“Grief changes you” — Mumblin’ Deaf Ro interview from 2012.

Mumblin’ Deaf Ro (Rónán Hession) and I emailed back and forth for a few days to put this piece together for State. We had never met – it was one of those interviews where you love the album, write to the Bandcamp contact address, and see if anyone gets back to you (they usually do). Email interviews are hit and miss, often too impersonal and lacking conversational flow, and I had recently posted a bit of a dud emailer with Jóhann Jóhannsson, so I was relieved and impressed at how forthcoming and considered Ro’s responses were. Dictionary Crimes was Ro’s third album. It was shortlisted for the Choice prize. It was also, apparently, his final album. Along his day job in a senior position in the Department of Social Protection, Rónán is now a prose writer rather than a song writer, and his debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul will be published in March 2019.


Rónán Hession, or MumblinDeaf Ro, has just released his third album, after a break of five years in which real life took over. In the space between 2007’s The Herring and the Brine and 2012‘s Dictionary Crimes, he became the dad of two boys and his mother, Angela, died of cancer. If it seems intrusive to open a feature with this level of detail about an artist’s life, it’s also impossible to write about Dictionary Crimes, autobiographical as it is, without doing so. Indeed, on the blog that accompanies the album, http://dictionarycrimes.tumblr.com/, Ro does the same.

In the opening scene of ‘The Birdcage’, Ro sings about shaving his mum’s head when she comes home from hospital; she chiding him for his roughness, he being as gentle, as tender as he can. “A practical love”, he calls it. The shimmering ‘Cade Calf Call’ uses the titular image, of a calf abandoned by its mother, to express the raw, animal yearning felt for your folks when they’re no longer around. ‘Little Mite’ recounts the loss of a baby and the effect of a miscarriage on a couple (“There are things to unwish for / And plans to unmake“). And in ‘Being Bill Cosby’, in a scene familiar to anyone with a couple of tiny kids, Ro writes of “Stooping to clean beans from a DVD / Trying to explain that we don’t stuff tuna in our trains”. Coincidentally, as I was finishing this piece, I partook in a family dinner that involved scooping a small wooden figurine out of my one-year-old son’s spuds and gravy. It’s good to see this stuff in songs.

These elemental experiences, of being simultaneously a parent, a child, a sibling, adding to your family and losing your family, are the core of MumblinDeaf Ro‘s honest, insightful, empathetic songwriting. On Dictionary Crimes, Ro looks hard at family life, in all its joy, love, tiredness, and tragedy, and doesn’t look away. “I have tried to write about these things as plainly as I can, without ornamentation, but also without any deliberate opaqueness,” Ro told me. “Either you tell people what it’s really like or else don’t bother.”

State: I was pointed in the direction of Dictionary Crimes when I asked a question on Twitter: “Looking for suggestions for songs that deal well with what it is like to be a dad. Anyone?” It had often struck me how under-addressed parenthood is in pop music. Do you think that’s right, and if so were you conscious of it when you began writing & planning the album?

MDR: It’s been a sort of campaign of mine over the past ten years to try and broaden the range of subjects that are dealt with in pop music in my own small way. I have always felt slightly baffled that the range of subjects dealt with in painting, books and movies is not reflected in songwriting, where the limited perspective of the twenty-something male still predominates.

Your question asks about parenthood in particular. Of course people write songs for their kids, or maybe about their kids, but it’s hard to find songs written in a plain and straightforward way about what it’s like to be a new parent: how tiring it is; the sense of inadequacy; the overwhelming volumes of advice you have to absorb. Aliens who came down to earth and tried to understand our culture would never guess from listening to pop records that we ever reproduced. Part of my interest in writing an album like Dictionary Crimes, about being in a family, was that I felt it was a theme with obvious personal and general relevance, but which had largely been neglected.

Many of the songs on Dictionary Crimes are extraordinarily intimate, delicate and detailed, lyrically; and the musical settings are such that the lyrics are out there loud and clear – there’s no hiding place. Did you feel nervous revealing so much of yourself and your family life?

Yes – and I still feel quite nervous about it. I am a naturally private person and don’t want to come across as some sort of blabber-mouth diarist. However, when I went through these things I did look at my music collection and say ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’ I felt it would be dishonest to dodge writing about such important events in my life and I don’t really understand why such common experiences as cancer and miscarriage are not written about more often.

You write throughout the album about bereavement, and I wanted to ask about grief. I work in psychiatry, where there are different views on the value or otherwise of grief. Broadly, the opposing arguments are: (A) Grief is part of what it is to be human and is of value; it’s a form of suffering that we should not be denied nor should we seek to avoid; and (B) Pain is just pain. It’s not of value. It just hurts. In your experience in the last five years, did you feel that there was value in your own grieving; did you learn anything, did you gain wisdom, anything positive; or did it just hurt?

I certainly felt that it was a valuable process. On the Dictionary Crimes blog, I described the loss of my parents as like a terminal moraine in my life, where everything that I had carried of my parents throughout my life was suddenly deposited and had to be sorted through. Grieving was a central part of that sorting and, if nothing else, Dictionary Crimes documents my reflections – wisdom is overstating it – on that process.

Grief is also bittersweet in unexpected ways. Though it’s painful, your grief becomes a vivid and living link between you and the person you’re missing. They are closest to your heart at those times when you miss them most. In that way, while you want to get over your grief, part of you feels that it keeps the person alive in your life.

In my experience, grief is not like a bout of food poisoning, where you process it, get it out of your system, and then go back to your normal self. Profound grief changes you as a person. You lose some of the core reference points that you had in your life; you lose utterly that naive sense that your life is all ahead of you; and you catch a glimpse of just how deep life can get.

On a more positive note, I never fully appreciated the amount of kindness that was in the world until all this happened. Most kindness is expressed in private, and invisible to all but those directly involved. It is touching and inspiring to witness the small kindnesses and thoughtfulness that people are capable of.

If it’s not too personal a question, what did you find helped you deal with the grief of your mum’s passing?

I think that my having children has helped me to deal with that sense of loss. In a short time I went from my mother still being alive, to having no living parents and becoming a parent. Aside from the distraction and joy that children bring, there is an obvious message about succession between the generations which makes a sad situation easier to understand.

Though I am not religious, I remember watching Pope John Paul II saying Easter mass when his illness was at an advanced stage. I remarked that it was awful that they couldn’t let him retire and that he had to go through that in such a public way. My wife’s aunt said in response to me that he was showing people how to suffer. That really stuck with me and I refer to it in ‘The Harm’ with the line “I’m to set, I suppose, some kind of final example, of how to suffer with grace and patience”. My mother was utterly at peace with her situation from the moment she was told she was dying. Above all, that helped me to start to accept the situation.

Lastly, I was struck by the craft of the writing on Dictionary Crimes; like ‘Charlie Brown’, where the narrative switches deftly in the last stanza from you as dad (‘the household depending on me‘) to you as son (“But mostly I just sit here / With a picture of my Dad)”. My first thought was that the writing reminded me of the way a William Trevor or Kevin Barry short story can quickly reach a surprising but satisfying conclusion. Are there particular writers who have influenced the way you structure your songs?

That’s kind of you to say. I do admire William Trevor, who is very skilled as mugging his readers – it’s impressive how he can make such seemingly unassuming stories leave such an impression. I have a broad reading taste, but my favourite author is Thomas Hardy – he has a deep emotional insight into characters and weaves his poetry into his prose.

In terms of structure, I think there’s a myth that stories have to have a beginning, middle and end – in my experience they usually have two of those at most. In the past I have compared songs to jokes: the opening line needs to tell the listener straight away what the scenario us (‘a man walks into a bar’); you need some details and digressions to build up tension and distract the listener from the punchline; and they rely on the listener to complete the experience – songs depend as much on the imagination of the listener as they do on the imagination of the songwriter.

Bandcamp: http://mumblindeafro.bandcamp.com

‘Cade Calf Call’: http://mumblindeafro.bandcamp.com/track/cade-calf-call

Do What You Have To Do, And Do It Soon. State Feature on Ergodos from April 2013.

This was a piece pulled together from email interviews with the founders of Ergodos, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Garrett Sholdice, and a number of Ergodos collaborators. The occasion was the release of their album inspired by Bach’s ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’, called I Call to You. Wonderful, wonderful album if you haven’t heard it. It was also the 20th anniversary of the first time I was ever published in Hot Press, hence the opening. I enjoyed this piece – I admired their vision and palpable restless energy.

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I’ve been writing about music for twenty years this month and I don’t remember a time that new Irish music was more independent, energised or interesting than it is now. (Though the mid-90s lo-fi boom, as immortalised in Daragh McCarthy’s The Stars Are Underground, was really something.)

Part of the reason for the current flourishing is the decade-long decline of what used to be the standard music business model. Bands once made a dozen copies of a demo, sent them off, and waited, fingers crossed, for a label to register interest. In the Bandcamp era, that seems quaint; weird. Why would you wait? Your music just gets out there, to stand and fall on its own. By now a generation of musicians has emerged that has no experience of anything other than independence, and self-released Irish albums are some of the best of the last five years.

Accompanying the increased availability of all genres of new music is a liberating indifference to genre itself. You don’t have to go far back in time to find strict battle lines between, say, punk and prog; you were not allowed to not like both. By law. Now, interviewed for this piece, the composer, multi-instrumentalist and Ergodos collaborator Seán Mac Erlaine says: “At a gig, in the moment, there is no such thing as genre. Musicians and listeners know this. Genre is really a marketing tool.” For me, reared in the aftermath of the punk wars, Mac Erlaine’s declaration still sounds a little unnerving – and I am still not listening to Pink Floyd. But I’m getting there.

Ergodos is a music company in existence since 2006 that is dedicated to releasing records and staging performances and dedicated to dismantling illusory barriers between different types of music. Founders Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly are both composers from a contemporary music tradition, but Ergodos’ last two releases are I Call To You, an album-length reconfiguring of a 17th century Bach choral prelude, and Seán Mac Erlaine’s Long After The Music Is Gone, which is spacious, modern, meditative woodwind music rooted in improvisational jazz.

Ergodos, along with the like-minded Journal of Music (edited, as it happens, by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly) exemplifies an attitude that is joyously present in new Irish music: that the spirit of the music, rather than the strictures of style, is what matters.

So, Ergodos release a Bach album and a Séan Mac Erlaine album; Mac Erlaine plays in This Is How We Fly with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh; Caoimhín works both with Peadar Ó Riada, of Cúil Aodha, and Doveman, who produces the albums of half of hipster New York. And we get from 400-year old German baroque to Séan Ó Riada or David Byrne in about four moves, and seamlessly; without even blinking. This, I would suggest, is the genius of new Irish music.

For this piece, State conducted an email conversation with the following Ergodos allies: Benedict Schlepper-Connolly; Garrett Sholdice; Seán Mac Erlaine; Michael McHale (pianist on I Call To You); and Kate Ellis (prolific cellist, co-artistic director of the Crash Ensemble, and curator of the monthly Kaleidoscope Night of new music). I also got a comment from Donnacha Dennehy, composer among other works of the acclaimed Grá Agus Bás, who is also co-founder of the Crash Ensemble and a mentor of some years’ standing to both Garrett and Benedict.

We discussed the origins of Ergodos, the state of contemporary music in Ireland, the DIY attitude required of musicians today, and the sacred and secular beauty of Bach. 

State: I Call to You is a record of instrumental music and songs inspired by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. More specifically, it’s an album of music inspired by Bach’s piece ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (‘I Call To Thee, Lord Jesus Christ’); the tracks that are not actually interpretations of that piece are named for lines in the German text of the song.

Garrett Sholdice: The text of the song actually pre-dates Bach’s music. Bach often used Lutheran hymns such as ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ as basic material for his compositions. So Bach’s organ chorale prelude ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ — the piece we based our album around — is an elaboration of a hymn of the same name, the words and music of which were written by a Lutheran minister named Johann Agricola around 200 years prior to Bach’s composition.

Image result for ergodos i call to you

I wondered what it was about that particular piece by Bach that led you to choose it as a starting point for this project.

 GS: It’s an incredibly beautiful piece — it just hits you. For me, it’s like a place you can get inside. The music is constructed such that there are three voices singing — a high voice singing the original hymn tune by Agricola very slowly, a middle voice simultaneously singing these more fleeting quasi-arabesque figures, and a low voice propelling everything along steadily. Each voice is constructed with such elegance, and the way in which the voices combine is so perfect, that you feel like the piece contains endless nourishment.

The album eases the listener in with a relatively straight reading of ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir’ by Michael McHale, although less ornate than you expect from Bach keyboard music; then moves away to somewhere more abstract and unfamiliar over the following pieces, then back to Michael’s beautiful, stark, hollowed out rendition at the end.

 GS: Yes, my transcription of the Bach that opens the album is consciously restrained. I wanted to present the music that I love as vividly as possible — although there are a few subtle personal touches. And my “hollowed out” arrangement at the end was an attempt to present what I hear (feel) as the essential elements of the music nothing more.

 Michael McHale: I was very impressed by [Ergodos’] work for the I Call to You album – the way in which the tracks all link and unite creates an expressive arc that is most impressive, and as a result the album as a whole adds up to much more of the sum of its parts. The Bach chorale prelude is most touching, tinged with melancholy. I simply wanted to perform it as simply and as naturally as possible, allowing the music to breathe and to create a background atmosphere of absolute stillness, which I felt served the music well.

I hadn’t heard it to my knowledge till I heard I Call To You, but ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ is actually quite a famous piece — used recently in Michael Haneke’s Amour, and not so recently in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Hr Hyde.

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly: Interesting that you mention Jekyll & Hyde. I haven’t seen it and didn’t know ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ was used in that. However, the Tarkovsky film is where we first encountered the tune and I think a lot of our association with it is tied up with some of the images used in it (that wonderful floating scene with the close-ups of the Breughel painting, for instance). Amour came out after we recorded the album, but it’s a beautiful film. There’s certainly something timeless in the tune itself that has caught the ear of Bach, ourselves and these various film directors.

I wondered also what it is about Bach himself that you are drawn to. I first properly encountered Bach when over the space of one weekend in 2005 I had two salutary experiences: one, a conversation with a friend who said that Bach had a spiritual depth that almost no other music has; and two, I read Anthony Lane on Bach’s St Matthew Passion in a film review in the New Yorker. Lane wrote of being reminded of the “grave and devastating function” of the St Matthew Passion: “It has become, for too many of us, a concert piece, or something dignified to put on the CD player at the end of a fissile day. Suddenly… I heard it again as a Passion: the drama of Calvary, stern with lamentation.”

GS: That’s a great quote. For me, Bach is, at a basic level, the music of a certain really important part of my childhood. I received my earliest musical training as boy chorister in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. We sang Bach occasionally, but his organ music was a constant element in the atmosphere. So Bach is just in the blood. The vast repertoire of his music has been a consistent touchstone for me. I have certainly felt “devastated” by Bach — in the sense of feeling speechless.

I think I understand what your friend meant by “spiritual depth”. Despite my first encounters with it, in a cathedral, Bach’s music doesn’t operate for me in terms of religion. Of course, religion (specifically the Lutheran religion) was hugely important for Bach and it is an important context within which to view his art. I would not describe myself as religious in the least, although various religious musics have and continue to be important to me. The best way I can put it is that, for me, Bach’s music goes way deeper than religion. It transcends dogma.

This album is very clearly an album of sacred music, explicitly so. The music was written 400 years ago, at a time that the church had a very different place in society. Have you a view on the place or role of sacred music in a secular society in 2013? 

BSC: As it happens, neither Garrett or I is even baptised, and though we’ve both been very influenced by sacred music, neither of us has taken an interest in the literal sacred meaning of the hymn ‘Ich ruf’’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’. We were also selective about the fragments of text we used, and on occasion left out reference to ‘Herr Jesu Christ’ altogether. I don’t think our secularism should limit our enjoyment of music written for sacred purposes, and I would suggest that there is much of the sublime that is expressed in works such as ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ or, on a grander scale, Bach’s passions, that is as arresting to a non-believer as to a Lutheran of the day.

State: Could you talk about what drove you to set up Ergodos in the first place? Your website describes the first Ergodos release, Dubh (2010) as being “about a certain generation of Irish composers, a generation that is finding its place between tradition and the modern world”. That makes Ergodos sound like an effort to allow a generation of artists to find a voice; like the ethic behind the 80s post-punk labels, or Irish indie labels in the 90s. No-one else is putting this work out and it should be heard; so we’ll do it ourselves. Does that ring true?

GS: Yes, I think that does ring true. Myself and Benedict started presenting concerts together when we were both studying music in TCD around 2005. Our composition teacher, Donnacha Dennehy, was a big influence. As director of his own group (the Crash Ensemble), he was a terrific model for us as someone who was taking control and putting his music — his aesthetic — out there. He wasn’t waiting to be discovered. Donnacha would actively encourage those of us studying with him to form our own groups, put on our own gigs, and to support each-other in doing so.

Donnacha introduced myself and Benedict to the music of James Tenney, an American “experimental” composer. A few months before Tenney died in 2006, myself and Benedict helped to bring him to Trinity to lecture and attend a concert of his music that we were organising. Tenney was part of this so-called “American maverick” tradition of really doing it yourself — forming ensembles, putting on concerts, creating a context for the art. We were enthralled not only by Tenney’s immersive, minimal music, but by his attitude. While he was in Dublin, amongst many other things, he imparted the following aphorism to us: “Do what you have to do, and do it soon.”

State: It’s occurred to me as I read around the subject that I don’t have a clear idea just what Ergodos is. My understanding is that it’s a company that produces performances and recordings, and beyond that I’m not sure where everyone else fits in — your collaborators.

BSC: Your confusion is understandable, because Ergodos has had many different manifestations since we started it in 2006. I suppose at the heart of what “Ergodos” is as a company, endeavour or even aesthetic, are the interests of Garrett and myself at any given time. We started as an annual music festival (“The Printing House Festival of New Music”) and that itself was part vehicle to get our own music out there as well as a way to present other music and musicians that interested us — that has basically remained a guiding principle.

Since we started Ergodos, we’ve developed a number of different layers of activity, manifested in a production company, a record label, a performing band. Ergodos Musicians, as a group, is equally amorphous, often changing personnel, size or character based on the particular direction in which Garrett and I want to bring it. The groups started as a kind of in-house band for one of our festivals, but since then we’ve worked to give it a life of its own.

I should also say that our collaborators, from composers to performers, are integral to the whole operation. Much of our music is written with specific performers in mind — I love to write for the lower register of Michelle O’Rourke’s voice for instance — and we feel that the composers we work with again and again are kindred spirits, on a related musical path besides being close friends.

Lastly: Is contemporary music in Ireland right now in a good place?

Sean Mac Erlaine: Well, this throws us into the genre question. ‘Contemporary music’ [is] itself a meaningless phrase – “music made today”; [it] stands for a genre growing out of the classical canon but left deliberately so open so it can include the enormous breadth of what people are creating, in a world where any meaning that might have held genres in isolation is quickly falling away.

BSC: Insofar as I think contemporary music exists anymore — that is some kind of composed music coming out of a European classical tradition — I think you could say it’s a vibrant culture. But I think one of the more interesting things about musical life in Ireland is how open listeners are to various kinds of music and music from all sorts of backgrounds without creating very strict definitions of them. Something like the Kaleidoscope monthly series in Dublin, where a jazz trio will play right after an early music consort, is emblematic of this attitude I think.

Sean Mac Erlaine: I totally agree with Benedict on that. People have absolutely no problem with the idea of cross-genre. That might be because at a gig, in the moment, there is no such thing as genre. Musicians and listeners know this. Genre is really a marketing tool. At a concert, people hear music and they evaluate it on these terms. Nobody hears ‘rhythm and blues’ or ‘contemporary jazz’. In Ireland, the audiences are very sophisticated — everybody has heard everything, so in a way with an open mind, this leaves a level playing field, where, of an evening, people are receptive to really diverse music.

Kate Ellis: Kaleidoscope is like a musical playground showcasing Irish and international musicians, with performances that range from the latest electronica music to the earliest found manuscripts. This month for example we have the cellist Bill Butt playing a solo sonata by Bach followed by the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu playing some of his own compositions. The commonality between musicians and the music played is actually the quality of musicianship.

BSC: For composers, I think the outlook is generally positive in Ireland, because there are opportunities there to find the time and space to do your work, even if there isn’t much money going around at the moment. There is also a strong and supportive community among composers. The recession, amid its many horrors, seems to have also brought people closer together; musicians sometimes joke about the recession that they didn’t have as much to lose in the first place.

Donnacha Dennehy: I think that what Ergodos, and others like them, are doing is great. It shows a new energy in contemporary music in Ireland. They are not simply waiting around passively. They are acting in a way that contributes positively to the culture. Ben and Garrett were born composers and that was abundantly clear to me when I first met them.  I am so happy that they are following this direction and leaving an important imprint.

Carrie & Lowell Review — March 2015.

State magazine ceased publication in early 2018. State had been my outlet since 2008. The archive is gone now to wherever archives go and I’m using this site to post a few pieces that disappeared. One album I got to review for State was of one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard — Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty).

The inner sleeve of Carrie & Lowell features a photo of Sufjan Stevens at about five years old. He’s in a big-collared blue shirt and having a banana for breakfast. His mother, Carrie, is in shot but looking away. Sufjan looks happy. It’s such a normal shot, except it’s not.

Sufjan Stevens talks to Dave Eggers: 'I was recording songs as a ...

The photo was taken on one of the few occasions Stevens ever spent time with his mother. Carrie, who struggled with schizophrenia and alcohol abuse, left Sufjan and his father and siblings when he was a year old. She moved to Oregon and got married again, for a few years, to Lowell Brams. The album’s not about Lowell; it’s not even about Carrie, particularly, as much as it is about the absence of her. A few 1980s summer holiday visits aside, Sufjan and Carrie never reunited; the closest they grew was when he sat with her in the hospice decades later after she was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. She died in 2012.

Pop music is supposed to reflect what goes on in our lives, but there is next to nothing in pop music that deals with grief. You think of Patti Smith (Gone Again) and Lou Reed (Magic & Loss), or more recently Mumblin’ Deaf Ro (Dictionary Crimes) but you are relying here on artists who’ve made a point of expanding the subject matter under discussion in songs. You would think that bereavement, the most universal of experiences, wouldn’t need specialist treatment.

Still, it’s tough for a song or a set of songs to capture the immensity of grief in the way that prose can. So the touchstones remain the likes of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking or Aleksandar Hemon’s The Aquarium, which is such a pure distillation of sorrow that it’s simultaneously impossible to put down and almost unreadable.

John Lennon has probably provided the most precise musical precursor to Carrie & Lowell. John’s mother Julia also left him when he was a baby and died before he was a Beatle. His first post-Beatles album, Plastic Ono Band, was his attempt to make sense of that loss, bookended by ‘Mother’ (“Momma don’t go”) and ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ (“I can’t get it through my head”.)

On Carrie & Lowell, a son also yearns for the mother he never knew. Being Sufjan, though, there’s no primal screaming: he sings in a double-tracked whisper for the most part. There are no drums, and the carefully arranged accompaniment is at all times nuanced and unobtrusive – the likes of Thomas Bartlett and Laura Veirs feature, delicately serving the songs.

But Carrie & Lowell every bit as anguished, perplexed and abandoned as Plastic Ono Band was. “Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, but you didn’t want me,” sang John on ‘Mother’; “I wonder did you love me at all?” asks Sufjan on ‘The Only Thing’.

The album is structured around remembrances of their few times together (such as ‘Eugene’ or ‘Should Have Known Better’) and Sufjan’s responses to Carrie’s absence and death (‘All Of Me Wants All of You’, ‘Death With Dignity’, ‘The Only Thing’). ‘Death With Dignity’ opens the album and immediately sets its emotional tone, as an almost sprightly arpeggiated chord progression in E is supported by gentle piano and the song concludes: “I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end”.

The chord structures in several songs are relatively simple and dominated by major keys. To a non-musicologist like me this has the effect of couching difficult lyrical content in music that’s almost overdoing its upbeatness; using the chords to be comforting the way you might use a singsong voice to break bad news to a child (“He’s fine now, pet. He’s in doggie Heaven!”)

‘Fourth of July’ is the album’s apotheosis. The song brings together memory, empathy, grief and forgiveness, as it recounts a healing conversation between mother and son that never happened and had to be imagined. A percussive keyboard cycles resolutely through A, D, and E major chords as Sufjan voices Carrie’s half-regrets: “Did you get enough love, my little dove? / Why do you cry? / And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best / Though it never felt right”.

The song concludes with a real life memory of Sufjan and his mum together after her death: “The hospital asked should be body be cast /Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky / Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth / Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?” This is the album’s ‘The Aquarium’ moment: a song so bravely and brilliantly beautifully drawn that you’re glued to it; so helpless, pained and intimate that you nearly have to turn away.

In Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan is singing about emotions that are dug out of him and matters that most of us will recognise. The pain and perplexity of mourning; the validation that parental love alone equips us with as kids, that can’t be found anywhere else; the search for identity. In ‘The Only Thing’ he goes as far as pondering not only how, but whether, to carry on.

Aleksandar Hemon wrote of his daughter’s death “Though I recall that moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me”. Tanya Sweeney wrote in the Irish Times that after she buried her mother she demanded that her family join her in bringing her back from her grave: “We need to go down there and bring her home!” Tanya wrote that at time she had taken “bewildering leave of [her] senses”, but I thought she made perfect sense. Who could second guess her? We have no idea what to do with death so we return to magical thinking – we regress.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith wrote “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?” and Sufjan opens ‘Fourth of July’ with the same mystical self-criticism: “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?”

What the writers I’ve cited suggest, and Carrie & Lowell confirms, is that intense grief can be documented, poetry even extracted from it, but we are not built for it and we can’t absorb it. We can’t expect to understand real loss any more than preschool Sufjan peering out from the the inner sleeve. What I see in that photo and hear in these songs is that grief may be too much for us. We think we’re really something, but when it comes down to it, we’re just kids.

I’m Not Supposed to Be Like This, But It’s OK: A Note on R.E.M.’s Green at 30

When R.E.M.’s Green was released, thirty years ago, on 8th November 1988, I was 14. It was my first R.E.M. album and it is the first album that I loved at the time that I still love. This is a thing that happens with R.E.M. albums – which one you hear first is important. You get imprinted.


I don’t recall when exactly I heard Green first. I knew ‘The One I Love’ from Document before I heard ‘Stand’, but I hadn’t heard of any of the I.R.S. albums and I knew nothing about the band. The first piece on R.E.M. that I ever read was in Time in late ’88 and I misread it, or at least the accompanying photo. I must have assumed that the one with the most charismatic eyebrows was the singer. When they came on stage in the RDS in June 1989 I was surprised to see Bill Berry go behind the drums and the man who turned out to be Michael Stipe take the front of the stage.

This was before I would inhale every interview and internalise every utterance but that came quickly. In a Hot Press interview in 1989 Stipe used the term “fucker” to describe George H.W. Bush. This was so cool a term of abuse that I decided to adopt it. Not everyone was impressed. Stipe harangued Exxon that night in the RDS because of the Exxon Valdez and he set me off on a fifteen-year absolute boycott of Esso garages. I was only driving for the last five of those years and their share price did not suffer, but they must have wondered why they were selling so few Loop the Loops.


That night in the RDS Stipe sang ‘You Are The Everything‘ wrapped around the mic stand with his back to the audience. I thought this was mysterious behaviour and that there must be something incredibly powerful about the song, still, for Stipe himself, that he couldn’t even look at us. The guy standing just to my right thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen. I have never forgotten this stranger’s yell of pure joy (“AMAZING!!”) with arms outstretched as Stipe composed himself and turned back to us at the end. I think my neighbour’s yell stayed with me: Wow, look what music can do.

Green is the most important album of my lifetime and I sometimes wonder how it, not Doolittle, not The Joshua Tree, not Disintegration, acquired that status. It is partly the imprinting and partly that it is such an endlessly beautiful record made by geniuses that even a 44 year old who has heard it hundreds of times, and who tries to make a point not to live in the musical distant past, can always find something fresh there.

Green wasn’t the first album that I went back to again and again. That was The Joshua Tree because I was a 13 year old boy in a class full of 13 year old boys in 1987 and because ‘Running to Stand Still’ touched a nerve I didn’t know I had; the first song I compulsively played, lifting and re-lifting the needle on Born in the USA, was ‘Downbound Train’. But Green was the first album that I connected with properly, personally, in my own way. I met Stipe in 1999 at an Up aftershow. It’s important to tell artists how much they mean to you, even people who hear it all the time, so I shuffled over. “You know Green kind of changed my life,” I said. “Only kind of?” he replied.

Green provided a template for the kind of music I would seek out for years afterwards. I loved melody but prioritised lyrics (so it took some time to cop on to MBV, for instance). I enjoyed the feeling of not understanding “I am not the type of dog that would keep you waiting for no good reason / Run a carbon black test on my jaw” while also understanding. I wanted more of the admiring shock of that moment when I realised he’d replaced “raise” with “raze” in ‘World Leader Pretend’. Raze!

I wanted singers with character. I wanted heart and poetry and preferably some pain. I went down the lo-fi mournful music path, signposted by Green’s side two, exhaustively (American Music Club, Smog, Big Star’s Third and Music for a New Society were the touchstones). I think I went too far down that road. I spent too much time with songs that emphasised loss, rejection, and failure to the point of why even try, because that position seemed true and somehow morally superior. Sigh. Anyway. Great albums, those – just not on the bus in the morning every single day, I would now argue.

After Green I simultaneously wanted risks and freedom and playfulness, for it not to matter so much. I loved that R.E.M. swapped instruments on ‘Untitled’ and that Bill Berry couldn’t play the drum part that Peter Buck came up with because it was too amateurish, so Peter played it. I loved that mistakes could stay in. I loved that the backing vocals added to the narrative, that it was a conversation (“Dreams they complicate my life / (Dreams they complement my life)”. I loved Mike Mills’ voice.

My relationship with Green evolves. I change and what I hear in it changes. I read recently that ‘Untitled’ (“All I really want to say is / Hold her and keep him strong“) was Stipe’s love song to his parents. I didn’t know that and it would not have occurred to me at 14 that you could sing a love song to your parents. Now I know I’ll think of my mum and dad whenever I hear Peter Buck’s rickety intro and “This world is big / And so awake / I stayed up late / To hear your voice“. I’ll feel gratitude, to my folks and to this band.

It took my own turn at parenthood to personalise ‘You Are The Everything’ so concretely. I always heard the song from the child’s perspective and I always placed myself in the back seat laying down, the windows wrapped around to the sound of the travel and the engine. It always took a leap of imagination to inhabit the song. No bad thing, but then I found myself driving near home with the CD on and my daughter, then six-ish, in the back seat humming along. For now that’s how I hear it, from the perspective of my kids and of myself as their happy and incredulous and fearful dad. The two boys stopped me turning off ‘The Wrong Child’ last week. “No! I love that song!” they said as one. That was a complicated moment. ‘The Wrong Child’ is the Green song that embedded most deeply in me, but I wouldn’t necessarily want them to inhabit that one.

‘The Wrong Child’ is sung from the perspective of a child with a disability who is suffering. I always pictured a boy but that’s not clear from the song. “Tell me what it’s like to go outside“, it goes, “I’ve never been / Tell me what it’s like to just go outside… Hey those kids are laughing at me“. I connect the song to Christopher Nolan and Stipe said, I think, that Nolan’s Under the Eye of the Clock was an influence. Because I knew this back story I long thought I was lyrically distanced somehow from the song. If the song is explicitly about someone in a highly specific situation that is not my situation then it’s not about me.

I was right about this and also wrong. ‘The Wrong Child’ was in a real sense not one bit about me, and it was an early lesson in the song as an act of empathy. A mistake I made in ensuing years that I have tried to correct was to demand that songs were directly relatable. Morrissey hung the DJ because the music that they constantly played said nothing to him about his life – why should it? Why not other people’s lives? What is so endlessly fascinating about ourselves?

But I was shaken by ‘The Wrong Child’, mesmerised by it, permeated by it. I had Green on tape and I rewound and rewound that moment when Stipe makes the first vocal leap, that first “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s OK“. It’s so sudden, and Stipe deliberately doesn’t quite land on that leaping high note. He just misses, straining too far, wavering around it. Listening to it writing this I found myself contorting, bending my body as he sings, mimicking his bending of that high note, like if I alter the angle of my ears the note will settle back where it’s supposed to be. It’s such a physical moment of uncontained emotional urgency. And I was identifying alright.

I suspect now that I connected with Green over all other albums because your band chooses you as much as you choose them. I was 14 when I heard ‘The Wrong Child’ and losing my old friends and not making new ones and just beginning to regard music as a liferaft. I was 14 and I needed to hear “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s OK” sung by Michael Stipe with love and hope and solace. Every so often, I still do.