Separation is something that passes through your body. It happens on scales that feel biological, because at once so intimate and distant, clear and mysterious. The vertigo sensation when you see a diagram of the heart, or someone’s face fading in the moving window of a train. When I learn the words for things I can’t articulate. When someone says Brexit or mentions faraway disasters, or power lines being laid deep under the sea. Scientific processes that I can’t reach. Separation, transmission, event repeating. A curiosity towards ominous energies. I’m not just talking about the endless, five o’clock stories, beamed through radio waves. Brexit is as Brexit does. Most analogue hour. How many of us woke up that Friday morning, after the fact, with stomach aches? The undigest of all our country, rent broad and familiar on all the news.
As history seems to be compressing, rapidly, in a chaotic present which seeks to smooth with legislative violence the rich diversity of our past, stories of migration and change become vital.
With vague direction, I walk over the motorway bridge twice to get back to Glasgow city centre. The trees in Kinning Park are singed with vermillion; it’s early October. I ascend the footbridge, just slightly hungover. The sight of the traffic fills me motion again, after a night of luxurious slosh and dark of stasis. Screen light and honeydew shoegaze. Cars are barely there, but they go places. They leave a carbon trail behind. Watching from the sun-drenched bridge, I carry my stories and see them swept up in lines I can’t manage. Later, I try to write. I am looking for a flow, a sense of circuitry. The sentences whir.
Then I step into the exhibition. There is the clarity of photography, more like a series of windows. Windows I see inside windows. The glass steams up in certain types of feeling, translated as light.
The themes of the recent Lightwaves exhibition at Street Level Photoworks, featuring the work of Mat Hay, Josée Pedneault, Bertrand Carrière, and Melanie Letoré, are moving histories: those of heritage, migration and the storytelling inherent within. I have a special familiarity with Letoré’s work and practice, having served as her hospitality comrade back in 2016 and since then having worked with her on a personal project: a weekly Google doc record of our lives and thoughts, sprawled in text, image (art & photographs), questions, lists, poetry, fiction and essays. The name of our project remains tendentiously secret, a bright hard candy. Keeping a ledger with someone who I tend only to encounter IRL on chance occasion (gliding bikewise down the motorway, drinking OJ in basement bars) feels a bit like an odyssey. An orbit of thought. Each week we find out more about each other’s pasts, our present fears and desires, our personalities. It’s a bit like trading journals at weekly sleepovers, except there’s the sense that each post on our shared document is less a private thought and more like something that needed airing, that needed figuring out in the shared forms of writing and visual expression. Writing as performative output, the act alone a delectation. I love the sense of sisterhood that comes with this kind of sharing, like when I was wee and my cousin and I would read each other’s palms and tarot, tell our futures.
I proposed the project to Melanie after many months of following her blog, Rectangledays, whose premise is the daily post of a fresh photograph. The blog goes back several years and serves as a sort of photo diary, a luminous archive of many little windows into moments in time. Some I recognise from the days we worked together at the restaurant: pictures of a decimated wedding cake, a lonesome chair in a stairwell, a bunch of crutches propped against the fence, another colleague’s bloodied toe, wadded with cotton. I love these photos as a testament to the physicality of hospitality, the importance of objects and tools (knives often feature) to our work, the endurance required: poor Shelby with the bloodied toe, acquired on a wild night out, would’ve hobbled along serving tables with her injury, no complaints, shift after shift.
It’s a total treat to see Melanie’s work in an exhibition context. Stories that maybe she’s written about in our ledger come to life in the distillation of pictures in a bright clean room. Privacy rents a very public space. The other photographers in the exhibition have their work blown up, pressed across the white, whereas Melanie’s are much smaller, identical in size, sitting parallel on a wall. The pictures are thick, giving the impression of little books, the three-dimensional aspect implying that the story is more complicated than the image allows. The image contains itself, and then the negative space of all these stories, quietly sporing. Much of her work is about shining a light on the intricacies of identity: Melanie’s grandparents migrated from North America to Europe in the 1950s, and she herself has moved from childhood Switzerland and found a home in Glasgow, as an adult. Her work feels like a dialogue with the everyday world around her, and maybe the people back home, the family who live their own lives many miles away. Photography as postcards without text on the back. Or maybe photography captioned with invisible ink, ink that only some people can see; others parsing their own specificity from the image. That’s the beauty of Melanie’s work: it’s tender and personal, but there’s a humanist impulse in there somewhere too, rent with a complexity that asks us to think about where people come from, how they live, where they touch the lives of others. Feelings, adventures, intimacies, routines, leisure and food.
A certain nourishment. I feel privileged to have access to some of the thoughts behind these images. Reading Melanie’s writing, I find myself adrift on all these planes of migration. The title of her exhibition, No You Without, comes from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. When told of the Wintu in north-central California, who use the cardinal directions rather than the words left and right to capture their bodies, Solnit writes, ‘I was enraptured by this description of a language and behind it a cultural imagination in which the self only exists in reference to the rest of the world, no you without mountains, without sun, without sky’. With this perspective, we realise our own contingency in the context of a relatively stable world. Recently, I’ve been wondering about where the ‘you’ is situated in my own poetry, who exactly it is I’m addressing. Who is the ‘you’ in a photograph, what kinds of hailing occur when we look at a portrait, or perhaps a landscape. Where are we situated and within whose vision. There’s a piece in No You Without where a woman, I think in fact Melanie herself, has awkwardly levitated her body by propping it between two counters or surfaces. I’m struck with the fact of the body suspended so precisely this way, making a new morphology of her being. Like when you are a child and find ingenious ways to get across a room without touching the lava-strewn floor, or like lying upside down for too long and seeing how precarious your sense of space is. When you are forced to appreciate gravity, pressure, connections. The objects that make us by dint of negation.
In Melanie’s images, I seek fresh orientations. These are subjects which reflect process rather than point; they are a document in the quest for self in a sea of myriad reflections, a very real sea which threatens with its sweep. I see red ribs of meat, black curls through black curtains, a strand of hair overlooking an island, the pinching of elbow flesh, a rainbow, the gnarled remainders of landscape’s heap, two boys rolling around on the beach. Each image demands its own sense of scene, of identity in place. I have a sense of capturing, that one slight second that splits and releases: the clouds come in, the flesh smooths back, the rainbow ceases to be.
While the images do not document explicit ‘narrative’ as such, it’s clear there’s an intimacy threading between them. I wonder if we are encouraged to pick up the images and study them, the way you might lift family photos off the mantelpiece, stealing a look at the back for captions. In the exhibition notes, it’s suggested that the migration of Melanie’s grandparents to Europe, and all their associated trauma, comprises ‘another layer to her search for identity’. What we lose or leave behind. What we carry with us. A memory of blue, of sky, of something that represents the not-knowing, but nevertheless the feeling. That which comes, regardless of narrative or language. I planted a thought. Photography bears the visual seeds.
I’m reminded of a passage in Sophie Collins’ book small white monkeys, one that Melanie and I have discussed often:
Patterns of shame can of course be inherited, be broken, halted, but mostly they are carried on through, like mottos, or emotional heraldry.
Maybe we carry something of what our parents and grandparents taught us, or experienced. The learned behaviours, observational ticks of outburst or repression. Frequencies and cycles of confession or pain, the arguments which pixelate our childhood memories with varying degrees of trauma. A traumatic tartan, stitched to the furniture of our daily lives; a ravelled print of practices and patterns of thought and feeling.
We find ourselves reenacting the affects of others, those we are close to. Mostly, we don’t mean to. There are just these things we remember, ticking away in our brain and blood.
Such memory persists like a stick of brighton rock with the motto carried through, except you can break off the stick at any point, you can shatter the neat black letters. The rock of the shards tastes sweet and mint, is cleansing.
But it sticks to your teeth. Shame sticks also.
You can cut yourself on your own quick memory.
When I learn the words for things I can’t articulate. Surely ‘emotional heraldry’ captures this miasma of maybe incalculable feelings I might attribute to family experience? A coat of arms to bear, whose pattern is fading before me, or intensifying within me. Heraldry, inheritance. Jewishness on my mother’s side, ethnicity unrecognised, religious cycles and traumatic pasts; a kind of implicit migrancy that is only tangible in visiting. Stories my nan tells about ancestors whose names are like keys to dust-filled chests, mildewed letters, somewhere deep and distant. But then livable: a trip to Amsterdam, family graves and suddenly the pulses of history might glow in my veins. That heat is a shame. Peeling yourself from the easy determinism of ‘family’ and then finding family wherever you read. Recently I was struck hard by this essay by Daisy Lafarge on maternal approaches to poetics, or looking to whatever texts provide a sort of mothering supplement, rich with emotional truths. The wrestle with essentialism, with forms of belonging. I am someone’s daughter when I read a poem or look at a photograph. Sometimes I am otherwise lost. I am that altogether vulnerable.
I guess I’m an immigrant too of sorts. Moving from England to Scotland at a very young age, being acutely aware of my Englishness and thus playground shame because of the markers of accent, and yet proud at the difference, to be different. Melanie’s photos teach me to sympathise with other kinds of present, and presence. They are fleeting and insouciant, playful in one sense, but otherwise make me want to stockpile and archive with a kind of serious fever. I want to know everything about the people in these images, scour their diaries and ask them their names. But I also want to leave them alone, up on the shelf where their lives can be quiet and still, and yet somehow heard, in the seeing. Maybe an image is a kind of speech; it allows us to separate, and to parse our connections. To halt in the flow of feeling, to carry a place or a person; to illumine.
Lightwavesis on until 25th November at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow.
Sylvia Plath wrote many of her Ariel poems in the wee hours before dawn, sucking in the cold and inverse crepuscular air, its colourations of sinister lilac and absent sleep. We have a cliché of the poet’s spontaneous overflow, but instead with Plath there’s a sharp intake, a suspension of air, of breath: ‘Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.’ We have to think through the impossibility of a substanceless blue, as everything must be a component of something; we are all of a sort as perilous hybrids, weak in some place with the viral code of our own demise, shimmering within and outside us like a beautiful aura. The speaker paralyses herself on the brink of sublime, of suicide. Tor: a hill or rocky peak. Vertiginous depths to erase the scale of the self on earth. Tor: a free software project which protects your privacy online. Where history bounces back, is the elaborate sarcophagus that traps the foul air of your history. Think of layering, onions, peeling stench of purple flesh. Indulgent recipes for regret; the cloying addresses of cheap pornography, of midnight Amazon deliveries. Inside the deep centre a secret, liquid sweet as Timothy Morton’s chilli-dark core of chocolate ecology. Chilli, chilly; a shiver in the air that is freeze or fiery. I have been googling your name in my sleep. A shivering, unsettled enmeshment. The encryption an insufficient addition to the substance of memory, its thick brain mulch of skin and image. Such protocol stacks are hypothetical only, nested as the heavenly day that will not die. Wordsworth singles his day from a tangle of others, the onion clot and rot of forgettable hours. To dwell forever in that substanceless blue! To wear innocence on the sleeve of freedom! Plath’s line breaks are harsh and sharp, they flake off the page in their skinly abscission of sound and sense; the body is imposed on grander scales, made to stretch then wither in variable ‘dead stringencies’. All of a space, the thin poem shivering down a spacious page. All of this is so much of air. Take me to the edge, go on, it’s a dare.
An understudy is someone who learns another’s role in order to act at short notice in the person’s absence. You lurk in the background, an absent presence of possible flourishing. The poem as understudy: recipes perhaps in the absence of breathing. What we read when there is no air left to breathe. Poems in reserve for a gradual apocalypse. What exists as core substance, what complements the element whose insouciance charms the lungs without thought. Derrida’s maddening supplement: neither presence or absence, something added and something in place of. An understudy for air, a rehearsal of air’s function. Anthropocenic, tarry air, stung with coal and thickly textured.
Robert Macfarlane asks that we find a ‘thick speech’ for articulating life in the time of climate crisis. Enter Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air (Sad Press, 2017). This is not a collection, ostensibly, about ecology or even the end of the world. It is a phantasmic scaffolding of words and lines for living, breathing, being. Its epigraph takes the axiom of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes: ‘The source of all things is air.’ Air being then the ubiquitous neutral substance, something available for occasional roles in physical process. A reluctant but capable actant, developing itself or forced upon by other natural causes. Air’s principle shifts bring about the other main elements: flicker into fire through precious density, condense into wind or water, earth then stone. Anaximenes articulates this through a simple example: if you relax your mouth and blow on your hand, it’s hot; if you do so with pursed lips, the air is cold. So rarity correlates with heat, density with cold. A beautiful, quiet, material intimacy. Everyday action, for Anaximenes, here forms the source of a theory of matter, and yet ever with time this matter recedes. There’s a scarcity of air, something sparse and grasped for in the gelatinous enjambment of Lafarge’s lines.
Precision of form: shortness of breath. When we pause at caesura, pause to breathe, when we lilt our words over the ambiguous interval of a line-break, we are forced temporarily to think about air. I recall the little ticks my brass instructor would make on a sheet of music: remember to breathe. The ticks would supplement a conventional musical pause; I guess I just needed more time to breathe. Breathing is temporal, but also material. There’s a precision to Lafarge’s form, a negotiation of reflective lyric transposed through material effects and affects. In ‘sapling air’, a sense of childhood’s loss is articulated as nonhuman ailment, the ‘first outbreak’ which is a poisoning of the air or the bark of trees. At first I think ash dieback, but then we are taken somewhere more grandiose, planetary, magmatic. Lying in the liminal space between ‘child / and whatever came next’, the speaker is in the bath, ‘gazing up through the skylight / as a plane passed overhead’. This sense of temporary epic scale, its vanishing écriture of ‘vapour trail’, is a writing of fleeting sheen. I think of glassels: those stones which appear glossy beneath water (in river or sea) but when picked and brought home they revert to dispirited dullness. It is as if life has left them, where momentary they truly appeared as vibrant matter, appealing to the senses with electric connection. Is this the fate of the bath-varnished body? How beauty consists in the wounded part of a thing, a fragile glitch in the viral code—what makes death inevitable. Stones ground down by the sweat and chafe of salty water, the sky a landfill for carbon dreams, modernity streaked across substanceless blue.
The speaker glimpses the oscillating scales of panorama and miniature: the passing plane and the ‘passengers’ eyes’. She sees through the eyes of others; a vertiginous, fleeting sublime in which she is the one looking down and the one looked down upon. Humans become binary nodes in this networked communion of sound and sense: ‘the passengers’ eyes flickered on and off / with signal’. Air carries, air travels. Air miles, as both temporal noun and verb. I find myself tangled in the space between transitive/intransitive. Air signifies the dialectic flickers of presence/absence. Accumulates, billows. What the speaker notices is a peculiar distortion, a toxicity overlaid with her own poisoned body: ‘I looked down. the bath water / was the colour of porphyry and I could no longer breathe’.The excess of the skin flakes away as feldspar, silicate rich and igneous, carrying traces of radial or volcanic exposure, imperial purple or deposited copper. Containing within it divergent scales: wee matrix crystals and larger phenocrysts. The speaker experiences her body as this suddenly alien thing; the sight of the bathwater steals her breath. Is it the first glimpse of what the outside does to the inside, the staining within us we leave on the world in a permanent toxic chiasmus? But I can’t help think also of period blood, given the speaker’s interlude adolescence: something tricky to articulate that nonetheless clots in the mind as childhood’s instated loss of innocence, a condensation of excitement that clings then turns readily and stickily to red, to blood. That moves in turns, cycles as the waxing mist of the moon. What is this substance, this iron-rich bodily flood? Where matter confuses, we turn back to air.
She tries to express to her father a bewildered grief, ‘there’s something wrong with the air’, but her ‘words went through to dial tone’. There’s a delay, language meeting its buffer at difference: through what? Gender, generation, divergent points of vision? Her special melancholy is something that lingers down the line, seeps inside the passage of time. The poem closes: ‘I still wonder, how many months, years from now / he will listen to the message’. Throughout Understudies for Air, Lafarge uses this technique of unfurling: instead of saying simply, ‘how many years from now’, she adds in the months, practices a sort of delay or lag. I think of smoke billows, slowly dissipating. Of what it means to say, there was chemistry between us, an atmosphere in the room. The way voiced words vibrate momentarily in meaning then once again settle to silence, stasis. An almost electricity, crackling then out. Compare this to the written word’s more permanent, inevitable viscosity. Language sticks: you can tease it over and over, read the same thing till centuries down the line the ink wears off from the page. You can replicate. Speech is quite a bit more fleeting, unless you set it down on wax or tape, find new ways to materialise language’s spit, crackle, lilt. The forcing of sign and shape from sound.
Air in Lafarge’s collection is a sort of pharmakon, in Jacques Derrida’s sense of an undecidable fluctuation between poison and cure. It is a substance acted upon with the medical impetus of invasion: in ‘desecration air’, ‘brittle waves of grit’ are ‘growing, syringe-like / into the air, and in so doing suckle / and cleave the dunes around them’. There’s a sense of maternal genesis and geologic violence, an injection of force into air’s spaciousness. For air at once signifies space and density of matter at the brink of scattering, sparking, forging. I start typing what is air into my search bar and it suggests, where can it be found? I am suddenly struck by air’s mystery, the possibility of everyday deception as to its ‘nature’. What is taken for granted has elusive substance; after all, can we view air in the object-oriented sense of ‘object’, or even, at transcendently nonhuman scale, ‘hyperobject’? For air blends and bleeds, both substance and accident. The painting or glass had an airy quality, we talk of a room as light and airy. Does this mean more air, or air less dense, more receptive to breath and space and quiet? Air is rich with the silt of existence: dust being its materialised twin, these myriad phantasms of hair, fibre, textiles, minerals, meteorites, mostly skin. Air is nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide flavoured with traces of neon, methane, helium. We breathe air but also pass constantly through it, as our molecules swim in the vast bombardment of other molecules swirling. Ambient air is safe, we pass through it daily; but air can also spark, as fire’s immanent ingredient, awaiting some flagrant chance to burn. We talk of dry air, damp air, air that feels ‘close’. Air signifies both absence (space) and presence (elemental matter, tangible substance). Air is always potentially transformative.
There is a poem called ‘calque air’. Calque means loan translation: a word-for-word exchange of meaning across languages (examples include ‘fleamarket’ and ‘skyscraper’). In French it means literally ‘copy’, derived from calquer: to copy, base on, trace; derived again from Latin calcāre, to tread, press down. Thus in the abstracted xerox of translinguistic exchange, we meet a sense of material rubbing, the friction that exacts its inscription between two substances: stone on stone, wood on wood, paper on paper etched with lead. It’s a physicality that chills the spine. Yet tracing somehow also connotes residue, the excess material produced by this rubbing, the patterning stains set down by a tread, like footprints sunk deep in the sand and preserved semi-permanent by glitters of frost. Lafarge writes: ‘people / were finding messages / in their bodies they hadn’t / written’. Again this sense of material semaphore, whose translation is a phenomenological act of physical reality, a sudden otherness within us that requires an empathy, an excess, a confusion of words rubbing wrongly against one another: ‘it was decided the system was malapropic’. Language spiralling as if in the hands of the nonhuman, the air or machine or book.
Anthropomorphism reaches its textual extreme: ‘the book grew hair, organs, toes’, and so even ‘accurate translations’ become disputed, subjective, active and physical. What is it about air that somehow substantiates the symbiosis of language and matter, its aching and perilous leak? Here we are, tipped in the gaslit eve of twilight, where ‘the sky throbbed / sideways like a haemorrhage’. Matter acts upon us, causing a gulping or gaping as we churn through it, our bodies mucilaginous mulched into altered form, new affect. We can try to discern the nature of air, but in some way its inner essence remains recalcitrant, resistant to the interpretive instruments of other forms, including humans. Lafarge plays on the semiotic plurality of ‘forms’, poking fun at science’s ‘consent and feedback forms’, ethical necessities which prove useless upon the elusive air. This raises the question of how to extend a nonhuman ethics, what forms of consent are required when probing and monitoring their patterns of agency or behaviour? In ‘attempted diagnosis air’, Lafarge concludes: ‘in the end, / you left the forms in the airing cupboard / to let the air fill out itself; it acquiesced / in many hands of mould, dust and heat, / none of which you could hope to translate’. The air transmogrifies into purely itself, is available only as sensation in the perceptive ‘hands’ of other substances. It’s worth quoting Jane Bennett at length here:
Thing-power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly. It seeks to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap. It emphasises those occasions in ordinary life when the us and the it slipslide into each other, for one moral of this materialist tale is that we are also nonhuman and that things too are vital players in the world.
Air is surely the channel for thinking through this vibrant materiality. Lafarge’s poetics, shifting through sparsity and density, perform this slippage between human and nonhuman at variable scales. Rooted in ordinary life, in personal memory, the poems of Understudies for Air root out these collected knots of ontological ‘torsion’, the ‘bunioned’ meanings that wash up like offerings then shut down all visible meaning—‘they closed in my hand / like eyes’. The lack of capitalised titles renders the poems’ drift into one another, in free-flow without the arche conventions of literary closure, of textual finality. A sense of fractured or wounded text, poems chipped out of a grander object, left now to change and drift. In ‘driftwood air’, driftwood makes a temporary semiology of the shore. Driftwood being perhaps the airiest form of wood, a text well-chewed by aquatic bacteria, lightened and smoothed by the tide; erosion performing its nonhuman act of calque: a copying of wave upon wood, the tiny treads of millioning microscopic appetites, like the imperfect press of a nonhuman telegram. With her spells of air, Lafarge conjures a vibrant ecology of non-anthropocentric process; evocative still as such effects take place through the decomposition of the lyric ‘I’, whose voice drifts out in nonhuman confusions, signals and distance. Human affect returns in glimpses like delicious flotsam, jetsam, moments of reflection gleaned from material debris.
The ‘I’ often shrinks or recedes, but sometimes floats over the ambient scene with declarative assertion: ‘the twin lines of naming and being / run parallel but never touch’. Such philosophic pronouncements then melt away in exploratory thought, lines closely attuned to trans-species process: the swell and lurch and pleat of water, plant, lichen or toxin. Once again we come to air as pharmakon, and so its process arises as a sort of pleasing monstrosity. The odd thing about plants is they just grow, often without purpose, foregoing teleology for an impersonal, gorgeous flourishing. In ‘asbestos air’, the speaker marvels:
lichen and moss
grooming your body;
it is a relief to watch
things grow without
End-stopped punctuation is often foregone for free-flowing, morphological enjambment throughout Understudies for Air, so the inclusion of semicolon here is its own kind of force. I think of imagism’s stop-motion visual equivalencies: Pound’s apparitional faces in the metro and wet black petals. The ‘body’ in question could be human or nonhuman. There is a plain admiration of process and flow, the ease of growth that feels significant against the endless stuttering, knotted bolts of human maturity. And what about ‘asbestos’? More silicate minerals invading the air, released by abrasion and enacting a slow-release of symptoms, as deadly fibres clot in the lungs. Asbestos makes its own mark upon air. The speaker clearly craves that insulation, a felting of absence with ‘lichen and moss’ that comes as a ‘grooming’. Grooming being the softening and smoothing of matter, but also tinged with danger: to be groomed is to be seduced towards some form of invasive peril. Twin signals, twin materials; a chiasmus of death and sleep’s electricity. Sucking in air, we sleep towards death; slowly we rove over lines that enamour with deceptive simplicity. We can’t help but breathe in sleep; it’s just evolution. What’s more, nature isn’t mere positive growth, but might be compounded poison, cancerous swells. Tumours accumulating almost mycologically, darkly twisting and rising in the shadowy mulch of the organs, the undergrowth. Behind a benign appearance is the spectre of asbestos; for of course mosses and lichens are indicator species, material harbingers of polluted air. Air is the cure, the restorative; but air can also kill. It is both oxygen and carbon monoxide, its healthiness hinges on a delicate balance.
Air’s undecidability, perhaps, is a deconstructive motion of question and answer, a maddening circuitry of frazzled nerves and linguistic synapses. In Lafarge’s attempt to materialise air, to verbalise its form as supplementary poetics, writing does the work of metaphysics. Enter Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys in The Derrida Wordbook, glossing Derrida’s term undecidability:
If metaphysics teaches us how to read, and reading teaches us metaphysics, birthing each other in a twin maiuetics, then deconstruction also calls us to a reading. To read undecidability is to resist that other resistance which would efface it.
Air’s invisible toxins make themselves known with prickling, painful insistence at the miniature level of surface pollutants, scum left on water or stains on metal. A poet’s Keatsian eye would draw out this material tread of Anthropocene effect, illumine its slow evolution with the linguistic wit of a chemist. The irony of deep-time causation at the hands of humans, those obfuscations of cause and effect that place humankind as geologic agents. Reality, matter, climate change become undecidable. We are being taught, in these poems, the call to the earth that is really a subtle conversation within our own bodies—palimpsests of dangerous nature we tried to fashion but grew otherwise, anyway. Despite melting icecaps, the air grows colder in winter, it thickens.
Lafarge develops this viscous, hyperobjective symbiosis through her descriptions of air’s sticky contaminations. There are ornaments of scattered matter: bitumen, seed heads, the wildfire possibilities of ‘drying leaves’. There is a constant overlay of the biological, spatial and arboreal: ‘we soiled our mouths to mimic / the good fettle of root and seed’; those ‘dark thickets of lung’. I think of the word forest, then ‘for rest’. Places we go to shelter, to cleanse ourselves scented on pinewood air. We can’t see the woods for the trees, or was it the trees for the woods? Morton’s idea that we need a return to parts over wholes, this notion of subscendence: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. A tree more important than a forest. Lafarge strains her ear to every little activity, the expressions of suffering that come from sources beyond the human: ‘on every corner a tree / articulates its script’. Tree language is material too, it is sound in the air unique, and seedlings glistering on rustling rhythms. It is the flail and droop of branches diseased, stung acid by rain or ravaged by leaking methane.
To put words in air implies a sense of declaring, but this is less the enlightened ejaculations of a singular genius and more a sensual symbiosis: ‘the words / identified me as carrier / and now along I go / sowing their imprint in air’. To sow, to plant seed, to let meaning take root and feed upon air and soil, sound and shape. By tuning to nonhuman forms of inscription, Lafarge attempts to answer the call of the absolute other. This is ecological poetry’s luminous tool, its potential ethics.
This is also, to a degree, Michael Marder’s ‘plant-thinking’: a thinking about plants, a thinking through plants, a symbiosis of human and vegetal thought at the level of form and content. Not discursive domination of subject but a perceptive, non-anthropocentric and multisensory modality of what Marder calls ‘transfigured thinking’. I cannot help think of a shadowy, cooperative alchemy in which the baroque foliage of language ravels round the utterances of the absolute other, those bladed shivers and flashes of light, that speak of time felt close in the skin of a cell. It is a metaphysical elixir that deconstructs its own postulated recipe. Metaphysics, for Marder, is unable to think coextensively ‘with the variegated acts of living’ that exist in plants; it seems to ‘affirm the quasi-divine life of the mind’, but actually ‘wields the power of negativity and death’. It risks becoming ‘a cancerous growth’, smothering the plants it attempts to draw ‘vitality’ from in knowledge and energy. I think of the chemical kill that Keats in Lamia implies is the effect of philosophy, which ‘will clip an angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Writing poetically, we must be tender, channel the lurid sounds that fill the sparkling air, nevertheless deathly polluted as a charnel ground. Embrace inexplicable oscillations between the living and dead; challenge binary conceptions of stasis and liveliness, animals and matter. Retrieve a kindred sense of mutual mystery, preserve the lingering aura of species-being. Plant-thinking must instead be ‘receptive’ to the ‘pole of darkness’ within botanical existence. There is a Keatsian sense of negative capability here, a chameleon dwelling in the infinite and multiple, the rhizomatic offshoots of unknown effects, undecidability. There’s a Deleuzo-Guattarian intermezzo too, as Marder puts it: ‘To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and darkness, is not to be confined to the dialectical twilight […]. It is, rather, to refashion oneself […] into a bridge between divergent elements’, to allow that darkness to shine as much as the light of visible knowledge. Remain discursively flexible, morph through variant perspectives.
We have here an immersive rhizomatics, hinting also towards Graham Harman’s assertion of the object’s metaphysical withdrawal. Lafarge’s speaker certainly stands in this middle, exploring ‘a vernacular for pipelines, / circuitry, the fetid grids and systems’. She doesn’t penetrate essences. Stinking like soil mulch, our carbon economy is overlain with what we traditionally take to be ‘nature’: those lichens, mosses, leaves. We are reminded that cancerous growths, chemicals and shameful asbestos are as earthly as the daffodil or ash tree; each to each, irrevocably and intimately enmeshed, from the clinging of air to shared DNA. The speaker lets nonhuman forms speak through her: the shape of those gusts and shudders, those incremental growths and sudden ruptures, take effect in the passage of language. She brings us quietly, unassumingly, to aporetic conclusions, refusing to clasp meaning’s assertion from the lateral sprawl, preferring the precarious, seductive dissolve towards undecidability: ‘I still think of them, their clod eyes / roiled with fever, churning the peat / of a stagnant loop’. Clod: insensitive fool or chunk of mass. A clod of stone, an ignorant clod. An estrangement of nature, a closure of humanity to uncanny matter, churned in the loop of signature tautology—a metaphysics of presence that is ever an ‘argument’, a stagnant pool. How we must dwell, thickly, in these poems, these fleshy pools of blood and sap and dripping air. The declarative trochee like a stone thrown in a pond, ‘roiled with fever’; these shivers on the petrified skin with its fur of moss, toxin, mould. Conveyers of nonhuman temporality. The speaker licks such substances with lapidary language; the effects are circling, strange, recursive as a maddening philosophical problem. She dwells quite certain in uncertainty. Perhaps this makes her the perfect understudy, questioning but never at the point of egotistical revolt.
If all that is solid melts into air, then we know this now to entail less evaporation than transmutation. Solid objects arise elsewhere. What daily we flush, cough and excoriate from our bodies floats out in the hothouse biosphere, only to be reborn as fragrant waste, the fettered matter that is fetid at the point of being/becoming other. In the pamphlet’s final poem, the speaker passes a ‘high-rise’ and in the shrill of its alarm encounters an ‘elderly lady’, naked in her white towel like a terrible angel wrenched from the heavens to corrode on earth. The white signifies a kind of surrender to time and matter; the woman addresses the speaker thus: ‘one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotten flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots’. I’m reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where Peter Walsh witnesses a vagrant woman, ‘opposite Regent’s Park Tube station’, her gurgling vowels speaking in a tongue he cannot understand. Is this a primitive ecofeminist figure from the future-past, her voice ‘bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning’? She speaks with ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, channels somehow that geologic core, its rupturing pain. There’s Jonathan Bate’s insistence on poetry as ecological dwelling, in The Song of the Earth (2000). Woolf’s eerie, primeval wanderer stirs up the dead leaves from their settled grave, recalls an ancient song that aligns feminine suffering with planetary pain. I think again of Lafarge’s speaker, lying in the bath with a sense of her own body eking out a substance unfamiliar, the water stained a curious, feldspar colour. Poetry as monstrous giving-birth, poetry as vegetal thinking; poetry as lichenous growth or ambient eddy and flow.
There isn’t much pastoral about Understudies for Air, where things are scorched or ‘unspeakable’, full of porous holes and an inexplicable, surveilling gaze, those eyes which absorb and emit reality with cytoplasmic osmosis. There’s a dwelling in-between; a refusal of pastoral’s smoothed surface, its crudely soldered contradictions. Lafarge’s material history is thick, polluted, complex: irrevocably enmeshed with the speaker’s autobiography, a slow enclosure of tainted expiration; the result of some unreachable, originary trauma—the first infected inhalation. As the first poem opens: ‘difficult to pin the beginning / of the bad air’. In the Anthropocene, as with shame and trauma, it’s tricky to find causes, to trace singular beginnings. We have to face the impossibility of the transcendental signified, keep crossing over the same old tracks, tuning to peculiar scale effects in the dust and dirt, shaking the rain from our wilting manes, blades, branches, names. We can hack at the data, break the trees. In the end it is all just mutual suffering, the poem as supplement for what we can’t say, the horror of thought that is personal guilt and environmental blame. Yet somehow, Lafarge stirs sweetness from the wastelands of contamination, a little bit of the old Eliotic ‘breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’, or Morton’s molten, dark ecological chocolate. We move from depression to mystery to empathetic, mouth-melting sweetness. What you bury might come up lavender later; death still tainting, beautifully, the fullness of life. There is a shivering ethical suspension between the one and the other, cheating human text with the infiltrating voice of the strange stranger, where even the poet doubles back on herself, shrinks and fades, becomes alien against her own voice and song. Amidst all these ‘unspeakable things’, Lafarge reflects the coruscating absence, the flicker-to-effect of the dust in the air; motes of melancholy love, life and death, that cluster temporarily in poems and feel like a homecoming, yet always on the brink of becoming unsettled. Forever this ‘speech / impaired through contact / with the air’, the wrenching of justice from staunch aporia.
All this is so much of air. The words clot and float, they are pushed elsewhere as stacks of data, the coded reverie of software forgotten. Dwell in the dark web, a gossamer poetics that drips with the fringe-work of hackers, pirates, spiders. Once again: ‘homes / for unspeakable things’. Protection of privacy, pelt of fur, air that gluts on the temporary flesh of speech. A child’s ‘moonmilk / crusted round its mouth’. Language for future generations, raised on the logic of ‘selenography’; all human attempt to make sense of time beyond the body. There is a rhythm and a dwelling, a child’s bright cry in mica-flecked darkness. We all find overlays for our love or trauma—‘perhaps it was an early leak of the air / that conjured the image of his mother’—but instead of burial there is only entanglement, the sentencing ever excess of ‘a bad root / growing in every direction’. Trouble is, we can’t find it exactly; it grows and grows regardless. It shrouds us, auroral, auratic. Lafarge picks at flakes of flesh and star and paint, travels arterial between filament, taproot, wire, synapse and galaxy. Understudies for Air feels performative, a traversal of myriad sorts that folds back on itself, reflectively prone to spiralling dialogue, a postured void. For, as Steven Connor reminds us, the thing about air is ‘it encompasses its own negation […]. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air’. It’s in this multivariant, phenomenological pulse that Lafarge’s speaker dwells, sparked against the air’s vibrant matter as much as its ever conditional abyss. I read her words over and over, fragments of collected matter; conjuring in the cold winter light some other possible, nonhuman chorus. I’ll vapourise now, leave you trailing in the ‘fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines’ (Connor), for it’s the sheer glut of language, coming in and out of phase with human perception and nonhuman form, that really matters. Matters. Connor again: ‘We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.’
It’s never easy to compile a list like this. Albums by their very nature are dynamic; like books, their significance shifts over time as we build up new associations from listening to them over and over. I know it’s corny but I can’t help but think of that quote from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: ‘I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind’. Well, you could say the same thing about records. Any good album stays with me a long time and it’s so interwoven with memory and place and emotion that I could no longer just glance at its cover in a shop and shrug, it’s a good album. Give me a copy of American Idiot and I’ll wax lyrical about my political awakening, aged eleven; when I first discovered what teenage angst meant, when I decided it was hot to wear eyeliner and complain about dead-end jobs. When I realised you could make stories with music and create characters from songs; in fact, a whole mythology.
It’s becoming increasingly important to me to keep track of what I listen to. Month by month I’ve started to save new stuff onto Spotify playlists, where once I would fall back on the same old iTunes favourites, playlists I’d made years ago. Relying on shuffle or rehashing albums I loved five years ago and never bothering to look out anything new. Having a year away from university gave me the time to focus on music again; I realised that it used to be this massive part of my life that I’d since abandoned in favour of obscure literary theory (now I know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive…). I’ve started to write reviews for RaveChild , which has sort of taught me to listen to a song the way I’d read a text. I want to find the hook, the arrangement, the way all the different parts work together to evoke something. I’m listening for detail, texture, weirdness. It’s fun and sometimes hard work, but always rewarding. Now, often an actual musician will read a thing I wrote and maybe they’ll retweet it or like it or in some way show their appreciation. For someone whose writing has always been a solitary thing – confined to notebooks and extinct LiveJournal and MySpace accounts and only more recently a grownup blog – I can’t tell you how nice it feels for my writing to be out there, being noticed somehow. It’s so lovely. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a new outlet, and to discover so much good music while I’m doing it!
Anyway, to mark the end of the year like I did last year, here are my top 16 albums of 2016. I’m going to try and do them in order this year, bearing in mind the fact that this ordering probably changes in my head on a weekly basis. Basically, the first 16 are pretty arbitrary; I love all of the stuff listed and know that as soon as I’ve written this I’ll want to shuffle it around again.
1) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
This is such a beautiful, highly-crafted album. For someone whose favourite Radiohead record is probably In Rainbows, but who also loves the jaggedelectronica of The King of Limbs as much as Jonny Greenwood’s cinematic compositions, A Moon Shaped Pool is a real treat. I remember when In Rainbows first came out and there was so much media controversy over its distribution method. I read about it constantly in NME magazine, without much sense of what the music was. Radiohead were a distant entity to me then, a kind of musical megalith that I wasn’t quite ready to approach. Well, a few years down the line I gave In Rainbows an actual proper listen (not just because ‘Nude’ was used in a Skins advert, I swear), and then fell in love. If you’re not properly acquainted with the band, you probably don’t realise how truly eclectic their music is.
A Moon Shaped Pool came as a surprise album to many, the prize release to all those who panicked over the band’s social media blackout. Still, the gimmick takes nothing away from the music. It’s so multi-layered, with orchestral textures and many lovely moments. It doesn’t reach the aggressive pitch as on some previous albums, and in turn feels more honest, stripped of the usual cynicism. A song like ‘Daydreaming’ feels like reaching a moment of nirvana-like sublimity, but it’s not an entirely happy state – its a kind of uneasy contentment, a bewildering dreaminess. ‘Burn the Witch’ is a fable for our times that provides a warning against falling back into what we so dismissively call the dark ages, when in fact 2016 bears the ugly imprint of small-minded times from history. ‘True Love Waits’ has been kicking around a long time now but I really love this mellow, slightly haunting yet effortlessly tender version.
I listened to this record all summer, walking home through the park after nights out, feeling the chords form soft over my inebriated senses. I began to crave Thom Yorke’s voice, the subtle croon and the way it bends so elastically over the high notes like rivulets in the tide. ‘The Numbers’ is a beautiful environmental song: ‘we are of the earth / to her we do return / the future is inside us / it’s not somewhere else’. Yet this is no hippie-dippy one world holism; there’s something unsettling about the future being inside us, about the world being up close, physically within us. The song’s rife with uncanny images, where anthropomorphism is reversed and where the boundedness of the human body is dissolved: ‘it holds us like a phantom / the touch is like a breeze’; ‘you may pour us away like soup’. Yorke forces us to confront these truths, but his tone is wistful rather than dramatic or didactic. You actually feel like you’re being carried away by that breeze as strings shimmer around you.
You can really fall into these songs, and they have a breadth (and breath!) that carries you away. The album feels loose, adrift, a little weary; but this refusal of tight structure and convoluted imagery is what grants A Moon Shaped Pool its sincerity. Pitchfork calls it ‘everyday enlightenment’, which seems fitting, since this album is less about cyborg dystopias and paranoid androids and more concerned with its humanist bent: whirlpools of emotion, the simple epiphanies reached in ordinary life. That’s not to say it’s lost its political freight; if anything, the themes of agency, government control, ecological disaster, technology and societal breakdown gather more strength for being more subtly disseminated.
Another album that more or less soundtracked my summer, or at least the tail-end of it. Olsen’s musical style really matures on this album but for me it was definitely a grower. I rather unusually fell first into ‘Heart-shaped Face’, a kind of quirky, languid ballad, sugar sweet even as it delivers something mournful. I love the album’s overall retro feel. ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ is livelier than Olsen’s usual fare and is decidedly catchy and playful, with that haunting country voice doing its best gymnastics. ‘Intern’ feels a wee bit Lynchian, all atmospheric synths which satisfyingly never really build to a climax and instead dissolve into the jangly croons of ‘Never Be Mine’. It’s music to listen to while lying in a park, sure, or strutting down a preciously sun-drenched city street on your way to meet someone exciting. It’s also sophisticated enough to work really well live (Olsen had at least three guitars on her recent tour) and also to wrench your heart out in all the right places. Jewel in the crown track ‘Sister’ is a complete masterpiece. I might even go so far to say it’s my favourite song of the year. It builds up to this glorious solo and then the release that comes with the refrain all my life I thought I’d change is so cathartic, like doing something wild – plunging your head in freezing water to get over heartbreak. The video is glorious too – Olsen just has this devastatingly cute smile and the vibe is all cactuses, desert plains, pinkish skies and turquoise swimming pools. My Woman has a hint of psychedelia mixed in with its alt-country and indie folk, but ultimately it’s that beautiful warbling voice that really makes the record shine.
3) Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
I first came across Kevin Morby on recommendation from a friend, and the song that hooked me was ‘Slow Train’, a lonesome, leisurely track which is duly adorned by the smooth melancholy of Cate Le Bon’s vocals towards the end. Singing Saw sees Morby developing the craft of atmospheric singer/songwriter folk, mixed in with a distilled tinge of Americana. Morby’s songs have an old worldly vibe, devoid of contemporary references and shrouded in a kind of wilderness mythology. A lot of the songs on this album are more upbeat than previous offerings and ‘Dorothy’ is really fun, a pop nugget as much as it is a song about music and the road. There’s a more expansive sound and the bass feels nice and crunchy, the harmonies always on point. Morby’s voice always has a kind of haunting depth to it which shines through as he stretches his vowels, as he threads his hypnotic melody over the pulsating beat of ‘Singing Saw’. An album for listening to around a camp fire on a beach or rocky hillside; an album for toasting the end of summer to and glancing out towards the gathering darkness of winter.
4) Beth Orton – Kidsticks
This album, conversely, was perfect for kicking off summer. It’s bright, electronic; a little bit feisty, with plenty of pause for languid reflection. Orton has a way with surreal images, with unfolding a kernel of detail into an elaborated, looping song, as on ‘Petals’. Sometimes the album feels trippy, sometimes it feels very 1990s folk-tronica in the best way possible, all saturations of bass woven around Orton’s distinctly wispy voice. Still, the more focused commitment to synths feels properly contemporary, as on songs like ‘Falling’ which dabbles in a kind of bewitching minimalism. ‘1973’ feels super retro, while ‘Snow’ and ‘Moon’ are truly celestial super tracks, complete with super crunchy bass. It’s an album that you can listen to lightly, but also one that rewards more sensuous attention; its percussion and electronic elements are richly textured, with interesting effects. Overall, this album reminds me of all the sunshine we had in May, and all that time I sat lying in Botanics among the daffodils while on my break, looking forward to everything ahead.
A late-comer to the table, released less than a month ago, nevertheless Swithering managed to shoot its way up towards the top of my list. There’s something about Roddy Hart’s voice, its earnest attention to emotional inflections, its clarity which always sharpens and shines in whatever genre Hart applies himself to. Swithering is a really polished album, rife with loss and memories, with love and regret and empathy. The band have definitely benefited from Paul Savage’s input on production (see his previous work with, for example, Admiral Fallow), as the sound here feels more cohesive than on their debut. You can also tell that they’re growing more confident with expressing more traditional and indeed vernacular roots while having a bit of rock’n’roll fun, wearing their influences gleefully on their sleeve (everything from U2 to Aztec Camera and The National). This album got me through the difficult essay writing weeks when I needed something powerful to cut through the fog on long late night city walks.
Ah, good old Frightened Rabbit. I always think of them at this time of year, mainly because it brings back memories of December 2010 when I had a ticket to see them in Glasgow when I was still at school. All day I was looking forward to it, when during the last period I was sitting in the library and it started snowing. My librarian proceeded to gleefully torment me with the knowledge that all the trains would be cancelled, a fact she confirmed by duly consulting every available travel website and showing that trains between Ayr and Glasgow were having problems owing to the weather. I was so gutted that evening, watching the snow falling and wishing I was at that Frightened Rabbit gig. My friends and I sung ‘Poke’ at every party, deliberately mashing the words.
For a Frabbit fan, this album sort of has it all. As critics keep saying, it definitely sounds more polished; but there’s certainly the same old twist of raw Scottish melancholy. ‘Get Out’ feels powerful and cathartic, while ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’ moves close to old favourite ‘Poke’ and deserves pride of place in the Frightened Rabbit sad ballad cabinet. While the lyrics trawl familiar themes – alcohol, depression, heartache, existential anguish and urban boredom/depravity – there’s a renewed musical energy here which leaves a residue of hope to even the most despairing songs. I find myself yearning for the effortless way in which Scott Hutcheson’s vocals do acerbically emphatic social commentary, soothing harmonies and lyrical witticisms. Few bands could pull off a bitter reflection on the death drive of a broken class system and turn it into a poignant love song, as on ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’. Yes it’s grey-hued, Brutalist, a little bit miserable, but all of these things make sense through Frabbit’s zealously lyrical dissection.
7) Cate Le Bon – Crab Day
If ever there was a better, spikier, weirder art-pop album! Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon isn’t scared of being a bit out there. She compares herself to a ‘dirty attic’ and feels like geometry; her heart’s in her liver, she wants to be someone’s tenpin bowl, love is a coat-hanger. It’s like she’s inhaled a bunch of surrealist poems and swallowed some Cubist art and then vomited it all out in glorious rainbows, complete with very tasteful thumping drums and keyboard trills. Apparently, the album’s title is a reference to a fictional ‘Crab Day’ conjured up from the imagination of Le Bon’s young niece. This childlike playfulness runs through the album and gives it its flying spirit. If it makes sense, you could say that the songs are geometric: all jagged guitars, syncopation, weird angles, tessellating lyrics. The percussion is fun in a kind of skittish, school-practice-room way, all zany, trembling marimbas and thrashing drums. The electric guitars are clean and Le Bon’s voice pulls off a combination of artful dodgery, aphoristic declarations and crooning, cat-like mews. ‘Love Is Not Love’ provides a slice of relief from the stomping revelry and provides a languid ballad with curious little spikes of guitar and subtle brass. Overall, a record to have fun and enjoy your summer with.
8) Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)
Woah, where to begin with reviewing a Crystal Castles album! I suppose the band had a lot to prove, having replaced iconic singer Alice Glass for a third party, Edith Francis. Nevertheless, Francis stepped up to the mark and it’s certainly possible to listen to this album and still appreciate it as authentically Crystal Castles. Not only are the band donating profits from record sales to Amnesty International, but they’re providing a much-needed blast of searing catharsis to shock us out of the apathetic slump that 2016 has brought upon much of us. Opening track ‘Femen’ develops its looping, rasping rhythms out of a haunting chorus of voices which dwindle and build like sound blowing back against the distant ceiling of a massive church. The heavy pulse of bloated synths is back on ‘Fleece’, and ‘Char’ shows off Francis’ vocals at their purest, reminiscent of the dreamy 80s vibes of disco-indie outfit Chromatics. ‘Enth’ makes you want to thrash your hair and limbs around wildly and fling glowstick fluid across the room. Final track ‘Their Kindness if Charade’ layers fragments of vocal samples over shimmering synths which reach a kind of clubland pulse over muted drumbeats, withdrawing again into the melancholy quietude of Francis’ stripped back rendering of impenetrable lyrics.
I picked this album because it’s such an ambitious piece of art in its musical range, yet manages to return always to its thematic focus on memory, dementia, heartache and lost connections. It’s got an orchestral expansiveness, Peel’s cut-glass voice, the twinkling music box, showers of synths and a dialogue between energetic pop songs and atmospherically experimental tracks like ‘Octavia’. Peel riffs constantly on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and as such there’s a visionary element to her songs which maps the inner space of the mind onto fictional landscapes and metropoles. It reminds me of walking along the Clyde at night with the wind howling in my ears, a sort of mad feeling in the city as it bristles against the death of autumn and the coming of winter, the lights shimmering across the river.
Rather shamefully, I hadn’t heard of Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail, until I opted to review his latest album, Future Echoes. In all honesty I picked the album because I liked the sound of the artist’s name; a customer at work once asked me if I was a pict. I’ve started telling the Mormons in the street that I’m a witch because I can’t be bothered being converted on my way to the shops. Anyway, Future Echoes. What an album! Johnny Lynch is a busy man; he runs Lost Map records which is based on the Isle of Eigg and houses an array of talent, including Randolph’s Leap, Kid Canaveral and Tuff Love. Still, he’s managed to find the time to put together an album which feels tight, exciting and something a little bit different.
It tackles time: history, futurity; things shifting, changing, preserving. It should be called pastoral psych-pop, because that is a generic label worthy of Pictish Trail’s particular brand of Scottish melancholy, based in a strong tradition of indie rock and inflected with ethereal dream pop vibes. Lynch has a distinct, sonorous voice which reaches some really heartfelt expressions amidst dramatic strings, pulsing synths and loops. There’s an honesty to the lyrics and a Twilight Sad atmosphere to many of the songs, but Future Echoes is also splashed with funk and disco. You could actually dance to it, especially on tracks like ‘Dead Connection’ and ‘After Life’. I thoroughly enjoyed dissecting this record for a review and the lesson I learned was to keep picking things I hadn’t heard of before because god knows there’s a lot of good stuff out there to discover.
I have to make another embarrassing musical confession and admit that this is the first Nick Cave album that I’ve really properly listened to all the way through. I once found some mp3s of his older stuff which my Mum’s friend had left on our computer, but I think I was too young at the time to appreciate that dark, resonant voice, the subtlety of Cave’s songs. This record has won me over. It’s rich and melancholic even in its sparsity. I’m detecting a trend this year with a move towards a sort of deep minimalism – think David Bowie’s Black Star and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – which nevertheless maintain sort of jazzy vibes even as the mood is enigmatic and slightly sinister.
This is a very serious album, not to be taken lightly. Cave lost his teenage son in a horrible accident last year, and I don’t think it’s cliché to say that grief seeps through every note, even though most of the lyrics were written before his son’s death. Nevertheless, Cave never loses control; it’s a sustained release of emotion which trickles its mournful truth across spacious and poignant tracks. He paints stark images with thick, vivid brushstrokes, which curl back on each other as the lister is multiply interpellated by the lyrics:
You’re an African doctor harvesting tear duct
You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now
You’re an old man sitting by the fire, you’re the mist rolling off the sea
You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?
Death here isn’t just personal, it’s cultural, global. ‘Anthrocene’ is a riff on the term ‘Anthropocene’ which more or less refers to the current geological age initiated by the human interference in the structure of the earth (basically triggered by the industrial revolution and the extraction of fossil fuels). It’s one of the most unsettling and beautiful songs about climate change I’ve ever heard. Like much of the album, it makes use of loops and dissonant synthesisers. On ‘Jesus Alone’, there’s the repeated drone that sounds like the hurt cry of a glitching, dying bird. ‘Anthrocene’ is spooky and hazy, imagining the dissolution of the earth from the position of dark forces, of animals and plants and the lost people who inhabit this broken earth. It tackles the sense of strangeness that relates to our coming to terms with ecological disaster; which, as Timothy Morton would argue, is a necessary stage of grief, a process of mourning: ‘When you turn so long and lovely, it’s hard to believe / That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene’. What sounds like an address to a woman, a beautiful dancer, probably refers to the turning of the earth, the passing of seasons which still exist, lingering, even as carbon emissions pollute the atmosphere. The song is structured around Cave’s measured vocal delivery and the sweetly sad, rising and falling harmonies. ‘Rings of Saturn’ kind of reminds me of R.E.M (‘E-Bow The Letter’) drenched in a black black oil.
I like music which breaks with conventional song structures and Skeleton Tree certainly does that. It’s mesmerising, atmospheric, strange. You have to listen to it many times.
12) Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
A far livelier offering, yes, but one no less struck with historical trauma. It deals with the ever-prescient issue of racial injustice, but also joyfully samples a vibrant array of black culture, including spoken-word poetry and retro R&B grooves. There’s a fantastic drum solo on ‘E.V.P’ which glides in among the chorus of voices. Hynes’ voice is divine throughout and there’s something so addictive about lots of his beats. It’s quite an eclectic album, ranging from instrumental to the jazzy ‘Love Ya’ to funk to the dreamy nostalgia of ‘Augustine’ and fat synths and male/female dialogue of ‘Best to You’. You could compare this album to something by Michael Jackson or other fresh offerings of contemporary R&B. My knowledge of the genre is so limited that I’m not going to attempt to make comparisons. Freetown Sound feels really unique, a bursting bag of colourful tricks and collaborators. It resonates deeper than most pop records on the charts these days. ‘Hadron Collider’ is a looping ballad which sucks you in with its pure vocals and shimmering piano. I first came across Dev Hynes in his incarnation as Lightspeed Champion and that kind of melancholy blend of humour and sadness is retained somewhat in Blood Orange’s project, only now the message is more cultural than purely personal. It’s an educative album as much as a fun one.
13) Conor Oberst – Ruminations
This album sort of came out the blue for me; I’m normally hyper-aware of any imminent Oberst recordings on the horizon, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear that not only could I get my hands on a ticket for a UK tour date but also that I could access some new material. Ruminations is old school Oberst mixed with a new, bittersweet maturity. Don’t be fooled by the harmonicas; while there is a political undertone to his lyrics (especially on ‘A Little Uncanny’), Oberst is here focused on introspection as opposed to outward-looking troubadour. The recordings feel a little bit strained and raw, but this is the kind of authentic frisson old-school Oberst fans crave. The sort of warbling attic recordings from the pre-I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning era. As the title implies, these songs are all extended thoughts which extend the personal to the political. Despite the minimalism, Oberst doesn’t hold back on the visceral lyrics. Where songs seem to paint a vision of isolation, of wandering confusion, there’s always something powerful to hint at possible connection: ‘Tomorrow is shining like a razor blade / And anything’s possible if you feel the same’. In ‘Tachycardia’, thoughts hit ‘like cinder blocks’.
The passing of time is a major theme of this album but there’s a sense of timelessness to the songs, as if they open up the compositional space of the wee hours where all the dark thoughts pour. It’s quite hard to listen to these songs in daylight; not because of some gothic spirit but because out of the cover of darkness these songs make the real world seem a little too obscene – too cluttered, crowded, vibrant, excessive. While the narrator of Oberst’s songs notices sweet little everyday details – ‘the checkout girl has a thing for me’ – all these miniature epiphanies are swallowed up in a general apathy: ‘I just wanna get drunk before noon’. Still, Oberst’s analysis of modern life bears an honesty which transcends pure nihilism. In ‘Gossamer Thin’, his warbling voice recounts a clandestine relationship where two unexpected partners come together. The narrator admits, ‘it’s no business of mine / They can love more than one at a time’, but this open-mindedness is qualified by an acknowledgment of the thinness of our emotions in an age when we constantly push ourselves to the edge, wearing our identities down as we spread them freely across the world and the internet: ‘you are who you are and you are someone else’. Whenever Oberst brushes up against philosophy, he never seems to make a didactic point but rather leans into the yearning for transcendence: ‘’Cause the mind and the brain aren’t quite the same / But they both want out of this place’.
14) Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
It’s been almost a decade since I last bought a copy of NME with Farris Rotter (aka Badwan) and the rest of The Horrors plastered extravagantly across the cover. I’ve always been slightly in love with his dark, seemingly careless yet somehow still tender voice, the beautiful, New Romantic hair, the hint of eyeliner. Cat’s Eyes are an alt-pop duo, combining Faris’ sultry croon with the ethereal soprano of Rachel Zeffira, an Italian-Canadian composer. Obvious comparisons include 1960s girl groups (The Ronettes), but there’s a haunting dissonance to Cat’s Eyes lulling, cinematic style. Tracks like ‘Be Careful Where You Park Your Car’ and ‘Drag’ epitomise this jangly sixties vibe, but then you’ve also got the celestial minimalism of ‘Everything Moves Towards the Sun’, a song which hinges on delicate xylophone arpeggios, Zeffira’s melodic voice and faint drumbeats. This album feels vintage, a little bit gold standard. I like to listen to it at nighttime, when the sky clears and if you get away from light pollution you can see the stars in the park. Treasure House gilds everything around me in a kind of grandeur. I bought this album after first hearing ‘Treasure House’ which sounds like opening a beautiful music box and melting into the taste of rich Belgian truffles, laced with a kind of muscle relaxant which makes reality slow down into a silken haze. It’s a real treat, a tender record that has its fizzy, upbeat moments as much as its mournfully reflective ones.
15) Palace – So Long Forever
I had the pleasure of catching Palace recently for a headline gig at King Tuts. While they’re a band who really come into their own onstage, all elasticated vocal harmonies and twinkly guitars, So Long Forever is a really solid debut album. It feels polished and atmospheric in the way that The Maccabees’ Marks to Prove It felt more expansive than its predecessors; here, however, Palace have skipped the cutesie twee-pop phase and delivered from the start a fresh kind of bluesy-indie. The record has a lot to offer. There’s the languidly jangly ‘Live Well’, the kind of song you want to listen to on the last day of summer, waiting for the sun to set with your school friends, nostalgia glowing on the distant horizon. Sweet and upbeat. Then there’s the looser ‘So Long Forever’ and the trembling urgency of ‘Break the Silence’. While Palace have an array of decent singles, they don’t crowd their album with them and instead give space to lots of new songs which melt together in a carefully detailed bluesy masterpiece. As you can say, I like the word bluesy, and keep using it because I feel it perfectly describes the loose, hazy feeling of the songs, the way they are tied to their lyrics and melodies like a boat on a complicated river. ‘Bitter’ is just perfect. It’s catchy in a strange way; you find yourself falling over the stretchy chorus, the bright guitar, the clean bass. Plus Leo Wyndham has such a lovely voice. Sometimes it sounds a bit like the lead singer of Little Comets; in fact when I first heard Palace I assumed they were also from Newcastle. There is less of the rush of a fast-paced London indie scene here; instead you have a refreshingly chilled collection of tracks which really take their time and pay attention to detail.
16) The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
Please don’t judge me for choosing the pink-hued bombast of the 1975’s sophomore effort for my list. It’s more than just a guilty pleasure; for me, it represents a glint of hope within mainstream pop music. It shows there’s room to do something interesting beyond constant rehashes of what we now derisively call EDM, the auto-tuned formula perfected in Radio 1-loving R&B. I won’t rant anymore about that (you can hear much more eloquent rants on the subject from Laura Marling on her excellent podcast, Reversal of the Muse). The 1975 showcase an array of influences, from Bowie to INXS, but they don’t just flaunt their inspirations with a citational ironic sneer; rather, they recuperate 80s music, its pomp and flamboyance, to comment on the narcissism of the selfie-era, to make self-referential pop that actually seems intelligent but still deliciously fun and sugar-coated enough to become a chart darling.
From the Pete Wentz-worthy album title to lengthily indulgent instrumental tracks, this is an album which unashamedly revels in itself, in the album as an elastic art form. It’s definitely a love/hate thing, and somehow I’m drawn to it. It’s simultaneously painfully honest and ridiculously silly. The way Matthew Healey sounds so vulnerable on ‘Somebody Else’ and ‘Nana’, the pop crooning of ‘She’s American’ and the melancholy ‘A Change of Heart’. Then there’s ‘Love Me’, the extravagantly OTT and catchy lead single completed with twangy INXS guitars, cheesy 80s synth flourishes and a playful vocal delivery. It’s the kind of album that makes your teeth hurt, but there’s plenty of wee gems in there to savour.
And everything I couldn’t include but still loved dearly:
Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass Biffy Clyro – Ellipsis Black Marble – It’s Immaterial Bloc Party – Hymns Bon Iver – 22 A Million C Duncan – The Midnight Sun Diiv – Is The Is Are DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall Emma Pollock – In Search of Harperfield Fair Mothers – Through Them Fingers Yours and Mine GoGo Penguin – Man Made Object Honeyblood – Babes Never Die Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues King Creosote – Astronaut Meets Appleman Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini Martha Ffion – Tripp (yes, it’s an EP and not an album but I’m gonna cheat with this one) Minor Victories – Minor Victories Modern Studies – Swell to Great Mogwai – Atomic Pinegrove – Cardinal Polica – United Crushers Randolph’s Leap – Cowardly Deeds Soft Hair – Soft Hair Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony Teenage Fanclub – Here TeenCanteen – Say It All With A Kiss The Avalanches – Wildflower The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect Warpaint – Heads Up Wild Nothing – Life of Pause
Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things
(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)
In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics
(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).
In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?
What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.
The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.
However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.
Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.
With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.
What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.
My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutessuch taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?
Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.
Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.
Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.
In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.
Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:
Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.
(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)
The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.
At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.
As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.
The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy…Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17).The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.
At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.
Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).
On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.
While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.
Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series,photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:
Photography is a mode of tekhnē– a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.
(Dick and Wolfreys 260)
There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.
Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights.
Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:
Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.
(Derrida 1989: 61)
In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.
At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.
What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:
[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]
(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).
There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.
I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:
The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.
(McCarthy 2010: 78)
Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:
As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.
(McCarthy, Tom 2012)
Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…
There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?
In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.
Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:
The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’
(Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)
What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:
Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.
Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…
There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.
(Kristeva 1982: 1)
Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things.
Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).
Suzanne Vega – ‘Marlene on the Wall’, Suzanne Vega (1985)
Partly to blame for my writerly obsession with long, m-beginning girls names (Meredith, Meredana, Marianne), this song was one of the first tracks that brought me to music – brought me to music in the sense of listening to it and discovering something new about the world through it. It’s a story of a dangerous and probably ill-advised love affair, told through an impression of symbols; the singer urges the listener to ‘observe the blood, the rose tattoo and the fingerprints on me from you’. The line between desire and violence blurs here and there’s something about Vega’s cool, whispering voice: an intimacy that is at once conversational but also steadfastly aloof, refusing the self-aestheticising of vibrato and instead fixing itself on the delivery of its sharply observational lyrics. In an age where big, operatic voices dominate the popular music scene (think Adele), Vega’s vocal style seems comparatively and indeed curiously fresh. When she returns, angrily, to the chorus, there’s a real, mesmerising venom to her delivery.
The song was on an acoustic compilation CD I’d nicked from my Mum’s car and I used to play it over and over again, my nine-year-old mind trying to make sense of the song’s darkness; its ‘danger zone’, the urgent guitar strums and insistence on silence – ‘don’t talk about it later’. By successfully striking the experience of ambiguity in desire, twisting pop’s conventional picture of love to one more sinister, Vega draws you in and in again to her characters. Who’s Marlene? What does she mean by the wall? Who are the soldiers, and the ‘things I cannot see’? I still have no idea.
2) Bloc Party – ‘I Still Remember’, A Weekend in the City (2007)
Like a Roald Dahl novel, rife with endearing surrealism, you sink into this story of young love with a queasy mix of confusion and warm familiarity. The guitar riff that kicks in with all its clarity is a comfort, even now, listening back almost ten (!) years later, and the song lilts between the energy and languidness of longing. The relief that comes when Kele Okereke breathily sings that first line, ‘I / I still remember / how you looked that afternoon / it was only you.’ It’s a love that touches on the unspokenness of queer desire, the possibility of falling for your best friend: ‘we left our trousers by the canal / and our fingers, they almost touched’. It’s almost Blakean in its very pure, stripped-back articulation of innocence: ‘you said “it’s just like a full moon” / blood beats faster in our veins’. It’s draped in childhood nostalgia: ‘and on that teachers’ training day / we wrote our names on every train’. With all these images, you can’t help but remember such experiences from your own youth, those simple days and strange feelings.
When the song builds up with the thrashing drums and the insistent refrain, ‘I still remember’, all the campouts and nights out and beach drinking and endless hanging out come flooding back. Okereke’s love exists now only as a metonymic collection of details, sentimental objects and memories: the playgrounds and rooftops, park benches, school ties. There’s a terrible bittersweetness to the song, its sense of regret, of unrealised, forlorn desire: ‘You should have asked me for it / I would have been brave’. Sure, the album came out in January 2007, but in a way it’s a song for autumn: the aftermath of summer holidays, the return to school, the always problematic sense of fresh beginnings, of leaving a certain era behind. The golden haze of nostalgia, and all its futile longing. The dissolution of that final shining chord.
In my head, it’s inextricably tied up not just with my own adolescence but with that even earlier exposure to frustrated love. I think of the ending to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, with Mary’s endless stories, the ‘quantum leap’ that is love’s realisation, her talk of negative capability and the unravelling of Proustian memory, decades deep from a piece of marzipan; then Lyra and Will, after so many adventures across several universes, admitting they love each other, their first kiss like the taste of the ‘little red fruit’ and then the devastating revelation that they love each other and yet can literally never exist in the same world and live. I remember vividly sitting on my bedroom floor on a Sunday night, picking flakes of paint from the floorboards, anxiously devouring the last of book of the fantasy trilogy that had consumed both my summer and winter and feeling this weird immenseness of sadness and relief all at once. I think it’s the expression that counts; the only overcoming of such feelings. That’s why Bloc Party’s song’s so good. It’s cathartic.
3) Belle & Sebastian – ‘Dress Up in You’, The Life Pursuit (2006)
For me, The Life Pursuit is one of Belle & Sebastian’s most obviously ‘chamber pop’ albums, it’s lush and glossy and upbeat, featuring vocal contributions from both male and female members of the band. Its production is shiny and the mood (for once?) is cheerful.
Probably not surprising that the song I picked is one of the album’s most melancholy, however. We can all relate to ‘Dress Up in You’, in a way. It’s a song about jealousy, about our problematic relationship with the friend that always dazzled, the one with a ‘beautiful face’, that was always destined for great things, while you were stuck back home, ‘knitting jumpers’ and ‘working after hours’. There’s a bitterness to the song’s tone but at the same time the relaxing cadence of the piano riff and the upliftingly sweet horn solo keep the sadness in check: ultimately, the song’s message is one of admiration. The ‘singer in the band’ paints a vision of her friend, the one who ‘got lucky’, who forgot about her, as a beautiful idol: ‘if I could have a second skin I’d probably dress up in you.’
We’ve all wanted to be someone else at some point. It’s probably part of the human condition that we’re mostly doomed to be dissatisfied with our own skin, to long for where the grass is greener, where there are airplanes and style and ‘the essence’. What I love about this song is its contradictions: the bitter lyrics and the sweet music, the sense of absolute friendship (deals signed in blood, understandings, love, the sense of missing someone so much they give you stomach pain) and jealousy/resentment, the contrast between stardom and failure. It carries them off perfectly and there’s a satisfying relief in the way the song closes with the rallentando leading into ‘they are hypocrites, forget them / so fuck them too’ and then all those carefree la la la la las, harmonised lovingly with the accompanying brass.
It’s a song that reminds me of sitting up till 5am on friends’ sofas, passing round the laptop and its weighty iTunes library, drinking the dregs from a bottle of gin and feeling a bit miserable for ourselves but also kind of paradoxically content with the feeling of discontent.
Notably, it’s also the song that plays over the credits to Stuart Murdoch’s film, God Help the Girl, and I like that the film’s ending is pretty open, just like the outcome of the song—does the friend become an actress? Is she a success or a failure?
4) Frightened Rabbit – ‘Poke’, The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
2009 and 2010. Two winters so cold the roads and rivers froze over; so cold we wore coats in our classrooms, the heating system of our leaky-roofed Victorian school building packing in in tandem with the collapse in temperatures. These years all a blur of computer screens and studies, of long walks round town and into the hills with friends. I had tickets to see Frightened Rabbit at the Barrowlands in December; I was in school, reading Sylvia Plath for my English dissertation, when from the windows of the computer suite I saw the first flakes of snow, falling from the sky like a promise. They came thick and fast and soon everything was draped in white. Something inside me soared, even with the sad knowledge that the trains were cancelled. I couldn’t go to the gig.
At parties, we would mockingly sing the words to each other: ‘poke at my iris / why can’t I cry about this’. Sometimes we’d mishear the lyrics. We wanted a reaction from each other, perhaps, a way of making sense of that weird desire to be poked in the eye, to be stilted from our drunken reveries. Or maybe it meant something deeper, weirder. Maybe that was our own ‘brand new language’, a semiotics of stupid expressions and warbling voices, the way we’d brush up against each other’s hands as if we wanted to hold them.
‘Poke’. It’s an elegy of sorts; an elegy for the disintegration of a relationship, the frustration of striving for closure, caught between an animalistic need for freedom and that enduring residue of whatever was there before: ‘Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone? / And we can mourn its passing / And then bury it in snow’. It’s that wintery, rural Scottish numbness, the refusal or even inability to admit feeling – ‘Why can’t I cry about this?’. There’s the tender, Burns-like romanticism of this love – ‘it’s got lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon’ – kicked viscerally in the teeth with all that suppressed violence that we bury in the darkest dullness of our relationships: ‘Or should we kick its cunt in / and watch as it dies from bleeding?’. Scott Hutchison’s poetic, sometimes growling croon is softened in this song, even as he refuses to hold back on the emotion, it unravels perfectly in the expression of paradox that governs the end of a relationship: ‘But I hate when I feel like this / And I never hated you’. The sudden severance of that connection that was almost familial, blood-strong in its longing. The interludes where Hutchison sings his Ooooohs with that perfect, withdrawn sorrow are like the movements of the sea over the steady rivulets of the guitar picking. I always wanted to be able to play this song on guitar. It sounded so simple and sad and pure.
5) Wild Nothing – ‘Paradise’, Nocturne (2012)
I used to do double shifts most Saturdays and Sundays and it was a grim affair without the aid of some good music to brighten the restaurant where I found myself pacing endlessly, lifting plates, taking orders, polishing glasses, picking litter and leaves off the floor, scraping candle wax off tables, dusting the gantry, moving zombie-like between tables with the same forced fresh, maybe fragile smile.
My friend Douglas would bring stacks of CDs in and leave them for me on the bar top while he was away working in his section. In the midst of sensory deprivation, I would pore over those CDs like they were exquisite treasures (which, fuck it, they were). For one, it was lovely to find someone else who shared my passion for the actual tangibility of the compact disc. The sleeve and the notes and the design printed on the disc itself. I liked the sheen of plastic, which felt solid in my hands. It was 2013 and Douglas had a music taste that ranged from the up-and-coming heroes of alt-pop (Grimes, Lana Del Rey) to the more left-field and experimental/electronic; looking over those CDs reminded me of the world I had missed while immersing myself in nothing but literary theory podcasts and James Joyce audiobooks for two years solid. Now there was Bjork, Angel Olsen, Poliça, Wild Nothing.
I asked to take a few home to borrow, mostly based on my attraction to the album artwork and the titles of songs. I’ve always been drawn to song titles and artwork, probably because I am literary-minded but also because I love it when artists actually pay attention to building up a particular aesthetic that’s appropriate to, or even spins a whole new meaning on, their music. I love thinking about how the title of a song changes everything. It’s weird because I find it really hard to title my own work, but I guess that’s a common problem…
Anyway, one of those lucky albums was Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, which is a blissful array of buttery, colourful dream pop songs which mould together as perfect as the lunar cycle. The standout track for me is ‘Paradise’, a five-and-a-half-minute ambient starry-eyed disco epic which, if the album is meant to sort of capture ‘a sleepless state of mind’ (hence the album’s title, Nocturne), is that moment when the endorphins kick in and you reach that precise state of euphoria that occurs when you have not slept for say 40 hours solid. Maybe you’re travelling, airborne to distant lands. Maybe you’ve been boozing through the night and morning. Maybe you’ve just been on your feet all day and are reaching the 11th hour of your shift…
For me, this is sort of The Cure drenched in pastel tones; the meticulous crafting of those dark synths and celestial reverb; Joy Division staring into the refracted galaxies of a crystal ball that would predict a brighter future. Jack Tatum’s voice here acquires a much stronger, more sonorous quality than on most other Wild Nothing tracks, and there are definitely Ian Curtis comparisons to be made here. The mood perfectly balances its bouncy drums, uplifting synths and twinkly 80s guitar riffs with a controlled and almost majestic lyrical delivery which is rather melancholy in theme, the refrain ‘love is paradise’ framing most of the song, as if striving to reach some sublime point where paradise would be reached. If you check out the extended version online, with Michelle Williams doing spoken word in an interlude section, there is a definite sort of Allen Ginsberg/Beat generation vibe to the lines, moving to a sort of transcendent rapture: ‘The past was folded up and in the twinkle of an eye / and everything had been changed / And made beautiful and good’.
The song overall feels like a spiritual and spatial journey; it fades and builds and comes to fade again. It never indulges in elaborate solos but instead maintains its vibrant rhythm that moves between liveliness and a kind of soporific haze of drums and sparkling guitar and synths. Listening to it at work, for those five-and-a-half-minutes I felt weightless, bodiless, up in the air; free from the cutlery and crockery and bells tolling endlessly from the kitchen…
A song that you carry with you somehow, that’s so engrained in your brain as to never leave you, each chord and lyric sedimented with years of memory. It’s a fragile song, sparse as a deciduous tree in winter. It’s a song about wandering, the dislocated sense of not exactly inhabiting the world, but somehow just drifting through. It’s a paean to solitude: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversations / with the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection’. It explores the thinness of reality, the sheen of ‘polish’ that in the morning ‘looks like shit’, the false love sold in the evening, which by the morning ‘won’t exist’. It’s a candid admission of human frailty, the mercurial nature of our emotions. It’s a specifically metropolitan song: you have a sense of Conor Oberst’s warbling voice as he wanders the streets, lost protagonist in his solipsistic sadness. Yet the song spreads outwards, as a commentary on the human (or at least a generational) condition, a not-quite nihilistic exhaustion with the world – ‘we might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain’. We flit from one thing to another, our desires will oscillate as sure as the moon’s phases. Everything seems ‘so simple as the moonlight’ but no amount of incantation will render solid this refrain.
Thematically, the song is about addiction, depression, the everyday vacillations of sensation contained in a morning and evening. The random party at ‘some actor’s west side loft’ and the flask shared on the train, the person addressed who looks ‘skinny like a model’ and keeps escaping to the bathroom, ‘always say you’ll be right back’. In body, the people in the song waste away as easily as the time that contains them, surviving off coffee and moonlight and imaginary conversations.
Oberst, lyrically, is a genius at paradoxes and parallels and expresses them in a way that offers them as explanations or gestures of understanding which never quite satisfy but at least leave us pondering: ‘But what was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane’. The opening line, ‘I know that it is freezing but I think we have to walk’ so clearly establishes the tone of the song, the jar of realisation – we’re both forced upon this journey, nobody’s going to give us a ride – that it could be a line from a Wallace Stevens poem. It’s a cold song, whose play of end rhymes only half hit home – ‘walk/loft’ ‘off/gone’ – leaving us always longing for something more. No closure can be reached: the song can only end with the circular repetition of ‘so simple in the moonlight’, a childlike rehearsal of the beauty which cannot kill the complications of adult life, the self-destructive habits which inhabit the song’s lyrics.
In third year of high school, I used to listen to this every lunchtime, lying in the playground by the P.E block, feeling so light and empty, the world dissolving around me in a dull cacophony of kicked footballs, shrieking games and called-out names. It was a mysterious adult world, the one contained in that song, but I almost felt I was already there, dissolving what was left of matter.
[There’s a lovely version Oberst recorded with Gillian Welch for the album Dark Was the Night (2009) which gives it a flavour of melancholy Americana, a greater sense of dislocation, fusing the urban setting and Oberst’s minimalist delivery with Welch’s distinctly lilting, country voice and all its resonance of the prairie].
7) Muse – ‘Citizen Erased’, Origin of Symmetry (2001)
It seems insane to think that this album was released fifteen years ago, but maybe the timing was appropriate. There’s something uncanny about it: the paranoid, political and often surreal lyrics, howling soprano, bloated distortion of electric guitars, as if the music were forcing us to release the visceral eeriness and indeed grotesque weirdness of a reality that tried to cloak itself in the fairytales of gameshow tv and the financial greed offered by a fresh new century…
‘Citizen Erased’ is visceral, beautiful; at once tender and full of fury. It renders the experience of someone living in a fucked-up political state, the striving for freedom and confusion over what it means to be human, to be a person, at all. The thrashing drums give way to a thickly buzzing bass and the yearning swirls of screeching electric guitar solos. The song builds slowly and softly but the choruses are huge and operatic, with Bellamy’s distinctive wail crying out: ‘For one moment / I wish you would hold your stage / with no feelings at all / open minded / I’m sure I used to be, so free’.
The experience of this song is one of purification. You are exposed to music that is violent, lashing, angry, but like any good narrative, there is a turning point, a calming of the waves. The music becomes almost ambient. The key changes and Bellamy’s voice returns to its melodic, delicate expression, accompanied by ripples of piano and the fuzzy, spacey twanging of distorted guitars: ‘Wash me away / clean your body of me / erase all the memories / that will only bring us pain’. I’ve always felt purged somehow after listening to ‘Citizen Erased’. I think it chews you up a bit then leaves you, disembodied, drifting along the final tributaries of its current, back to a place of imaginary origin, more peaceful and pure than the harsh world it renders…
I first saw them at Wickerman Festival, god knows how many years ago now, and we went to see them on recommendation of my brother. It was probably raining a bit but maybe there was sunshine coming out there from behind us as we stood at the stage. I think they were on before or after Fenech Soler, who you should check out if you like electropop, Friendly Fires, White Lies and all things with synths. Anyway, the band in question who we were watching are called Little Comets, and they play what can only really be described with any accuracy as ‘kitchen sink indie’. I’ve seen them so many times since – basically any time they come to Scotland, which is usually twice a year.
A cold windy Glasgow Monday and I’m sitting in Slouch on Bath Street, watching the snow fall down behind a window of fairylights. We’re discussing what songs they might play. We’re reminiscing about old festivals and terrible and great music from the past. The walk to King Tuts is short from here.
I’ve been to King Tuts many a time before. Embarrassing to admit though it is, the first gig I saw there was You Me At Six. There’s an energy to the place that seems to billow about like the dust off the walls. It’s a wonderfully tiny basement venue with clean toilets and a decent bar and lots of posters from bands that have played there before. There’s Belle & Sebastian and The White Stripes and Pulp on the wall. We go down the stairs and the air is close and thick and hot. We watch two support acts, one of which was the Dundee band Model Aeroplanes, who have a nice amount of energy and lots of lovely, floppy, sweaty hair and bouncy guitar riffs. Oh, and we sussed that the bassist looks kind of like Adam Driver from Girls.
Reasons why I love Little Comets:
They sing about so many different subjects, from adultery to love to fatherhood to sadness and hope and sorrow and domestic violence and corrupt politicians and poverty and girls named Joanna, Matilda and Jennifer.
They tour the U.K all the time and always come to Scotland.
They write lovely little blog posts about their lyrics.
They seem to genuinely care about the music over everything else and even founded their own record label to avoid being sucked into corporate pressures.
There are little snippets of poetry which adorn their songs: ‘tension in the twisted silence of our sheets’ (Isles). They like to talk about metaphors and similes and often their songs tell stories.
After gigs they sometimes give out cards for fans and they write nice silver messages on EPs when you order them.
They sound so tight live, with amazing harmonies and clear, bouncy percussion.
‘Dancing Song’ is just the best thing ever to jump around too, even if it means you’ll get trodden on and elbowed in the ribs by teenage boys.
They write political lyrics without being remotely sanctimonious about their status as musicians writing about politics.
Their artwork is really cool and they do it themselves.
They are maybe the best male feminists in the music industry of this period, at least as far as lyrical content goes. I don’t know, show me anyone better.
Well last night they opened with a track off their new album, ‘The Gift of Sound’, which in a corny kind of way was appropriate because that’s what musicians do, give us the gift of sound. They moved through a few new songs off of Hope is Just a State of Mind and also I was pleased to hear them play ‘Isles’ off the first album because it’s been a while since I’ve heard it. The gig was over-14s and standing there behind rows of fourteen-year-old girls and far-too-tall fourteen-year-old guys, listening to those opening lines ‘Economic downturn you can get a job | Apologetic parents you can get a job’ and I’m thinking god I’m so old that when the economic downturn was happening back in 2008 I was about fourteen and probably discovering Little Comets for the first time.
The last couple of Scotland gigs have been in Edinburgh and you could definitely tell that this was a Glasgow crowd. There were a bunch of lads around us who were giving it the ‘oggy-oggy’ football-match style chanting in imitation of the songs which was actually quite sweet (and funny and annoying) and the band looked sort of bemused and taken-aback; Rob at one point finished the song (can’t remember exactly but I think it was ‘Little Italy’) then said in wonder, “nobody’s ever done that before”. I spent half the gig sort of laughing at the absurdity and magic of it all, that strange reaction people have. I mean, it’s amazing to listen to ‘burly’ (haha) young (and middle-aged) guys with tribal tattoos shout out lyrics like: ‘And like for every victim | It seems the pain will not subtract or even calm | All this protracted by a state | In which the poor conviction rate for rape | Can often leave a woman feeling | More at blame than able’. And even if it’s just words being thrown out, at least they’re being thrown out into a room full of likeminded people who believe in the words that the band are singing; even if just for the melodies being woven, even if just because it plants that tiny seed of thought in their heads. It feels empowering, somehow.
Well they fired into well-loved tracks like Joanna and Dancing Song which got everyone jumping about like crazy. One of my favourite things about Little Comets gigs is that you get gorgeous ballads and also songs you can jump about and dance to. I saved my Converses from being pulled off, survived a mosh pit and did my fair share of hair swooshing. It wasn’t all that pleasant being flung against guys who stank of sweat and cheap aftershave and hair that reeked of Chilli Heatwave Doritos, but that’s just a gig curse and the music makes it worth all the stitches.
A highlight was everyone singing along to ‘Coalition of One’, which is probably my favourite track off their last couple of EPs. It’s a song that opens with the lines: ‘food banks spring open | like jaws dropping in time | the weight of man is measured | by the depths of a carrier bag’. It’s simple and powerful and it hits you and makes you think how wrong everything is in the world right now; specifically in Britain. In comparison to the heartbreak-heavy lyrics of other ‘indie’ bands, Little Comets are genius. In fact, you get the sense that people can’t believe they’re singing along to it. It’s almost like a surrealist image, dragging up some common found object and assigning a kind of tragic beauty to it, and then getting such a mix of people to sing it back to you, to throw it out into the air like a lost plastic bag drifting in the wind. There’s a frailty to many of Little Comets’ images: you only have to look at songs like ‘Waiting in the Shadows in the Dead of Night’ (It’s like barbed wire, this crucial touch | That holds me here, expects so much) and ‘Early Retirement’ (‘the promises you sew are | shallow footsteps in the snow | that you cover up’) to feel their concern with the beautiful ephemerality of experience, the soft alliteration that slips between their words. Watching Rob, lead singer and guitarist, standing over his keyboard, drenched in stage smoke and blue light, singing ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’, is enchanting and inspiring. I don’t mind throwing those cosy words around because these guys deserve it, they’re so dedicated and passionate. What other band has the guts to take on Robin Thicke-style sexism in the industry with lyrics like this:
But this filth stands on a quicker sand
Next to cold hard fear and the deeds of man
The abuse of body image as a form of control
And the typical portrayal of the feminine role
I have never been more appalled.
Pick me up with rhythms and waveform
That can symbolise a culture lost
Sing about the future like you mean to
I’m never going to count costs
Question the agenda of an industry
That only can objectify
You write about a non-existent blurred line
But not about abortion rights.
OK, so this might not be Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf, but for an all-male band to write these lyrics and perform them gig after gig with heartfelt expression is a victory for any kind of feminism in the modern age. It’s questioning an industry from within and writing about issues that are hugely important to women and men – abortion, media objectification and so on – without framing them in a kind of gratuitous ‘pity’ narrative or ignoring them altogether. Music can be political without a band having to tie politics to their t-shirts, and Little Comets demonstrate this perfectly.
Indeed, the feminist content of their lyrics is also evident in ‘Violent Out Tonight’, which I would argue is a masterpiece of a song. With elegant, soaring harmonies (performed so well onstage too), a thumping, emphatic heartbeat of a drum rhythm, and haunting sliding guitar, it conjures a dark story that follows a brutal encounter between a man and a woman on a lonely street. It’s filled with poetry that shifts between the subtle and stark and by the end we too are left bruised and battered by the sad narrative it tells:
As they step into the dark
Only moonlight hides his treason
And the shadows skip like sharks
Through the gasps of air between them
She says: ‘Becalm your hands boy I thought
restraint was now your sentiment of choice?’
But as his fingers strike her blouse
All the words that he espoused
Lie deftly scattered on the ground amidst
the buttons he’s torn open
When sung aloud, the rhyming works here in a really interesting, disturbing and dissonant way. It’s a song that can silence a rowdy crowd into awed absorption. You let the sounds slide through you and you listen, as Rob’s voice ranges from painful constraint to effortless flowing notes. There is a tension and a release. You feel this release with more uplifting songs like the opening track from Hope is Just a State of Mind, ‘My Boy William’, which Rob describes on the Little Comets blog as ‘really the most emotionally honest song that I’ve ever written, and also one of the simplest – it is just a message to my little boy William: my hopes for him’. You could tell the crowd loved every minute of the gig from all the clapping and shouting and singing along and jumping (might I remind you how rare it is to see people actually dancing at all at an ‘indie’ gig), but especially with these numbers you could tell how much everyone really respected these songs for what they were and the sort of joyful simplicity of innocence they evoke. It’s all fuzzy and you get that great feeling when you’re in a crowd and lots of other people are experiencing similar things to you and even though you might not be a father or mother yourself, you still feel that raw sort of love shine through, in a way that feels uniquely authentic rather than cheesy or sentimental. As the hard-looking bald guy with the tattoos chanted at the end of ‘My Boy William’: ‘he’s going to be a superstar when he grows up, just like you Rob!’. And well, if that’s not cute I don’t know what is.
One of my favourite parts of the night was when they were chatting between songs and Rob said that Matt (the bassist) had just noticed some wires on a bar above the stage which were still there from years ago when they last played. The band used to bring an assortment of pots and pans with them which they hung above the stage and used with their percussion, which I suppose justified the ‘kitchen sink indie’ label in addition to the soap-like drama and domesticity of songs like ‘Adultery’ and ‘One Night in October’ (I’m never going to get over the lines: ‘So I sit her down | And say this must stop | ’Cause all we do | Is argue and shop | She goes to Boots | I go to Argos | Complete with deceit | We stalk each aisle’). Well I thought it was very sweet that this little mark of days gone past was still there, even though King Tuts (mostly the bar) has undergone some renovation since. I remember that gig very vividly; I was in second year at uni and had just finished my horrible essay on The Tempest and Heart of Darkness and I was drinking Jack Daniels alone in my room and doing cartwheels I was so excited. My favourite album so far is the second one, Life is Elsewhere. I think it works best as an album (I need to give the new one some more listening to judge though) and the lyrics are sweetly dark and just the right level of mournful, joyful and sentimental. And I like the line: ‘I’d rather starve than become a member of your old boys’ club’ in a dig at Oxbridge culture which permeates the top levels of governance in Britain. All these songs have a double layered nostalgic quality for me now, reminding me of feeling a bit more lost and hopeful and innocent as I stumbled through my first years at uni. Now I’m coming to the end it feels right that there should be more songs to form associations with. It’s actually pretty weird because they tend to release a new EP with every semester, so it’s almost like a kind of diary where I remember things through Little Comets releases. Oh well, if you’re going to support your memory with techne then maybe it’s better that it’s music from one of your favourite bands rather than just shallow social media statuses…oh well, just my two cents to future generations… (and I should stop trying to understand Heidegger).
It’s also fitting that before their last song (well, I think it was their last song unless there was an encore – which they usually resist doing due to the arrogance and cheesiness of encores – we had to leave early so the troops could get the last train home), Rob was telling the audience that he likes this song because it reminds him of their early days of playing. ‘In Blue Music We Trust’ is one of my favourites off Life is Elsewhere: again it has that haunting, nostalgic quality that builds and swells as the song progresses and proves the perfect ending to an awesome gig. How magical too that it was so cold and crisp outside, and that I walked home through Finnieston in a snow storm with all those swirling flakes glowing orange under the lamplight, and feeling so calm and serene and dreamy because it’s rare that things in life can make you so happy, but I guess good music can, and feeling fresh and freezing after a steaming hot gig.
‘I suppose the thing I am proud of with our music is the fact that we’ve always followed our hearts and stayed true – we do what we love, and we work very hard but we’ve never compromised ourselves for it. If I could pass one message onto my little boy, other than how much we love him, is just to be true to himself and keep an open mind – there’s always more to learn…’ (Little Comets blog).
How are you meant to review a year when the year itself isn’t quite over? You try and think of it as a block of time: a chunk of events lumped together to form some kind of history. You’re always reaching out for connections, trying to box things and label them as such. This was the year I got divorced and found my freedom; the year I graduated and stepped onto my career path to success; the year I lost someone dear to me and found solace in a new hobby. The movies have it all mapped out for us, the way we’re supposed to review the events in our lives. Facebook, Flickr and other social networks that we rely on help us with this theatre of memory, by archiving everything together in chains of photograph albums and status updates. Events are strung together in relation to chronology and names and computer-configured faces; what happened to who, who was tagged where, who liked this and who got married and who had a baby and who got promoted. Every element of time is rendered orderly, linear. Compartmentalised to make us all competitive, individual, empathetic, jealous. We’re moving on a straight line towards goals, achievements – more notches to add to our timeline.
But what end are we moving to? A timeline cannot flow on indefinitely; or can it? Surely it’s meant to document an A to B, a fixed period in time with all the events this period contains (contained). Life, as we commonly think of it, is a series of events strung together only by their relationship to the future, to development and change. We hate stasis; we love drama. Really, as Freud put it, what we desire is death.
Desire, however, isn’t quite as simple as this. Freud, as Deleuze and Guattari argued, ignores the basic tenants of capitalism. The need for more, more, more which arises not solely out of some psychoanalytic lack, but out of production itself. The act of purchase, the mesmerising experience of lifting up some pretty snow globe and spinning it in one’s hand and thinking I would like to buy that. The flicker of a giggle as we take it home, imagining how our new product is going to enhance the life that fills our fragile hours. Fill a room and create new topographies of mental space. For everything we see disrupts our schemas of reality, even if only slightly. The snow swirls up and covers the landscape and for that moment we are free from the chaos around us.
What we are looking for is T. S. Eliot’s ‘still point in the turning world’: that perfect moment where we are at peace with ourselves, where we see through to the present itself amidst all the churning miasma of the world we exist in. The wars and media images, the headlines and celebrity photographs and radio crackle and dance music beating and phones ringing and Blackberries bleeping and all the million signals that flicker in our brain as we gaze into a computer screen. For we are multiple, divided, networked creatures, always-already caught up in swarms of information. Time is not a static archive, but a rhizome of interconnected possibilities that flash and shift and click in our minds.
And what’s more, events in time always come back. The logic of the return. Write a sentence and press the Enter key. We aren’t just running forward into the bright light at the end of some metaphorical tunnel. We follow our lives in a loop. Spilling over and retracing our steps. Think, for example, of a book: meaning is made not from a linear plot, but from the intricate play of signifiers and motifs which weave a melody of meaning throughout the narrative, linking the past and present with a possible production of future. That old New Critical interplay between Fabula and syuzhet.
Real life too. Wars return and people die in the same way, as if re-enacting the past in some big-budget film, tracing archives of pain that carve out a bitterness in history. We stand in the mirror at roughly the same times each morning and perform the same routine. Routine, like it or not, structures our whole mentalities. That’s why culture is formed on the basis of habit and ritual. Religion falls in here too. Are we always waiting, as Yeats suggested, for the Second Coming? The ‘revelation’ that is always ‘at hand’, ‘surely’? Let’s circle back to the start – of the twentieth century, to be specific. Freud says our personalities are determined by the first few years of our lives. Our anxieties now repeat the biological functioning of our infant bodies. Are we so caught up in ourselves that we cannot think beyond our bodies?
What does it mean to be in simultaneous temporalities? I write this sitting by my newly-decorated Christmas tree, in the living room where I spent almost every Christmas of my life since the age of three. The smell of pine and the reflection of fairy lights through the window lighting up the pampas grass in the garden. Everything wondrous and dark. Remembering lying on the floor after a day in town drinking Jack Daniels and shivering cold on the bus and listening to Muse’s ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ and dreaming of another night so unlike this. The frozen park in November with the roundabout and fireworks and the tall black shadows of the distant trees. Now the steady showering of rain at the window, spraying like glitter under the orange lamp light. Once there were family members sitting where I sit now, all laughing and ripping open presents and drinking sherry. My dog Bella climbing over everything, whining and wreaking havoc with the whip of her tail. I slip through all these memories until they feed my present. I cannot focus on one thing alone. I feel like I am several people at once. I am no longer singular. No longer a statistical person.
What happens when you are no longer one person? There is a politics to this. There are the people that believe in return and repetition. People whose whole religion is based around recurrent events and cyclical time. The solstices of Paganism, then the spiritual systems of the Mayans and Aztecs. This contrasts with the Judaeo-Christian vision of linear time, which starts with Creation and ends with the Second Coming. But what if this Second Coming was always coming? To come? Since the present is contaminated with the future (unconsciously or not, the things we think and do are always shadowed somehow by some possibility to-come), doesn’t this render the idea of ‘the present’ almost impossible? Do we slip into the spirals of Yeats’ gyre and Derrida’s spectrality?
Are we on a road or an ocean? A stream or a snowball?
Capitalism and heteronormativity set out a life plan for us. Find a mate, get married, reproduce, recreate the system. Work, earn money, pay your way. Consume. These are all instrumental processes which work towards goals. Inside these events we make our own histories, certainly, and there is a degree of creativity and fulfillment. We aren’t just pawns. But this isn’t the whole story. Here comes in Judith Halberstam’s queer temporality. What happens to the temporal experience of those who do not follow this conventional route to eventual death? Who fill their lives with more entangled possibilities which are fraught with uncertainties and questions rather than fixed narratives and clear answers…
Remembering his lover’s death from AIDS, Mark Doty says: ‘all my life I’ve lived with a future which constantly diminishes but never vanishes’. The looming possibility of a non-future, a future without hope or action or life, shifts the focus back to the present. Gone are the regular goals of ‘making a living’, ‘providing for the future’, ‘putting something away’ for one’s children. The next generation are often invoked in political discourse. Global warming is dangerous because it will spoil the world for the children of the future. Non-heterosexual relationships are supposedly dangerous because they don’t follow the capitalist ethic of (re)production in the strict sense. Atheists threaten the idea of progression because they do not believe in a future beyond. The list goes on. Sometimes we are unaware of how important time is to politics. If we ‘queer’ time by questioning the validity of its conventional Western linear conception, what kinds of lives can we live in our present political realities? How can we change – perhaps even revolutionise – the system. There’s the old doctrine of Hedonism – live out your pleasures in the present with a general disregard for others and the future. But the present isn’t inherently selfish. It’s a place where people can come together and change things, without being bound to the very isolated narratives of old age and death.
Drugs, jobs, relationships and illness all alter our experience of time: slowing it down, speeding it up, blurring it, erasing memory, making us fearful for the future. As these things become less stable and more unpredictable, how will this affect the future?
Will we have a future, or will it be a series of presents? Can we really look to the future?
Maybe the answer is in science fiction.Think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), which explores the concept of anarchist politics through ideas of simultaneous temporality and cyclical return. Revolution and repetition are in operation at the level of both form and content: story and narrative, narrative and story. Time revolves in curious ways around and between two planets, just as a moon revolves around the Earth…but what does the Earth do when you are on the moon? Einstein’s relativity comes to disrupt the easy narrative of linear time, even at the level of science…
Maybe the answer is also in our own experience. Think of a memory. Any memory you have: the first time you rode your bike, the time you fell over while dancing drunkenly on a beach in the freezing winter, the time you lost your first pet to the grovelling paws of death. All these memories do not stand alone in our minds like a physical photograph stuck and labelled in an album; but are rather bloated and blurred with the original anticipation of the event itself, and of the aftermath – the events which have happened since and in turn coloured the original. Repetition is not static but transformative. Moreover, human beings revel in repetition. The simple pleasures of revisiting an event, even if just to experience the same emotions again as they recur in a faded form like a polaroid misted by the breath of time. Maybe that’s why people have children, so they can do the things they miss doing as a kid. And as Fredric Jameson points out, in the postmodern condition of consumer capitalism, nostalgia becomes an industry itself, shaping culture from advertising to film and literature. As our lives get more complicated, faster, information-saturated – we return to an idealised, rosy history that is often removed from any genuine meaning.
I always find Henri Bergon’s work fascinating, when I can get my head around it. He was writing around the same time as William James, the psychologist that first coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’, which is still widely used today to describe the workings of our minds but also how these workings are depicted in certain kinds of literature. Yet a stream has linear connotations, assuming that our mind is always ‘in flow’ – moving forwards and never stopping or growing, just streaming onwards. Bergson, however, figured consciousness as an experience of ‘duration’. Think of any moment, any moment as it happens. As soon as you think of it, with a milli-gasp of a second, it’s gone again. Time is always shifting and never static or complete. While science might attempt to chart time in a linear, measured fashion with clocks and calendars and equations, in our psychological experience; time does not easily fix itself to such points. It can only be grasped by imaginative intuition; it is always fallible and contingent, never the same as each moment reconfigures the last, endlessly shifting our experience of the world and ourselves: ‘my mental state’, as Bergon puts it, ‘as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing – rolling upon itself, as a snowball on the snow’. And so where does that lead us, if not to the icy abyss of our certain deaths?
Well, for one thing, it actually confirms that we are not mechanical beings, destined to follow the path that time lies out for us. Sure, we will probably all die. But importantly, if Bergson’s theory works, we have free will; imagination plays a significant role in determining our relationship to the past and future. The moment is always an evolution, and this gives us a kind of freedom.
There are, of course, a multiplicity of links between return, recurrence, rupture and revolution. The breaking free of history as history is understood in a linear manner, read from front to back like a traditional book.
Literature has a long history of delving into irregular conceptions of time. An example might include Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), in which an unnamed protagonist decides to reconstruct a series of memories after coming into a large sum of money following a mysterious accident. These reconstructions are performed down to the smallest of details: the expression on an old lady’s face as she takes out the bin, the cats that prowl the rooftops, a crack in the wall, the pattern of floor tiles, the sound of liver frying in the flat below. What follows is a topography of static memory, caught in the narrator’s imaginative present. Time loses its linear quality as the past plays out in ‘real time’ with the narrator switching his memory scape into ‘on mode’, hiring ‘re-enactors’ to perform the roles of the people in his memory. And yet an amnesia and aporia haunts the narrative, as we are never quite sure where these memories originally came from; whether they even belong to the narrator. With a book like this, we lose the certainties of the traditional realist novel and the linear movement which often ended so finally with the closure of marriage or death – the first promising reproduction and progression, the latter an ultimate extinction that ends the line. There is something about the novel form in general that links it irrevocably to time; it is not contained in a performative moment like poetry, but must be read over a series of hours or days or even weeks. We physically must turn the page. Days pass in the novel, or maybe they don’t, as in the one-day novels of Woolf and Joyce (Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses). Novels often concern themselves with memory and futurity; the sheer arrangement of sentences on a page, moreover, takes us through time. Time flows as we read. We make connections and go back again; we are at once linear and circular as we exist as minds in a novel.
But we are now in the era of the great hypertext, which denies all paths to origin in its networks of complex code and multiple nodes. The Internet exists largely in a state of simultaneity, connecting various presents from around the globe. And yet, like Bergsonian duration, it resists a static conception of time; everything about a webpage is always changing as new file paths are forged, different visitors leave their online traces, new links and reposts alter the original location. Life is a labyrinth, but we would do well to forget thinking about what lies at the end. Maybe we should focus on the here and now, and give ourselves the freedom to transform the present.
And this year? Well, this year started with a parting: losing my most beloved pet to death. All life is a natural cycle though, as the year ended with two new births in our family. On New Years Day 2014, I went for a walk to refresh my head from working the night before. A man stepped out of the 24 hour newsagent with a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 and cracked open the screw top to a dream of futurity that ended in drunken oblivion. I feel this is somehow fitting.
Most of my months passed in the library with the seductive glow of the computer stopping me from doing much other than reading and essay writing. I fulfilled both of my somewhat humble resolutions to a) do more creative writing and b) grow my hair down to my hips. I passed my exams and spent my 21st birthday hanging upside down at the park. Went to Dublin and even got a bit tanned and kind of liked Guinness. Saw Little Comets twice, first at Cabaret Voltaire and then Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh. Spent quite a bit of free time in Edinburgh actually; explored the Botanic Gardens and the beach at Portobello and went for walks at Dean Village. Listened to lots of Belle & Sebastien, Manic Street Preachers, the new Bright Eyes album and a heap of other stuff. Bagged an iPod classic before Apple stopped doing them. Had one of my best Wickerman Festivals and ate coffee granules for the first time. In August I went down to England to see family and ended up at Stepney Green, going ‘back to the ancestors’. Drank a lot of ginger tea and did some yoga. Went to Loch Lomond. Averaged about a kilo of chocolate a week, mostly Dairy Milk. Got a blog article put up on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed which was lovely. Went through the referendum and came out a little deflated but unscathed. Also enjoyed the spirit of the Commonwealth Games, even if I couldn’t really give a toss about sport. Saw an amazing sunset on Ayr beach, all alcopop pinks and oranges burning and sinking into the silver sea. Wrote three times my dissertation then another proper word-count-conscious dissertation and didn’t go completely insane. Served Alasdair Gray some brandy and a few months later . Started playing trombone again. Enjoyed one sip of red wine and dyed my hair strawberry copper. Went to a conference call to Peter Singer. Changed my favourite study space in the library…
Yep, as you can probably tell, my 2014 hasn’t been exciting by most people’s standards. But you know, it was a very good year overall. God knows where I’ll be a year from now, having graduated and moved out and hopefully made some provisions for the future. But even if I haven’t, even if it seems that not much has changed, what does it matter when everything dissolves in a series of moments? 😉
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution.
Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets.
McCarthy, Tom, Remainder.
Halberstam, Judith, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.