Category Archives: Music

My First Night of the Proms

When I told a friend I had been booked to read poetry at the Royal Albert Hall, his suggestion that I ask the staff where they kept Hitler’s testicle might indicate something of my own complicated relationship with high culture. My first response to the BBC Proms’ kind invitation to perform at a venue so prestigious that my family had heard of it (as opposed to, say, a room above a pub in Farringdon), and to have the results broadcast on Radio 3, was barely-trammelled delight. My second was blind social and sartorial panic. Would I need a garment with a buttonhole? What if I accidentally ask for a fish-knife?

I spent four years studying in Oxford, which implies a certain comfort with grandeur and formality. I did, however, spend half of the last one chin-deep in post-war social realism, reading and empathising with novels such as Larkin’s Jill, in which a gauche provincial undergraduate nearly passes out when a rich female acquaintance helps him put on a bow-tie. The signifiers of success and status are vexed and various, and I had never attended a Prom in my life.

As it turned out, a shirt and trousers was more than adequately-formal garb; I left my suit jacket draped over my chair, a relief even in the relative cool of the Elgar Room. (One slightly less ball-focussed friend believed I was taking the stage in the main auditorium.) Watching the Prom itself from the demotic discomfort of the Gallery, whether craning our necks over the balconies and propped up against the hard stone wall, was in itself instructive: among the closed-eyed men in shorts and baggy T-shirts and the young couples lying supine on the floor, engaged in light-to-medium petting, most of my ideas about decorum soon went sailing out of the window towards the Albert Memorial. If this was the audience I had to read for, perhaps I had nothing to fear after all.

Ducking out before ‘Bolero’, I reconvened with Tir Eolas, the classically-trained folk band with whom I was sharing the bill. The evening’s compere, Georgia Mann, took us through our tightly-regimented setlist (margin of banter: limited) and informed me I would be introduced with a witticism taken from this very blog, which had, I realised, lain un-updated for an uncomfortably long time. The path to the stage was littered with potential trip-hazards. I was deeply concerned I would accidentally say ‘fuck’ on the radio, collide with the adjacent musician’s double-bass, or make an awkward reference to a dictator’s genitals. If you tune in at 22:10 on Tuesday, you will discover I did none of these things.

In fact, the performance went off with an almost dreamlike smoothness, the post-Prom patrons greeting my opening broadside against corporate philanthropy and subsequent digression into the vagaries of medieval travel literature with what seemed like genuine enjoyment. I’ve rarely had so much fun on-stage – not least in the final segment, where I indulged my scarcely-private Leonard Cohen fantasies by reading a poem over a responsive underscore cooked up in only thirty minutes earlier that day by the scarily-adept Tir Eolas.

I was thrilled to hear ‘Magician’s Assistant’ being brought to life by a whole array of tinkling dulcimers and evocative effects. Humouring my vague understanding of concepts such as ‘major’, ‘minor’, ‘arpeggio’ and ‘music’, the band created an alternately woozy and glittering soundscape that mirrored the tension and release of the poem’s romantic negotiations. It may be that participating in the musical process helped to alleviate some of my own Proms paranoia. At any rate, if this happened at every reading – suit or no suit – I could probably get used to it.

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The poem on which I collaborated with Tir Eolas, ‘Magician’s Assistant’ is soon to be published in The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse. This post initially featured on the Huffington Post website.

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Richman, O’Hara, and the aesthetics of the upbeat

This post originally appeared on The Missing Slate.

 

‘and in a sense we’re all winning

we’re alive’ – Frank O’Hara, Steps

 

Does anyone find it easy to admit they’re happy? In real life, maybe – but in art, avowals of optimism are a rare step, and a bold one. There’s always the threat that a sentiment of contentment with the world will be received as gauche, naïve, or saccharine, and coming right out there with a declaration of your love for life is akin to laying your open heart down on the train tracks. Frank O’Hara isn’t always optimistic – but he often is, and for all the mythos of spontaneity there are consistent strategies behind those of his poems that read like lightning-rods for a pure, untrammelled joy. Few writers – even very successful writers – have been able to harness this approach creatively, and on recently reading some of O’Hara’s most buoyant work, including ‘Steps’, an odd feeling of familiarity shot through me.

‘oh god it’s wonderful

to get out of bed

and drink too much coffee

and smoke too many cigarettes

and love you so much’

Imagine those lines delivered over a stripped-back beat and a classic two-chord rhythm, in a voice practically tripping over itself to get to the end of the line. What you’re imagining, reader, is the breakdown in a Jonathan Richman song. When it comes to what defines the vein of optimism in their work, there are some surprising parallels between the New York poet and the New England singer-songwriter. As with comedy, the aesthetics of the upbeat have largely escaped serious theorisation. Well, make sure you’ve got your double chocolate malted to hand, because things are about to get heavy.

G K Chesterton, in a work on Chaucer, identifies the characteristics of an approach to the world he believes ‘the poets’ to best exemplify (I doubt he could have had an exhaustive list). That quality, at its height in Chaucer, is a recognition ‘of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real.’ For Chesterton, this goes beyond mere secular optimism to ‘the primeval duty of Praise’, and seeing things in ‘the light in the positive’ is a necessary adjunct to this sanctified world-worship. We don’t need to follow him so far to accept the existence of a position which begins with a ‘primary wonder at the very existence of the world’. So what follows, logically, in the case of our two examples?

It seems hard to imagine optimism without a love of what exists, in all its beauty and its heartache: an inclination to ‘always embrace things, people earth/sky stars’ which the Sun itself identifies in one of O’Hara’s best-known poems. Richman, as usual, frames this embrace of sensory stimuli as a simply-stated romantic conceit, back in 1986: ‘I wake up in the morning and I love the world/Like a boy, like a boy chasing his first girl’; twenty-five years later, ‘I love this sad world’ remains his credo. And in 1960, here’s O’Hara: ‘it’s also pretty hard to remember life’s marvellous/but there it is guttering choking then soaring’.

Those lines are taken from a poem called ‘In Favor Of One’s Time’ – what’s being celebrated is not life in the abstract, but life here and now, in New York, in a world fizzing with Coke and neon and posters for jazz concerts and fast food restaurants. Throughout his work, O’Hara elevates and celebrates the ephemera of consumer culture; like Warhol’s soup cans, he takes the raw detritus of branded products (Camel cigarettes, Alka Seltzers, Leica cameras) and retranscribes them into an artistic context. O’Hara’s famous Coke isn’t just a beverage – it’s the life force of the poem which (barely) contains it, the shook-up sugar-rush which propels the speaker’s thought from line to line. And though these things might be transient, the act of writing is a refusal to let them get away: ‘it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience/which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it.’

As a singer, Richman’s lineation is more, well, linear; but he has a similar focus on the throwaway.

His songs take place in shopping centres, bars – of both the cappucino and lesbian varieties – andthrift stores, where Richman reels off a list of cast-off and unwanted products which the song takes into its capacious heart. And they gleefully embrace the small, quotidian things that are our first point of engagement with the world, as best evidenced by this deliriously goofy video:

‘You know T-shirt, sweatshirt, cut-off shorts, you know those

Plain old everyday clothes.’

Or this:

‘Well, cruddy little chewing gum wrapper,

My heart would not let go;

The colors hypnotize me, and I love them so.’

It’s another act of recuperation, which treats a discarded chewing gum wrapper the same way as the bastions of high art. Richman’s assessment of this piece of litter is no different from his take on Vincent Van Gogh, who ‘loved color and he let it show’, and Vermeer who ‘had his own color range/As if born in a more modern age.’ O’Hara, an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, would probably have known at first hand whether or not Pablo Picasso frequently was called an asshole, but that didn’t stop him writing ‘we lose our health in a love/of color’ in his own ‘Ann Arbor Variations’.

Why I Am Not A Painter’ shows O’Hara thinking about the processes of painting, but more common is his self-reflection, his placement of himself within his poems as their giddy, almost uncomprehending maker: ‘the centre of all beauty!/writing these poems!/imagine!’ Richman, too, consistently includes within his art the process of its composition – witness every ‘Jonathan! Jonathan!’, every call for ‘Guitar!’ which brings the spontaneous showmanship of live performance into the sterile space of the recording studio. The run-on sentence and the exclamation mark signal O’Hara on the page, but neither is missing from Richman’s long titles, his semi-improvised spoken segments; what is his distinctive voice, if not a permanent exclamation mark?

These tics often appear when Richman wants to signal other loves – an unironic celebration of rock’n’roll, or praise for the civic spaces of Boston, which O’Hara more than equals with his topographical specifics and his shout-outs to the greats of jazz. So what’s at stake when a Frank O’Hara poem contains an image of Frank O’Hara writing poems, or when a Jonathan Richman song proudly announces its status as a live-recorded artefact?

I think ultimately this spotlight on poesis – making – is part and parcel of each writer’s insistence on the importance of the ordinary. To show yourself at work, with all your second thoughts and imperfections, is to climb down off the pedestal of the pristine, untouchable artist; it’s a step away from the academy (The Beatles?) into the semi-staged reality of missed notes, cluttered bookshelves, empty bottles, litter on the ground. If not exactly ‘You can do it too!’, it’s a gesture towards a kind of amazement at the privilege each, in their ordinariness, possesses to communicate this reality; or as Chesterton puts it, ‘that glimpse that was given of the world when God saw that it was good; and so long as the artist gives us glimpses of that, it matters nothing that they are fragmentary or even trivial.’

To which I’d add only this: a video of Frank O’Hara reading for the TV cameras in his New York loft, the year of his untimely death, wearing what seems to be nothing more formal than jeans and a shirt. Plain old everyday clothes.

 

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Music interviews #2

These are a few of my favourite interviews with bands and musicians I was able to produce as a presenter at EURadioNantes.

 

Richard O’Brien meets prolific musician Darren Hayman to discuss songwriting and the Seventeenth Century


When your most recent album is an instrumental concept piece about open-air swimming pools and your next release is a folk opera set in 17th-century Essex, it’s understandably galling to hear people refer to you as ‘the guy who used to sing in Hefner’. But Darren Hayman isn’t bitter, although his career has evolved enormously since those days ; we talked about his songwriting process, and the challenges he’s set himself on the forthcoming ‘The Violence’ in the name of historical accuracy. With the recent release of ‘Lido’ on London micro-label Clay Pipe Music, Darren also wonders whether instrumental music can truly be ‘about’ anything – even when its author is a well-known and evocative wordsmith.

Richard O’Brien meets Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman.


With his third album, Jens Lekman claims : ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’. It’s a clever title, but here he talks to Richard O’Brien about whether pop music can really teach us anything about love and life. As a Swedish national singing in English, the process of songwriting is already a kind of linguistic experiment, a game he plays with language and persona. But Jens also speaks about something closer to home, as he discusses the effect of shifts in the political climate in Sweden and, more specifically, his home city of Gothenburg, to which he has recently returned after years of living abroad.

 

Richard O’Brien meets Jean-Louis Brossard, musical director of the TransMusicales.


For 34 years, Jean-Louis Brossard has been visiting festivals from China to Colombia and everywhere in-between, to find the most interesting new artists to play at the TransMusicales, Rennes’s flagship festival of contemporary music. Despite its reputation – Pulp, Nirvana, LCD Soundsystem, all made their first French appearances at Brossard’s event – he no longer feels a pressure for the TransMusicales to be ‘the place you saw them first’; its reputation is assured enough. Instead, he enthuses about this year’s discoveries, and explains how he goes about putting a programme together. Interview in French.

 

Richard O’Brien meets Franklin Bruno, singer-songwriter and music critic.


With over twenty years of songwriting and a PhD in analytic philosophy behind him, Franklin Bruno has always been pulling in multiple directions. In recent years his interests in music and academia have merged, with a forthcoming work of criticism examining the role and contribution of the bridge, or middle eight, in popular music. The work of the cultural critic Theodor Adorno dismisses the aesthetic value of pop music; although Bruno disagrees with many of his central theses, he points out that his arguments are themselves frequently misunderstood or dismissed without due consideration. Adorno aside, he continues to write and produce his own songs, notably with current project The Human Hearts, whose second album, ‘Another’, was released on October 30th. Here Franklin Bruno speaks to Richard about the relation of form to creativity, and the importance of occasionally putting such concerns aside; even if he points out that the assumption of the musician as free creative spirit, paying no attention to the conventions of genre, is in some ways a convenient myth.

 

Richard O’Brien meets David Gedge from The Wedding Present


The Wedding Present are one of the most influential bands in the development of British indie-rock; singer and guitarist David Gedge one of its most distinctive voices. As the only constant member since their formation in the 1980s, he acknowledges there’s something unusual about their current project – revisiting their 1991 album, ‘Seamonsters’ in its entirety, on the back of similar tours for their first two releases, with a wholly different group of musicians beside him. But although many bands from the late 80s and 90s are exploring their back catalogue in a live format, Gedge explains that far from nostalgia, it can have a reinvigorating effect on the artist’s current music. In conversation with Richard O’Brien, he identifies the roots of his own songwriting in the crafted conventions of classic Motown, and the immediacy of film dialogue. He also considers the competing claims to our attention of cinema and literature, and reflects on his own artistic development through the prism of ‘growing up’ with, and within, his songs – a development now being chronicled in a new comic book series, ‘Tales of The Wedding Present’.

 

Richard O’Brien meets Jean-Daniel Beauvallet, editor-in-chief of Les Inrockuptibles, France’s best-known music magazine


Jean-Daniel Beauvallet is passionate about Nantes. For the editor and driving force behind Les Inrocks, it’s a city like no other, constantly moving and changing, which recognises the importance of young artists and gives them a huge financial and cultural headstart. The September 2012 issue of Les Inrocks features a 16-page Nantes special, and Jean-Daniel shares his views with Richard O’Brien about C2C, Jacques Demy, Pulp, and the future of music as we know it.

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Music interviews #1

Here are some of the most interesting bands and musicians I originally interviewed for EURadioNantes.

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Richard O’Brien speaks to Gareth from Los Campesinos! about the links between music and football.


Los Campesinos! are one of a growing number of British independent bands who write about football, and for their singer Gareth, the polarised idea of sensitive artists and macho sporting cliché is no longer relevant. On the day of a conference at Trempolino about this relationship, featuring speakers from the French magazine ‘So Foot’, Gareth discusses this relationship on both sides of the channel. He points to the resurgence of intelligent football journalism as a major factor, and speculates about what France can learn from its best-known recent British import, the notorious Joey Barton.

 

Richard O’Brien meets singer-songwriter Eugene McGuinness.



Eugene McGuinness divides his time between London and Ireland, and both form the backdrop to his own songwriting style. He’s enthusiastic about the ‘raw aggression’ of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, but also explains his own desire to his make a ‘slick, Brylcreemed record’ that could only have come out in 2012. The result is The Invitation To The Voyage, his third studio album – its title draws on the work of Baudelaire, but Eugene makes clear the separation between lyrics and poetry in this interview with Richard O’Brien.

 

Richard O’Brien speaks to Romain Guerret from Aline – interview in French.



As a French indie-pop group singing in their native language, Aline already stand apart from their musical peers. It may seem strange how little musicians in the country of chanson française respect the creative potential of their own language; singer and guitarist Romain Guerret certainly thinks so, though writing chansons was never his intention either. He talks to Richard O’Brien about the evolution of the project’s distinctive lyrical character, and about his ambitions to tour in the English-speaking world.

 

Richard O’Brien speaks to Nick Waterhouse, playing at the TransMusicales – one of France’s biggest ‘showcase’ festivals.


Although words like ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ are frequently thrown at the surprisingly ancient-sounding music created by Nick Waterhouse, he’s keen to take apart the simplicity of such assumptions. He has a deep and abiding love for the forgotten artists of the 50s and 60s, but for Waterhouse what counts is a specific attachment to each unjustly-unknown talent, rather than a vague sense of a certain aesthetic. He talks about his techniques as a producer, for himself and the Allah-Lahs, and specifically the importance of craftsmanship, which leads him away from Pro Tools and the modern records ‘with sound all over them’, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, into a warmer, more organic world.

 

Richard O’Brien meets Canadian singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield.


Charlotte Cornfield performed last Friday and Saturday in the BarBars festival, as part of a mammoth European tour with Boris Paillard, aka The Keys – a huge, 40-date undertaking which also happens to be her first visit to our shores. She plays three songs in our studio – ‘North of Superior’, ‘Clumsy Love’, and ‘All Of The Pretty Mistakes’ – and discusses the influence of two of the cities she has made her home, Toronto and Montreal, on the direction of her music. She also explores her songwriting process and the inspiration she takes, among other sources, from the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

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Transcendental Youth: the Mountain Goats and Anonymous 4 at the Barbican, 02/04/2012

It’s a strange thing to be handed a printed programme on your way into an indie-rock gig; but when that gig is a collaboration between a respected literary singer-songwriter and a medieval vocal harmony quartet, it’s hard to know what to expect.

In the long term, the Mountain Goats teaming up with Anonymous 4 for their forthcoming 15th studio album, Transcendental Youth, can only be a good thing. There’s something paradoxically natural about the pure, ethereal melodies of four classically-trained female singers off-setting John Darnielle’s highwire voice and the taut narratives of sin and redemption he uses it to tell. It’s also amazing to contrast the bashed-out hiss-and-vinegar of his early work, skittishly recorded onto crackly cassettes, with the beauty and ambition of this project and the cultural platform provided for it by the 1500-seater Barbican theatre.

No one sensible is going to complain about Darnielle’s integration into the spaces of high culture – he’s earned it – but although I look forward avidly to the upcoming album on the basis of this gig, something about the night itself failed to gel for me, and I want to think about some questions it raised.

Anonymous 5

The tone was set with a performance from Anonymous 4 (really Anonymous 3, plus arranger Owen Pallett, personal circumstances necessitating the absence of the fourth member). I make no claim to familiarity with medieval ecclesiastical music, though if I spoke Latin I’m sure I’d have got more out of the first half of this set, curated by Darnielle and presumably tailored to his interests, Catholic with a big and a small ‘c’. Without denying the wonderful clarity of their voices, the second half, drawing more heavily on English folk and American gospel, was a bigger hit with the majority of the audience, although Darnielle pitching in with a surprising competent bass part can’t have done any harm.

A solo Mountain Goats set followed, featuring the first new material of the evening (unless Anonymous 4 have given up on being a covers band); there was a surprising absence of songs from last year’s storming All Eternals Deck, but a rousing rendition of the unreleased ‘Cut Off Your Thumbs’ – fantastically labelled ‘Year unknown’ on the accompanying hymn-sheet – saw Darnielle bathed in blood-red light, screaming ‘I’m gonna kill everybody in this room’ to a seated audience of polite Radio 4 types wearing glasses and jackets. Who lapped it up.

'Kill me first, John! I've got all your tapes!'

The evening was always going to stand or fall, however, on the final joint performance; which, to me, ended up feeling like something of a missed opportunity. For much of the set, it was like listening to two different gigs simultaneously, but that’s no bad thing. In fact, it’s sort of the point. The problem is that for contrast to work, you have be to able to appreciate both elements simultaneously, to recognise what’s being contrasted to what. The structure of the night, building up the two halves of the equation separately, was a great idea in this regard; but these were new songs, and from where I was sitting, you couldn’t always hear them. Or rather you could, but all you could hear was Anonymous 4.

The little details, tiny nuggets of psychological and circumstantial information, on which Darnielle’s lyrics and reputation are built, were swallowed up by the beautiful wall of sound – like listening to a tidal wave break on a home-made raft. And it’s a shame, because as the live recordings available on this site make clear (along with a good and fair review, from a different perspective), these are very good songs indeed. On record, they’ll probably rank among John Darnielle’s best work – but on first introduction, they were too overwhelmed to communicate clearly. You could either sit back and let it wash over you, uncomprehended, or lean in and try your hardest to pick it all out. Maybe I made the wrong choice; I just wish the mic levels in the Barbican had been sufficiently adjusted for this not to have been a problem.

Rock'n'roll

In fact, the venue itself might have been a problem – one which sheds light on a wider issue. Watching pop or rock music, no matter how literary and clever it is, operates in a certain way; sitting in a theatre creates a different set of expectations. Darnielle’s aim as I understand it is partly to bring classical elements into rock music, which if done well seems like a great idea. But this show seemed more like bringing rock music into a classical venue; as if wanting this kind of art to be treated as high culture means that we have to experience it in the same space and according to the same frameworks as other kinds of high culture.

And while it’s fantastic to see a venue like the Barbican taking an important contemporary artist seriously, I find there’s something weirdly neutered and gentrified about watching live (un)popular music in a theatre. There are traditional gig venues this size in London – and can you imagine how different an experience it would be to see the Mountain Goats play with Anonymous 4 in a dark basement to a capacity standing crowd, with the amps cranked up? To see something this creative and intellectually stimulating in an environment that’s truly democratic, sweatily communal?

Definitely sweaty, probably communal

So while I’m happy that there are people out there who want to view great lyric-writing as great art, I don’t think that means it has to be encountered in the way other art is; within the pantheon, behind the gates. I want to see John Darnielle and four classical vocal harmony singers in a cavernous shack after a month on the road, drunk and verbose, in assorted death metal T-shirts. Now that would be transcendental.

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Shearwater – Animal Joy

This review originally appeared in the  Cherwell newspaper.


Musically speaking, these are good times for birdwatchers. The pastoral is back in a big way – in some areas of the modern folksy indie landscape you can’t turn around without tripping over bands called Goose Archipelago and Chirpy and the Tweet-Tweets. Fronted by an ornithologist and named after a family of seabirds, it’s easy therefore to pigeonhole Shearwater with the opener of their new outing ‘Animal Joy’; lilting, incantatory vocals deliver a cryptic narrative that namechecks dogs and swallows like a child completing a Springwatch garden survey.

But Jonathan Meiburg’s outfit has been around for a long time – since 1999, starting life as a side-project of Okkervil River – and they’re no one trick flying pony. What’s most striking about their recent work is its prominent, forceful drumming, more integral to the production here than to any recent album since The National’s tautly percussive breakthrough, ‘Boxer’.

These people are going to burn

As many of Meiburg’s lyrics are suspiciously elusive, a metaphor might help. Imagine a secret Fleet Foxes gig, where young men gather around a fire in the woods to toast marshmallows and plait daisy-crowns for local maidens. Now imagine someone turning up to that event with a massive drum, and beating it vigorously until someone sets fire to his artfully-tangled beard.

Shearwater at their best sit in the middle of this false polarity – ‘Animal Life’ is an enthralling blend of ancient and modern, rural and urban, and ‘You As You Were’ sounds like LCD Soundsystem begging for their supper when their tour bus has broken down in the Texas Hill country. But somewhere in the middle of unnecessarily extended rock epic ‘Insolence’, the album itself gets a little lost. It’s been a while since Shearwater flew the nest; I’m just not sure if they’ve quite succeeded in building a place of their own.

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Old Ideas – Leonard Cohen

A version of this review appeared in the Cherwell music section, 27/01/12

If anyone’s entitled to have old ideas, it’s Leonard Cohen. His first book of poetry was published in 1956; his first album eleven years later. At seventy-seven, the Methuselah of Montreal could be forgiven for hanging up his trademark fedora; but his humour and humility remain intact.

You can leave your hat on

Attendees at the listening party for this, his twelfth album, are greeted with typical self-deprecation – ‘I won’t be facing you during the playback, so you don’t need to guard your expressions’ – and its lead-off single is a hymn of self-abasement. ‘Show me the place where you want your slave to go’, Cohen begins over gentle piano, speaking more than singing these days. Redolent with the Biblical imagery of stones and suffering, it has the complete exhaustion of a weary supplicant at the end of a long pilgrimage, laying an offering at an altar.

'I've been meaning to get this chair for ages'

Many of the songs here are concerned with the imagery of conclusion, from the slow shuffle of ‘Going Home’ to the bluesy ‘Darkness’, its insistent three-note riff advancing like the footsteps of a monster in a horror movie. Cohen has always sounded like he’s writing his own epitaph; these days, he could use his voice as the chisel. What’s most striking here is its intimate centrality; it’s lacquered mahogany, and the production lets you see every grain. At the launch, his interviewer Jarvis Cocker comments on the feeling that the singer could be in the room with every single person listening. ‘I intend to,’ Cohen responds.

JC’s opening line to LC: ‘Would you like some popcorn?’

It’s this wit that rescues the work from morbidity, that allows it to be what it’s always been: ‘a manual for living with defeat’. Bathetic turns of phrase undermine grand conceits: ‘I dreamed about you baby/You were wearing half your dress/I know you hate me/Could you hate me less?’ The sacred and the profane rub shoulders, and rather more besides.

‘Old Ideas’ is exactly the album you’d expect it to be; it’s not a title that promises novelty. ‘How old exactly are the ideas?’, one journalist asks its author. ‘About 2614 years,’ he deadpans back. Like most of Cohen’s work, it’s funny because it’s true.

 

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‘Embrace The Margin’: Half Man Half Biscuit and Cultural Overload

‘How much more can I exhume?/How much more can you consume?’  asks Nigel Blackwell, ‘singer’ and lyricist of Half Man Half Biscuit, on their new and typically under-promoted album ’90 Bisodol’. The song quoted is ‘Left Lyrics in the Practice Room’, a caustic canter through the potential motivations of ‘Chris from FutureDoom’, a musical nobody with a taste for self-promotion.

At least, I think so; like all the best satire, it cuts more than one way, and like all the best Half Man Half Biscuit songs, it fires its arrows in about twenty directions at once. In two minutes and seven seconds, we’ve got glancing references to the Virgin Mary, Black Sabbath, the Dutch lager Oranjeboom, and a direct musical quotation of legendary bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Let Your Light Shine On Me’.

To track the last reference, I had to do a little exhuming of my own, and this is the kind of reception Blackwell’s lyrics reward; though also, perversely, an attitude they mock and question. The song title itself suggests a certain ironic critical distance from the song lyric as a form; throughout Biscuit’s work, questions are raised about the validity of rock and roll, its proponents, and its audience, but this is a critique from within, ambivalent commentary on the state of play from a deeply-entrenched and highly literate observer.

I started with the word ‘singer’ in quotation marks because even the vocal delivery Blackwell favours seems to send-up the expectations of a frontman – exaggeratedly flat and sardonic, it functions as an alienating device from the usual romantic catharsis of rock and roll. (The fact that he is, objectively, quite bad at singing, is clearly also relevant; but not as relevant as the statement made by his decision to continue doing so, regardless.)

Rock and roll is ‘full of bad wools’, as the scorn-drenched closer, a running commentary on the televised panic of a landfill-indie idiot forced to share sofa space with Heston Blumenthal, repeatedly asserts; Blackwell’s final bark of the titular genre as the music cuts out is an act of highly-knowing vandalism. By smashing the myth of integrity, it’s possible that HMHB also scorch the earth sufficiently to reclaim it for themselves.

‘Lyrics’, therefore, in their traditional sense, also come in for some playful deconstruction. These aren’t heartfelt, linear transcriptions of the wounds of the heart, or even deliberately vague images suggestive of inner torment (cf Cobain); instead, within a broad vein of comic social critique, they’re a stringing together of disparate elements, a levelling of the dizzying array of cultural touchstones provided by contemporary mass-media into a gleefully anarchic post-modern mess.

A collage poster for a recent exhibition on Post-Modernism

The grammatical term ‘parataxis’ – defined by The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar as ‘a very general term covering various kinds of juxtaposition of units of equal status, including the coordination of two (or more) equal clauses, phrases, or words, with or without coordinating conjunctions’ – and literally meaning ‘arrangement side by side’, has been used in literary theory to discuss styles, such as Pound’s Imagism and Dadaist poetry, which place disconnected images and statement side by side, without apparent connection, to disorientating effect. This is one of the main techniques Blackwell uses as a writer – why much of his work is so difficult to take in at a single sitting, and why there is a need to ‘exhume’ its multiple allusions, as the existence of various websites (here and here) for the purpose will attest.

See, for example, the end of rant-ballad ‘Descent Of The Stiperstones’, where the narrator, fleeing from an awkward encounter with former Crossroads actress Lynette McMorrough (not a figure in particular need of uncrowning) collides with a surreal series of items including ‘a pack of Triffid seeds, an icerink for a model village’, ‘post-apocalyptic Allen keys’, ‘a jar of language pills’ and ‘a jigsaw of Nazi war criminals’. And let’s not even get started on ‘Tommy Walsh’s Eco House’ – (‘back-to-back Cadfael, Ross Kemp on Watership Down‘) – I’ve already had a bellyful.

This is, apparently, Lynette McMorrough. And apparently this blog exists.

What’s the point of all of this, then? Is Nigel Blackwell just mentioning anything and everything that daytime TV brings into his Birkenhead living room, or is there some wider principle of selection and direction? I’d argue yes, though in full awareness that he would describe the literary-critical approach of this essay, like many of the teams in the Korfball tournament scrutinised in the anthemic ‘Joy in Leeuwarden’, as ‘just a crock of shit.’ It’s the nature of this kind of thing to reject – well, my kind of thing. But nonetheless, there’s got to be a reason why it works.

I think it’s all linked to that question of consumption. In modern capitalist society, it’s impossible to consume everything, though according to the media and advertising, it’s imperative to try – to hear the next Pitchfork-recommended album, buy the latest Guardian-approved box-set, follow Stephen Fry’s Twitter and the Strictly Come Dancing liveblog. And what this creates for many people is a feeling of cultural overload – of being constantly, helplessly surrounded by a never-ending stream of input, of signal to be sorted from noise, wheat from chaff. What’s interesting about Blackwell’s songs is their refusal to engage in this sorting process – instead of picking one style or idea or subject and running with it, they fire names, images, messages at the listener like a demented tennis-ball machine.

They simultaneously parody and celebrate the overwhelming ephemera of our lives, the petty annoyances and omnipresent subliminal grabs at our already fractured attention. They don’t read it, or attempt to explain it, in a coherent sociological thesis (and having no relevant training, neither will I), but they recombine the detritus of modern living and modern media into fresh, surprising collages, and in doing so continue a fine 20th-century and onwards tradition of subversive, playful cultural critique. And they do with a much better sense of humour than a post like this can ever hope to have.

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