Elaine Tierney and Jack Rollo, aka the amazing Time Is Away, have shared their commission for our January For k-punk event as the March installment of their monthly NTS show. Read the intro and listen below:
This programme was commissioned by the ICA as part of ‘For k-punk’, an online event to mark the publication of Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures of Mark Fisher by Repeater Books. ‘For k-punk’ invited five artists and musicians to respond to the themes and provocations of Fisher’s final lectures. In ‘Countercultural Bohemia as Prefiguration’, the second lecture in the series, Fisher harnesses the psychedelic possibilities of consciousness-raising, as a process for feminists in particular, to propose ‘the abolition of the family’, a once-popular and recently resurgent feminist goal. Time is Away extends Fisher’s proposition by listening to the voices of people who explored alternative visions of how to live together.
We’re hoping to rebroadcast the whole suite of commissions again in a few months. Watch this space. For now, get lost in this really beautiful mix/collage/essay:
The originality of these two events, and the variation between them, speak to the durability of Fisher’s ideas as cultural source code, and the potential they have — with growing institutional support — to engender crosscurrents and modes of production as yet unforeseen.
He notes that Test Dept represented, for Fisher, a form of “‘popular modernism’, that point of contact between mass audiences and the avant garde”, adding:
If popular modernism was an aesthetic for the advancement of the proletariat, then hauntology is the aesthetic that keeps this new precariat hanging on. For K-Punk: Postcapitalist Desires at the ICA offers variants on this uncanny mode and mood, in which the irrepressible spirit of utopian optimism is held in a melancholy tension with a future of surveillance, exploitation, and climate catastrophe.
The overview of the sets is really positive, but Iceboy Violet was the highlight for Meehan:
The programme’s crescendo belongs … to a live set by Iceboy Violet. An adept sonic contortionist with a bracing, confessional speak-song, they address the knot of all too contemporary anxieties that their rhythm strains to untangle.
For Mark Fisher, the future was something to be excavated. What those that come after him will bring to the surface remains to be seen. But their numbers are growing.
It’s an excellent write-up that I think clarifies the generative but nonetheless Baudrillardian tension within Mark’s legacy brilliantly. Go check out the full review in issue #446. It’s been fantastic to see the event being so well-received. We’ve already got ideas for next year…
2020 was a piece of shit mostly spent doomsrolling and there’s a sick irony that I couldn’t tear myself away from obituaries for MF DOOM on New Years Eve.
I tweeted about it, in the spur of the moment, initially remembering the disappointment felt at a gig where Madlib was playing and interrupted his set with the words “DOOM ain’t coming”, and then said nothing more. A lot of people left — a striking image when you’ve already got someone of Madlib’s stature on stage.
There’s lots to be said and that has been said about KMD and Mm..Food and Madvillainy and everything he touched, frankly, but 2009’s Born Like This was huge for me. It didn’t hit immediately. In fact, it wasn’t until my first year of uni that it clicked. But it really clicked.
The tweet below from Elena Bergeron made me think of that slow process of getting on DOOM’s rhythm a decade ago:
MF DOOM’s mere presence made everything — rap, writing, the world — feel more expansive, more possible. RIP
That’s how Born Like This felt — expansive. The cover was perfect. It felt exactly like a Rosetta Stone for some future music, or like DOOM’s Golden Record beamed down from his underground lair on Mars.
Hip hop has always loved its superheroes and supervillains but DOOM was the one who really felt otherworldly in his abilities. He was the real deal. Magic on the mic.
My Dad used to always listen to Lindisfarne at Christmas. As a teenager from Sunderland, the band’s annual Christmas concerts at Newcastle City Hall were legendary and the central event of his holiday season. Since the first one (or, rather, three) in 1976, the band kept them up for over forty years. He told me we’d go to one together one day. (Although lead singer Alan Hull died in 1995, the band still does a hometown show every Christmas.) In the meantime, he’d regale me with stories about those boozy evenings as we careened along the M62 to Lindisfarne’s songs for all seasons.
Hull’s voice lingers in my ear to this day. A song like “Winter Song”, from Lindisfarne’s 1970 debut Nicely Out of Tune, is an exemplary Christmas number that encapsulates the band’s chilling delivery of stark political messages, albeit in pop form. But there’s something about the production on these songs, too, that has always held my ear — the way they flutter around the high end of the mix. Bass is present but only just, as if heard through the faint sonic fog of mandolin and vocal. The same sound can be found on “Lady Eleanor” or “Dingly Dell”. It haunts, but it also evokes the frost-bitten clarity of a brisk walk along the north-east coast, piercing sea mist blowing off the cobwebs of the working week. It is hardly surprising that a band named after a geographic location — the holy island of Lindisfarne — would so utterly embody its elemental wonder.
I’ve thought about Lindisfarne a lot in recent years, specifically after first reading Mark Fisher’s introduction to Acid Communism. His assertion that what the establishment feared most was the working class becoming hippies feels so possible when listening to early Lindisfarne, but in reality the band were processing a rapid retreat. Formed in 1969, their best albums instead soundtrack that initial half-decade after the summer of love when dreams were waning but problems remained unresolved.
1970’s Nicely Out of Tune, for instance, has a powerful yet light-hearted sense of defiance. A song like “Clear White Light” has a downright spiritual aura; an expression of belief in some overarching cause of great clarity to guide us on our way. Meanwhile, “We Can Swing Together” is like a proto-Pogues song, or something Linda and Richard Thompson might have written before they hit maturity — it boasts a somewhat naive lyricism, making it all the better to sing along to its story of hippies being persecuted without a care in the world, because all they need is their comradery. (Again, I can’t help but feel a certain Biblical spiritualism here, like disciples and spreaders of the Good News being sent down by the law — the weed-and-god complex like white-washed-up reactionary Rastafari.)
However, just a few years later, that care-free attitude is nowhere to be found. Instead, Lindisfarne’s back catalogue demonstrates an over-long commitment to certain political ideals at the very moment they were waning from the popular consciousness, capturing the precise moment that the consequences of their lackadaisical sensibilities hit them on the rebound.
Take Alan Hull’s 1973 debut solo album, Pipedream, as an example. It’s title, in many ways, says it all. It is a word caught between its own ambiguity, where psychedelia meets cynicism.
To me, Pipedream feels like an album-length sequel to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”. But this is not the meandering of a grey Englishman through purple haze; this is a purple Englishman on a comedown. It is an album of songs that are both fantastical and mundane, concerned and aloof, anxious and acquiescent. The songs alternate, ricocheting between echoes of a past life and the hard realities of a new one. It’s an album by an acid casualty still in touch with his political agency — one of the ’60s walking wounded.
Songs like “Money Game” and “Country Gentlemen’s Wife” have an air of the new pastoral. This is cheeky Chaucer folk with a sprinkling of the Lawrencian. Primitive daydreams of when money problems were simpler and a tad more feudal; when desires flowed less freely, making their unleashing all the more emancipatory. There’s something more powerful and primitive in seducing a country gentlemen’s wife, after all, than the amorphous apoliticism of a orgiastic bed-in.
However, this harking back to old power plays is underscored by a deep melancholy and contrarianism. “United States of Mind”, for instance, is a sort of stock rebuttal for when one’s reasoning is questioned. It is hard to tell, however, if this is defiance or denialism. “I’ll let it thunder, let it whistle / Let it blow like hell, I’m not really caring / And my state of mind needs no repairing.”
“Drug Song” takes a very different approach. It is the most profound song on this record for me, and a long-time favourite. It’s a mournful song about how those old pipedreams may have broken old habits only to implement new ones; a song about a freed mind that has only found new addictions. “I took a trip to find me a better self,” Hull sings, “But I only found I’d merely lost all common sense.”
As I listen to all of these songs and more, I can’t help but feel a certain affinity with Hull’s united states of mind. Although Lindisfarne have long been a Christmassy go-to — a seasonal favourite that has the blessed luck of not being torturously overplayed — they feel particularly resonant this year. Maybe it is just considering the 1970s for the first time with a new ear, after a year spent reconstructing the tensions with Fisher’s Acid Communism, but there’s something more here too, surely?
Like a long lost 1972, 2020 has felt innately psychedelic, as we’ve been swept up at the mercy of its time-dilation. And yet, whilst I still feel the glow of optimism in my belly, that the world won’t go back to how it did without a fight, after that summer of lockdown, I also feel like we are slipping deeper and deeper into a new era of incompetency.
There’s only one thing for it, but I don’t have Hull’s 1972 sense of frivolity, because 2020 has felt like 1969 to ’75 all rolled into one.
Billie Eilish deploying Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” in the chorus to her new single doesn’t seem to warrant too much thought. But, accompanied by a video in which she runs around a shopping mall picking up fast food, during a year when her figure has frequently been the subject of tabloid thinkpieces, there’s maybe something to be said for her allusion to the seventeenth-century’s mind/body dichotomy.
At first, the song’s lyrics appear to be directed at the haters and those clinging onto her name for clout, but I see another reading. There’s a deeper sense of alienation here, beneath the pop cultural politics — a kind of schizoid monologue wherein multiple Eilish’s are scattered to the winds by conflicting parasitic agents. First, there are the two Eilish’s being discussed in the press — artist and celebrity — and there are two Eilish’s being discussed by Eilish herself in her songs — projected self and introjected subject. There are multiple Eilish’s vying for attention but each can be place into two broad categories: one of mind and one of body.
Lyrically, consider how, at first, the mind takes swings at the body — I’m more than I appear to be, I’m more than my body; the mind comes first (or should) for an artist of my stature. But then, there’s a recoil, as the world’s bodily ideals conflict with Eilish’s own sense of herself. By the end of the first verse, it’s hard to know who is addressing who. For example, when Eilish sings:
We are not the same with or without Don’t talk ’bout me like how you might know how I feel Top of the world, but your world isn’t real Your world’s an ideal
… I hear a body calling out a mind, afflicted by an unwelcome superego.
It soon becomes apparent that this schizoid vortex of voices and perspectives is where the spectre of Cartesianism cashes out in the twenty-first century. Descartes melds with Freud. We become familiar with the mind and its internal structure of sugerego, ego and id and find ourselves ventriloquising each perspective. Presented to us as angel and demon on each shoulder, bracketing an egoic consciousness somewhere inbetween, but what about that which lurks below the neck? That which Eilish embraces and finds to be a battleground in equal measure? There’s a body without organs lurking under the surface here, trying to make itself heard over the tabloid gossip and Eilish’s own internal monologue.
Psychoanalysis clearly has a lot to answer for. For Deleuze and Guattari most famously — both tangentially involved in the anti-psychiatry movement — Freud’s stratified structure of the mind is nothing but a cage for who we really are and could potentially become. As they write in A Thousand Plateaus, psychoanalysis “royally botches the real” in this regard, “because it botches the BwO.” Deleuze and Guattari were far more interested in bending social rules to better accommodate the divergent subject.
In “Therefore I Am”, Eilish seems to be flexing her line of flight. There’s a sense that she’s doing whatever she wants in an empty shopping mall, that grand temple to desire, but also that she is able to get away with it because she is Billie Eilish. Is this a defiant individualism? Or something else?
“I think therefore I am” soon becomes a loaded statement. Think how, exactly? Or think what? It is telling that the “I think” of Descartes’ phrase is jettisoned from the title itself. “Therefore I Am” gives new meaning to the phrase “immaculate conception”. No thought, just the BwO. Eilish conceives of herself, divested of pop-cultural influence, from her own mind or outside. After all, the BwO “is what remains when you take everything away”, Deleuze and Guattari write. Is there a hint, below the braggadocio, of an Eilishian program of desire; a “motor program of experimentation.”
“Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication“, Deleuze wrote in Difference & Repetition.This is precisely why the body without organs is better expressed, for Deleuze, by a schizophrenic out for a walk than by a neurotic on a couch. The psychoanalyst explores and deploys symbolisation, that “unconscious mental process whereby one object or idea comes to stand for another through some part”; the schizophrenic finds truth in the infinite intermingling of things.
In practice, for Eilish, this is expressed through singing a song to the haters in an empty shopping mall bouncing around to her heart’s content, following desires without recourse to any of her conflicting selves. In the twenty-first century, does the schizophrenic out for a walk still resonate? Or is a media-hounded pop star in a shopping mall just as good an analogy? “Therefore I am” — here Eilish is all explication.
If you somehow haven’t heard, a YouTube video that showcases the entirety of Leyland Kirby’s six final instalments of the Caretaker project has become a kind of endurance test for zoomers, who “duet” their reactions over the six hours it takes to listen to it in its entirety, commenting on their experience of the dissolution of the self as they interact with and juxtapose previous iterations of their TikToked selves.
Confused? You are but a mirror image of their strife, boomer.
If there were ever an “I wish Mark Fisher were here” moment for 2020, I think this takes the biscuit.
In many ways, and with Mark in mind, the sudden popularity of Kirby’s project with a plugged-in generation under quarantine makes total sense. Having a better affinity with their elders’ experiences of dementia is one thing — and much has been made of the project’s consciousness-raising/razing function in that sense — but I think there’s a lot more to be said about how the Caretaker project as a whole reflects young people’s present experiences. In fact, it surely epitomises an earlier Caretaker project — the one that Mark wrote the liner notes for: Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, which takes its name from “a condition where it’s impossible to remember new events.”
There’s a certain irony that so many of these TikToks begin with a nihilist and despondent anterograde-amnesiac sentiment. “A six-hour endurance listening session? Well, I’ve not got anything better to do…” And with that, these kids spend a day tumbling down the rabbit hole, just to feel something, before it is back to 2020’s boring dystopia. They keep on TikToking, like nothing ever happened.
“Could it be said that we all now suffer from a form of theoretically pure anterograde amnesia?” This was Mark’s opening gambit on the liner notes to that release; later reproduced in his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life. What was a provocative and cynical statement back in 2006 seems far more applicable now.
As we look around our present landscape of mental trauma, this kind of cognitive scarring, whether retrograde or anterograde, seems pervasive. I have read numerous government reports this week, for instance, talking about “lost generations”.
Friend of the blog and real person Leah Hennessey has an EP out this week. We’ve been engaged in a fragmentary back-and-forth ever since I lightly declared war on her project Slash back in February, following which we found ourselves torn in two and then stitched together across cyberspace. She’s been an excellent pen pal.
Earlier this week, Leah sent over the press release for her band’s first self-titled EP Hennessey, out September 11th (yesterday!) from Velvet Elk Records. I didn’t need any more of an excuse to write about her more recent activities. The EP’s first two earworms and the band’s accompanying livestreams have frequently soundtracked our flat during lockdown. To see the project fully realised is a joy.
What I remember most from that blogpost shot across the bow of the great ship Slash back in February was my somewhat barbed comment that Leah and her collaborator Emily Allen resembled “‘Nietzsche’s Last Women’ — ‘They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery'”. Leah posted this on her Instagram and added that she and Emily had never felt so seen. However, seven months later, it is clear Leah has fully embraced this gothic position at the end of history — and so she should. Frankly, it is a thrill to have written this as a critique only to now witness Hennessey owning it so magnificently. There is perhaps no better sign of the times.
I have been thinking about this repeatedly whilst listening over and over again to the EP’s truly inspired cover of The Waterboys’ “We Will Not Be Lovers”. A song from 1998 that is already a surreal and anachronistic “post-trad” folk number, Hennessey’s version swaps around eras and sends the song back a decade (whilst at the same time updating its sound?). It is a dizzying whirlpool of cultural reference points that results in a sound that feels weirdly adrift and out of time. And yet, what is revealed underneath is Hennessey’s own rootedness in our time-warped present.
This has arguably long been the function of a cover song — a way to emphasise one’s own standpoint through the words of another. Despite the words not being her own, it is Leah who shines through here absolutely. No transformation necessary.
This is a sentiment Leah gives voice to in the press release and throughout the rest of the EP, including on new single, aptly titled “No Transformation”, which she says
is a kind of hymn to acceptance. I’m starting by saying I’m too this or too that, repeating these criticisms I have of myself like a mantra, but instead of comforting myself by saying those things aren’t true or by trying to become someone else I’m realizing that I can only evolve or even be happy if I start from exactly where I am. I’ve spent so much of my life tearing myself apart in the hopes that I’ll rise from my own ashes and this is me breaking that cycle.
I can relate. In fact, I imagine many of us can after this weird year. We’re told so often that we are stuck and we are a pastiche generation, languishing at the end of history. For Hennessey, however, there is something extra smuggled underneath a song that we might otherwise assume is the epitome of a millennial harking for better times. This isn’t just “New Wave cosplay”, as she sings on “Let’s Pretend (It’s the ’80s)”; this is a moment to “remember what our parents forgot.” In so doing, we might break the present cycle.
The mail order package was sturdy and wrapped in custom parcel tape, with my name and address both writ large in india ink. For god’s sake what’s the shipping you’ve paid on that, my dad asked with a groan of disapproval, noticing the customs form attached and the multitude of stamps. In silent denial, I chose not to answer. It was certainly more than any sixteen-year-old could responsibly account for.
I slipped the package from his hands, still looking at the tape, water activated and alpine-themed. It too was adorned with a distinctive penmanship — more india ink. No more than an inch and a half thick, I was mesmerised by the unmistakable silhouettes of Douglas firs that lined its edges like a kanji forest. I said thanks and thanked the postman in turn, who was peering curiously around the door, waiting for a telling-off that never came. My dad absentmindedly closed the door behind him and in the postman’s face, forgetting his existence, his disgruntled eyes trained only on me. Tucking the package under my arm, I dashed upstairs to my room furtively before any further questions could be asked.
With my back to the door, grasping the new arrival tightly against my chest with one arm, I used the other to turn on my dad’s old hi-fi. I had inherited it — read: rescued it from abandonment in the loft — along with his record collection. It was positioned precariously behind the door — a terrible place for a record player, but there was no other space for it in my tiny room. It also functioned of a useful adolescent barrier — when there was music playing, you did not enter. My dad, respecting the sensitivity of a vinyl record, and all too aware that the records I played were once his own, seldom crossed the threshold.
Unfortunately, this inheritance, rather than sating a childhood desire to constantly listen to the Beatles, had instead inaugurated a bad habit: spending any and all money I had on records of my own. Taking a pair of dulled scissors from a crammed desk-tidy, I opened my new aquisition with glee, already knowing what was inside. If the customs forms were not enough, it was the parcel tape that had given it away. It was No Flashlight, an album by Phil Elverum, released the previous year under his (relatively) new moniker Mount Eerie.
Fifteen songs on a slab of pure white vinyl, the twelve-inch record was housed in a folded sleeve that, when unfurled, measured sixty by forty-two inches. Some said it was the largest album cover ever produced. On one side was a large drawing of Phil himself in the yawn of nature, made with heavy washes and expressive flourishes of yet more india ink. On the other side, a kind of exploded notebook, divided into half a dozen or so columns. Focusing on the notes, I laid the cover out flat on the floor of my bedroom as the needle dropped on “I Know No One”. This “giant explanation poster”, as it was called, covered all of the available floor space and it stayed there for the next six weeks of summer in 2006.
“Knowing no one will understand these songs / I try to sing them clearer”, Elverum sings. “I have tried to repeatedly explain / In complicated songs / But tonight we will find out / I know no one / And no one knows me”. As Elverum’s recordings filled the air over the following weeks, I poured over the lyrics and annotations and photographs and copious other notes that now carpeted the floor of my bedroom, attempting to prove him wrong. And yet, the closer I looked, the more aware I was that I could never know Elverum. In fact, I began to wonder to what extent Elverum could even know himself. The void turned reflexive. I don’t know myself either, I thought, with an adolescent profundity.
It soon became clear that this was not so much an album as a work of philosophy, although it was simultaneously an object that shirked all allusions to such grandeur. At the very least, “No Flashlight”, as an album title and as a mantra, articulated a worldview. It was a worldview that I felt was shared.
“Actually walking in the dark without a flashlight requires more sensitivity than we usually use”, Elverum writes in the liner notes of the song that gives the album its name. It is an album dedicated to the hairs that stand on the back of your neck as heightened animalistic senses take over in the dead of night — walking out into the night, “forgetting” your flashlight, and striding forth regardless, wide-eyed and afraid and thrilled to be there.
I knew what that was like. That was my favourite pastime. Stranded in suburbia, the outskirts of town were nonetheless within walking distance. Within five minutes, I was in fields, stumbling over refuse from the local quarry or skirting the edges of the M62. Within twenty minutes, I was on the banks of the River Humber, looking out at oil refineries and their UFO burn-offs as their chimneys faded into the black of the night. Elverum’s musings provided a lens through which to curate the circumstances of an eerie shuddering and see this otherwise mundane environment differently.
Vixen’s screams and the pitch black of night were abstractions hard to grasp back then. I really believed that something was lurking out there in the post-industrial wilderness, along the old railroads and quarry tracks. There was (something), as Elverum puts it, that “sings above the house”. But this was not simply a romancing of the night; in fact, the lesson Elverum made most clear was that we should get out of the romance. His was a kind of blackened psychedelia, finding the weirdness of real fear — an amygdalic realism — relishing the tricks the mind plays on itself and enjoying them like a magic show put on by the psyche.
No Flashlight, then, is an album about unbelief. It is an album of paradoxical perspectives. It is, as Elverum sings, about knowing the night from the perspective of the day; knowing the mountains from the perspective of the town; knowing a map of the land and the land in itself; seeing the moon reflected in a puddle of water and seeing the actual moon. It is speaking to that experience that fades away as soon as it is uttered or illuminated and being enchanted precisely with the impermanence of permeability and the enjoyment of unreason from a rational perspective. It is about the impossibility of no abstraction, of things in themselves, of nature and no nature. It is an album that straddles the strange relations and momentums and desires that entangle the world and the singer, and give form to the song of the world and the world in song. It is an album that revels in these contradictions and the confusion that follows them. It is a nest. It is one musician’s attempt to gather together enough references and sensations and coordinates to create a world inside this one. When passed through, this world changes how we might inhabit its nested neighbours.
That resonanted with me deeply. I, too, wanted to find another world inside this one.
I thought I might start my new life up north by writing a poem every day. I’d never done that before — write a poem — at least not seriously. In fact, previously, I might have told you, quite definitively, that I hate poetry. Not all poetry but certainly what passes for poetry these days – the sort of comment made by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but is at least somewhat aware of the fact that they don’t like how the kids are doing it.
That’s how I felt as a teenager, most certainly. An old girlfriend took me to a poetry night once, and then a few years spent around universities meant that I heard plenty more student offerings. I hated (and still do hate) the over-affected drawl of your average “slam” poem. The spoken word feels like it has been reduced to a cheap rollercoaster and I find myself struck more by a poem’s rhythm than its meaning. That’s all well and good if you’re listening to R&B but, as the same rhythm unfolds again and again in the mouth of poet after poet, I can think of nothing more irritating than that pretentious vocal tic, whereby the emphasising of irregular syllables into the perpetual echo of the same syncopated utterance constructs a rickety scaffolding suggestive of meaning where there often isn’t much of anything. Just a half-witty coinage and a mode of reading that wouldn’t be amiss on a night with your local amateur dramatics society.
I have evidently thought long and hard about why I don’t like poetry…
But then, one day in lockdown, newly intrigued by the modernists of the early twentieth century, I read some T.S. Eliot aloud to myself on a whim, having thought I might give this poetry thing another go. I was transported. I had previously heard it said that poetry is written to be read aloud but I thought that was a general rule, not one to be taken on so personally. Hearing that beautiful composition reverberate through my own bones in the solitude of a coronavirus quarantine was a revelation. I decided I liked poetry then and I wanted to read more of it.
Writing poetry is, of course, another matter.
If I have any sort of reputation as a writer, it is for quantity over quality. Writing (or rather, blogging), for me, is a method of organising thoughts as they fall out of my head. It is a compulsion. It is far from some considered exercise in self-control. This is to say that it is not a matter of great contemplation and reflection – that’s called “editing”. Writing (and blogging most of all) is, instead, a torrent you later sift for gold. Who said “write drunk, edit sober”? I have been guilty of following that adage a little too closely in the past. Two pints deep is a sweet spot for productivity but when you write as much and as often as I do, that rule starts to impact your waistline before you know it.
Poetry, then — what for? Brevity is an interesting notion at present; condensation and economy – the careful management of resources. It would be an interesting challenge to be careful with my words for once; to try and say more with less. My problem, if I have one, is that I am often neurotically chasing long-winded truths. Writing comes easy because so does extrapolation, joining the dots, unfolding an argument, rambling, ranting, following the twists and turns of a thought and building a labyrinth of independent and borrowed knowledges, then providing the Ariadnean thread out of my own maze. I’ve long been aware that this is an unpopular way of working in fields adjacent to Continental philosophy and, particularly, the Ccru — where philosophy and poetry are often silent bedfellows — but this confession is not necessarily an admission of didacticism either. It is a habit picked up from Elverum, who would make the world’s biggest album cover to avoid the travesty of miscomprehension. In this way, it was Elverum who taught me that clarity can dazzle and confound just like opacity can, if done well.
Elverum has reneged on this tendency to over-explain, however. No amount of writing has allowed him to shrug off the suggestion made constantly in the music press that he sings about nature (rather than “no nature”). Embracing the futility of explanation, he has come into his own as a poet as much as he is a songwriter.
I don’t think that’s me though… To attempt poetry, and to try and become disciplined within its constraints, is an unnatural thought. It would, however, be a healthy exercise in letting go of this compulsion — to over-share and over-write. Or perhaps it would be a healthy way of diverting the aphoristic energy usually expended on Twitter.
It is surely no secret at this point that I’m struggling at the moment with the internet. Complaining a little too often about the succession of creeps I have encountered on social media in recent weeks, my friend Natasha recommended Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir. True enough, I found the way her relationship with social media develops over the course of the book to be so relatable. At first, she writes about how “social media keeps me sane, providing contact with friends, family and well-wishers at any time, saving dozens of energy-sapping conversations.” She reflects on the initial joys of Twitter too: “finding new books, films, art and writers, doing years’ worth of ‘networking’ in six months, making friends in London and feeling part of so many conversations, even sensing that old power structures were being challenged by those traditionally excluded.”
Later, however, she reflects on the fallout of the “trans wars” and the Guardian‘s now well-established propensity to suck when it comes to trans rights and representation. With the column that served as the basis for her book having been published there, the feeling of having to pick a side as an old friend and colleague outs themselves as a bigot is perhaps more of a conundrum than it would have been otherwise. She is almost too exhausted to take much of a stand. Instead, she just left Twitter.
“I’d thought my exhaustion and exasperation with Twitter would fade, and that I’d regain enthusiasm for the connections it offered”, she writes. “I didn’t: having confessed so much … I had nothing more to give.” Eventually, finding herself looking at her phone and “disdainfully going through the cavalcade of people’s actions and opinions, it suddenly felt like a radical gesture to just watch the films I’d rented and not broadcast about them.” In the end, she concludes: “Withdrawing from social media, especially Twitter with its bitter arguments, has helped. I think it’s terrible for writing.”
Reading this was just what I needed. It was reassuring, as I really do feel much the same way. I have a lot left to say and plenty to share but I think I am done with sharing myself, at least in the ways that Twitter — and, indeed, London — demands. Maybe poetry could be the right kind of hobby after all. An exercise in doing something for myself. (If I do start experimenting with poems, I don’t intend to share any. Can you imagine the horror?)
Whatever I end up doing, I know I want to do something different; that makes me act differently. The idea of some new project like a notebook of personal poems excites me because, in my mind, the first of October — when we will hopefully be settled in Brontë country — designates a line in the sand that I am preparing myself to leap far over. I’m not really sure what new life awaits on the other side but I’d like it to be different to whatever this London life has been. I’ve lived here for four years at this point and my life is completely unrecognisable to what it was before I got here. In 2016, I had no direction and no future and no prospects. I wasn’t even writing. I’d barely read any philosophy, at least not with any seriousness. I have been transformed, but into what? And by what? The hours and hours spent tapping away now feel like hours and hours spent holding onto the debris from some wreckage. I’d like to let go of it. I’d like leaving this city to be the beginning of some new relation. Less wreckage, more driftwood.
I think part of the renewed interest in poetry and lifestyle shifts may come from my persistent thinking about Phil Elverum’s latest project — his return to the Microphones in 2020 and his long reflection on what it means to release an album under that name again now. It has dragged me back to my own teenage years and the strange but shared realisation that, despite everything being so very particular and different now, I’m still interested in the same things I was when I first heard Mount Eerie. This is perhaps the knock-on effect of musical nostalgia — Elverum’s consideration of his trajectory as a band has made me consider my own trajectory as a listener, and the experiences that he has often soundtracked at various intervals.
I do distinctly remember a time when I went off his music entirely — I wasn’t much of a fan of Wind’s Poem or Ocean Roar but considered Clear Moon to be the best thing he’d done. Still, I cooled on him a lot for some unknown reason. It was a time when I found myself reacting against all my old ’00s idols. Regretfully, I sold a few of my rarer records by him, only to reconnect with his music again a few years later when Sauna heralded a really magnificent return to form. Everything that followed Sauna felt like music from a different (and no less brilliant) entity. It is interesting to see that “other” Elverum, pre-greif, is now returning tentatively to the fore.
Considering all these twists and turns of his life, his career, the time of the Microphones is another country. It is strange to think, in retrospect, that his most notable studio albums under that moniker cover only four years of output — from 1999 to 2003. I’m sure, like most, whilst the mythology of Elverum’s music from that time casts a long shadow, I never knew him before he was Mount Eerie. And so, in listening to The Microphones in 2020, I find myself thinking about that moment of transition. Because that is, after all, what The Microphones in 2020 seems to point to. It is not just an album about the Microphones but why Elverum is now Mount Eerie and if he still should be. In this sense, it is a nostalgic project that also begs the question of what comes next. It is clear that something has got to give. With the Mount Eerie project becoming so subsumed in a grief that he’s already discussed a gradual slide out of, what is it for the “Mount Eerie” project to now be so closely associated in the critical imagination with that moment of personal trauma? What is in a name anyway? Does his art warrant another name change now that so much seems different? Is The Microphones in 2020 not a kind of self-reassurance that, no matter what changes, the line of flight remains the same? From the vantage point of this strange templexity, does the work he’s produced since 2017 really constitute that much of a shift from what came before, despite how life-changing that year was circumstantially?
I’ve been thinking about this kind of transition a lot as we prepare to exit London. I’m left wanting to completely reorient my relationship to the world in response. Over the last few months, every day that goes by seems to be defined by the further entrenchment of a path inaugurated only as an attempt to leave it.
I wrote Egress as an exploration of and as a product of grief; I called it Egress because I hoped writing it and publishing it — and therefore relinquishing ownership of it — might allow me to let it all go. (This has happened but not without an unanticipated amount of difficulty.) That I began writing the book the same year Elverum released A Crow Looked At Me is a coincidence but one which I cherished after first hearing that release. Getting Postcapitalist Desire out into the world this month is a step into different and perhaps more positive territory, where I can emphasise a more impersonal relationship to the work rather than to the man. A further project I’ve been working on in lockdown remains related to Fisher only tangentially, moving out even further to consider more of the blogosphere as a whole. It feels like the beginning of my own Powers of Ten, produced bookwise. A slow process just begun but, on a personal level, perhaps a sensible one. There’s no rush, I tell myself. I mustn’t rush. After Egress came out, I felt like I might get the bends.
Watching and listening to how Elverum has undertaken his own shift in this regard has been an inspiring lead to follow — not only in coming to terms with the uncomfortable realisation that a horrible event can crystallise a thought you have long been preoccupied by, but also that there is a way back to a previously impersonal perspective, no longer behold to the details of a particular life or death.
Isn’t that the meaning of the Mount Eerie name, after all? An impersonal vector through which Phil Elverum the man can feel his size?
Although Elverum claims no one has asked what “Mount Eerie” means, the frequent deference he pays to Gary Synder in the liner notes to that first album suggests he has been trying to tell people for some time. Synder remains an interesting vantage point from which to view Elverum’s project in 2020 also.
Gary Synder’s first book on poems, for instance, featured a number of tributes to and translations of Han-shan, the Chinese poet from the T’ang dynasty known in English as “Cold Mountain”. As Synder explains, when Han-shan “talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind.”
Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease — No more tangled, hung-up mind. I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff, Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.
It’s a beautiful sentiment and one I’m left wanting to emphasise for myself, although I’m not sure I could get away with rebranding as “River Humber”. Still, the return back north feels like a chance to reconnect to old lives and loves lost over the last few years. The basic change in circumstance of having less of a stark divide between the woods and the city feels profound enough, but not as a way to “get back to nature”. In normalising its presence in our lives once again, I’m looking forward to getting out of its romance.
Elverum remains a guide, in this regard. More recently, he has begun referencing Joanne Kyger in his songs and on his record covers — a hugely accomplished poet in her own right who was, nonetheless, for a brief time in the 1960s, Gary Synder’s wife. (She passed away in 2017 also.) Returning to the sentiment of his old track “Log in the Waves”, on his 2018 album Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, Elverum sings again of “Enduring the Waves”, capturing an honest and uncomfortable sentiment that has haunted this goth blogger for much of the last decade. He sings, accompanied by Julie Doiron:
When I was younger and didn’t know I used to walk around basically begging the sky For some calamity to challenge my foundation When I was young So imagine what it was like to watch up close a loved one die And then look into the pit I lived on the edge of it And had to stay there Joanne Kyger said:
We fight incredibly through a hideous mish mash of inheritance Forgiving for deeper stamina That we go on The world always goes on Breaking us with its changes Until our form, exhausted, runs true
We might read in this the birth of a new self for Elverum, taking all that has happened to him and finally running true, but is this not the same sentiment that was always behind the “Mount Eerie” name? Is this not Elverum returning to his own “Cold Mountain”? A mountain he has never left? Walking back in the front door to find himself all together, in one big empty house?
The coronavirus pandemic casts a long shadow over these vague suggestions of an egress from grief, and the fact that we are moving into a very high risk area (after London has somehow bizarrely avoided a second wave), complicates things further still.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the collective grief of our present moment — a grief that can barely be dealt with. The sentiment behind Egress lingers even though the specifics of that moment feel like a lifetime ago. I keep wondering if there are echoes of the interwar period here — as if those from a previous generation might recognise that big black cloud that hovers over us now, after a loss of life so large we cannot process it and so we shuffled on, sometimes breaking habits and often looking for new scenery, contrary to a nationalist sentiment from the government that insists somewhat pathetically on a return to business as usual.
In the 1920s, it is worth noting that the trauma of the war didn’t lead to a mass return to the countryside, as is being reported as happening now. The interwar years were instead defined by many people moving to the cities. This is perhaps because, prior to the Blitz, England’s cities were not yet sites of trauma. It was the countryside, instead, that was tainted. It’s peace had been disturbed, mutated by memories of battlefields and the bodies upon them, as if every English plain now contained the ghosts of the Somme. In his book The Lark Ascending, Richard King comments on the literary impact of this shift in the national consciousness. He quotes from Siegfried Sassoon’s anonymously written novel Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, for instance, writing how:
George Sherston, the narrator and titular fox-hunter, recalls riding before the war when ‘The air was Elysian with early summer and the shadows of steep white clouds were chasing over the orchards and meadows; sunlight sparkled on green hedgerows that had been drenched by early morning showers … For it was my own countryside, and I loved it with an intimate feeling, though all its associations were crude and incoherent. I cannot think of it now without a sense of heartache, as if it contained something which I have never quite been able to discover.’ The ‘something’, which George was unable to discover, lay buried within the landscape of his memory. Sassoon’s use of the word ‘discover’, rather than recover or rediscover is notable; it suggests a source of impenetrable emotional energy made all the more overwhelming by his inability to locate it, an inability he is carrying as if it were a wound from the battlefield.
As we, along with many other friends, choose to vacate the city, I wonder if the inverse is taking place. Now it is the city that feels tainted but this needn’t be a reactionary about face. The same line of flight might apply…
I’ve been thinking about this line of flight whilst reading D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 novel Aaron’s Rod, but I’ll save those musings for another post…
Pinhas has an incredible back catalogue of music and he seems to have single-handedly kept the Continental philosophy publishing industry afloat. Whilst he is best known in philosophy circles for his recordings of Deleuze’s lectures, available at webdeleuze, I was reading about him just the other day in another context… And I can’t now remember whereabouts this was… It was either in an intro to one of Lacan’s seminars or one of Badiou’s seminars. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in time, he’d had a hand in both.
Folklore is, by definition, homogeneous. It speaks to experiences, values, ideas that are shared. The best pop music over the last ten years has always been folkloric in this regard — more specifically, stories told by the young about youth — and I find it hard not to admire those young singers and songwriters who manage to excavate something oddly universal out of the inherent narcissism of adolescence.
Lorde is arguably the queen of this. I still find her 2013 album Pure Heroine really moving. Although it was heralded, at the time, as pop’s future — vindicated in the form of Billie Eilish, no doubt — it is also an album that today feels very much of its time. This may be in part for personal reasons. It came out just after I moved back home to Hull after three years away at university, but it’s emotional impact was only doubled by my own surprise at how relatable I thought it was.
It had this slippery appeal to a petite bourgeois lifestyle coupled with a paradoxical pride in the decrepitude of an immanent locale — the ultimate pop paradox. Lorde’s songs about tennis courts and teenage luxury had this phantasmatic quality, bringing to mind the stereotypical sweatshirt-tied-around-shoulder vibe of middle class leisure time and also those nights spent drinking WKD round the back of the sports centre. For me, this made it an oddly powerful ode to a new life in an old town that lacked all the glamour I thought leaving Hull behind might bring — a fact I would have found more depressing but Hull’s rough edges felt beautifully homely on my return, whereas before they had been stifling.
It was this spiral of conflicting emotions and class consciousness that Pure Heroine tapped into with a surreal coldness that nonetheless resonated with a hidden emotional truth. It felt like an album about uselessness, wasted summers, that strange gap between a life of leisure and a life of benign poverty, clinging onto the freedom of adolescence as that gross tick of adult responsibility and guilt starts its long gnaw on the back of your neck. But this wasn’t Deftones-esque angst. This was crystalline pop — a new kind of beautiful melancholy. It was pop in a kind of Beckettian mode — decadent songs for the destitution of modern youth.
I’m not that age anymore though, and so, today, Pure Heroine feels very much like the product of a very particular moment. I can’t imagine it would have the same critical or personal reception it did then.
But Lorde’s music nonetheless epitomises a postmodern folklore for me in this regard, with all of its mythic surrealism and interscalar movements from universal to particular. She has an unmatched ability in the pop sphere to bottle the grand cinematic melancholy — the screen memories — of white adolescence, as seen from the verges of a nihilistic adulthood; the banality of life seen through the grandeur of a pop lens. This isn’t a John Hughes vibe for the twenty-first century, however. It’s too ingrown and unassumingly grotesque. It’s much, much closer to the edge of something. It’s a pop music that clings onto an overabundance of meaning, an enchantment with your own banality, right before it all turns grey forever.
That haze of post-adolescent limbo is truly hauntological, I think — a brief moment where postmodernity’s psychedelic nostalgia feels far more like a positive feedback loop than a negative one. (That Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life came out a few months after Lorde’s album only compounded that odd emotional moment for me.)
With this sort of cultural artefact in mind, I think there is a great deal left to be said about our present moment’s utter fetishisation of adolescence — ideologically it says something about where the “secret sadness of the twenty-first century” (as Mark Fisher called it) might come from. It’s not new, by any means, but it has mutated into strange forms over the last decade of pop — forms that are quite distinct from the twentieth-century teenage mode. This is Breakfast Club meets The Thing, the bodies of all its individual members occasionally rendered in their amalgated grotesqueness by the flashbangs of postmodernity.
If it’s nostalgic, it’s a weird kind of nostalgia — of the sort found in The Last of Us Part II, recently discussed. Whereas adolescence is generally referred to as a frontier of freedom before the world of work swallows us whole, it has been moving into a newly postmodern phase as of late, where an odd self-awareness of the surreality of your own age warps adolescence with an ingrown nostalgia for itself before its even “officially” over.
Maybe this just says something about me but Lorde’s debut album bottled this absolutely. The fact that she could release an album at aged 17 — presumably recorded when she was 15-16 — that resonated so profoundly with my view of my own adolescence aged 23 was very disorientating (in the best sense of the word).
She has this commitment to the truths that emerge from her experiences in this way. I remember reading an interview with her where she declared, before the release of 2017’s Melodrama, that she wouldn’t be able to write songs about tennis courts because that wasn’t her life anymore. She had to find a way to write about her new jet-setting lifestyle that could still resonant with people. No easy task but she managed it. She continued to find the universal emotions flowing through her particular existence.
To hear that Taylor Swift had released an album called folklore made me think about all of this in relation to Swift’s own creative output. Early on in her career, her best songs managed to walk this same tightrope between adolescent idealism and adult realism.
Take a song like “Fifteen”, for example. For all its age-of-innocence atmosphere and Disney princess chic,I’ve always found the song’s bridge to be a gut-punch. It feels like a powerful but momentary peek behind the rose-tinted Hollywood gloss, in which Swift — at least as the song’s default protagonist — reflects on her own naivety and the psychic pain caused when a teenage idealism falls victim to the harsh reality of a fickle teenage libido.
I’ve always loved the song for that reason. It’s this strange piece of whismical country-pop that contains this post-traumatic kernel of its own downfall. It’s the frontierism of country music repackaged in a Shakespearean high school pop tragedy; a true piece of adolescent self-reflection which is burst asunder not by the end of the frontier but its hormonal equivalent: the end of puberty.
Swift doesn’t really write songs like this anymore. She still writes love songs about the peculiarities of sexual politics, of course, but there’s often something missing… There’s no longer that country music nod to an emotional frontierism; no longer an Americana idealism with a knowing and melancholic nod to its own cultural redundancy at the end of history. Today, instead, it feels like it is all Hollywood and no truth; it is all capitalist capture with no opportunity to wriggle out through the emotional cracks in the firmament. It is simulation without the glare of reality visible on its otherwise over-polished surface.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment this doe-eyed stare through the haze of adolescence failed to overcome the all too real end of Swift’s innocence: her encounter with Kanye West at the VMAs. This wasn’t a foundational experience like crying over feelings of wasted virginity in a teenage bedroom, as dramatised on “Fifteen”; this was something all the more public and traumatic, and whilst the shadow this has cast over her private life can only be assumed, the shadow cast over her creative output is evidently long.
Since that moment, Swift’s music has never really recovered. Instead she began a downward spiral into pop mediocrity. It was as if, in that moment, her twisted self-image as the marginalised white country girl was shattered against the marginalisation of black excellence. Kanye West was, of course, right. That a video as iconic as “Single Ladies” lost out to a video as forgettable as “You Belong To Me” is widely acknowledged as a particularly mind-numbing example of music industry racism, but the fact that Swift then abandoned the self-pity contained on a song like “You Belong To Me” to embrace the pop braggadocio of her rival hardly seems like a coincidence.
Ever since, Swift’s attempts to affirm or negate the things people say about her have led to this country stalwart to transform herself into an oddly defiant fashion-flux pop weather vane. She has become the fatally insecure pop princess who defines the times for all the wrong reasons. It seems that, for Swift herself, she’s just staying loyal to her hopes and dreams in spite of the haters, but what is really on display here is a capitalistic vulnerability that is not commensurate with her post-adolescent vulnerability. It is nonetheless interesting to see how Swift attempts to conflate the two.
For instance, her attempts to absorb what she has previously been seen (patronisingly or not) as a wholesome alternative to — the R&B and hip hop-enthused charts — has been increasingly distasteful. From loosening up her songwriting to reflect some record exec’s idea of a sub-“urban” lyricism to the innumerable examples of her particular brand of lean-in feminism, it has all been done to death. But the impact of this on her songwriting remains a complicated topic.
So, what happens when all of that is stripped back? What happens when the usual flows of pop world drama are stunted by lockdown and the weather vane is left spinning in the uncharacteristically calm air?
Swift’s latest album, folklore, released just the other day, provides a very intriguing answer to these questions. In many respects, the title itself is an interesting enough response. Strip back the drama and you have an artist who has written love song after love song for fifteen years. Swift has her own folklore, in this regard — her own back catalogue of lovers’ lessons and social etiquette, cultural glamour and good business sense. She’s been doing it for so long that she’s going to be very good at it by now. And she is. Having had folklore on repeat for much of this past weekend, I have to say I think it is a great album — easily her best for many years. Whilst the album’s first half is business as usual (at least for late-2010s Swift) — albeit with production that gives the illusion of a more stripped-back sound — the run of songs from “August” to “Invisible String” might be her strongest run of album tracks since the first half of her otherwise bloated 2012 album Red.
Without any celebrity drama to subtly hint at or rumours to stoke for marketing purposes, it’s an album that seems to take a gradual slide back into a classic Swiftian mode, with the strength of her storytelling and her vulnerability on full display, but it also captures something often obscured by the spectacular sandstorm that is the pop machine — a giant ever-moving hard-to-ignore expanse of formlessness. This is to say that folklore, beyond the undeniable pleasantness of its sound, nonetheless captures the homogeneity of an acutely capitalistic post-adolescence, despite often being wrapped in the nostalgic cloth of her guitar-strumming heyday.
Because if there is anything folkloric about Taylor Swift, in a classical sense at least, it would be a song like “Love Story”. It takes that Nineties trope of updating Shakespearean drama to the present day — I’m thinking of 10 Things I Hate About You as an update on The Taming of the Shrew — and makes it into a pop trope. This was Swift’s MO for the first five years of her recording career — transform supposedly universal love stories into contemporary country parables. But — and this should go without saying — any adaptation of this kind always carries with it the baggage of the contemporary, and as Swift conjures up the novelty of returning to a “purer” singer-songwriter mode after an extended detour elsewhere, it is fascinating the see what kind of worldview she has inadvertently brought with her, following the maximalist spectacle of all her albums since 1989.
At first, it’s all quite predictable. From the sub-“urban” cadence of her lyrics on album opener “The 1” through to the Lana Del Rey-aping banality of lead single “Cardigan” and the strange ode to an oil heiress that is “The Last Great American Dynasty” — we’ll come back to that last one — the album’s first half is a stripped-back version of everything wrong with megastar Swift, nonetheless tied up in an innocuous and well-written package. Then, the album transitions, oh so subtly, into a kind of late 2000s indie-pop nostalgia. But, as Swift shifts towards more classically adolescent love songs, the songs nonetheless remain oddly contaminated by the ideological hangover of her more recent maximalist output.
This is to say that, just as Swift is derided for reflecting the worst of the music industry’s purely capitalistic impulses — particularly in her live shows if not so explicitly on her records — folklore encapsulates this same machine albeit in a moment of calm. It is novel, and it is strange to see it from this angle, but it is undoubtedly the same beast. Just as lockdown has made us newly aware of the faults or lacunae of a dysfunctional capitalist system, so too does Taylor Swift’s lockdown album reveal the default state of her worldview when not caught up in the spectacle of celebrity beefs and love affairs with beige actors.
There are those who already dislike folklore on principle, who assume it’s another calculated attempt on Swift’s part to position her career as just so (how dare she); meanwhile, fans will hold it up as tangible proof that their leader can do just about anything (also a stretch). While it’s true that folklore pushes the limits of Swift’s sound in a particular, perhaps unexpected direction, her reference points feel more like mainstream “indie” homage than innovation, taking cues from her collaborators’ work and bits of nostalgia.
Swift stans have been coming hard at the outlet for this passage, as if it betrays the reviewer’s bias. (It sounds like a total lack of bias to me and the album has received a generous 8.0 regardless.) But what I find most interesting is that, if you swap out “folklore” for “lockdown capitalism”, this section of the review still makes perfect sense.
There are those who already dislike lockdown on principle, who assume it’s another calculated attempt on capitalism’s part to position itself just so (how dare it); meanwhile, fans will hold it up as tangible proof that capitalism can do just about anything (also a stretch). While it’s true that lockdown pushes the limits of capitalism in a particular, perhaps unexpected direction, its reference points feel more like mainstream “austerity” homage than innovation, taking cues from its collaborators and bits of nostalgia.
Maybe it requires a bit of poetic license… Still, to the cynics, lockdown capitalism is calculated, insidious yet innocuous, worryingly static and also oddly safe, turning an otherwise traumatic global event into an opportunity to steady itself anew; to the fans, our present moment is evidence of its unparalleled adaptability and superiority and long may its reign continue. For an artist like Swift, who has been criticised for epitomising the worst cultural (read: WASPy) tendencies of the music industry, it is interesting that this album should take on such the thin ideological veil of a moment so easily.
This is going to start sounding like a conspiracy theory. The point, in short, is innocuous but interesting (to me at least). The dream pop mode of expression is taken as a given — it fits this woozy moment. But why does it feel that way? And what about the content?
For instance, is it too much of a stretch to note that Swift’s “indie” album seems to be specifically drawing on a kind of dream pop vibe that was all the rage around 2007/08? Is it a coincidence that the moment this album seems to be nostalgic for is the American dream pop moment from around the time of the last recession? Is folklore an album for the next one?
This is all conjecture, I suppose. The album makes no grand statements and only quietly pledges certain allegiances so I’m undoubtedly over-reading it… And yet, the references it does make are very telling, and whilst I have found myself at first utterly seduced by its catchy lyricism — “Invisible String” has been in my head for a few days now and I can’t get it out no matter what I do — it nonetheless starts to leave an odd taste in my mouth as I become more attuned to its references.
Take “The Last Great American Dynasty”. It is a song that has been praised left, right and centre as one of Swift’s best. I don’t hear it personally. To be honest, it’s a song I find weird and uncomfortable.
Whereas Rey’s last album felt like a humble attempt to emphasise the modernism of her otherwise postmodern stylings, as she finally sours on her temporally displaced Americana (contextualised really well here), Swift takes on an odd choice of subject matter for her moment of reckoning with the current way of the world.
Just as capitalism comes up against its biggest speed bump since the financial crash, Swift finds “her spirit animal in the eccentric heiress Rebekah Harkness” who lavishly blew her inherited millions on champagne, boys and bets with Salvador Dali. She’s a bourgeois icon renowned for doing whatever the fuck she wanted as the world went to shit. “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen”, Swift sings. “She had a marvellous time ruining everything.”
Harkness’s cultural glamour (for Swift) seems to come in part from her association with Salvador Dali, and much like Dali himself Harkness seems to epitomise the surrealism of a dying breed: an aristocratic old-money capitalist overdosing on twentieth-century decadence. She’s a telling person for Swift to admire — Swift lives in her old house, apparently — and it is telling that this ode and affirmative affinity with the loud heiress gradually slides into songs about sexual politics and illicit desires over the course of the album’s run. Whereas, at first, it feels like an album of two halves in this regard, the self-ruin of capitalist decadence soon starts to bleed into and even finds itself mirrored in the more innocuous tales of teenage love affairs.
Harkness’s wasted millions start to reappear in nods to wasted potential, wasted time, wasted liquor. It’s not long before the innocent love songs lose their nostalgic wholesomeness and start to feel as decadent as Swift’s old money idol. Soon every appeal to broad cultural themes is filtered through her lean-in worldview. It’s all a love affair.
This is certainly a kind of folklore but it soon starts to feel corrupted by a contemporaneity that it oddly insists on denying itself access to.
The result is that folklore becomes a conflicting listen. It is seductive and beautiful and fascinating but also troubling. It is melancholic in the best and worst senses.
As a result, Swift soon starts to embody a boomer ideal of renegade adolescence that has found itself beached upon postmodernity’s cultural dementia. Just five years ago, she was channelling this on songs like “Style”, with its anachronistic synthpop James Dean chic; now she’s settled for the melancholic demeanour of Mae West, as seen through the eyes of Salvador Dali — the drooping face of old glamour made into fancy furniture to lounge on in lockdown. Her career becomes a strange ouroboros, where teenage dreams collapse onto Norma Desmond fantasies.
This is not to cast unnecessary aspersions upon Swift’s character or this album. Again, much of that has been done to death already. And I am nonetheless enjoying it immensely. If this post is anything, it is a shaky attempt to treat her output as she seems to want it to be treated — as an ode to old Hollywood glamour for 21st century women.
However, within the broader context of the present moment, what Swift represents — as ever — inevitably starts to resemble something surreal and melancholic. It is pitiful, in many respects, but contains its own kind of beauty in another. I must admit I find it endlessly fascinating. As negative as all this might sound, I am inclined to put it back on repeat. It is an album that captures so much about this present moment, much of it without meaning to. There are strangely eccentric perspectives buried under her appeals to a kind of late-capitalist folklore. I’m left interrogating the threads that stitch together these supposedly shared values and desires and seeing a surprisingly Lynchian underbelly. There is an invisible string here, beneath the pop beauty, but it doesn’t connect Swift to babyfaced heart throbs; it connects her to a peculiar decadence.
Beneath the glamour is a sickly sweet rot. The pop machine itself has obscured it with tabloid drama. Now, after years of hiding behind a strange defiance, it seems like Swift is ready for her close-up. For better and for worse, it’s the performance of a lifetime.