It’s been a long time since I’ve really thought about 9/11, but it still doesn’t feel like it was twenty years ago. That’s a very strange feeling — not only because it makes me feel old but also because 9/11 wasn’t a day but a decade (or maybe longer).
I initially had no desire, as the anniversary approached, to watch any of the dozen new documentaries that seem to have been produced to commemorate it. For a day remembered so vividly by all — even as a nine-year-old, as I was at the time, it left a massive impact on my teens and I remember consuming almost all media about that day over the years that followed — it felt like it was finally starting to fade from view. Those images have become less ubiquitous. Though the impact is still felt, it is more sublated than searing on the surface.
But on September 8th, I gave in. I put on the Netflix documentary series Turning Point. The first 15 minutes or so gather together the clearest footage to emerge of both planes hitting the towers over the two decades since. This footage had become just unfamiliar enough that it shocked me again, and I suddenly remembered that feeling of seeing it for the first time, on the TV on a Tuesday afternoon after school in 2002. It’s made this 20-year anniversary feel oddly profound. I’m really thinking a lot about that day again, in a way I haven’t for many, many years.
Anyway, as a result, I’ve also been thinking about that event’s implicit impact on music again — underdeveloped thesis I’ve mentioned a few times: 00s freak folk and the resurgent popularity of musical “naivety” was indie America’s traumatised return to innocence / adolescence.
For a long time, William Basinski felt like the artist of the 9/11 era. The strange mythology surrounding the Disintegration Tapes was known by friends who weren’t even into music. But today the Caretaker feels much more well-known for his deteriorating sound than Basinski does.
Though a certain style of music is hardly a stable point of connection between these two artists who seem to have very different theoretical conceptions of their practices, I do wonder if one naturally follows from the other.
The pre-9/11 world Basinski seems to mourn is measurable in material ways, just like his tape loops themselves. But the “forgetting” or normalising of 9/11 — its gradual fading from view at the rear mirror of our collective consciousness — is much harder to quantify. But such is the feeling of listening to a Caretaker album.
There’s more to say on this, but maybe another time. Since today is the anniversary, I’ll just leave this here:
Basinski: disintegration of the actual Caretaker: disintegration of the virtual
On his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West included an acapella track called “I Love Kanye”. In some ways, it feels like the centrepiece of the album. It’s Kanye saying the quiet part loud, poking fun not so much at himself as the tabloid circus around him. Though the tabloids responded to the track predictably, chalking it up as another example of his egotism, the track/skit asks a far more complex question than that. Which came first: Kanye or the media?
The opening line, “I miss the old Kanye”, has followed him around for years. His first three albums – The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation – were an incredible suite that demonstrated a singular vision unmatched by anyone else in hip-hop at that time, fusing a classic 90s sound with the latest pop innovations. Exceptionally crafted, they are, in hindsight, somewhat representative of a staid twenty-first century culture that hadn’t quite found its own identity. But as West progressed as an artist, taking more risks and making more grandiose statements both publicly and musically, many came to miss this generation-straddling artist the whole family could enjoy. When Kanye ushered in a pop sound for the twenty-first century, music fans weren’t so much mourning the old Kanye as they were the stale ideals of a now-bygone era, which extended far beyond Kanye’s individual output alone.
But in fixating on Kanye as the Noughties superstar who lost his way, it became clear that West was never going to be in full control of his own narrative and reputation again. This one man came to represent the excesses and challenges of an entire pop cultural movement (somewhat like Michael Jackson before him, one could argue). It makes the very idea of an “old Kanye” even more suspect, established in hindsight, as if this “old Kanye” was ever some sort of unified and internally consistent figure. In truth, Kanye is an artist who has always worn multiple hats, and as his success has grown he has only adopted more of them. On “I Love Kanye”, he seems to acknowledge this. “See I invented Kanye, there wasn’t any Kanyes”, he syncopates, “And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes”.
Interpreted by many as a jab at his imitators, this line feels like a moment of reflection on the Kanye kaleidoscope, which sees itself become a fractal as the media interprets and spins every move made in a dozen different ways. “I Love Kanye” was itself the subject of various tabloid articles, exaggerating its claims and missing the point, as if his declaration of self-love was at all unifying, rather than the song’s many Kanyes being distinct entities, as if “Kanye loves Kanye” is a postmodern recursion; Kanye loves Kanye loves Kanye, just as a rose is a rose is a rose. The Life of Pablo, on the whole, epitomises this same gesture. It is Kanye at his best and worst, his most wholesome and grotesque, his most erudite and adolescent. It is Kanye roleplaying the many men the media sees him as, and it’s a fascinating schizophrenic opus as a result.
And yet, for all the emphasis placed on Kanye’s contemporary complexity and plurality, it is worth remembering how renowned he was as a new kind of hip-hop star with an incredibly singular vision. That is no less true today than it was in the mid-2000s. What has changed is the perspective from which Kanye is looking outwards to the future. Though he leaves no path untaken, each Kanye – “old Kanye” and new Kanye – can seemingly be traced back to a single moment.
It is notable, for instance, that Kanye’s first three albums were spawned by his involvement in a near-fatal car accident. The near-mythical story of his debut single, “Through the Wire”, is common knowledge at this point, providing the foundation for a cohesive suite of records about a man seizing his own destiny. Having nearly lost his life, West no longer wanted to lurk in the background, producing for other artists. He wanted to show the world what an all-rounder he really was, and so he produced three albums that fully embody the vanguard of 2000s popular music. However, this trilogy was initially planned as a tetralogy. The final album of the suite, Good Ass Job, was shelved following the death of West’s mother, Donda.
It’s a fascinating story, reflecting the cruel dichotomy of loss. To almost lose oneself can be a galvanising moment, putting a fire in your belly, making you realise how precious life is and inspiring you to stride forwards and make something of yourself. It is unifying, as if the trauma of near-death consolidates a sense of self and solidifies its bounds, exuding a new sense of confidence and self-assuredness. We hear this kind of Hallmark story all the time. A near-death experience, whilst traumatic, can nonetheless transform your life for the better. But to lose another is a shattering experience. It has the opposite effect entirely, blurring the edges of being, leaving you with a feeling that you are now incomplete. Accounting for that loss as your own life continues can be hard. Even if we didn’t know someone particularly well, any new gap in our social fabric can change the texture of the world around us.
This experience is palpable in Kanye’s work. The shift is immediate and drastic. Good Ass Job was shelved and instead West turned on a dime, going in a new direction of pop as frigid electro. But the “autotuned lament” of 808s & Heartbreak conjured a desolate landscape that oddly never got too personal. Whereas “Through the Wire” was rooted so deeply in personal injury and recovery as to ground West’s whole mythology, here Kanye raps about a sort of generic heartbreak, the alienation of fame and the dehumanising nature of celebrity. Mark Fisher famously argued that the album (along with Drake’s Take Care) represented a shift in the pop cultural consciousness — the secret sadness of the twenty-first century:
No longer motivated by hip hop’s drive to conspicuously consume — they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted — Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger and self-disgust, aware that something is missing but unsure exactly what it is.
But it seems, in hindsight, that West was absolutely certain of what was missing — he just didn’t know how to address the elephant in the room on record. What was missing was his mother. What was missing was Donda.
Perhaps as a result of Kanye’s own omission, this event is hardly acknowledged in most appraisals of Kanye’s post-808s output. The personal issues where kept out of the spotlight, for the most part. And perhaps necessarily so. Pop is generic, after all, and in the best sense of the word. It is a unifying and relatable genre, giving form to universal feelings and experiences, even helping new universals to emerge. Of course, an album about a generalised discontent, even when filtered through the glamour of pop stardom, is catnip to someone like Mark Fisher, but what we also find on 808s is Kanye’s dissatisfaction with the idea of a finished product. Loss ungrounds, and whilst autotuned alienation might gesture towards Kanye’s personal grief and the resulting sense of detachment, it begins to feels like the album just isn’t enough to convey his lived experience, which lurks outside the harsh light of pop cultural scrutiny.
Despite following such a deeply affecting experience, the album doesn’t have a “Through the Wire” from which to launch itself. But what it does have is its closer — the distinctly un-autotuned, unpolished, unclear, stream-of-consciousness live track about materialism, authenticity, hopes and the American dream: “Pinocchio Story”.
A staple of live sets over the years, often stretching to ten minutes in length or longer, the track is a precursor to the infamous “Kanye rants” of more recent live shows. Although they have been ridiculed in the press for years, held up as evidence of Kanye’s gradual unravelling, they are a testament to West’s belief in the power of a shared moment. The ungrounding experience of loss cannot be fully expressed anywhere else. A studio practice is one thing, but when performing live West resists the idea of music as a time capsule or a sort of unchanging standard. (Something which is contrary to a lot of hip-hop, we might note, as a genre that has often struggled to transition from studio to stage in a way more traditional genres can.) It’s as if he believes that, if people want to hear the hits, they can go put on their favourite Kanye CD at home, but if they want to spend a few hours in his company, that’s what they’re going to get, warts and all.
The result is jarring and often highlights West’s peculiar existence. As he works to let life in, expressing the vulnerable and multifaceted nature of human life, particularly at its maximalist extremes, he is nonetheless reduced to a media caricature, to the point that we are all too aware that the frigidity of 808s & Heartbreak is now permanent. No matter how much he tries, curating and surfing his own chaos, trying to bring life back into view, and embodying the bipolarity he has affirmed so publicly in recent years, there is little separation between public and private life left. It is all fodder for the flattening process of the media machine, curating its unassailable counter-image of Kanye the clown, alienating Kanye from us and even from himself. (This is something exacerbate through his relationship with Kim Kardashian, as West’s relationship to the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians has often been uncertain and a little frosty, despite his own reputation for overblown media outbursts.)
(As an aside, the platforming of recently cancelled persons on and around West’s most recent album — Marilyn Manson, Chris Brown, DaBaby — also reveals a man open to accepting people into his life who might otherwise be best known for their crimes and mistakes. Though I have no interest in defending his association with some quite awful people, I can understand the logic of befriending fellow media villains, whose humanity is reduced in a way that Kanye might unfortunately relate to — “the enemy of my enemy is my friends”, etc. It is a process we often see these days, where those who end up cancelled are more likely to give bad people the benefit of the doubt, newly appreciative of how complex situations can be reduced to untruths that nonetheless come to define a person. When this leads to the complete suspension of a person’s critical faculties, they soon end up in even more trouble.)
Intriguingly, West has nonetheless continued to lean into this chaotic way of life. Tabloid fodder it may often be, fueling the rumour mill surrounding the private lives of celebrities, but West also seems to have more control by living life in public. Though album roll outs and schedules are deemed chaotic and “crazy”, as if Kanye is doing it all wrong, it is surely obvious that frustrating the system is the point? The quality of Kanye’s music has hardly been diminished, and “old Kanye” demonstrated how capable West is of conforming to the classic ideal of the album. Instead, he insists on confounding, surprising, and challenging. The beauty is in the process, in the happenings, in the experimentation and play. No media or record label can take that away. He allows them to skim some cream off the top every now and then, but he insists on confounding the process and drawing attention to its limitations. We do ourselves and Kanye a disservice when we think those limitations are his own.
On new album DONDA, it feels like Kanye has come full circle. Whereas his pop career started with a defining event, so his latest album finally deals with the event that has lingered for so long in the background, displacing Kanye himself in favour of a higher power, the god-mother. For example, whereas “I Love Kanye” played with the numbing repetition of Kanye’s name as near-mononym, exacerbating the absurdity of affirming an alienated and reductive self, new album DONDA‘s opening track simply repeats West’s mother’s name, transcending the mundanity of overexposure. Whereas the name “Kanye” might be nothing more than a tabloid abstraction to us now, the name “Donda” clearly holds, for West at least, a kind of magickal power. His mother’s name becomes an incantation, and is repeated enough times as to become pure air and texture (whilst nonetheless reminiscent of a Desiigner ad lib; Donda, Donda, Donda…) The pluralism of Kanyes is offset by the infinity of her name’s life-giving power. Donda becomes God in her transcendence, and West’s gospel turn affirms the importance of family and shared experience that her death brought home for him.
But this is no simple story of grief and transcendence. The album proceeds by flirting with the ever-present dichotomy that has encompassed West’s music for almost 15 years. We grieve those who die but find the very idea of transcendence from suffering is culturally encased in dying itself. The feedback loop is harrowing and energising. The dichotomy of the alienated pop hit, of dancing at a distance, first presented on 808s, is carried forwards if not in form than in content, and Kanye finally feels able to use his mother — that is, the particular rather than the pop universal — as a vehicle for addressing this complexity. But this leads Kanye back to the universal in a far more powerful and affecting way. Donda, then, is held up as a godhead — not as a superegoic presence but a sort of energy that has transcended material form. Her spirit becomes diffuse, no longer personal but collective; from ghost to Weltgeist.
Faced with this contradiction of form and content, West’s narcissism, that the tabloids so love to ridicule, starts to resemble that of Ovid’s Narcissus proper — not the modern interpretation of pathological vanity, but the feedback loop of object/subject that Narcissus is horrified by. To love oneself is at once to see and be seen, to see the object of one’s love and be aware that the subject who loves cannot acquire it. Narcissus commits suicide in Ovid’s telling, as the feedback loop necessitates not self-preservation but self-overcoming.
It is a notion I am particularly interested in at present — the philosophical affirmation of narcissism. Jacques Derrida, for instance, once claimed that, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.” Recalling Freud’s comment “that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love”, Derrida insists that the “relation to the other … must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible”. It is a love that we hear about more often than such philosophical language might suggest. It is to entangle yourself in another and see that they “bring out the best in you”, that you might love yourself more when you love them.
It is a love we count as rare when directed towards other people, but one made as natural as breathing in the love of one’s children or family. It is an unconditional love, which does not simply mean “I will love you no matter what you do”, but, as Deleuze writes, “to love without being loved, because love implicates the seizure of these possible worlds in the beloved, worlds that expel me as much as they draw me in”. Again, this is something we intuit in our love of our children. For Freud, the “charm of a child lies in a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey.” It is a love for those who possess a “narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that might diminish it.” So too for Deleuze, who notes that this kind of love also implores us “to stop loving, because the emptying of the worlds, the explication of the beloved, lead the self that loves to its death.”
This complex set of relations is epitomised by Kanye and his relationship with his mother. Kanye himself attempts to construct a narcissistic consistency, that protects him from those in the media that would do him harm, who only criticise his narcissism in turn. But in being infantilised as a narcissist, Kanye turns to his mother, who becomes an affective vehicle for ideas and emotions that far exceed the mother-son relationship. Instead, that relationship, and the experiences that Kanye associated with it, is expanded to an almost cosmological level in being combined with his faith. The grieving mother-son relationship is transcended until his grief is entangled with nature and the relationship between winter and spring.
I watched so many people leave I see ’em change by the season, that’s mama’s sеasonin’
But within the confided space on the album, as each of these relations is necessarily collapsed onto each other, DONDA tells a contradictory story of joyful capture and melancholic transcendence. Take, for example. Jay Z’s verse on opening track proper, “Jail”. Sticking with Kanye as Narcissus, we find Jay rapping the words: “Made in the image of God, that’s a selfie.” But West’s God almost feels Spinozist. God does not resemble an individual being but the multiplicity of nature as event. So what is human life when framed through this multiplicity? Kanye hardly gets philosophical, but the affective power of the music is all encompassing. How else are we to interpret a song that is so excited about jailtime?
But this expression is itself doubled. The absurdity of desiring your own capture reflects our hype around any given Kanye album. But Kanye’s cynicism pushes through our expectations. He knows that what the world really cares about is Kanye contained. Forget the events, the happenings, the parties — we want Kanye captured by playlists, by paparazzi photos, by reviews, by Genius annotations. Kanye himself is uninterested, and ventriloquises his refusal through Jay Z’s verse:
You are not in control of my thesis You already know what I think ’bout think pieces Before you ask, he already told you who he think he is Don’t try to jail my thoughts and think pre-cents I can’t be controlled with programs and presets Reset
This refusal unfolds beyond all bounds. This is not a punk refusal — a “no” contained within the format of a three-minute bop. Nor is it a post-punk refusal — a high-concept “no” nonetheless contained within the longer format of the album. Kanye refuses to be contained by either.
Since the tantalising release of the lo-fi “Pinocchio’s Story”, West has found a permanent vehicle for this live refusal in the form of his Sunday Service Choir. But we might note that the accompanying album, Jesus is King, supposedly representative of his many years of activity with the group, might be the most underwhelming album in his whole discography. Whereas videos of the live shows are maximalist and effervescent, his 2019 album feels rushed and fragmentary, with most tracks barely passing the three-minute mark. In many ways, the record was astounding in its disappointment. How could something as grand and universally acclaimed as the Sunday Service Choir find itself represented by something generally regarded as “flawed”? Then again, how could it be any other way? Kanye makes it clear for us on the track “Closed on Sunday”: No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.
argues that, following Cage, new genres in experimental and avant-garde music in the 1960s were particularly ill suited to be represented in the form of a recording. These activities include indeterminate music, long-duration minimalism, text scores, happenings, live electronic music, free jazz, and free improvisation. How could these proudly evanescent performance practices have been adequately represented on an LP?
The spirit of a black radical tradition simmers through West’s chaotic album release cycles in this way. As a case in point, DONDA has received mostly middling and lukewarm reviews. They’re nonetheless agreeable reviews. Over the course of almost two hours, there are as many moments of brilliance as there are moments of mundane filler. But the real album experience has been in the listening shows that presaged its release, with not only shifting track lists but shifting features and production and samples. The album felt alive in those livestreams, in its becoming, and, in announcing the DONDA stem player, Kayne seems to want that experience to carry on long after the shows have ended. Clearly, the real release, for Kanye, is the unveiling of the process.
Is this just a long-winded defense of a bad album? Maybe. But the excitement of Kanye’s work ever since The Life of Pablo has been his view that all albums are poor representations of the process of living and becoming and simply being free. It makes DONDA a perfectly flawed album for the times. As the music industry (or any cultural industry for that matter) and the media machine surrounding it is increasingly derided as suffocating, unfit for purpose, outright exploitative and rigged to benefit CEOs over artists, Kanye seems to have embraced the fact that a bad culture produces bad albums. He will no longer be a slave to contracts or formats. DONDA, in this sense, is nothing more than tourist tat; a souvenir from the main event. But the main event is life and death, joy and grief, and the multiplicity of ways of being. And inside of the event, everything is transformed.
Kanye, too, has been transformed, and he seems to want to transform us along with him. Though the album can hardly be reduced to a kind of industry process, it nonetheless asks, if we struggle to judge or compartmentalise the result, perhaps the problem is with our outdated critical framework? This is not to collapse all music into a broader cultural relativism, in which all art is subjective and immune to critical appraisal and interpretation, but to ask us to reorient our expectations. We live in a product-driven world, where albums and streams are the be-all-and-end-all, and we assume the royalties accumulated allow most artists to make keep on making. But the process is backwards. When we fetishize the product but devalue the work, we end up with an unsustainable system. We know this — it is applicable to all corners of capitalism and consumerism — but Kanye demonstrates how the creative process can itself be entertaining, life-affirming, and free from drudgery, if we give ourselves over to it. (He also demonstrates how lucrative it is, supposedly generating millions of dollars from the hype cycle alone.)
We’re a ways off from that reality yet. At the end of the day, records are still ruining the landscape.
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…