Knowledge of Beauty: Seán Power & Peter Broderick’s ‘Ballad of the Lights’

Walk into our kitchen any time in the last three weeks and you might have come across either of our two sons sitting at the table playing Lego and saying “Very, very, very beautiful” in what they imagine to be a Galway accent. They just intone it to themselves at random moments. Michael, who is seven, also likes saying “Suddenly, the ice that was floating down the Hudson river STOPS” and chuckling. They are quoting a song, one that has settled in to all our imaginations, ‘Ballad of the Lights’ by Peter Broderick and Seán Power.

‘Ballad of the Lights’ is originally by Arthur Russell. Peter and Seán’s version is on a fascinating tribute album, Peter Broderick & Friends Play Arthur Russell. The wonderful singer-songwriter Brigid Mae Power is on the album too and she is Seán Power’s mother. She is also Peter Broderick’s wife and I think this means that Seán is Peter’s stepson. Seán is so good on this song – I guess he couldn’t miss it.

In our house we have long been positively disposed to Arthur Russell. My wife listened to his instrumental albums relentlessly when she was pregnant with our youngest, who is three. Evan was so nearly named Arthur, but we were also on a Lemonheads buzz that year. Still, we had never heard Russell’s ‘Ballad of the Lights’ until we heard Peter and Seán’s version when it came out on Christmas Day.

‘Ballad of the Lights’ is really a poem and song narrated by a person looking out from New York to New Jersey (“Why I chose New Jersey to look at I don’t know“). Seán opens the song and he does the spoken word sections. Allen Ginsberg performed those parts on the 1977 recording. No pressure Seán! Peter sings the Arthur Russell parts. Seán begins:

A young man sits on the bridge after night fall
And looks across the Hudson river to New Jersey
He wonders about life

And he wonders if he'll ever get old
He sees the lights

And he wonders if they are talking to each other
And he wonders if they are talking to him
And he asks if they are 

I tweeted a few days ago that Allen Ginsberg is great and everything but he’s no Seán Power. And I do genuinely prefer his performance to Ginsberg’s. But Ginsberg is at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering Arthur Russell lyrics. This song is about finding magic and mystery in apparently humdrum experience. I was going to write “magic and mystery where there is none”, but that’s not it. If the narrator can find it, it’s there.

That the narrator here is voiced by a child is part of it because kids have amazing powers of finding mystery. Children are always asking if street lights are talking amongst themselves or if there are worms on the moon and so on. But it’s also that Seán has the recitation skills of a nascent poet. He makes these lines sound fresh, like he wrote them. When he lands on the final word in the line “Suddenly, the ice that was floating down the Hudson river STOPS“, I hear Paul Durcan in my head on ‘In The Days Before Rock’n’Roll’, as he escalates and exclaims: “Nor Fats, nor Elvis / Nor Sonny, nor Lightning / Nor Muddy, nor John Lee!”

Anyway. We play this song and album a lot and we have a busy kitchen and often you don’t be listening too carefully. But there’s a point in the song that always stills me. Mostly Peter and Seán swap verses but there is one point when Seán replies within a verse to a single line of Peter’s. It’s when Peter sings, of the New Jersey lights, “They are so beautiful”, and Seán replies “Very, very, very beautiful”. It’s such a warm and earnest moment and such a sweet father-son exchange. I love that he says “very” a full three times – like, he’s not kidding. I love when my kids listen and when they copy Seán and gently say “Very, very, very beautiful” when they are idling about. I’m glad they are connecting with this wonderful stuff. Knowledge of beauty is itself rare.

Lubomyr Melnyk: It Is Like Having the Sun in Your Hands

“The natural world is where we evolved; where we became what we are, where we learned to feel and to react. It is where the human imagination formed and took flight, where it found its metaphors and its similes, among trees and pure rivers and wild creatures and grasslands rippled by the wind … It is nature which is the true haven for our psyches.”

– Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm

Lubomyr Melnyk is a Ukrainian-Canadian pianist and composer who turned 70 in December. He is the key exponent of continuous music, “a piano technique based on extremely rapid notes and complex note-series, usually with the sustain pedal held down to generate harmonic overtones and sympathetic resonances”. Melnyk invented continuous music in the 1970s and there’s a 1978 album, KMH: Piano Music in the Continuous Mode, on Spotify. He remained busy throughout the 1980s but in recent years was languishing until the Erased Tapes label rediscovered him in the early 2010s. Melnyk apparently asked: “Where were you when I was 30?”

Melnyk is the eminence grise of Erased Tapes, home to Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and so on. His Erased Tapes bio describes the genesis of continuous music: “He began to play a new kind of music, spontaneous and improvisatory… Using the sustain pedal to create echo and reverb, he transformed free-flowing cascades of notes into hypnotic waves of sound”. His own site attests to the music’s “meditative and metaphysical” aspects. Reading this self-endorsement I think: “We’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much” and also “Yes, that’s right”.

I saw Melnyk on January 24th, with my wife Sharon in a converted cinema in Hackney. Leaving the country for a concert is a big event so we ration these trips for shows that we expect to be be really special and it was extraordinary. The show was a 70th birthday celebration organised by Erased Tapes. They signed him when he was in his early sixties, and his Erased Tapes comrade Peter Broderick collaborated on his 2013 album Corollaries, which won attention his earlier work had not. He played pieces alone and with Peter Broderick and Hatis Noit. As Melnyk wound down his final piece I felt this pang of sadness, which though unexpected was no surprise, because I did not want to let go of the moment. I wondered if I’d ever share a space with Melnyk again. I was going to miss being in a room with him and his piano. I’d love to be there right now.

In practice, continuous music means that Melnyk plays long pieces that build and evolve, ebb and flow, inexorably, ever-changing. He moves in complex coruscating arpeggios up and down the keys. He plays with the speed and intensity of the Dead Kennedys and the delicacy of the Cocteau Twins. The sound is ocean waves then raindrops sprinkling a lake. Patterns repeat but subtly shift like Michael McCarthy’s grasslands rippled by the wind. The music is physical: you feel it in your chest and your belly as much as you hear it. When I really stay with a Melnyk piece I can feel it in my breathing and in the way I connect with the ground. At the show, as Melnyk and Peter Broderick were finishing up ‘Pockets of Light’, I noticed my heart was beating in time with the music. It just was!

There are a few nature metaphors there and this is by deliberate design of Melnyk. His 2015 album was called Rivers and Streams and he said then that his playing was akin to water: “flowing and ever connected”. He said he was influenced by minimalist composers and I can hear sacred minimalism in Rivers and Streams, ‘Pockets of Light’, and Fallen Trees, but the sacred object is the natural world.

I had read a bit about Lubomyr Melnyk before flying to London, and I’d listened to him a lot, and I had been looking forward so much to seeing him. I’d read him compared to Rasputin, and I’d seen his prodigious beard, and I imagined some haughty Franz Liszt character. I understood he had claimed to be the Jimi Hendrix of the piano or somesuch and this was fine. I’ve been to a lot of shows by half-ironic performers who are embarrassed to be as good as they are or to allow their work to mean as much as it could. I was looking forward to seeing someone who knows he is the greatest and does not apologise. I was expecting greatness and seriousness from Lubomyr Melnyk, and that was going to be quite enough. I was expecting to witness mastery. I wasn’t expecting as much joy. I had him wrong.

I cannot explain to another pianist what it is, but I could tell them truthfully that being able to play continuous music is worth more than anything in the universe. Anything. It is like having the sun in your hands. It is like having the four winds. It is like having ice and snow. It is like having hurricanes. It’s like having steel and factories. It’s like having the sunshine just pouring through your fingers. It’s – it’s – it’s a JOY.

– Lubomyr Melnyk, “The Continuous Music Man”

In Hackney, Melnyk bowed and thanked the crowd before walking offstage in a manner so delighted and appreciative that you very much wanted to bear-hug him. He spoke about of his forty-year struggle with a classical music establishment that hadn’t wanted to hear continuous music: “But you do!” (Huge cheer.) Built into the bear-hug is the sense of loss of a musician of Melnyk’s calibre being overlooked for so long, but there’s also an amazing inner resolve at work there. Imagine the belief in yourself and your art that it takes to persist despite apathy from all-comers for thirty years. Imagine that sense of mission! What a gift.

Also, Melnyk is not one to look back. At the show, he said that he would not be playing any old music. He opened with a new work and he said the only person who’d heard it before was himself. “This piece has no name yet,” he told us. “It’s for you. It’s all just music!” His career is a constant act of creating the new right now. He said “There’s nothing like the feeling the first time a piece of music is born”.

It is a lot to ask of a musician or any artist to ask them to make us feel joy. There is a lot to not be joyful about. There is always a new story about humans destroying each other or destroying the earth. And joy has to be genuine. Joy has to exist despite knowledge that contradicts it. An artist who instils joy must acknowledge the suffering and calamity and still find a spark of eternal hope. This is difficult at the best of times but for weeks before seeing Lubomyr I’d been thinking more than usual about the destruction of the natural world. This is often what’s in my mind when nothing else is, but I’d been carrying around a pall of gloom after reading a piece detailing the collapse of insect life in the rain forest in Puerto Rico. I couldn’t shake the thought that if they go, we all go, and even if we don’t, species-loneliness is what we’re leaving our kids. The music in Hackney was suffused with love for nature but can you enjoy hymns to the natural world when the natural world is disappearing? Surely grief is the right response? Surely these are elegies?

I thought about Lubomyr here and his long journey and the ecstatic quality of his work; the bountiful heart that is in it. I watched him play this electric luminous music with his back straight, his arms extended and his eyes closed, like he and the piano were interwoven. I watched him stand and beam and look over at his instrument and touch it again, and shake his head with wonder and say “You know, every day the piano sounds more beautiful”. I thought, I really want to accept this joy, but it felt indulgent to do so while the rivers and forests to which Melnyk’s music pays homage are being deserted and despoiled.

It’s taken a few days to get my head at all straight about this and to attempt a response, which actually comes from Michael McCarthy, a writer and naturalist I encountered on On Being. In The Moth Snowstorm, McCarthy writes that to prevent the ruination of the natural world, people must regain belief in nature’s worth. He compares the change in our worldview that will be required to save it to the changes that accompanied the the Renaissance and the spread of religion: “These are great events,” he writes, “but they are fully matched in historical significance by the calamitous event we are entering upon, the destruction of the natural world”.

He argues that we need to reawaken a delight in nature, to remember “that there is an ancient bond with the natural world surviving deep within us, which makes it not just a luxury, not an optional extra, not even just an enchantment, but part of our essence – the natural home for our psyches where we can find not only joy but also peace, and to destroy which is to destroy a fundamental part of ourselves.” He writes that a mature love for the natural world recognises the scale of the threat, and is engaged, and a love for a forest or lake or bird will recognise that they may not be there next year, and that love “will do whatever it can to protect or save it; [it is] a love that can be fierce”.

McCarthy’s book ends where I think Melnyk and his fallen trees and raindrops and huge unruly beauty comes in; where the joy Melnyk’s work invokes and inspires finds an even higher purpose, and finds a hopeful, hard-headed home. “Now as the twenty-first century crashes upon the natural world like a tsnunami, with all the obliteration and merciless unthinking ruin,” concludes McCarthy, “let this new love be expressed; let it be articulated; let it be proclaimed.”

Let’s See What Happens

I met Peter Broderick last March at the DotMd conference on medicine and the arts in Smock Alley. He had just played a short set to a room of doctors. It seemed that not that many people knew him and he was just standing there while we had our lunch.

I have never quite shaken the notion that the musicians I love are a little bit other/more than human and shouldn’t be as readily accessible as Broderick was at DotMd. You shouldn’t be able to just go over and say hello. So it took me a minute. He was great. He has a huge, huge smile. I told him how much my wife Sharon loved his piece ‘A Tribute to our Letter Writing Days’. “No-one ever mentions that one!” he said, apparently genuinely delighted. He signed the copy I bought of All Together Again “To Sharon – Long live the letter!” ‘Tribute’ was from when he had just started singing on his records and I wasn’t sure at first, like I wasn’t sure when Kevin Murphy in Slow Moving Clouds started singing. Sharon was right: Peter Broderick has a beautiful voice, unassuming but full of character. (So does Kevin.)


I’ve listened to Broderick a lot in the last decade, since discovering post-classical music in the late 2000s initially through Johann Johannsson and Max Richter. I would have initially bracketed him with people like Goldmund, Dustin O’Halloran, and Nils Frahm, the melodic melancholic solo piano guys. Broderick’s early solo piano work is really popular; ‘Begin’, the opening track on his first album, has 6 million Spotify listens. He released that in 2008 when he was 21. He could have continued in that vein with great success but he is restless and he has been careful not to be pigeonholed. He is from Oregon but he lives in Galway now and I think you can hear it in his violin playing in particular.

Broderick is incredibly curious and his creative energy is unbelievable. He has released about fifteen albums in the decade since ‘Begin’, including an album of covers of Arthur Russell songs that emerged unheralded last Christmas Day. It is gorgeous. I have rarely known any musician better at conceiving and completing and releasing work. No MBV he. He writes, records, releases, then: Next! It’s amazing.

At DotMD, we chatted about the legendary Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, who collaborated with Peter on a mesmerising piece, ‘Pockets of Light’, from a 2013 album called Corollaries. Broderick and Melnyk are playing together next week in London to celebrate Melnyk’s 70th birthday. He was graciously appreciative of my knowledge of his work with Melnyk and ‘Pockets of Light’ in particular. (I’d named a Spotify playlist and a previous post for the song). He asked if I had heard what he says to Melnyk at the outset of the song, a nineteen-minute torrent of continuous music, and I said no. I listened later. ‘Pockets of Light’ was the first piece they’d ever recorded together. Before Melnyk begins, you can hear Broderick saying “Let’s see what happens”. I loved that – as an exhortation, and as an artistic code to live by for a musician just obviously enthused by the sounds that are out there for the shaping. Long live the letter; long live Broderick’s intoxicating adventure.

Album review: Alonewalk by Dave Couse, State, 2010.

In 2003, shortly before he died, the activist and critic Edward Said published On Late Style, an examination of the late works of towering figures in the arts, like Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, and the mercurial genius pianist Glenn Gould. Said was interested in commonalities between the late works of artists across disciplines: how did they differ from the work that makes a young, voraciously hungry artist’s name?

Late style is not something that pop music has done well. What band has gotten better as its members have gotten older? Which artists have done their best work beyond 40, or even 30? There are decent bands who have peaked before their first single came out. (I’m thinking of Suede and Magazine, but I’m sure 21st century examples exist.) Pop music has always been, or has appeared to be, about young hunger and electric inspiration rather than age-acquired craft. It’s not just a question of work getting better, or worse, with time. On Late Style would ask: name a pop artist who has made a genuine, half-successful attempt to adapt his or her means of expression as he or she has gotten older, the better to express the changing realities of life. They are few. But by now it may be obvious that I’m going to make a case for Couse.

I’m conscious of the absurdity of (A) comparing Dave Couse to Beethoven and (B) writing about the late-life artistic achievement of a man in his mid-forties. But, in reverse order, (B) the point is not actual advancing years as much as it is the recognition that an evolving understanding of the world demands an evolution in expression and (A) I have just spent two weeks with Alonewalk and it is such a thrilling and mysterious and moving record that, for now, the comparison stands.

The first question might be: what’s different? And with the opening song, ‘Black and White’, patterns emerge. First there is the stately pace, sometimes martial, which persists almost through the entire album. There is an enjoyable tinkering with song structure. The melody is memorable and piano-led; Couse learned to play after buying his first piano at 40, and listens, you might think, to a lot of John Cale. Fergal Bunbury provides interlocking arpeggiate guitar lines. The vocal is dominated by Couse’s falsetto. And Couse sings very few words. These songs are not ‘Small Talk’. Track two, ‘Dark Blue’, develops that theme. The entire lyric: “As dark blue invades you / And this life, this life escapes you / Let my love surround you / As this life becomes you / If dark blue proceeds to take over you / I beseech you / Let my love surround you / As this life becomes you / See through / Dark blue”. That’s it; it’s not much more than a haiku. For someone whose verbosity is the stuff of legend, it’s a big move. It allows the songs the space to breathe.

In ‘Don’t Say a Word’, and most of the time, Couse’s falsetto really works. There’s a line at the end of the second verse: “Love, love’s all there is / You know I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat”; Couse exhales the word ‘heartbeat’ with an extraordinary intimacy. Elsewhere, he sings “Now / Now’s not the time / I know what you’re here for / But it’s not mine to give”. No more is explained. What has happened? What’s not his to give? Who knows? In Alonewalk, Couse has the confidence to leave gaps. I think this is a recognition that his audience, which is in all likelihood aging with him, doesn’t need to be beaten over the head with literal lyrical meaning. We bring ourselves to the songs and we fill in the blanks with our own experiences. That could be wrong, but it’s what I’m doing regardless.

On Alonewalk, Couse’s falsetto replaces what another reviewer has called his “trademark nasal sneer”. If this is the perception of Couse’s normal voice, then I’m not surprised he ran as far away from it as he could. It was never my perception of his voice, though, and I doubt that a generation of Irish indie fans would have been as upset as they were at A House’s legendary last Olympia show if a sneer was all we were saying goodbye to. Of course, Couse does caustic. But his non-falsetto voice has huge, cracked character – think of ‘My Heart Bleeds’, ‘The Comedy Is Over’, ‘Thirteen Wonderful Songs’, ‘As The Colours’, or, most obviously, ‘When I First Saw You’. (Jesus, how many times did I play that song, over and over again.)

There are times when his falsetto falters, like ‘Good Friday’, a mostly magnificent duet with Cathal Coughlan where he overstretches it. At moments like that I wish he would trust his normal register. These are songs that would fit neatly on a Nick Cave album (specifically, The Good Son); Couse could use and is entitled to have Cave’s vocal confidence. Falsetto can be a shortcut to excessively signposted emotion, and should be used sparingly, like whiskey in your morning cup of tea.

‘Habitual’ is the closest we come to an old-school Couse stomper. There’s a glistening glockenspiel riff and a curiously self-confident lyric (“One of these fine days I’m gonna be king / I’m gonna change the world I live in… And I still hold on so tightly to the beliefs that I’ve held on to all my life”). It’s a measure of how far from normal Couse service this is that a cocky lyric is worth remarking on, but it’s curious because it’s so out of keeping with the uncertain air of the rest of the songs. That uncertainty – acknowledging and accepting that you don’t know as much as you once thought you did – has the ring of truth when expressed by a man in middle age. This is no longer ‘I Am The Greatest’, half-ironic as even that was.

Even in the following song, the lovely ‘What Will Become of Us’, Couse challenges his earlier belief-system certainty, asking: “Are we living, or trapped in time? / Are we big enough to change our minds?” Not that we want Couse to be consistent – consistency is a characteristic of glue or dough, not songwriters – and any qualms about ‘Habitual’ are erased by the warm, sharp and, well, nostalgic coda, the surprise of which, for A House lovers, I won’t ruin. ‘What Will Become of Us’ is another deftly arranged and touching piece, Couse harmonising with himself and Rike Soeller’s empathetic cello. It is really, really hard to get the tune out of your head.

‘All Tomorrows’ and ‘Time’ end things adroitly. The ten-minute ‘Time’ almost attains the status of an epic, as Couse runs through the ravages of time, almost in the manner of a list song. “Time / Time can break your heart… Time is a brutal thing / Time changes everything … Time will take us / Time will break us”. But like all of Alonewalk it’s not a song that feels sorry for itself. Halfway through the song come two minutes of birdsong, then a solo piano, simple and strong. And that’s it.

If there is a pattern to be discerned from Dave Couse’s varied and storied career, it is that he does his best work when there are no expectations; when he’s completely free. A House recorded I Want Too Much – twenty years ago! – when they knew they were going to be dropped, so they just went for it on the beach in Inishbofin. His least satisfying records have emerged when either a major label or multiple producers or himself have been keeping a commercial eye. Couse recorded this one in his own house, in his own time, with his friends, and it shows. I hope that the praise Alonewalk is getting will not stymie him next time out. And I hope that I won’t jinx Couse by suggesting that he has found a voice that will serve him for years ahead, and he could be at the cusp of a great late career.

But if I’m right in my interpretation of Edward Said, this is unjinxable. The New York Times review of On Late Style put it well: “What artist does not yearn, some day, to possess a “late style”? A late style would reflect a life of learning, the wisdom that comes from experience, the sadness that comes from wisdom and a mastery of craft that has nothing left to prove.” Nothing left to prove? That sounds like our man.

Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge. By Mark Yarm. Book review, State, 2011.

I had a more visceral response to this book and its awakening of memories of 90s alternative rock than I would have expected. Excellent book.

Something weird happened as I was reading this book: I began to kind of loathe grunge.

I wasn’t expecting that. I’m usually impressionable in the opposite direction: well-crafted musical histories leave me unreasonably enthused about their subjects. After Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s uproarious account of New York punk, I listened to nothing but Marquee Moon for a month, and Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise led to numerous hopeful but fruitless forays into mid-twentieth century dissonance.
A week in the company of Everybody Loves Our Town, on the other hand, and I only returned to Nirvana and Pearl Jam out of a sense of duty when writing the review, not out of any desire to hear them again. Apparently, this stuff means nothing to me any more; not even In Utero, or Unplugged in New York.
It’s not the fault of the book. Everybody Loves Our Town is a brilliantly put together, painstaking oral history, a worthy companion to Please Kill Me.
You could even say Everybody Loves Our Town is the definitive account of grunge, but the beauty of a good oral history – the book is comprised of 250 interviews, spliced to form a narrative, without other input from the author beyond a preface – is that you see firsthand that definitive unitary histories don’t exist.
Memories are imperfect and there are agendas everywhere.Often, two versions of the same story sit in adjacent paragraphs. Sometimes the disagreements are over nothing; sometimes they are over something fairly serious, like whether Buzz Osborne of the Melvins was once in the process of injecting Kurt Cobain with a lethal dose of heroin when Courtney Love burst in and saved the day. Courtney: “Buzz (was) about to fucking kill Kurt”; Buzz: “How do you know Courtney Love is lying? Her lips are moving.”
So this is all good knockabout fun: but the heroin and death are relentless in Everybody Loves Our Town. Duff McKagan, known to us through Guns’n’Roses but a Seattle resident in the early eighties, says that all the Seattle musicians he knew were on heroin, and that did not change in subsequent years. The stories of four bands are the cornerstones of the book: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and the Green River / Mother Love Bone / Pearl Jam triumvirate. Of these only Soundgarden were not at some point devastated by heroin.
It becomes oppressive and even depressing; it makes you nostalgic for UK punk, where amphetamine was the Class A of choice. It makes you wish for a Seattle version of Johnny Rotten, speeded up, bouncing around and causing mayhem, when all Seattle seemed to produce was variants on Sid Vicious.
The question that lingered for me on finishing the book was straightforward: was grunge even that big a deal?
To those of us who were around when it happened – those who remember ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ being banned from Thursday nights in McGonagles of South Anne St because it induced riots among the indie disco kids; those who remember exactly where we were when the news came through about Kurt – it seemed important at the time.
Certainly Seattle changed things for a while. Nevermind, closely followed by Ten, brought heavy American guitar music with a very particular post-punk, black-and-white, anti-artifice artistic integrity to a mass audience. The Seattle aesthetic was refreshing, even cleansing, in a world ruled by Bon Jovi. (Let’s forget for a moment that Bon Jovi rule the world again.)
But grunge was fatally limited. When the rules of a genre are so strict that key colours have to omitted from an artistic palette – humour, warmth, foolishness, and pretentiousness are out; unselfconciousness is unconscionable – what does that leave? A stifling seriousness and, often, an irritating, even enraging nihilism, particularly lyrically.
Remember that Pearl Jam’s breakthrough song, ‘Jeremy’ was the true story of a 16-year old who shot himself in front of his classmates. This must have been pretty 4 real at the time; I know that at 17, as I was in 1991, it was all about the bleakness for me. I’m just not sure now how good an artistic choice it was to dramatise that moment over all others. What was their point? Pearl Jam even argued the case for showing the child’s death explicitly in the video, but were prevented by MTV; maybe the only time I’ve agreed with MTV on anything.
You need a good reason to turn teenage death into popular song; as you need a good reason to take metaphorical sexual violence to an audience of tens of millions (‘Rape Me’). Could Cobain really have compared his experience in the recording industry to the experience of rape? Perhaps not; If there is a better, less solipsistic explanation, I’d love to hear it.
And what of the legacy of grunge? Great claims were and are made for it: that it “changed everything”; that it “launched an American movement on a par with punk and hip-hop”.
Hardly. Hip-hop transformed the cultural landscape East and West and its influence has not dimmed in thirty years. Punk foreshadowed hip-hop, indie and much of the mainstream rock that followed. Punk had rules – short songs, no solos, no stars – that were just as strict as those of grunge, but the punk rule book got ripped up. 1980s post-punk was able to exist because punk was an ethic – music is about the ideas that go into it. Simon Reynolds wrote in Rip It Up and Start Again that things only became interesting in the post-punk period when the formal strictures of punk were loosened. Thus, Cabaret Voltaire, Dexys, Scritti Politti, U2, Human League and R.E.M. could emerge, none of whom would have existed otherwise. There was no analogous post-grunge period. It was an end not a beginning. 1991 was the year punk broke in that it was the year that the old ideas of Johnny Rotten and Tom Verlaine found their way into millions of homes via Kurt Cobain; it was a culmination and a cul de sac. It was a good time to be watching MTV, but it had nowhere to go.
Of course, music isn’t all about legacy; it’s about how it makes you feel. I read this book because at one point Nirvana and some of the other bands here meant a lot to me, as they did to millions of other people, particularly during the post-Kurt catharsis.

I doubt now whether these bands warranted the emotional investment they got. The bleakness, the screaming ennui – it all seems real until you remember how much heroin was being used as these songs were being written. You could give Rowlf from The Muppets heroin for four weeks and he would write I Hate Myself And I Want to Die. It was too much. Life is not as bad as this music made it out to be. I think that’s why I moved away from grunge: I felt tricked into thinking this was real life.

Listening to these bands now, there’s no nostalgia for old times being banned from jumping in McGonagles. I hope that if I were 17 again I would look elsewhere; that I’d listen hard to this music, hear the hopelessness, lifelessness and joylessness of it, and think: is that all there is?

Precious Minerals and Other Stuff: Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant, State 2013

One of the great albums of the last ten years, for me, which was a relief, because it was a departure, and when I first heard the title track I was like – OK what’s this? I mention a Roland synth in the piece; it’s on ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’. I fact-checked the choice of instrument with John Grant himself on Twitter. It was quite cool of him to get back to me.

John Grant: Pale Green Ghosts (Bella Union)

With 2010’s Queen of Denmark, John Grant gave himself a hard act to follow. QoD, a lush, poetic folk-rock masterpiece, is a strikingly personal study of human cruelty and frailty, rooted in Grant’s experiences as a young gay man in the Midwest. Having delved so deeply into his life for his source material, where exactly could he go for an encore?

One option – step back and change tack entirely – looked to be how Grant had gone when Pale Green Ghosts‘ title track came out in January. With producer Biggi Veira from GusGus, Grant went electronic not organic and replaced verbose linear memoir with spacious abstraction, using lyrics for texture as much as narrative. ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, which opens the album, is largely instrumental, with Yello-style sequencers throughout and an ultra-subtle Rachmaninoff sample woven into elegant descending strings as the song winds down.

‘Black Belt’ sees Grant hissing “You are Callipygian / But look at the state you’re in” to a lover/adversary/both backed by a sharp, aggressive disco-house track. (I had to look up ‘Callipygian’.) It’s a piece of well-constructed electropop looseness, like ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, which a three-year-old can dance to. Even ‘Ernest Borgnine’, where Grant reveals a diagnosis of HIV, buries the solemnity in the mix, alongside a jazz sax solo and the lyric “I wonder what Ernest Borgnine would do / I got to meet him once and he was really really cool”.

Elsewhere, though, Grant has hardly changed tack at all. ‘I Hate This Town’ and ‘GMF’ retrieve his prior 70s soft rock sound, and there’s a familiar emotional tone to ‘Vietnam’, as Grant theatrically picks apart the personality of an ex-partner: “Your silence is a weapon / It’s like a nuclear bomb / It’s like the Agent Orange they used to use in Vietnam”. Jeez – just how quiet is this guy?

Then, the core of Pale Green Ghosts comes in a three-song mid-album stretch as rawly affecting as anything Grant has done, thick with loneliness and anger; the songs are starker, less mellifluous than their QoD counterparts. ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ features empathetic Sinéad O’Connor vocals and a gorgeous vintage Roland synth outro, leading into the foggy, perplexed, oppressive ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and then to a blast of pure genius, ‘You Don’t Have To’.

‘You Don’t Have To’, which Grant has said he wrote about “a seven year relationship that lasted six years and ten months too long”, is melodically eloquent and packed with funny, lacerating lines: “I feel so stupid ‘cos I let myself down / I acted like a motherfucking clown / At a circus / On the outskirts of town”. Grant opened his 2011 shows with a pared-down piano-led version of this song; the recorded rendering sounds like a Kraftwerk cover, and the chillier arrangement allows some distance between the listener and the emotional wreckage being reported. It’s a distance you might need; the song is tough. It brings back up a question I’ve asked before: Why do we find this kind of thing so riveting? What is so attractive about pain?

Conveniently, Grant has asked the question himself and his considered response brings Pale Green Ghosts to a close. A denouement of some grandeur, ‘Glacier’ is a meditation on pain that could be a letter to Grant’s younger, struggling self. He offers two pieces of advice: first, you don’t have to suffer like I did, and second, if you do, the pain can have a purpose; it can beget beauty.

‘Glacier’ ends with sweeping strings and a thumping classical piano coda – again with the Rachmaninoff; he’s so hot right now – but before it does, John Grant explains, exaltingly, inspiringly, to himself or to someone hurting somewhere: “This pain / It is a glacier moving through you / And carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes / And nourishing the ground / With precious minerals / And other stuff”.

You know, it makes sense when you put it like that.

Niall Crumlish 5/5

“Your Bones Always Know, Right?”: Hilary Woods Feature, State, 2014

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In early 2013, Hilary Woods, who since leaving JJ72 had been busy with other things, returned with a solo album under the nom de plume The River Cry. Few were expecting her return, it’s fair to say, and there were no preconceptions, and to come upon a fully formed set of songs as deft, warm, and indelibly melodic as The River Cry was one of the surprise pleasures of last year.

Now, under her own name, Woods has released Night, a four-track EP that moves elegantly on from The River Cry and includes one of the most straight-up gorgeous songs of 2014, ‘My Daughter, My Gold’. I use the word ‘stunning’ a lot when I like something, but ‘stunning’ is the wrong adjective for Night, because Woods doesn’t feel the need to stun.

The songs on Night are patient, not panicky; they are confident enough to know they deserve your attention. Woods says she was watching The Tree of Life as she recorded Night and, dense as the four songs are with allusive imagery, heading straight as they do for the subconscious, you could certainly make a case for Night as Terence Malick music.

State: The response to The River Cry was great – but were you apprehensive about returning with music of your own, and how did you find the experience of coming back with the album?

Hilary Woods: My need to just record and document my songs – to tip my toe back into the water so to speak albeit on my own! – outweighed any apprehension I might have had. Although I felt the courage required of me to do it but it was exhilarating in a way. I just took the plunge, went for it, and learnt a lot whilst doing so.

What did you learn?

I think what I learnt, or acquired, from putting The River Cry out was a new found assuredness in where I wanted to go musically. It possibly took my releasing The River Cry to focus that lens.

I note your use of the word “need” -“my need just to record and document the songs”.

I think it became a need, yeah. I thought about it a lot and I knew music was something I wanted to return to wholeheartedly. The voice inside my head saying to record and release a record just grew louder with time.

And before returning you were painting? Is that right?

Yes. I left JJ72 and went into painting. It was my go-to. I got a lot out of that, and it’s fascinating what shows up on the canvas. In many ways painting was a source of respite for me. I liked the blank canvas – that sense of possibility. I also liked the manual labour involved in priming canvases, makin’ em, getting my hands dirty.

And you were busy being a mum.

I had my daughter early on, yeah; it was a juggle pursuing stuff that I wanted to do and negotiating motherhood simultaneously. It made me more precious with my time and choosy as to how to spend it!

‘My Daughter, My Gold’ was the song that grabbed me as I played Night for the first time. I have a small daughter, and I heard the line “I’ll need your hand when I’m asked”, and I’m quite concrete, and I thought “Hey, a song about holding your daughter’s hand”. But elsewhere there are darker images – “These trees are phantoms of his evergreen eyes”, and references to a forest burning, I think – and it sounds unsettling.

Well, lyrics are incredibly important to me. I love words and word play, and finding the right lyric is immensely satisfying. I guess the song ‘My Daughter, My Gold’ itself acknowledges some part of our journey together and the gesture of holding your child’s hand is so beautiful and arresting; it seemed a fitting image to convey the sentiment I wanted to evoke. Albeit in this instance it was her taking hold of my hand!

I think the verse you’re referring to is “But forest paths lead to unforeseen / Places and ways of being / And things they grow in the womb of the night / Toward light toward seeing“. So it’s “grow” rather than “burn!”

I guess the image of things growing in the dark was key to this song. And trusting that things may be manifesting somewhere even though they might not yet be visible!

There’s something very touching about songs written from the perspective of a parent. And there are so few of them.

When I write I just follow the threads that come out. I don’t go into it knowing which perspective I’m gonna take. but come to think of it, I agree – there’s not a whole lotta songs from that perspective!

As you tell it, ‘My Daughter’ sounds like a song about finding your way as a mum; as a family. Like what we all do – not having a clue but kind of knowing, somehow, it’ll work out. As you sing: “It’ll be alright / My bones tell me so”.

Yes, I guess it is where a lot of the sentiment in the song comes from. Going along, getting through the day not really knowing where you’re at; paving your way through the familiar and not so familiar.

I love that image: “It’ll be alright / My bones tell me so”.

I liked “My bones tell me so” too. Your bones always know, right?