Lose Your Self In The Music

When a song really connects we say it spoke to me but in my experience that doesn’t quite capture it. A song speaking to you must do so from a distance but I increasingly find that when I connect with a song I feel no distance from it at all. I hear Julia Jacklin’s ‘Turn Me Down’, The Blue Nile’s ‘Stay Close’, Nick Drake’s ‘Know’, or Phoebe Bridger’s ‘Killer’, and I’m in the middle of the music, surrounded, swathed, fully present, breathing in time: right there and nowhere else in my mind.

There is not a long list of songs that have this immersive effect. I don’t quite know what qualities distinguish them but it’s the kind of thing I wonder about.

I think they are all songs in which the writer makes it easy to take their perspective or that of the song’s protagonist rather than hearing it from your own perspective.

It is freeing to dissolve into the song’s point of view; to meet its characters on their turf rather than your own; to lose your self in the music. We take this for granted in other art forms but less so in music; the kind of ardent indie I was reared on at least. Music that says nothing to me about my life now sounds pretty good. It’s about somebody’s life and maybe I want to hear their story for its own sake.

They are all songs that are minimally arranged but they are rich with emotional detail, containing layers that reveal themselves and repay time, trust and intent attention. I think here of ‘Know’, with its urgent recurring guitar phrase and the reverberation in the studio of the final word of every line Nick Drake sings. You have to strain to catch each echoing last lyric and it is this effort that transports me into the studio beside him when I hear it.

These songs have no clutter and there is time and space between the bars to process what’s just happened and to anticipate what’s coming. They have moments when you need to take a breath to be ready for a crescendo, like that tingling slowed-down moment that opens the bridge of ‘Turn Me Down’ – “So please just…”

‘Killer’ is enveloping in a few ways. The piano, emphatic yet cloud-soft, the strings that seep in to the second verse then dissipate; the three rising notes Bridgers allocates to the word “all” in the line “And I’ve given a-l-l my love”. The sheer unexpectedness of the imagery: “I can’t sleep next to a body / Even harmless in death / Plus I’m pretty sure I’d miss you / And faking sleep to count your breath.”

The moment in ‘Killer’ where I take a breath and dive in is right before the second verse because what follows is harrowing and comical and extraordinary and I know I’ll get something new from it each time.

A lingering E minor ends and Bridgers sings:

But when I’m sick and tired
And when my mind is barely there
When a machine keeps me alive
And I’m losing all my hair
I hope you kiss my rotten head
And pull the plug
Know that I’ve burned every playlist
And I’ve given all my love

I mean: my rotten head. I ask you.

I knew ‘Killer’ had connected when I noticed that I was feeling those last couple of lines in my body as much as I was hearing them. I didn’t know what I was responding to because it not an intellectual response but it was, I think, to a young person planning how she and those she leaves behind might make peace with her future passing.

I connected with ‘Killer’ around the time this autumn that two long-time friends of mine died, each a beautiful and loved and missed young man. I kept wondering how ready can you be. How ready can you ever be? Do we get readier? I’m not ready.

And I heard “I’ve burned every playlist and given all my love” and, scouring for solace, at first I felt some relief. I heard: when you have given all your love and there is none left to give, it’s time. Like a star, you burn out and you rest. Inconveniently, though, this was nonsense. It was completely backwards. As I get older I don’t have less love than I used to have. If anything every day feels more poignant and precious; I feel fuller. 

And yet ‘Killer’ felt right and only a few days after I heard the song first I went to the funeral of one of my friends, John. His sister spoke about him and his unbelievable generosity as he knew he was dying. He lived in Australia but he came back as much as he could to be with his friends and family; not for himself, maybe, so much as for them. He had a huge circle of friends in Ireland and he said his goodbyes and the people who loved him felt the warmth of his presence.

I thought of how John approached the end and the line “I’ve given all my love” ceased to express the draining away of a person’s supply of love. This does not happen. Love is self-replenishing. The phrase came to express the act of offering love and kindness at every opportunity. I know I don’t do this. And I know I give too much significance to songs but I do trust songs to remind me how to live better and ‘Killer’ can be a little red flag that pops up when I’m failing to show kindness.

Be kind, show love when you can, make sure that those you love know you love them, and cast that net as wide as you can. Then you are living well, without regret, and if you live well, then, when it comes, you might, maybe, be as ready as you’ll ever be.

Startled Feathers Flying: Sufjan’s Illinois, HP, 2005

I just reread this piece for the first time in a few years. I do like it. Looking at it now I was pleasantly surprised by the “Whack!” I wrote into the description of Casimir Pulaski Day. And I must have really trusted Hot Press readers that they would know where Islandeady is. It’s the townland halfway between Castlebar and my mum’s home place of Westport, just to the right as you head west — like, obviously. Anyway, Up Sufjan and Up Mayo 🥊🏅

The big news about Sufjan Stevens is that he plans to record a full album about each of the states of the USA. This is number two of 50, barring annexations, after 2003’s ode to his home patch Michigan. Well, this just in: there’s no fucking way.

That the mooted project would take 96 years to complete at his current prolific rate of recording is not the issue. On the evidence of his song titles, he’s a bloody-minded guy (‘To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament, And It Involves An Inner Tube, Bath Mats, And 21 Able-Bodied Men!’). He may indeed record 50 albums and name them after states. More luck to him. But if he does, it will be a distraction. Sufjan Stevens is no more making records about Illinois than he is about Islandeady.

True, ‘They Are Night Zombies!!’ – epic violin-driven funk in the manner of Curtis Mayfield — owes something to its home place. And Illinoise is often huge, the size of the state. The scale of the arrangements for choir, strings, and brass makes showpieces like ‘Jacksonville’ and ‘Chicago’ sound like the ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ as sung by the Polyphonic Spree.

Still, Stevens can namedrop Abe Lincoln all he likes (‘Decatur’), or unconvincingly compare himself to a Chicago serial killer (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’). The fact remains that the heart of this album lies outside Illinois; outside geography and biography; outside physical space at all. It lies in ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, named for a local public holiday and sung over banjo, with the minimum of fuss, in a rock-solid whisper, as an elegy to a lover.

As the song opens they’re hoping for a miracle: “Tuesday night at the bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens”. She dies of cancer of the bone on a pale March morning and in a scene so deftly drawn that you’re in the room with him, the narrator sits in the hospital, sure he can still see her breathing. He’s dazed, until outside a bird swoops, smacking— whack! — into the window. Startled feathers flying is what he remembers of sitting alone with the body of his young love, and the betrayal of all the hopes they had. (The bird, a cardinal, is the Illinois state bird. Make of that what you will.)

You can set out to write or sing about states or nations or the global sweep of human history. But states are just collections of people and history an accumulation of moments like these.
When music articulates the reality and mystery and majesty of the moment, suddenly albums that soundtrack states are small potatoes. We have universes on our hands here.