always there waiting in possibility, for the next click, the next play. Down the passage which we did not take. 

In the album sleeve, the white printed lyrics to ‘High By the Beach’ flicker and disappear in the yellow-gold light of a glossy photo depicting a tree-lined avenue. Lana Del Rey songs always paint little vignettes of stories, but her characters frequently disappear from view, their situations dreamlike, slanted towards death but never reaching conclusion. Like any avant-garde novel worth its salt, Lana Del Rey’s music often bears a slightly creepy, unsettling quality, a sense of never being quite finished, a sense of repetition, frustration and surrealist reality. While she can master a good pop tune, Lana never gives us that self-satisfied pomp and narrative closure of a Taylor Swift song; there is an almost uncanny quality to her musical arrangements: the drifting melodies, tinges of trip hop, strings, rippling snares and minimal beats. Literary references abound: from that iconic reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in Tropico, to the album title Ultraviolence (alluding to the random acts of ‘ultra-violence which the teenage protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange is addicted to) and all that sinister seduction of ‘Carmen’: ‘It’s alarming, honestly, how charming she can be’, in a nod to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In ‘Ride’ she references the sexual plight of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, drifting through life by ‘relying on the kindness of strangers’; in a way, Blanche is a perfect Lana Del Rey heroine. Not only is she a ‘fallen woman’ but she is also an alcoholic, guzzling bourbon and symbolically-charged cherry soda (My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola, / My eyes are wide like cherry pies – ‘Cola’), and longs to die in a most extravagant way, conflicted by her desire for purity and her sexual appetite: first, she will eat an ‘unwashed grape’ (the poisoned fruit of Eden, the rotten core of carnal pleasure) then be ‘buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!’.

Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan's film adapation of Streetcar
Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan’s film adapation of Streetcar

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My baby lives in shades of blue
Blue eyes and jazz and attitude

Well New Orleans – the setting of A Streetcar Named Desire – is a city rich enough in jazz and attitude, especially in the 1940s. In a way, all of Del Rey’s characters are caught up on the deathward drive of streetcars named desire, only her streetcars have morphed into getaway vehicles and limousines, or else the rides of suburban rockstars: I spend my whole life driving in cars with boys / Riding around town, drinking in the white noise. The white noise? The ever-present static reality of radio and television, life flickering on amidst its background hum and rush. It’s an edgier version of Lorde’s ‘400 Luxe’, a delicate, pulsing tribute to the romance of small-town time wasting on roads where the houses don’t change:

We’re never done with killing time
Can I kill it with you?
Till our veins run red and…blue
We come around here all the time
Got a lot to not do, let me kill it with you

You pick me up and take me home again
Head out the window again
We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain
You drape your wrist over the steering wheel
Moses can drive from here
We might be hollow, but we’re brave

On the subject of heroines, Lana is constantly critiqued for her portrayal of women; namely, her ensemble of doomed and lovelorn characters who lavish over their hopeless agony and fail to resist the anonymous bad boys which recur in her songs. Yet there is an irony to this critique, because critics seem to forget that it is a woman who is pulling the strings over all these puppets. Lana slips in and out of her roles as easily as she slips between haunting, orchestral notes. She is always in control, her voice brilliant as smoky quartz crystal, even as she sings about being out of control. There is a litheness to her performance that indicates the strength of her fiction: Lana is like a novelist, fabricating a shadow world which shows up the underbelly of American culture, from its Golden Age of 1950s glamour to the fractured present, where alcohol and club culture meet the melting pixel pot of the Internet. I wish I was dead already, she can say in a Guardian interview, incanting it like a spell, letting Twitter fall on its knees with spits and stirs of protest and loathing. Prostitutes, gangsters, trailer trash alcoholics. These people, these liminal figures on the margins of society – stereotypes, yes, but vivid ones nonetheless – are the lifeblood of Lana’s music and as she renders them, they have emotional depth, a soulless soul, unlike hiphop’s deadpan delivery of gangster vocabulary. As her voice swells to a pitch we realise that Lana has already dismissed something as ‘crude’ as identity politics, embracing instead the freedom land of the seventies, free because America, land of opportunity (for white women, at least) had then opened up a new lifestyle, a new kind of being. There is power in being a sad girl, nasal and depressed but somehow free, as in the paean to glamorous dishevelment, ‘Cruel World’ (from Ultraviolence):  I like my candy and your heroin, / And I’m so happy, so happy now you’re gone. / Put my little red party dress on, / Everybody knows that I’m a mess, I’m crazy … ‘Cause you’re young, you’re wild, you’re free, / You’re dancing circles around me. There’s that cliché of Americana: being young and wild and free – think of Bruce Springsteen’s celebration of wild youth – and again, Lana places her voice in the hullabaloo of this tornado of deathly ecstasy, making herself the static one in the centre, languishing over her candy and heroine while everyone else dances circles around her.

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‘I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo’ — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. 

Hiphop melancholia, narco-swing, vintage pop; whatever you wanna call it, Lana always kinda slips the net. Its her characters, her musical and metaphorical landscapes that draw you in. In a way, her songs are just as literary as any old poem.

Crying tears of gold, like lemonade. Here we are on ‘Ultraviolence’, drowning in violins and vats of sadness, relishing the salt taste and thinking of the ocean. The ocean haunts Honeymoon too. It’s there in the California blues, the ‘blue nail polish’ that’s her ‘favourite colour’ and ‘favourite tone of song’ in ‘The Blackest Day’, the sultry ice cream gleam of ‘Salvatore’ which glides in and out of languid Italian and consumable nouns (cacciatore, limousines), perhaps like a narcotised, Sinatra-style swing version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘By the Way’ (the bit where they seem to throw a demented grocery list at you). Shady blue, summer rain, sparkling lights; it’s a beautiful snowflake of a song, catching its glitter in the strings and the la-da-da-da-daaaas which fall around you, soft and sad yet somehow delectable. The ocean is the darling of the suicidal American woman: it is the world’s womb, the waves that embrace desire, the space of endless multitude, escape from restrictive culture. In ‘Dark Paradise’, the singer is lying in the ocean singing your song – is this a meta statement, one persona talking back to the distant maker? All of Lana’s heroines are looking for that dark paradise; that refrain, But I wish I was dead. Think of Edna in Kate Chopin’s 1899 (later banned) novel of sexual awakening, The Awakening: Chopin’s impressionistic purple prose isn’t so far from the poetic melodrama of Lana’s lovelorn world: ‘The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude’. Chopin’s onomatopoeic prose chimes with Lana’s frequent use of sound effects, from the Fourth of July fireworks which open ‘National Anthem’ to the glitchy blips of ‘Video Games’ and twinkling bird sounds of the Hollywood hills in ‘Is This Happiness’…Expressions of desire flicker with the imagined bliss of paradise.

Source: https://unlockingkeyes.files.wordpress.com

In the conclusion to The Awakening, Edna steps out into the ocean, never to return, remembering as the horizon catches her eyes the sounds and scents of her childhood: the simple ‘hum of bees’ and ‘musky odour of pinks’ which fill the air narcotically. Walking into the ocean as Lana’s heroine writhes on her bed and balcony, longing to just get high by the beach, longing for that preserved moment of perfect stasis, the endless waves, the endless boulevard leading to a distant horizon of fathomless dark glass, tall buildings rising up amidst pink flamingoes like surrealist paintings. Haze of smoke, daytime closing.

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There is a passage from Don DeLillo’s debut novel, Americana (1971) which David Foster Wallace happened to underline in his copy of the book:

“David, I truly love you and hate you. I love you because you’re a beautiful thing and a good boy. You’re more innocent than a field mouse and I don’t believe you have any evil in you, if that’s possible. And I hate you because you’re sick. Illness at a certain point inspires pity. Beyond that point it becomes hateful. It becomes very much like a personal insult. One wishes to destroy the sickness by destroying the patient. You’re such a lovable cliché, my love, and I do hope you’re found the centre of your sin”.

A ‘lovable cliché’: the sort of thing Lana embraces, makes raw and coats in her voice of smoke and silk. The antithesis of beauty and disgust, love and hate; how our attempts to disinfect the one from the other are doomed to fail. Culture is a contradiction. In Americana, the protagonist David Bell is a TV executive who finds himself deeply apathetic, despite being attractive, sharp and popular with the ladies. He frequently articulates his experiences, his life at large, as if they were a film. He becomes obsessed with finding meaning, embarking on a Kerouac-esque quest at getting to the nitty-gritty of America’s heart of darkness, but this documentary gets messed up in his attempts to re-stage and re-enact events from his past. I guess it’s true that the novel is all about unattainable desire, whether this is desire for meaning, personal fulfilment or something more carnal – the search for the centre of your sin which could easily be a Lana lyric. What’s more, this pathological fixation of DeLillo’s David Bell to some extent parallels Del Rey’s obsession with the silver screen version of America; the photography of Honeymoon’s cover even resembles a sexier version of the Penguin cover for Americana:

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While Del Rey’s female characters languish in their statically trapped daydreams of love and violence and Hollywood glamour, DeLillo’s version of Americana is largely embodied in the road myth and its cult of masculinity:

There is a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape, beyond limits of a large and reduplicating city, near a major point of arrival and departure: this is most likely where it stands….Men hold this motel firmly in their hearts; here flows the dream of the confluence of travel and sex.

This kind of commentary permeates the book, often arriving at a kind of religious, anthropological rapture which lacks the self-consciousness of DeLillo’s later novel White Noise, but provides a rambling cultural landmark that paves the way towards the sort of position Del Rey occupies in the mainstream. The Beats, protesting consumerism even as they gorged on apple pie; Bret Easton Ellis, with his deeply despairing coterie of psychopathic, serial-killer yuppies and sexually-violent, chronically-bored L.A teenagers; Lana Del Rey, voicing the glorious wastage of our postmodern wasteland, our beaten bodies and minds, voicing her vision through scenes of sun-drenched nostalgia which evoke a beautiful and terrible America, made glossy and pure through stars and stripes, a delicate riff; drifts of strings, jazz, Instagram filters. That golden period where love suffuses with the candy-flavoured stuff of daydreams, movies: Honeymoon. The whole album renders a narrow reality of the past and present: it’s pastel-shaded afternoons lost to the call of the ocean, sad ballads of frustrated love (I lost myself when I lost you), electro blues; it’s The Blackest Day, with Billie Holliday, palm trees and prescription pills, throwing up the lilac and cinnamon-scented ash of society’s ills – emotional debris, disconnection, slowing tempos, the hullabaloo of static thrills.

Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com
Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com