Friday, December 29

2017 in songs (i)

Music is not welded to its own time. It travels, it changes shape, its sound alters in the shifting light of emotion and season. You might fall for a song at fifteen, then fall for it all over again for entirely different reasons at twenty-five.

But to compile a list of songs that have shaped your personal year is very different to compiling a list of favourite songs released that year. New releases always lay claim to the limelight of the present, but there continues in the background a slow, personal acquaintance with all the music that came before. My 2017, for example, was flush with formative experiences, and the songs tangled up among them hold a potent nostalgia. These songs did not belong solely to 2017 but include Ventura Highway (1972) and This Must Be The Place (1983). One day I will put together that personal playlist. For now I want to concentrate on 2017 itself.

2017 is the year I finally sign up to Spotify. I'm still not totally convinced. I've read about the algorithms and the corporate undertones, the illusion of choice and democracy. Equally, though, I love to make and share playlists, and stalk the playlists of others, from Teju Cole's 'a history of jetlag' series, to a playlist of every single song titled 'Autumn Leaves', and The War on Drugs' 'road jams' from their recent tour. Before Spotify, I was stuck in a mostly Springsteen-shaped musical rut, and while that is arguably no bad place to be, Spotify has put paid to my musical snobbery and stubbornness, catching my ears and heart and blowing them wide open.

Ran / Future Islands
The Far Field

I begin 2017 running long distances around a wintry Baltimore, which is pretty much what Sam Herring does in the music video for Ran. The single drops at the beginning of February, followed in April by the rest of The Far Field, in which the immediacy of 2014's Singles gives way to something slower, deeper, rawer.
There's the opening/closing line of Time On Her Side'the sea was large today, just as any other day'. Debbie Harry making Shadows her own. Beauty Of The Road, about how travel takes you to wonderful places, but takes you far from the people you love. The opening verse of Aladdin, which Herring says he couldn't have written without his hiphop alter-ego Hemlock Ernst. But it was Ran I heard first, Ran which became a staple road-trip song, Ran which I almost bust a knee dancing to at their London show this autumn.
The Far Field takes its name from a Theodore Roethke poem ('I learned not to fear infinity, the far field, the windy cliffs of forever' ) and Roethke's presence, along with other American giants like Jack Gilbert, can be found within the stark beauty of Future Islands' lyrics. A gathering of landscape and heart and synth, their songs celebrate the power of emotional vulnerability.
How it feels when we fall, when we fold / How we lose control on these roads / How it sings as it goes

american dream / LCD Soundsystem
american dream 

A hot bright sky beats about our rental car as we ascend a freeway ramp in California, following signs for LA, curving over the traffic that cuts this golden landscape. Then somebody puts american dream on, and the song's opening seconds glue themselves to this particular west coast memory.
After a year spent swapping the American dream for the American reality - observing firsthand post-election pain and sorrow, experiencing capitalism's rampancy in my rent and grocery bills, growing disconcertingly accustomed to the abundance of homelessness - LCD Soundsystem's american dream sounds about right to my ears. Urgent and languorous at the same time - America's two preferred speeds, it seems - the song adds a necessary note of disquiet to the halcyon romance of our Californian road trip.
And you can't remember the meaning / But there's no going back against this California feeling

Shark Smile / Big Thief 

In June I'm in a succulent-clad coffee shop in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighbourhood when this song starts up. I don't know it's called Shark Smile, but Shazam is about to tell me.
And while Spotify has - for better or for worse - overhauled the way I listen to music, in a way it's Shazam that has proven to be the more radical influence. Travelling around America all summer, Shazam is a way of mapping the cities I walk through the songs I hear, adding a spatial dimension to my interaction with music. Songs become pins pushed into the map of the public sphere, charting coffee shops, bars, Trader Joes stores. Travels dictating taste, songs as souvenirs.
Ninety miles down the road of a dead end dream / She looked over with a part smile / Caught up in the twinkle, it could take a while

Selfish / Future

There's a low-key beauty to what DIY describes as a 'stand-out slow-burner on an album of shadowy, gloom-drenched rap'. Featuring Rihanna as guest vocalist, Selfish articulates a specific emotion I find tough to describe, except that it's about acknowledging feelings, finally finding yourself alone with that person, and ignoring the rest of the world. The chorus reminds me of a quote from Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, about how within love, 'times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space'.

Sunscreen / JeanGa and George
European Repetitive Beat

When I hear the first few seconds of this release from the anglo-franco dance duo, I am back on the hot streets of a New York summer, walking over the Brooklyn bridge through a glitter pink sunset, alone in the city with too many feelings to carry by myself.
There's a fire over here / And I miss you so much

Lies I Chose to Believe / John Moreland
Big Bad Luv

Part of me will always believe Bruce Springsteen sings this song. But while John Moreland's voice often possesses an undeniable similarity to my favourite rugged New Jersey baritone, he possesses a huskiness and a command all of his own. I play this record to death all summer, then catch him live at September's End Of The Road festival. Big Bad Luv tempers the gravelly sorrow in much of Moreland's previous work with the arrival of something happier: love.
And love ain't a sickness, though I once thought it was / When I was too surrounded to see

Aboard My Train / Kevin Morby
City Music

We're driving around the foothills of North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains, where 'there ain't no soul I know / no commotion for me to be a part of'. The roads are slick with summer rain, the banks and verges lush green, and Kevin Morby is singing about tears.
The poignant yet playful wisdom of 2014's Still Life continues in City Music. Morby already had me with tracks like Dry Your Eyes and Flannery (an excerpt from Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It All Away) but I really love Aboard My Train too.
In my time I'd like to stay young forever / Like a tide, the crest beneath sunny weather / May we fill these lungs with laughter / And may we shake these bones with style

Cut To The Feeling / Carly Rae Jepsen

I recently read an excellent piece by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib about Carly Rae Jepsen, the Kingdom of Desire, and falling in love with friends. Cut To The Feeling is a perfect pop song and I refuse to be embarrassed by the number of times I've listened to it.
Take me to emotion, I want to go all the way

In Undertow / Alvvays

Wishy-washy indie pop, but done so damn well.
"What's left for you and me?" / I ask that question rhetorically / Can't buy into astrology, and won't rely on the moon for anything

Put Your Money on Me / Arcade Fire
Everything Now

Oh, Arcade Fire. Their first album in four years glittered with promise: Everything Now, the first song to be released, was described as 'ABBA-meets-Talking-Heads' (what more could this girl want?), and the album aimed to tackle issues of modernity, technology, and connectivity, in the band's usual grandiose style. What defines Everything Now for me, however, is lazy lyricism and a sound that doesn't quite come to anything. I don't care if the lax lyrics are a meta-comment on the dumbed-down superficiality of today's society. This album promised so much, and it hasn't delivered.
Except for Put Your Money on Me, a song so good it almost makes up for the rest of the record.
If you think I'm losing you, you must be crazy / All your money on me

Right On Time / Nadia Reid

We're in a field in Dorset on an early September morning and it's raining hard. Turns out our green Aldi pop up tent isn't too concerned with repelling water: everything's soaked, from roll mats to underwear. To top it off, the tent's zip is broken halfway up, so we have to essentially dive out into the soggy grass.
The rain is an uninvited headliner on the final day of 2017's End Of The Road. Regular festival-goers sit smug-faced in waterproof palaces, poaching eggs on proper stoves. I've seen tents with chimneys. I've watched somebody hoover the floor of their tent. But the majority of folk are like us, glumly packing up a day early, wrestling with pop-up tents and sleeping bags in pounding rain, trying in vain to keep possessions dry. We join a doleful procession heading to the car park. My arms ache. Everything is drenched. It is miserable.
Once the car's packed, though, there's a dry set of clothes, hot tea and a cooked breakfast, and the warm fug of the Tipi Tent, through which Nadia Reid casts a spell over its rain-sodden occupants. Her voice is strong and graceful. I will reach my destination, she sings. I will reach my destination.
There's a ship out in the harbor / Carrying my love / I ain't gonna wait forever / I ain't a turtledove

Evening Prayer / Jens Lekman
Life Will See You Now

With underlying disco rhythms and an infectious pop sound, Life Will See You Now continues Lekman's trademark buoyant melancholy. His End Of The Road set is a testament to this record's desire to make you dance. Later that night, walking back to our tent, I hear Lekman's dulcet Swedish tones drift across the dark field and realise he's one of the secret midnight acts. I'm still sad I missed the chance to hear Your Arms Around Me, the best ever musical reference to an avocado.

Nobody Else Will Be There / The National
Sleep Well Beast

It's tough when one of your favourite bands release a new album. You're so wrapped up in love for their previous material that you don't know if you've room for anything more. And then they somehow convince you that you definitely, desperately need these new songs in your life, that Slow Show and About Today and Graceless were never the only answers.
Meet me in the stairwell in a second / For a glass of gin / Nobody else will be there then

Nothing To Find / The War On Drugs
A Deeper Understanding

I see The War On Drugs at Ally Pally in November, and remember the mediative quality of their live shows, how you lose yourself in the drawn-out dreams of their songs. During the slower burners my thoughts meander around everything and nothing, only to be brought back to earth with punchier tracks like Nothing To Find. Their music is built for summer sun, and though I've listened to this album a lot already, I know I'll be listening more deeply come spring.
Oh I'm rising from within / I see it every morning / Tell me where the rhythm ends

* * *

other deserved mentions

On Lankershim / Foxygen  Hang

Sick Bug / Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever  The French Press

DNA. / Kendrick Lamar  DAMN.

Jag bryr Mig / Mwuana   Triller

Soulfire / Little Steven  Soulfire

Love / Lana Del Rey  Lust For Life

Many Moods At Midnight / Ghostpoet  Dark Days + Canap├ęs 

Another Weekend / Ariel Pink  Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

Caledonia, My Love / Hiss Golden Messenger  Hallelujah Anyhow

Lush / Four Tet  New Energy

New York / St. Vincent  MASSEDUCATION

No Exit / Tennis


Tuesday, November 28

Spring break (i) | a great letting go

'This song is about a great letting go,' said Sam Herring of Future Islands at their second show in London's Brixton Academy last week, before launching into an anguished Long Flight.

this is the way that it all falls / this is how I feel / this is what I need

You see, spring break is about a great letting go, and a great opening up.

For weeks afterwards, I hold those days on the road tight to my heart. All the time I am worried that life might never again feel so full, so bold, that the colours will cease to leap up in front of my eyes. (I'm wrong of course; I guess the biggest satisfaction from writing months after the fact is knowing that this trip was only the first indication that a deeper, canyon-like change had occurred inside me.) On the road, in Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, I've never felt farther from the limited safe life of my past self. The days tangle in the type of mad rush I normally tend to avoid. Everything at once. And it is okay - more than.

In the aftermath of spring break, that quiet past self returns, tries to pick up and examine every fragment of the trip, and arrange them in some orderly fashion, like repairing a torn up map. She is confident no experience will ever be as good, and terrified of forgetting even a second of it.

Yet something stops me from writing out the trip immediately, and so, inevitably, I do forget things. And by the end of the year abroad, when I've seen and experienced more than my memory can handle, I learn a painful but important lesson: some details will always be lost. You're not supposed to remember it all, to possess a seamless and unabridged recording of the past. And if you truly want an accurate chronicle, you write as you go. It's just sometimes life is too fast for the pen.

'See enough and write it down,' Joan Didion tells herself at the end of the recent documentary about her life and work, The Center Will Not Hold. 'And then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder,' she continues, 'some day when I'm going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write, on that bankrupt morning, I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest. Paid passage back to the world out there. It all comes back. Remember what it is to be me. That is always the point.'

I see enough, record the bare bones, and leave the rest for time to erode: the passing weeks and months will gnaw at this overwhelming mass, excavating to leave behind memories as bright and enduring as crystal. I have forgotten, conveniently, the times I felt tired, stale, fed up of living out of a backpack and an overloaded car. But I will never forget the waterfall rainbow in Yosemite, hearing a bear growl in Sequoia, the feel of my first desert, drinking Blue Moon by torchlight in a Vegas hostel room as a dust storm howls outside, the Grand Canyon's snowy top and sunny bottom, or driving round LA at 3am singing along to David Bowie. You just don't forget those kinds of things, even when they happen all at once.

'You'll never make it,' I am told every time I describe our spring break plans to American classmates and friends. Their faces a perfect blend of aghast and pity-for-the-naive-visitor, they proceed to tell me that our itinerary is too complex, that we'll run out of time, that we'll be driving for too long. When an American tells you that your drive is too long, you should probably pay attention. But a bunch of study abroad kids with limited funds and time - and a whole damn continent to see - were never going to listen. And we saw it all, and we stayed on track, and we used the long distances to sleep and share music. And it was the craziest week of my life.

It remains difficult to write about. Not just because I'm so far from that life now - scuttling about cold grey London, deficient in vitamin D and decent bagels, having swapped Californian freedom and handsome poetry professors for dissertation confusion, life responsibilities, and the big stressful what's-next - but because to write about spring break is to cope with an awful lot of content crammed into a short space of time. Others have waxed lyrical about Yosemite in long academic essays, turned LA into novels about hardboiled detectives and frustrated women and freeways, conjured songs out of Vegas glitter, and shot feature-length films in the desert. We swallowed all of that in a single week. I want to talk about the land, the cities, and the travelling in between. It's going to take some time.

Tuesday, October 17

California, month eight (i) | tidefall

Full force happiness now. If I spent fall semester slowly wandering campus and Berkeley's peripheries, stunned that such sunlit joy can exist, that it is laid out here, for me, then I spend all of spring semester putting that love to practical use. You can see it in the careful construction of my fall semester posts compared to the compiled-months-after-the-fact jumble of spring.

Berkeley's rain sodden winter months, along with a doubled study load, daily French classes, regular seven am work shifts, and half-marathon training, should surely force a collapse, a retreat into my well-worn shell of routine loneliness. But I am rarely alone now. There's always somebody to spend the next hour with, to study with, to dance with; an inverse correlation between alcoholic intake and hours of sleep; a continuous battle between over-caffeination and under-caffeination; a head too full with things to process; and I have never felt this happy before.

Full force happiness: a gale so wild I have to correct my previous understanding of the concept of 'happy', readjust the scale to fit these new feelings in.

Early one Saturday morning in March we stand outside our apartment building, backpacks on the kerb, looking out for a car. It's so foggy we can't see beyond our block, let alone down to the bay. As Camille drives us north towards Marin County, though, the haze disperses, replaced by the clear Californian visibility that bewitched me last semester. Winter is beginning to drift away from these northern coastlines. 

We're heading to California's Point Reyes National Seashore, to hike to Alamere Falls. Sweeping and rolling straight into the sea, Alamere is technically a 'tidefall', and I adopt that term as noun or verb to describe how spring semester feels. A tidefall of events and emotions and faces and feelings, of everything I'd suppressed behind canal gates for so long. There are only six of these ocean-bound coastal waterfalls in North America, twenty-five in the whole world. Tidefalls are rare. Both the geographical kind, and my kind.

After tracing wide open cliff tops for a while, a makeshift sign of white pebbles laid on the ground indicates a narrow path ducking left into woodland and eventually opening out on the edge of the land, closer to sea level. To get down to the cliffs and beach Alamere Falls calls home, though, requires a precarious scramble. Jump (or slide) down a sandy coloured rock face: vault, before the eyes of all other waiting visitors, a gushing stream that's too wide for even the longest pair of legs: propel yourself over deep gaps in the cliff face. It's a tall order for some visitors. Flip flops just won't cut it. Not everybody makes it across the stream.

Granted, this is no Appalachian trail, and I can't compare one short hike to weeks of fell-walking in the UK's Lake District, but already I'm struck by the differences in hiking culture in America. For example, flip flops aside, people play music out loud as they walk, and while I'm no stranger to the joys of a bluetooth speaker, there's a time and a place. Maybe I'm too schooled in Wordsworth and Whitman, but the whole point of getting out 'into nature' (whatever that phrase means) is that you're away from nature's opposite, the noise and metal of the built environment. I can't identify birds from their chatter, but I can hear how a breeze sounds different near water, or notice that in a landscape left to its own song the pace of visual and aural stimulation slows, and your own mind adjusts accordingly. The change in speed and perspective feels like a relief and a newness. It's no place for Bieber, or even Bruce.

Down on the beach you can walk right up to the tidefall, let it bellow in your ears, stand in its spray. The Pacific beats in and out fast, and catches my Converse unawares. My feet dry quickly on the rocks, but the sneakers stay stiff with salt and sand all summer.

I fall asleep as we drive back south, across the Golden Gate Bridge and through San Francisco, tracing its ups and downs. Waking up, through the rear window I watch the streets curl up to meet the sky and the dipping sun. Don't make me go home, I think for the thousandth time. I am so happy here. I couldn't be happier.

I'm wrong, though: tomorrow, Sunday, I will read Faulkner on the sand at Half Moon Bay in the first wave of summer warmth, nothing but sand and ocean and words. In two weeks one of my oldest friends will fly halfway across the world to visit me. Before the month is out I'll be midway through the first of two once-in-a-lifetime style road trips, the kind you get notions about from Kerouac and summer movies, travelling with a bunch of once-in-a-lifetime style people. I will spend the rest of spring semester mooning over the first road trip, and the rest of the year mooning over the second.

Andrew arrives one afternoon the week before spring break. All of a sudden he materialises on this continent, standing casually outside downtown McDonalds waiting to cross University & Shattuck as if he'd been living in Berkeley for years. It is a rare thing to have a friend willing and able to make the five thousand mile journey west to see you; it's even rarer to have a friend who puts up with your dribble of a shower, your endless supply of vegan meatballs, and who gets up at four am to stand in a dark chilly park without complaint and watch you run a half-marathon. Rarest of all is the friend who bakes croissants for the party you throw on the first evening of spring break.

On the days I have too much school, Andrew walks around San Francisco, visiting all the places I still haven't got round to seeing. He acquires a tote bag straining with poetry books, and boots that give him blisters. We hang out on campus in the sun and in the rain. I take him to my English lecture and he falls in love with the professor's hands.

It is once again odd to see a face from home here; even odder that it is not one of my family, who have seen me everywhere I've been in life. Andrew knew me as a shy oversensitive fifteen year old, and it is nice that he will also know me as I am in Berkeley, twenty-four and insanely happy. He will know, if transiently, the rooms of my apartment, my favourite bars and streets, the feel of Californian rain, the faces of my friends.

If I had to pick the happiest day of the year so far, poised as I am at the end of March, it might be this one: Sunday the twenty-sixth, leaving the apartment gut-wrenchingly early to stand in a pitch black Golden Gate Park with a bunch of other sleepy runners; taking in thirteen and a bit miles around the city; running over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, Bruce's 1978 San Francisco show in my ears; the waves and shouts of Bea, Connie, and Andrew propelling me along those final metres; crying at the finish line.

And the day doesn't end there. From the finish line at Civic Centre we ride an Uber back to Berkeley to pick up the car that's going to take us on next week's adventures. There's a mad tangle of sleeping bags and tent poles and jumpers, and suddenly we're jammed into the car, six of us, duvets and crisps and all, and we're away, all of the west at our feet.

Songs: month eight

Portions For Foxes / Rilo Kiley
Stolen Dance / Milky Chance
American Boy / Estelle
I Melt With You / Modern English
Leave Before The Lights Come On / Arctic Monkeys
Racing in the Street [live from San Francisco, 1978] / Bruce Springsteen