One. My core taste in music has not changed all that much in thirty-odd years. My range has expanded but I continue to be drawn to pained, melancholy, or even devastated songs sung in the first person that have a ring of autobiographical authenticity about them. Dramatic songs, often but not necessarily funny. ‘You Don’t Have To’ by John Grant, ‘I’ve Been A Mess’ by American Music Club, ‘When The Family Flies In’ by Julia Jacklin, ‘Funeral’ by Phoebe Bridgers, and ‘I Want To Be In The Mafia’ by BC Camplight. That kind of thing. I’m not thrilled about this; I would like to have evolved a more sophisticated aesthetic. I have never wanted to be the guy applauding Mark Eitzel in ‘Gratitude Walks’, in which the singer is “drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink”. But I’ve known that song and been aware of this problem since 1993 and I’m still that guy, give or take. I worry that enjoying the expression of an artist’s pain – and it is enjoyment, among other things – is sadistic, voyeuristic, and/or parasitic. (I suppose if I’m buying the albums, it’s symbiotic.) I do a fair bit of rationalising about this.
Two. I settled in to Shortly After Takeoff when I decided to treat the first-person protagonist of the songs, BC Camplight, as a heightened, fictionalised version of Brian Christinzio. It helped me to think of him like Larry David in Curb, or Louie in Louie, or Steve Coogan in The Trip, or Patrick Melrose in Edward St Aubyn’s books. That way you can inhabit the songs completely and worry about the protagonist less. It’s also just more accurate. Larry isn’t Larry all the time, and BC Camplight is not BC Camplight. That would be exhausting.
Three. In 1996 in an interview for Hot Press in a bar beside Liverpool St Station, I asked Stephin Merritt about depression and, basically, if he was OK, beause of the depressive and suicidal content in the Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost (“Time provides the rope / But love will tie the slipknot / And I will be the chair you kick away”). Stephin Merritt scolded me, saying you should not confuse the artist with the art and “When I listen to Abba songs I don’t want to know about Bjorn Ulvaeus’s life”. So that was me told and the interview didn’t go great and I gave out to myself for my artlessness. And it was a useful lesson that I never forgot, and he was right. Then in 2017, he released 50 Song Memoir, with one song to sum up each year of his life. The 1996 entry was ‘I’m Sad’.
Four. It is hard when you are a psychiatrist to hear songs about emotional suffering without thinking you should be helping somehow. That is a lot of songs and is probably part of the reason I’ve migrated towards music without words in the last ten years.
Five. I was reminded listening to ‘Back To Work’ of the powerful piece by Anna Borges in The Outline a year ago called ‘I Am Not Always Very Attached To Being Alive’. This piece is worth a read for anyone who would like to better understand what is like to live with suicidal feelings and self-harm.
Six. The final verse of ‘I Want To Be In The Mafia’, almost a coda, is the world’s quietest, gentlest slap in the face. The lines are “I’m beginning to give up / There’s nothing in my cup / I’m hoping it’s a phase / I’m longing for the days / In the Mafia”. In a song inspired by cinema, it is the equivalent of the camera in Goodfellas pulling back from Ray Liotta to show the set empty behind him; the funny guy scene but with no-one else in the bar.
Seven. The description of psychosis in the second verse of ‘Back To Work’ is stark and the understated jocular delivery is a masterpiece of deflection. The verse, in a song that soundscapes the gruelling grind of relapsing depression, describes delusions of guilt of an extreme variety. He sings “I know the Devil and his wife Denise / They worship me / I’m their kind of guy / I bring them peace.” I had to read these lyrics; you can’t hear them that well and I wonder if BC Camplight wanted to hide this verse in plain view. When your depressive psychosis is such that the Devil is worshipping you, it’s serious. Depressive religious delusions are some of the most harrowing existential experiences a person can have. Maybe the only way to capture the gravity of this in a song is by ironic contrast, the skipping sparkling acoustic guitars and the device of the wife Denise drawing attention away from, and illuminating, the enormity at hand.
Eight. The appearance of BC Camplight’s mum in ‘Back To Work’ makes me think of the other characters in the songs and their perspectives. His mum, who comes across in this song as harsh, and whose perspective we don’t hear. The friend* who is with him in ‘Arm Around Your Sadness’ when the delivery they don’t remember ordering arrives (“some vegetable peeler thing”). The chemist in the same song who no doubt patiently listens to the protagonist’s bullshit (“I made up some lie / That I require no prescription / Because I’m American”). The richness of these songs after the first few listens partly comes from the cast of characters, the world that is created, which is not a vast world, but it is human-sized. And I think of BC Camplight’s Dad, Angelo, whose death is the ground zero of these songs, and the heart-emptying earthquake of filial grief for which you can never be prepared.
Nine. I still use songs like BC Camplight’s to remind me to try to be a better human and to continue to teach me how to do it. It’s crazy that I still rely on songs like this. I’m not far off fifty years old. I meet a lot of people and I’ve had a lot of experiences. I still need reminders? I guess you drift towards being better, then drift away, and back and forth it goes, and music guides. It’s not even that I use songs deliberately – they do it themselves. I know that this week, I listened to ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’ and thought of a person whose escapades could add verses to that song, and I reflected in the light of the song on my own feelings towards that person. My irritation and reluctance to locate the appropriate compassion. My high-horse wish to blame and abdicate. And the song reminded me: take it easy man. If you can feel warmly towards BC Camplight waking up in a stranger’s banana suit in a Nando’s car park after God knows what, you can feel warmly towards this real person. It helped. I need this.
*On 14th May, the day after posting this, I realised who the “friend” is, and that late-dawning realisation drew a gasp, and the song changed and deepened. I do like when that happens.