David Whyte, Consolations
The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.
Outside is the first album by Yelling Bones, who are led by Gerry McGovern and Myles McDonnell. Gerry sings and plays guitar and writes the lyrics. Myles was in Whipping Boy and as I understand it he is the sonic architect in Yelling Bones. He does amazing work here. The arrangement to ‘Outside The Window’ is a work of art in itself, a lesson in building, sustaining and releasing emotion, and the album opens with this gorgeous, shifting, floating chord sequence of ‘Let’s Swim’, that immerses you right away.
Gerry has had a number of lives but I met him first when he was a writer with Hot Press. I met him just after I joined Hot Press myself as a young fella. I remember lolling about near the front desk in HP in Trinity St in June of 1993 and I had just reviewed the singles, as they often got the newbies to do (don’t get me wrong: it was a HUGE privilege). I had mentioned Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ and had described myself as a Dylanophile in a review of Kingmaker’s ‘Queen Jane’, and don’t ask me how I remember this stuff. So when I said hello to Gerry he had read the singles and we bonded over Bob.
I met Gerry last year for a coffee to talk Yelling Bones and it was the first time we had met in over twenty years. The morning we were to meet I shared Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Twitter and he replied that this was his favourite Dylan song. So we re-bonded. Fist bump to Bob Dylan.
Gerry was one of the handful of writers in HP or anywhere else at the time whose stuff I would read regardless of what he was on about. Mostly, he was on about great stuff – Palace Brothers and Sunbear and Lou Reed and The Flaming Lips and the like. Also, Whipping Boy – in his review of Heartworm he said that it was one of the greatest albums he had ever heard, not knowing then the status it would ultimately acquire. But it didn’t matter what he wrote about. It was how he wrote, with poetic colour and a passion and earnestness that I enjoyed and admired. He was not shy about spelling out how much he loved the music even when that meant exposing himself emotionally. He would press the music upon you: Listen to this! This moves me! His writing was unafraid. I looked up to him a lot.
Gerry’s writing hasn’t changed too much. He goes for it. Why say words that he does not mean?
‘A Good Man’ lays it all out, an explicit inquiry into existential and ethical doubts that many of us worry about quietly: “It’s a work in progress, but it’s very slow / I’ve stumbled many times. I suppose you know / But I keep struggling on, stubborn as I am / Reaching for something better, trying to be a good man… Maybe I’m not trying hard enough / Is my talk of change a lifetime’s bluff / Am I making enough effort? Am I really doing all I can? / Hoping for something better, trying to be a good man“.
Actually, it really helps to hear this in Gerry’s voice. It’s a lovely instrument. His voice is not un-Bob-like; he whispers, he strains to hit higher notes, and his pitch wavers when the emotion gets intense. His voice is as vulnerable as the lyrics and his singing is completely committed. And Myles’s arrangement again – so subtle and deft; piano trios filling out the sound around Gerry’s voice. The song leads into ‘Outside The Window’. I haven’t spoken to Gerry about this one but I hear it as a revisiting of his childhood; it’s pretty painful. “They hate each other / His father and mother / It will come to blows.”
‘Outside The Window’ ends back in the exact present as Gerry sings, supported by strings but almost a cappella, voice tremulous: “Some day he’ll smile / Sing for the child / Who will help him grow / Some of us get by / That child survives / He’s tougher than he knows“.
Something about that combination of resilience and vulnerability is what epitomises this record and, you know, much of the music that really matters. Great music can be a source of strength but there is no resilience without vulnerability. Music can only provide strength and solace if it is emotionally open and honest enough to let you in, in the first place, to where fear and hope and doubt and all the raw human stuff is hiding. Vulnerability and resilience are at the heart of who we are, at the heart of a full life, and at the heart of this music.