The Unspeakably Familiar

Summer, 2006

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.

Summer, 2020

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…

To be continued…

Le Voyageur

Shout out to Simon Sellars for posting this on Twitter the other day, I’ve been bumping it all week: Richard Pinhas’ short-lived band Schizo, with guest vocals from Gilles Deleuze reading aloud from Nietzsche’s The Wanderer.

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.

Invisible Strings: Notes on Folkloric Pop in Postmodernity

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.

(This is also why I think the Taylor Swift record cover meme embedded above is excellent — the continuum between melodramatic pop and melodramatic metal is real.)

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.

This strange fidelity with the world at large is summarised perfectly by Jillian Mapes’ review of the album for Pitchfork, in which she writes:

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.

On the surface, it’s a kind of real-life Great Gatsby ode that feels like a Swiftian take on Lana Del Rey’s 21st century post-modern renegade regionalism (which hangs over much of this album as a blatant reference).

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.

Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya:

Welly and the Polar Bear, Hull (RIP)

The announced closure of Hull venues The Polar Bear and Welly, presumably due to loss of revenue during the Covid-19 pandemic, is truly heartbreaking. I’m sorry to say that it has been years since I’ve been to either — I don’t get up to Hull nearly as much as I’d like anymore — but they both defined so much of my teenage years and mid-20s.

Welly was the first club I ever went to. First to their under-18s nights and then numerous times afterwards as “an adult”. It went through a lot of changes over those years — first as a haven for emo kids, scene kids, drum’n’bass kids, goths, punks, and then it was eventually just the go-to student venue.

I remember the first time I was there I was 16 and someone put a cigarette out on my arm in a mosh pit. One of those lung-ruining nights before the smoking ban in 2007. This gurning girl just turned to me and said, “Err ner, ‘ave put me ciggie out on yur aaarm.” To which I said, “Yes,” and then she just walked away — a fond memory, for some reason. The mosh pits in there used to be rough too. It was a weird vibe when these men, that were evidently a lot older than the target clientele, would show up and start swinging fists. They were oddly part of the fabric though. There was a sense of danger at those nights (evenings, really) that was all part of the charm.

I don’t remember any of the songs they used to play in there. A lot of chart stuff. A lot of pop punk. Occasionally, they used to throw out “Out of Space” by the Prodigy and that would always drive me mental. As rare an occasion as this was, it always makes me think of Welly.

I was also in Welly the night that Michael Jackson died. I was stood at the bar leading out to the smoking area when the news filtered around from person to person to person. It was surreal watching the information travel through the throng. Once it eventually reached whoever was on the decks they didn’t play anything but Jackson tunes all night. That was special. (I’m not sure it would have the same effect now, child abuse allegations considered, but it was back then.)

I had a few birthdays in there too. I can’t remember which ones… I’m pretty sure I turned twenty-three in there, along with a couple of ages either side of that. One year, we were stood in the queue for hours on Boxing Day. My friends Will and Louis decided to do a very conspicuous piss each against a nearby wall and got caught by the bouncers who threw them out. I thought that was a birthday ruined. Instead we just had another hour in the queue. He’d forgotten about them by then.

There was also the night we went and then had a house party afterwards somewhere on Princes Avenue. I’d gone back a bit earlier with some friends and a few of us kept drinking quietly in the living room. Someone had loudly advertised the party at closing time, however, and I’ll never forget the sight of a few hundred people trying to pile into this tiny flat above a kebab shop. That night, the lads who ran the local indian took over the streets at sunrise and started a cricket tournament in the middle of the road at 5am. We cheered them on from the roof. That was the last time I went to Welly and didn’t feel old as fuck.

The Polar Bear, by comparison, hardly feels like it has been open long at all. When the Sesh moved there from Linnet & Lark, and when my friend Dan started working there, I’m pretty sure I went every Tuesday whilst I lived in Hull from 2013-14 and again in 2016.

The last time I was there was in March 2017, I think. I saw a Blackest Ever Black DJ set as part of the COUM Transmissions retrospective events. That was special too.

Too many memories. Below are some photos taken at various points over the last five years or so — mostly in the Polar Bear but the last one is from a night at the Welly.

Best wishes to the owners and events organisers. I hope this isn’t really the end. I’m sure those involved will find other ways to keep Hull interesting. I daren’t think about what that city will become if they don’t. So much time and energy has been spent building up Hull’s music scene to be something that the whole city can be genuinely proud of and the team at the Polar Bear have been a massive part of that. This could be a major set back, not just in terms of culture but also for morale. It’s not a city that deserves it.


Freed From Desire

I had such a lovely evening yesterday. The wonderful Natasha Eves has moved just down the road from me and, after a few months of strange isolation in the big city, surrounded by people but talking to no one, a developing weekly habit of going round for dinner and drinks has been much welcomed.

Last night we ate enchiladas and talked about music for hours and hours. I was reminded of a brief obsession everyone had in 2017 with GALA’s “Free From Desire” — an anthem for Acid Communism if ever there was one, and particularly Fisher’s Lyotardian left-accelerationist version, where “breaking free from desire … doesn’t mean to withdraw from our capacity to desire but to let go of the distinction of what is the pleasure in desire and in suffering”; an trip beyond the pleasure principle.

This feels like an oddly prescient suggestion at present. As my social life slowly starts to recover, it is interesting to hear what people want to do next. No one I know seems to want to go back to the pre-lockdown lifestyles. People are taking up new habits and hobbies — some of which they never previously enjoyed; others that they enjoy but feel guilty about enjoying. I certainly feel strange, considering all I’ve written about community in recent years, being driven by a desire to go live a quiet life somewhere else.

In light of a life under lockdown in a densely populated city like London, I am aware this desire is driven by a slightly intensified misanthropic tendency. At the same time, I want to recalibrate my communities and find the joy in them again — rediscover community freed from desire.

Beachy Head

We drove out to the south coast to eat ice cream and read on the beach. It was busy and we were still not used to crowds.

Arriving at Birling Gap and Beachy Head felt like ticking off another spot on my Throbbing Gristle map of Great Britain. Poorly recreating an album cover made me very aware of coastal erosion. The beautiful scenery nevertheless felt wholly detached from this spot’s notoriety as a suicide hot spot, just as it does on the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats.

I sat in the brush, getting bitten by ants, reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — “not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”

Stray thoughts and observations entered my mind to make up for the gap. Peri-glacial deposits resembled malformed vertebrae down on the shoreline. A Spitfire flew overhead out of time. Burnt-back heather spiralled charred. New growth now rises. We parked for free with our National Trust membership cards. I’m pretty sure there used to be a house here.

RIP Morricone

News is circulating today that master composer Ennio Morricone has passed away. Synonymous with the sound of the Western, lest we forget two of his most unassuming contributions to cinematic sound:


Looking for an Exit — XG for the Blue Mountain School

This is a view of psychedelia that still needs to be affirmed. It is its function, in this sense, rather than its form, that remains relevant to us today: the way it connotes the manifestation of what is deep within the mind, not simply on its surface. Capitalism is very good at this too, but it cannot be allowed to hold the monopoly on our desires. There are alternatives and they are waiting to be excavated.

I was really, really excited to be asked to contribute something to the Blue Mountain School during the first week of corona quarantine. Working on this kept me sane.

I had read David Keenan’s piece for them just a few weeks ago and quickly explored the rest of the playlists there. To have my own piece in such spectacular company gives me big imposter syndrome vibes.

Many thanks to George Hields for the invitation and I hope, once this is all over, I’ll get the chance to swing by Shoreditch to see the School in the flesh. It’s an incredibly beautiful building.

You can read the full text here.

I was tempted to do a mammoth playlist of deep cuts and weird things. Instead, “Looking for an Exit: Sonic Coordinates for Egress is a collection of written fragments, as if excavated from a life-long listening diary. It’s a short hop, skip, jump from 1966 to 2020, sketching a psychedelic line of flight from The Beatles via Led Zeppelin and D’Cruze to Lee Gamble and Nazar.

I’m very aware of the length of the jump made here, clean over the 1980s, and whilst working on this I was very tempted to take detours via Fred Frith and the Supremes and Throbbing Gristle to try and make this a more consistent journey through the songs that have made me look at the world differently but the length of the text ended up dictating to brevity of the mix.

Anyway, I think the fact it isn’t a clean genealogy is probably more fitting to the point being made. Cut through canons and do your own autopsies, particularly of pop culture because there’s so much hidden in plain sight.

As a bonus, here are a few other tracks I wanted to include but which I realised were only additional nodes to what was already a pretty concise (for me at least) argument.

Front Window #5: Once More, With Feeling…

Friday 3 April 2020

I was interviewed about my book again today. I’d planned to head to this magazine’s offices in Central London to record a podcast but Covid-19 scuppered that almost as soon as we’d organised it. We had a chat over Skype instead and it was really lovely.

Towards the end we were talking about how the stakes of community described in my book have once again changed shape under the current crisis. In Egress, these shifts and changes are documented in real time and, although the book feels like a time capsule now, in my mind, these stakes nonetheless continue to keep shifting and changing every day.

At the end of our conversation, I half-rehearsed an argument in an essay I’ve just finished on D.H. Lawrence and how there’s this sense in his final works — Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Apocalypse — of a kind of individual-collectivity emerging; a kind of new, diagonal relation that escapes both the enforced and restrictive collectivity of the proletariat versus the aristocratic individuality of the bourgeoisie.

It’s what Bataille calls “the community of lovers”. (I’m still so shocked Bataille never wrote on Lawrence — to my knowledge?)

I’m feeling the presence of this Bataillean community quite explicitly under quarantine. With my girlfriend ill, I’ve found myself relating to her in this subtly different way, now that our relationship is devoid of the workaday pressures of wage labour that keep us in a kind of orbit around each other. There’s a new syzygy emerging at the moment instead, of a kind that is typically obstructed.

The distinct pleasure of this relation was thrown into relief when a notification popped up on my phone announcing the death of Bill Withers. I was grateful, in a strange sort of way, that the announcement was not appended by that now-familiar adage: “due to complications caused by Covid-19.”

Bill featured on a lot of the old mixtapes I used to make for my girlfriend when we first met. I ended up listening to all my old favourites when I heard the news.

The drum break that opens Kissing My Love, followed by that wah-wah guitar, is maybe the most perfect Withers number for me — where the instrumentation is as seductive as his voice is.

And then there’s the way he commands the audience at Carnegie Hall on his live album. You can feel him palpably in the air: how the crowd hangs off his every word and how he seems to seduce them with every anecdote. By the time he’s ready to sing another song, they’re in the palm of his hand, and it’s not like he even needs to butter them up. It is electrifying and it is sexy as fuck.

But it’s not sexy in this sort of one-dimensional way. It’s sensual. It has a sort of embodied power. It really gets inside you, but not just in the cliched sense that it “gets in your soul”. Turn that baritone up loud enough and it even makes your organs vibrate.

I was thinking about Withers’ music like this when I put it on because I’ve spent much of the last week copyediting a book that’s coming out soon on Repeater. It’s not my place to say anything about it — it’s called You’re History: keep an eye out for it in the coming months because you should absolutely buy it — but reading it really resonated with this listening session.

It’s a book about women in pop music — some of the biggest and most ubiquitous names in pop, in fact — but it deals with their music in a way that focuses on how it feels rather than merely what it’s saying. The book considers the ways that some of the biggest (and even most derided) pop songs have jarring word plays and seem to linguistically express themselves in a way that looks moronic when seen written down. But that’s the fault of how critical faculties, not the songs themselves. These songs are overlooked because we are obsessed with a style of music journalism that is bizarrely obsessed with lyricism over musicality. Instead, You’re History is a book that explores not what words mean but how sounds feel — particularly the sounds of words or, more abstractly, vocalisations — and how the music itself functions, sensually, beyond the rigid hermeneutics of our present era.

It’s the sort of sonic analysis that makes the videos on Genius‘ YouTube channel all too easy to ridicule. Their video on The Backpack Kid’s “Flossin'”, for instance, is comical and absurd because its lyrical content is analysed despite their supposedly abject emptiness but, as becomes clear, what makes the song a hit is its embodied quality — its not a poem set to music but a functional accompaniment to a dance move. In that sense, it’s the dance move that is the hit rather than the song — and this is how the Backpack Kid unabashedly frames the song himself when describing how it came to exist.

So, understood from this position — from the perspective of the song’s intended function — it is Genius that looks utterly one-dimensional and lacking rather than the song itself. It’s blinkers are used to comic effect but it’s still blinkered, reflecting the priorities of an industry at large and the priorities it wrongly impresses upon the listening public.

The book considers plenty of songs that are far, far less contentious than this — the above is more useful for demonstrating Genius‘s own straitjacket than anything else — but they are songs that are nonetheless ubiquitous and supposedly lyrically vapid or absurd. (There’s an in depth analysis of Tom Tom Club’s Wordy Rappinghood, for instance, which is just sublime and had me reaching for my copy of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense — the author indirectly articulates that book’s savouring of irrationality in a way that had me grinning from ear to ear.)

At one point, in order to further bolster why the book is written in this way, the author quotes an essay by Mike Powell for Pitchfork on the value of this kind of music criticism. (Not that the book needs to defend itself but appearing, as it does, some way into the book, the quotation serves to drive home just how invigorating and how largely absent this kind of writing is from the canon of music writing.) Powell writes:

Ultimately the way we talk about music doesn’t come down to prescribed terms, but associations, poetics, and the way language has the potential to open music up rather than shut it down. I remember a friend once telling me that a song sounded like braids to her, as in hair. This wasn’t just an unusual thing to say about music, but an observation that tapped into this particular song’s dense, overlapping rhythmic structure without deferring to words like “syncopation” or “staccato.” A few more riffs on the braid metaphor and you’d have what I’d call an insight: A statement that takes something you thought you already understood and makes you see it in a new way.

So little criticism does this. Not just music criticism but criticism of all kinds. It’s the drudgery of what now passes for “Cultural Studies”. Insightful writing should, instead, be a mode of cultural production in its own right, in the sense that it affects you directly rather than simply ordering and describing a cultural artefact based on standardised opinions and technical understandings.

This is precisely what I meant in my recent interview with Music Journalism Insider, when making a comment that a few people have picked up on on Twitter:

Writing biologies instead of biographies of music was meant to be a sly condensation of an argument made in my Quietus essay — “we can understand the difference between hauntology and hauntography as being similar to the difference between biology and biography — one orders and describes the events of a life after the fact; the other is a study of life as it is lived, and all the mechanisms and relations that make it possible” — and this forthcoming book from Repeater has given me an example to point to now that I only wish I’d had at my disposal a few months ago.

All of these seemingly disparate threads come back together for me, forming a braid of their own, when reading D.H. Lawrence under corona quarantine. The function of his writing and the unbound eroticism therein is precisely an attempt to unearth the radical insights of feeling and sensuality in this way — what he refers to explicitly as “tenderness”.

Lacking the textural properties of music, Lawrence uses sex to pull all our focus into how desire feels, but it is simply a means to an end. His writing just as often asks us to think about how relationships feel — both romantic and familial — or how the structures under which we live feel. Desire is not only projected onto an object of desire but is embodied — desire and its lack constitute a tethering, and it is the tethering that Lawrence holds firmly in his grasp. When thinking about the subject-object relation, it is the hyphen that Lawrence stimulates.

I’m particularly enchanted by Mellors’ sensual frustrations in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance. In a scene that almost feels comic — it’s the sort of moment of internal tension usually only sated by an angry-dance montage in the movies — Lawrence attempts to describe Mellors’ politically erotic experience of being overcome by a sort of thwarted sexual energy. He’s not horny, exactly — it’s like he feels claustrophobic in his own skin, but he is only made aware of his own interiority in this way because of his capture of capitalist forces. Lawrence writes:

Driven by desire, and by dead of the malevolent Thing outside, he made his round in the wood, slowly, softly. He loved the darkness and folded himself into it. It fitted the turgidity of his desire which, in spite of all, was like a riches: the stirring restlessness of his penis, the stirring fire of his loins! Oh, if only there were other men to be with, to fight that sparkling-electric Thing outside there, to preserve the tenderness of life, the tenderness of women, and the natural riches of desire. If only there were men to fight side by side with! But the men were all outside there, glorifying in the Thing, triumphing or being trodden down in the rush of mechanised greed or of greedy mechanism.

Mellors doesn’t just want to fuck — he wants to fuck up capitalism!

This is how most of Twitter seems to feel right now. Two kinds of tweet jostle for position — “Bring down capitalism!”; “I just want to fuck!”

For Lawrence, these two sentiments aren’t so distinct from one another. This was the function of his writing — a celebration of fucking in all its guises, from sex and violence to revolution and destruction. No dichotomies, no dialectics — just an ever-complicating web of desires.

That’s what I’m really aware of right now under quarantine. The tether between myself and my girlfriend but also the newly strained nature of the tether between myself and everyone else. It’s not one-dimensionally sexual but a sensual complexity. The overbearing cloud of illness drives this home even more. Every hour or so, I pop my head round the bedroom door and ask my girlfriend, “How are you feeling?” I find myself asking this of other people too. Not just “how are you” but how do you feel under the present circumstances — and what is being felt, in every single instance, is the new tension of this tether; the embodied connection between self and other.

It is a tether strummed by other forces the rest of the time but, with those forces abated for the time being, other sensations are emerging. I feel like a spider on a web in a sheltered alcove, each strand connected to someone else in my midst. The slightest breeze will overwhelmingly disturb my present existence. Without such a breeze, however, other tremors are felt even more intensely — tremors from other possible worlds.

Music Journalism Insider: XG Interviewed

For those that don’t know, Todd Burns runs an excellent newsletter called Music Journalism Insider. It’s an amazing resource for music journalists and music journalism fans alike.

I’ve been a subscriber for a few weeks / months now — what even is time right now anyway? — so I was honoured when Todd popped into my inbox asking if I’d like to be interviewed for the newsletter.

As of yesterday, the interview is now live. You can read the full thing here — it’ll be live for two weeks and then go behind the paywall — and the rest of the newsletter here.

I talk a bit about how I got to this point in my life, trying to be a photographer for a bit and why I stopped. I talk about how that connects to my new book Egress and about the context from which the book emerged. Elsewhere in the newsletter, I recommend some stuff I’ve been reading and listening to recently and I also offer up a tip for would-be music writers (which is probably a bit rich coming from me because I’d hardly describe myself as a music writer — I’m a writer who likes music and other people’s writing about music — but I hope it’s of interest nonetheless.)

If music journalism is your passion — whether you love reading about the latest stuff or you want to get involved or you’re already involved but want to feel connected to a wider community — I really recommend signing up for the full version of Todd’s newsletter. It is a weekly inbox highlight for me and a truly formidable one-man magazine — the sort of thing this blog tries to be and which is, frankly, a dying breed.