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

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?

Secret Languages: Hilary Woods Feature, State, 2016

I really liked Hilary Woods’ 2013 debut album The River Cry, which seems to have been lost to history. And her work since then has been reliably interesting and moving – as in emotionally moving and always moving forward. She is restless. For this piece I met her in 2016 as she was releasing Heartbox, an EP that looks to have done the groundwork for her album Colt from this year. I didn’t much like my contribution to this interview – I thought I was waffly as hell. But I liked how she described her process, the challenge of communicating, and the instinct that guides her. And I was glad we spoke about the value of music at a time that undervalues music so much.

In Heartbox, her new EP, Hilary Woods has moved on substantially from 2014’s Night EP and her 2013 album released under the nom de guerre The River Cry. They were acoustic affairs, coloured in by pianos and pastoral guitars; ‘Bathing’ and ‘Heartbox’, from the current EP, are all electronic atmospherics, played on Korgs and Moog Little Phattys and Oberheim Xpanders.

‘Sabbath’ is the third track on the Heartbox EP, and it is a reworking of ‘Secret Sabbath’, a gorgeous song first encountered on Night that recalls a relationship withwith some regret —Treasuring you now you’re gone”. Hearing the fuller, more textured version of the song released as ‘Sabbath’, it struck me that the choice to revisit that song epitomised the sonic move Hilary has made, and that is where we began.

State: Hilary, can you talk about the decision you made to revisit ‘Sabbath’?

Hilary Woods: When I recorded Secret Sabbath for Night, it was a song I played on my own in the bedroom. And then it was a song that almost evolved in the rehearsal room after I had toured it. Playing it with friends in the rehearsal room, I just really wanted to go back and revisit it as a bigger piece. In the rehearsal room, it’d go on and on and on – we’d build it.

Listening to The River Cry, Night, and now Heartbox, you can hear what sounds like an evolution.

I’m interested in more of an electronic sound world and less that idea of I have to go back to the acoustic guitar. I like the idea of throwing everything at the canvas and stripping it back. That’s what happened on this EP more. I think it’s a really good stepping stone into the synth world. I think it’s important for me to explore those sounds before I crack into an album.

Is that what an EP is? A chance to try something?

I don’t know what it is for anyone else. Certainly for Night it wasn’t really that. With this one it was very much – well let’s explore here. And not be afraid of putting out something that’s exploratory.

I tend to give my time now mostly to music that… this is going to sound really obvious, but music that moves me. As an artist, is that your goal? What’s the purpose of making music for you?

Definitely to move. And also the things that move you are the things that you write about. Or energy that you have, or something quite live. So to translate a live feeling is really important.

When you say a “live” feeling – you mean a feeling that’s powerful for you.

Yeah. But there’s different ways of doing that. So a song like ‘Sabbath’ is probably more provocative emotionally than a song like ‘Bathing’. They’re doing different things.


To have some idea of what it is you want to do emotionally, and to be able to use your chords, and arrangement, and whatever you’re using, and to evoke that emotion in another person – increasingly, this seems to me like a fucking miracle.

(Laughs) I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s what I always seek in music, that experience, and that’s what I seek as a music maker. But it is quite amazing because you always know, no matter how much you write, you always know the ones that actually work.

How do you know?

I think you can just feel it. And it’s quite immediate. It’s almost like – to be in a creative space where you can catch something as you’re feeling it. To write as you’re feeling something as opposed to writing retrospectively. And that just can be difficult in an everyday way. As in – you could be busy, collecting your kid from school, or in the shops, or meeting someone, and you feel that you should be at home responding to something. It doesn’t always work logistically (laughs).

Whenever I think about this I think how undervalued this role of the musician is. People walk around all day listening to music, and treat it so disposably, and you’re like – “No no – just think about it for a second! Think about what’s happening here!”

Actually that’s what drew me – the very thing you’re talking about is what drew me to make stuff. As a kid, I used to feel that it was very difficult to express myself. So I’d go and paint, or dance, or something. And I was in fine art college, and I left, I dropped out. I’d been painting and every Friday they’d say “Stand up there now and tell us about your painting”. And I’d feel like a saleswoman and I just couldn’t do it. If I could talk about it, I would, but I’m here to just – say it in another way.

But I think that’s fascinating. I think a lot of people are drawn to the piano, certainly I was, to make up my own little thing, cos I like putting things together. It feels quite physical, creating this way. These sounds, these chords, you know. It’s a way of speaking – secret languages.

If you talk to any six-year-old, it’s totally normal. They can explain their feelings like “I feel like a prickly porcupine”, and you understand. So it’s getting back to some sense of, that everything isn’t logic as we know it. You can enter into feelings or communication in a central way.

Is there any music that you’re experiencing on that kind of level?

It kind of ebbs and flows. I’m crazy about the new Anohni record. It’s pretty full on! It’s amazing but it requires your full attention.

I reviewed it and listened to it a lot for a week, and I haven’t gone back to it, actually.

You’re still recovering [laughs]. She’s really great. Actually she reminded me of why I want to, why I have to, make art. Because she does move me a lot.

But it doesn’t always have to be at that level of intensity.

No, not at all. I was listening to Tame Impala this morning, and so them, or Caribou, or Michael Jackson – it’s a very different energy. Sometimes you write from a place and you wish you were doing a jingle, you know, or a dance track, but somehow, whatever way writing is for you or for me, it doesn’t come from that place, and it can’t be forced to.

Neil Hannon once told me he could never write a totally serious, straight album: “I just don’t think it’s me,” he said. It’s hard to write from a personality that’s not your own.

Or from a place that’s not your own at that time. I think a lot of writing comes from – it can come from that missing piece of the jigsaw. Like Si Schroeder’s album, a coping mechanism, or a secret language somewhere that you can confide in, or an emotional well.

So when you start writing from that place it’s difficult to change where it’s from. Then, when you get into the studio, you can be playful around the sound world and stuff. Although the lyrics might be quite intense and come from a different zone, I think in the playful zone a lot can happen; a lot of productivity. It’s less self-conscious. But I find it difficult to change where it comes from.

Heartbox was different to Night in that way, in that Bathing and Heartbox, the track itself, were definitely tracks that explored, or stretched a few muscles.

How so?

Well ‘Bathing’ I always approached as exporing a sound world. Yeah, it is emotive, but ‘Sabbath’ is more lyric-driven. I used to always write songs that were very lyric-driven, I still do, but …

I find as I get older I’m much less inclined to be interested in the narrative ‘meaning’ of a song. I listen to the words less because I’m bringing my own stuff to it.

Oh, absolutely. I mean – I’m listening to Valerie and her Week of Wonders – do you know that soundtrack? It’s from a film made in the Czech Republic in 1970. It’s a medieval feel. There’s very few lyrics in it. And I love it because it opens up so many landscapes and worlds and I’m reading loads of things into it – or not even reading but I’m feeling my own way along.

I really appreciate that in music now, when you are given that space to participate in the process.

Yeah, any track or song that allows that – that can feel really intimate. Because you’re there, and there is room for the audience. Experimental cinema does a lot of that. It’s a different way of telling you the story. It allows the audience to sort of fill in the blanks and join the dots and there’s something very beautiful about that and something surreal; dreamy. I really like that idea in bringing it to my own songwriting. I still feel like a beginner. Well – maybe not a beginner, but I certainly feel like I have a lot to learn and lots of scope to do different things as I go on.

You mentioned an album. Have you any sense of it yet?

I have a lot of seedlings. Get the watering can out! I’d like to be clear on the texture and tone. I don’t think an album is just a collection of songs. I think of it all together. That’s important to me. When all that becomes clear, it’ll be ready.

John Grant Live in Dublin and Paris, May 2011 in State

John Grant (Button Factory, Dublin; Café de la Danse, Paris).

p1030722A reporter once remarked to Bob Dylan that she had enjoyed Blood on the Tracks, the 1975 album constructed from the wreckage of the end of his marriage. Bob, irritatingly unwilling to accept a compliment, replied “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that, I mean, people enjoying that kind of pain.” It’s a remark that raises an unsettling question: when we play and re-play songs about personal suffering, why do we do it? Is there something wrong with us?

Well – no. What Dylan didn’t get was this: when we put on Blood on the Tracks or Pink Moon, when we mull over a Rothko or go to see John Grant in Paris or the Button Factory, we’re not being masochistic, or sadistic, or voyeuristic. It’s not the pain we are enjoying. What’s to enjoy? Pain is just pain. There’s nothing beautiful or funny or redemptive about it. What we’re enjoying is what was done with the pain: how it was neutralised and reversed and turned into magnificent art.

We love to see suffering transformed into transcendence. Sorry about that, Bob.

John Grant knows about pain, and is not afraid to share. Last year’s utterly autobiographical Queen of Denmark uses Grant’s experience of growing up gay in God-fearing rural Michigan as its source material. The harm such a toxic environment does reveals itself in songs that look back on his upbringing (“I’ve felt uncomfortable since the day that I was born” – ‘JC Hates Faggots’) and in songs about his adult life. ‘Where Dreams Go to Die’ details what happens when a person reared to consider himself of no value tries to be loved (“I’m willing to do anything to get attention from you, dear / Even though I don’t have anything that I could bargain with”.

But when I’ve played, and re-played, Queen of Denmark, and when I’ve seen Grant twice in the last month, I’ve never felt like I was wallowing or rubbernecking. Queen of Denmark is emotionally complicated and challenging, but it’s almost all written from the perspective of a man who has emerged, unbeaten. ‘JC Hates Faggots’ looks back, angrily, witheringly, and from a position of strength, and it has a fine, furious synthesiser solo. Turning fear into art is an act of defiance.

‘Caramel’, then, is the most intimate and languoruous of assertions of love, as Grant sings in a tender falsetto that “My love he reveals himself with tenderness and grace / My love has constructed with his arms for me the safest place”. You would barely bat an eyelid but for the angst about his sexuality on all sides, and what you feel hearing ‘Caramel’ are two things. You feel glad that such a song even exists, describing note-perfectly what love feels like, and you feel glad for Grant that he can now, older and sober, put his name and voice to such unvarnished and unafraid emotions, and that he can do so in large rooms full of people he doesn’t know. Most people would be shy about writing the lyrics of ‘Caramel’ on a Valentine’s card. In Paris and in Temple Bar, rapture greeted the closing bars of this consummate 21st century ode to joy.

There was something unmistakably triumphant about both of these shows. Grant sang brilliantly, with total commitment, closing his eyes, tapping his foot, rocking back and forth, steam (literally) coming off him. He told stories about the songs, but less so in Dublin, because it was later in the tour and I’m guessing he considers it cheating to repeat a story. In Dublin, he waited for a mystery guest to show up to join him for ‘Queen of Denmark’, but the guest didn’t show, which was a relief. If JC himself had been on the other mic He could only have taken away from the song.

So: great stuff. But I’m left wondering is how much of my approval of John Grant live is for the perfect singing, writing and playing – the show itself – and how much is for the reception that Grant received on both nights, the way he visibly felt at home and happy. How much of my approval is really for the transformative, healing power of art?

It’s not not a new notion that music is a way to endure and escape hard times, that it’s a source of strength when you don’t feel so strong yourself and that it can validate you when you’re trying to be yourself and it doesn’t seem good enough. We’ve all felt this, but it’s not often that I’ve seen it just as clearly as at these two shows, when a big bear of a man with a fucked-up past, addiction issues and microscopic self-esteem played amazing shows and was adulated by audiences who are with him all the way in a difficult journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

I’m guessing this is what every show of a tour is like for him, and I hope John Grant takes all this goodwill and internalises it and finds some peace. I hope that doesn’t mean we lose his songs in the future, but there are more important things, and he’s done enough. We’ll always have Queen of Denmark, and we’ll always have Paris.

The Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir review, State, 2018.

This was my final piece for State on a huge project by an artist I’ve loved then admired for well over twenty years. I found this hard to write. There was a bit too much to say.

Image result for 50 song memoir

Not content with one magnum opus, Stephin Merritt now submits a second: 50 songs for his 50 years. He would, wouldn’t he? He has a weakness for the grandiose, and he thrives on a theme.

That said, memoir wasn’t exactly his most obvious next move. Merritt has always declared his lyrics to be fiction, even when they sounded like autobiography. I remember hearing “Time provides the rope / But love will tie the slipknot / And I will be the chair you kick away”, from 1996’s Get Lost, and worrying, though Merritt said not to.

Since 69 Love Songs, the distance between writer and songs has been increasingly clear. Merritt wears his inauthenticity on his sleeve, and is careful even in a terse note in Memoir to include a disavowal of self-disclosure: “It’s mostly love and music, so don’t dig for much of a storyline”.

But dig you must, and you do come away with some understanding of the author.

The songs are arranged chronologically and the first decade and a half stands up as an album in itself. Merritt spent his childhood with his mother, a peripatetic Buddhist who reared him on her own in commune after commune.

Merritt struggled. In ’Eye Contact’ and ‘Weird Diseases’ he alludes to social difficulties and early life autism (“Maybe Asperger’s / If that exists”). ‘Weird Diseases’ recounts childhood seizures provoked by strong emotions that he had to avoid: “From the time I was a young boy / I could feel neither anger nor joy”. It’s a poignant picture; poor kid.

Memoir’s first half is largely the evolution of an artist, and ‘The Blizzard of ‘78’ remembers his first band: “We called ourselves the Black Widows / We weren’t the last or the first / But we were almost certainly by far the worst”.

‘I Think I’ll Make Another World’, the song for 1971, when Merritt was six, recounts his artistic origin story, and is magical. An unmoored and alone young Merritt seized on writing as his route to improving on reality: “I can see another world, and I can make it with my hands / Who cares if no-one understands? I can see it now.”

Coming into Memoir, I was curious about the period when the Magnetic Fields were starting out. Memoir suggests this was, as one infers from Get Lost, not all fun and games.

The Nineties saw friends begin to die, of HIV (‘Dreaming in Tetris’) and by suicide, an option he appears to have considered himself (‘Eurodisco Trio’). Merritt the musician was conflicted: he wanted to create, but he wanted, with the same intensity, to disappear (‘The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo’).

As the decades move on, the intensity lessens. The liner notes don’t apologise: “If things get mellower as 50 looms, that’s life”, writes Merritt, and, you know, you’d hope so. It is a perncious lie that it is better to burn out than to fade away. (Kurt Cobain’s fifty song memoir would also be due right now.)

There are great moments. ‘Be True To Your Bar’ is a serious, sardonic paean to alcohol-fuelled friendship. ‘Danceteria!’ is ebullient (“We don’t always go to school but we always go to DANCETERIA!!”. ‘Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers’ echoes ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’ and ‘In The Snow White Cottages’ delicately tips the hat to “my poor dear Elliott Smith”).

There are shaggy dog stories (‘How I Failed Ethics’) and engaging trifles (‘No’, ‘Ethan Frome’). There is one song, ‘Surfin’, which I found initially off-putting, but which on further interrogation appears to be an attempt to discourage people in California from hitting the beach, so that Merritt can have the waves to himself. I couldn’t swear to this but there’s a broader point, I think: you can trust some songwriters that they have buried stuff in the songs that will emerge in its own time.

The Magnetic Fields albums from the Nineties are truly magnificent, and they have been anchors for me over the years. When everything is as much of a mystery as it was to me in my early twenties, you latch onto anyone who’s striving to figure it out; in The Wayward Bus, Charm of the Highway Strip, and Get Lost, that’s what Merritt did.

He sang about loneliness, doubt, chaos, and confusion. He took you with him, to where there was always redemption in irrepressible melody. The Magnetic Fields are a feat of solace and salvation, for Merritt no less than anyone else. In the Nineties he sounded like he was fighting for his life, and I think he was.

With 50 Song Memoir, he looks like he’s arrived out the other end. It’s not the end, but it’s a happy ending.

“Funny tragic. It’s my own genre!” Neil Hannon interview, State, March 2011

The Divine Comedy’s Promenade was released when I was 19.9 years old and was a constant companion through my early twenties. It was an early move away from earnest rock and folk-rock, an early realisation that music could be fun and light and daft still have some weight and still mean something. I interviewed Neil Hannon in 1996 at the time of the release of Casanova, and I could barely speak to him because I considered him a God walking among men. I met him again fifteen years later and we had a good chat, mortal to mortal. He was preparing a show at which he and some friends would play all of Vampire Weekend’s first album. He mentioned he had thought about playing Hounds of Love instead. Neil Hannon’s take on ‘And Dream of Sheep’ is one I still one day hope to hear.

Released just three years ago, Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut album quickly became a modern classic. On April 1st, Ezra Koenig’s precocious magnum opus is due for a distinct and idiosyncratic tribute when Neil Hannon and his specially assembled supergroup, the JD Set, play the album in its entirety in the Button Factory.

The show, featuring Cathy Davey, Jape and Romeo of the Magic Numbers alongside Hannon, is one of four upcoming shows across the UK and Ireland promoting a certain brand of bourbon; the clue is in the initials. State met Neil Hannon during the writing and rehearsal stage of the JD Set project to discuss the brilliance and obtuseness of Vampire Weekend, the worst ever Divine Comedy song and the likelihood of Hannon ever becoming a solemn serious artiste. (Don’t hold your breath.)

State: The JD Set show is a collaboration between yourself, Cathy Davey, Jape and Romeo Stodart. Is it you who is the big Vampire Weekend fan, or one of the others?

NH: I’m the curator, if you want to put it like that. And they have been talking to me since last October, trying to get me to settle on an album. Very hard when you’re given that freedom – you know, your favourite, any album. Everybody has about twenty favourite albums. And some of them are frankly unplayable (laughs).

Like, I thought about Hounds of Love, Kate Bush, which is one of the most awesome albums ever made, and the second half of it is just unplayable. So I plumped for Vampire Weekend, an album that I absolutely adore, and I can just knock it out. It’ll be just fun.

But it is one of your favourite albums?

Sincerely. Yeah. I mean, obviously people loved it in a fan-type way, and a bouncing-around type way, but the writing is brilliant, you know. There are very clever arrangements in there. The lyrics are fascinating in a sort of obtuse way. They put ideas in your head without necessarily telling you what it all means. ‘Coronation rickshaw grab’ – I’ll just sort of say that, and it’s like – what? (laughs) But I like the words! Also a real sense of brevity being the soul of wit, that they don’t outstay their welcome.

I love the sharpness, in general, of it.

It’s not flabby. It was obviously the son of the Strokes and that kind of sharp, snappy thing, but I just think it had an awful lot more soul – in the sense of people having soul rather than people singing soul music – than the Strokes.

That’s funny, because when it came out there was a lot of focus on the fact that they were singing about their relatively privileged lives on campus. It wasn’t what you normally associate with ‘soul’, i.e. suffering. They went to – where, Harvard?

I don’t know. I didn’t want to research terribly deeply. It sounds all sort of lovely and Ivy League and it’s very definitely Cape Cod-oriented. But I like things with a sense of place. And a sense that they were born out of a certain kind of life. You almost never get that these days! Where you can pinpoint a vibe, an area, or even what these guys did for a living, or not. You know? So I found that reassuring. And I think it revels it its own slight naïveté. They’re aware of it and they get away with it.

Have you a favourite track on the album?

I was trying to think about this earlier. And I couldn’t, and can’t, pinpoint one. This has a large bearing on why I chose this album over a lot of other ones, like, you know, Closer by Joy Division. There’s certain tracks on that I hate! Quite a lot of my very favourite albums I listen to and think, well is this dodgy, this track. The Vampire Weekend record is one of the few albums that I felt was really strong all the way through.

The whole way? Even ‘Blake’s Got a New Face’?

There are some lovely things on that track! I admit that the (yelps) ‘BLAKE!’ can be slightly irritating. But it is one of very few irritating moments.

I haven’t been able to get fully past that song, but I like the idea that on an album that’s otherwise obviously stupendous, you sometimes have a dubious track that needs the listener to put in a bit more work – or may not work at all.

I’ve certainly had some of those (laughs). I remember when fans of mine, and I use fans in its loosest possible sense, because they ran a competition: “What’s your least favourite Divine Comedy track”! (laughs). About five years ago.

What won?

Have a guess.

Was it ‘Europe by Train’?

Nope. (Pregnant pause). What’s wrong with that? (laughs). No, it was ‘Here Comes the Flood’ off Fin de Siècle. So I think the defining feature is it’s always the one where I push the idea to its extreme. And maybe it sort of goes over the top or… up my own anus.

You have to go to extremes sometimes though, right?

I think so. And you’re pushing everything, but sometimes you just go a little overboard. So it’s important to be allowed to do that.

In terms of your work, I think of ‘Wreck of the Beautiful’ (from Absent Friends) as the classic example of the song that needs to given a few goes. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, I think so. Yeah; I remember listening to that recently and sort of thinking – did I make this piece of music? (laughs) It’s not whether it’s good, or bad, it’s just… slightly odd. But I was writing about a slightly discomfiting thing, a friend who’s kind of a shell of their former self. You know? And I think it worked in that sense.

I want to ask something related to that, a question about style, or tone – a direction I thought you might have taken a few years ago but you don’t appear to have. Going back to Absent Friends, I was really into that album and particularly side two…

I like the way you talk about sides; I do too. I think of my albums in sides and I never can get out of that – go on!

I do think of them in sides though now that I think of it I’m not sure where side two of Absent Friends starts –

(Definitively)‘Our Mutual Friend’ is the start of side two.

Good. That’s what I thought. Because from ‘Our Mutual Friend’ on, the tone of Absent Friends has always struck me as different to your other albums before or since because it’s unapologetically serious; you know what I mean?


There isn’t any attempt to leaven it, particularly. Of course, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is in some ways funny but it’s also tragic –

Yeah. Funny tragic. It’s my own genre!

Well that’s sort of my question. I remember seeing you play the Gaiety just after that album came out and going away from the gig on the one hand thinking ‘That was great’ but, on the other, feeling like an opportunity was being missed: What might it be like if Neil Hannon moved on and played it straight and serious with just no taking the piss…

Never gonna happen (laughs).

Right. Good. Well that’s clear.

I know what you mean. I piss myself off with not being able to take anything seriously. But… I just don’t think it’s me. I like serious stuff and I am very serious about what I do, but that includes the funny bit. I’ve always thought that entirely serious works of art seem to somehow be unrealistic because I don’t believe that anybody is entirely serious in life and therefore if you’re trying to give a fully rounded picture of life, which I am always trying to do, even if that sounds absurd, then to not have any humour in it, I mean – just doesn’t happen. Most conversations I have are basically flippant.

Yeah. But then every piece of art can’t represent every aspect of life and there are some great albums like Big Star’s Third or Bowie’s Low that are not a barrel of laughs, really brilliant and kind of balls-out in the sense that they’re saying ‘You know what, this isn’t a lot of fun, but here it is anyway’.

Yeah. I think I’d need to be a different person. And I actually write best when I’m happy. A lot of people feed off their own personal despair but I’m generally quite happy and I think my best albums have been made when I have been at my happiest. But that is open to debate twenty years into the future when I am prepared to say when I was happy (laughs).

It’s funny that you say that. In my very younger days all my favourite bands were American Music Club, Smog and so on, partly because they were great but more specifically because to me their songs were deflated and sad – and I held firmly the idea that to be worthy of your time a songwriter must deal in depression and hopelessness, which now strikes me as bizarre. The idea that a writer could even do anything productive while genuinely depressed just doesn’t make any sense.

I know – you’re completely… you can’t do anything. I agree. I really do. And I love American Music Club. I was obsessed by them when I was about 18. Yeah. But it’s funny, it’s the same thing with a lot of so-called depressing bands, I never got a huge sense of doom off them. I just really enjoyed the imagery and the observation. “With my blue and grey shirt on / Yeah, that’s my favourite one”. You know, I’d never heard anyone say that before and I thought “Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s so throwaway and yet it says an awful lot. Everybody’s got their favourite shirt! And it just really puts you there. And that’s what I always look for.

The Gloaming (Vicar St, Dublin) — Review in State, May 2012.

There won’t be much in the way of arguments over this gig. There won’t be any bad reviews. The Gloaming – Thomas Bartlett, Dennis Cahill, Martin Hayes, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and Iarla Ó Lionáird – are five stunningly gifted and diverse musicians and together they are more than the sum of their parts. They are currently playing a music that is so vibrant, emotional and elemental that to fail to be electrified by it would be, I think, to be missing something about what music is.

As they blazed to the end of a twenty-minute opening salvo of tunes, building intelligently from a the rich, meditative sean-nós of ‘An Chuil Daigh Ré’ to the swift, savage, dazzling climax of ‘Tom Doherty’s Reel’, it was all we could do not to howl with joy; some did. Michael D was there, and I’m pretty sure I heard him howling too.

The Gloaming are still a new outfit, with barely a recording to their name, but already they are acting as a Rosetta stone for people like me who know little or nothing about Irish traditional music, but feel that ignorance ever more acutely, and want a way in.

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is probably the key member of the band for these people; over the last five years he has shown a willingness, even a need, to experiment with form and an ability to speak a language understood by those who have kept themselves at arm’s length from traditional music. He toured with Norman Blake and Euros Childs; he worked with Amiina; that kind of thing. So when he goes back to more classic forms, as he does here and with Martin Hayes in Triúr, we trust him and follow him, because he’s one of us.

In fact, I wrote something in State in 2009, now a bit embarrassing, to the effect that Caoimhín made a refreshing change from regular traditional musicians because his extraordinary 2007 album Where the One-Eyed Man is King did not stick “to the forms handed down like commandments over generations”, as if I even knew what those were. Don’t ask me to tell between a reel and a jig.* I even called Caoimhín “the most singular traditional musician of his generation”, which might imply that I had a list of singular traditional musicians, from which I had carefully chosen him. It wasn’t quite like that.

Still, I was in Vicar St almost solely because of Caoimhín, so he is important if only because he has introduced the odd eejit newbie to The Gloaming’s music, and by extension to the untold wealth of traditional music that’s out there, beckoning.

Martin Hayes, a self-described “adamant traditionalist”, seemed to understand that at least some of the audience was in the newbie camp. He introduced the sparkling reel ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’ with a brief tutorial on the composition of traditional airs (“not too simple, not too complex”), then began by playing the tune slowly, pointing out its working parts, before the band clicked into gear and, in Hayes’s own words, tore away at it. (More howling.)

Hayes, a legend in traditional music for decades, emerged for me as the de facto leader of the band. He is already established as a brilliant thinker and communicator – his piece in the Journal of Music on 21st century traditional music ( is vivid and enlightening. Leadership duties here went as far as improvised storytelling to hold the show together during the encore, as Iarla Ó Lionáird went missing backstage in search of lyrics for a song by Peadar Ó Riada from Cúil Aodha (“Has he gone to Cúil Aodha to get them?”)

And it was ultimately striking how little of the pleasure of this show derived from any attempts at experimentation, or reworking, or what one might think of, misguidedly, as some kind of necessary modernisation of this music. The pleasure derived from the sheer beauty of the tunes and the awesome skill with which they were played; from Martin Hayes’s evident bouncing glee, and the stillness that overtook Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh during ‘The Old Bush’ as he appeared to play without touching his violin, producing notes so delicate and fluid they sounded to have come straight out of the air; from Thomas Bartlett and Dennis Cahill’s mostly unshowy, subtle accompaniments; and from Iarla Ó Lionáird’s textured, aching singing of ‘Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’, or ‘Samhradh’, or of the phrase “Ochón, trua”, from “No. 44”, a song of longing for love that might be twenty generations old.

It is an intoxicating thing to find that an entire culture from your own backyard that you have essentially ignored all your life is just sitting there waiting to be feasted on. The music Caoimhín and The Gloaming have re-introduced me to is a music I cannot wait to explore; an ancient music that does not age. Martin Hayes spoke about the music growing and evolving and changing, but never fading, as you live with it, and he has been steeped in this stuff for half a century: “After all this time, it’s better it gets.” Now that’s a thought.
*A reel is a dance tune played in double time (2/2 or 4/4) and a jig is played in triple time (3/2, 3/4, or 3/8)

The Beatles Remastered and Reappraised: State Feature September 2009.

EMI re-released the Beatles catalogue in 2009 in remastered form. Did the re-masters improve the audio quality? No idea. I listened to the albums on a low-end car stereo on a four-hour daily commute from Drimnagh to Monaghan and back again. But it was an opportunity to have a bit of a ramble in State. And the manner of listening on mostly empty early morning roads was conducive to close attention. There was one morning in particular I was driving over the bridge at Slane in autumn light when I realised the utter blissful perfection of ‘When I’m 64’. I won’t hear a word against it.


The Beatles

Please Please Me / With the Beatles / A Hard Day’s Night / Beatles for Sale / Help! / Rubber Soul / Revolver / Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / Yellow Submarine / The Beatles (White Album) / Abbey Road / Let It Be / Magical Mystery Tour / Past Masters (EMI)

I can guarantee you one thing, we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis Lester Bangs

Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust — The Clash, ‘London Calling’

Anyone who has any love for any tiny fraction of the millions of hours of pop music that has come out since 1970 has to have a tricky relationship with The Beatles. The Clash’s staggeringly incorrect assessment was an early expression of this; another was the Sex Pistols’ sacking of Glen Matlock. His offence? He was quite fond of the Fabs.

It could not have been that Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten saw nothing at all in the Beatles. That’s really, really hard to do. Almost every violent reaction against The Beatles is a reaction to the cultural shadow they cast rather than to the music itself. It can also be a reaction to infuriating fans. In July 2009’s BBC Music magazine, an acclaimed classical pianist called Murray Perahia was asked his opinion of pop music. Perahia smirked: “The last people to do anything interesting were the Beatles”. No Bowie; no Kraftwerk; no Off the Wall; no Murmur; no nothing. No clue. Amazing.

Yes, The Beatles were a “great little band”. Half the time, they were astonishingly brilliant. Just as it’s hard to imagine how the likes of Perahia, passionately devoted to music, could so casually and incuriously dismiss forty years of abundant, febrile creativity, so it’s hard to imagine that any pop lover could actively dislike the Beatles’ songs in and of themselves. Lester Bangs’ great line was misdirected. In 2009, we agree much more readily on John, Paul, George and Ringo.

But there is nothing more tedious than continually to be told by people whose pop musical knowledge begins at Penny Lane and ends at Abbey Road that the greatest music ever made happened during a closely defined period between 1965 and 1969, and that’s all there is to it. You may debate which Beatles album is the greatest album ever made; you might throw in Pet Sounds or What’s Goin’ On as a wild card; but that’s about it. And so millions of people of my generation and the next are within their rights to reject The Beatles. Because if a culture’s high watermark happened before you were born, then you have to reject that culture, or live encased in nostalgia for a time you never knew.

Rejecting the Beatles, of course, is not easy. It’s like rejecting Santa, or God. Six-year-olds know who The Beatles are; they know even before they know that they know. My nephew Conor knows ‘Yellow Submarine’, and knows it’s by The Beatles. He taught it to his sister Emma. They sing it at school. They don’t sing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. The argument has been made that ‘Yellow Submarine’ is the most important Beatles song, for this reason. Generations of kids have internalised the Beatles at the same time that they learn their first language; these songs become a lingua franca of their own. They are the template, the songs by which all others are judged. Deciding not to like the Beatles after this indoctrination takes an enormous effort of will. It’s like disowning the warm glow of childhood memory..

It’s questionable, then, whether you can even judge The Beatles away from all the baggage. How much of what you feel, when you hear them, is the song? How much is the multiplicity of associations your mind makes with each one? How much is the story of the band, and our awareness, that they could not have had, of how it all worked out? How would ‘Across The Universe’ now sound (‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’) if the Dakota had not happened?

You never know. For now you can only attempt opinions.

To start with, Lennon/McCartney didn’t really begin to hit their stride until Beatles for Sale. The albums before this work, at this stage, as historical documents. They are of their time. ‘All My Loving’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ work when you see them on the Ed Sullivan Show on Anthology or the Maysles Brothers’ documentary. These songs are perfectly structured, the model for rock’n’roll writing ever since, but there’s not that much going on underneath, and you’d want to be pretty stuck for something to do to put on With The Beatles for pleasure.

On Beatles for Sale, things moved on and Lennon moved ahead. He was learning to turn emotions other than twee optimism into number one hits, with ‘I’m A Loser’ and ‘No Reply’: “I tried to telephone / You said you were not home / That’s a lie”. Lennon held the lead through Help! and Rubber Soul. Paul’s best work on these albums was ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘I’m looking Through You’ – fantastic tunes, but a touch generic; John, though, hit a rich seam.

It may have been what Gift Grub’s George Martin calls the jazz cigarettes, or the confidence of emerging from Paul’s shadow, or Dylan’s influence, but his songs here – ‘Help!’, ‘In My Life’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, “Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” – are perfect, enthralling, diverse pieces of work. John was 24 when he recorded ‘In My Life’, and like Lester Bangs said of Astral Weeks, there are lifetimes there.

With Revolver, the drugs really kicked in, and perhaps not coincidentally Paul began to draw level. For the next few albums, what John got from hallucinogenics was a mixed blessing. Along with a willingness to tweak song structure that sometimes worked incredibly well (‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘A Day in the Life’), and sometimes very poorly (‘Revolution 9’) he also developed an unfortunate fondness for drug references as the point of the song (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) and for unapologetic doggerel. ‘I Am The Walrus’ is just not that great. John’s peak as a Beatle comes just around the first half of side two of Revolver, with ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and ‘She Said She Said’; and sticking the latter’s coruscating riff and first couplet (“She said I know what it’s like to be dead”) immediately after ‘Yellow Submarine’, to frighten the kiddies, was a genius move.

What Paul got in the late period that you don’t find before is empathy. Early on, he tries too hard on ‘Eleanor Rigby’. The strings are too knowingly dignified, the line ‘Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’ is too pleased with itself, and the chorus… well, yes, there are lonely people out there, but getting a pat on the head from Beatle Paul won’t help. By Sgt. Pepper‘s ‘When I’m 64’, his work is getting incredibly affecting, without letting on that it is. This is a love song that could only be written by a stoical northern Englishman – you won’t get melodrama – but it’s every bit the vulnerable declaration of eternal love that ‘God Only Knows’ is. “I could be handy mending a fuse…” The arrangement is pristine. ‘When I’m 64’ is unimprovable; it’s the soul of Sgt. Pepper.

The last couple of albums are the hardest to disentangle from the story of the band. Abbey Road’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ isn’t just a song, it’s famously the last song they did in the studio together. Harrison’s ‘I Me Mine’, off Let It Be, is the last song recorded by any Beatle as a Beatle. (I do tend to skip over George, because of an initial aversive experience with ‘Within You Without You’, probably the most skipped over song in my record collection. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ is lovely, not that it needs me to say that, but I’ve somehow never warmed to ‘Something’.)

Let It Be is a shambles. (Let It Be… Naked isn’t included in the current set of releases.) how they ever returned to a studio after the awful muck of ‘Dig A Pony’ and ‘Maggie Mae’ is a mystery, but they did, for Abbey Road; at least, Paul did. John has essentially left. ‘Come Together’ is fine, ‘Because’ is beautiful, but his heart is in the confessional songwriting that started in Rubber Soul, passed through the White album’s ‘Julia’ and ‘Yer Blues’, and would culminate in the Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Mother’. He’s saving up his songs.

Paul, meanwhile, turned in, on Abbey Road, one of the all-time great Side Twos, to complete an album no-one should be without. The band was breaking up, and with the eyes of the world on him, and the weight of history, and fully aware of it, he put together a suite of songs that is stupendously inventive and ambitious, somehow epic and taut at the same time, and wildly moving. Not telling anyone how to feel, but if ‘Golden Slumbers’ does not cause you to wipe away a tear, you’re not paying attention.

And ‘The End’ is the end, and it’s a painful one. Paul went, within five years, from head-nodding along to ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ to something approaching hard-earned wisdom: “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make”.

As much as ‘Yellow Submarine’ explains why the Beatles are still so loved, so does the unironic, unafraid, emotional connection of moments like these. As the band wound down, John and George embraced Eastern mysticism more than Paul did, but Paul was just as much an advocate of the ineffable. On Abbey Road, and ‘When I’m 64’, and ‘I Will’, and ‘Blackbird’, he infused his spirituality into his songs. The Beatles had humour, and fire, and melody. When Paul got going, they had more. They had amazing grace.