And if California slides into the ocean…

My working and thinking year has begun in the state of California, which has been racked by stormy rains since before I arrived. Here is a place that has been suffering a five-year drought made worse by its status as a farmers’ bastion, where agriculture pumps more water than falls from the sky, creating subsidence and sinkholes and shortages.

When you’re in California, you have to listen to the right music. This is surely a uniquely creative stretch of land even by the standards of 20th century pop culture. And there was a particular stretch of time – say, 1968-1977 – when it may have been the most important contributor of lasting, living cultural artefacts, at least in the so-called “West”.

Warren Zevon began his career in that period. Son of a Jewish Russian immigrant, he was born in Chicago but the family soon moved to the West Coast (Fresno, to be exact). While there, he had the chance to chill with Igor Stravinsky, before quitting high school and high-tailing it to New York City to begin a career as a folk singer.

He wrote what on any given day might be my favourite song, the one I come back to every time I’m here. Desperados Under the Eaves manages in just four minutes, forty-seven seconds to capture the heart of lost humanity. It is one of Zevon’s most personal songs, written from a real situation in the so-called “Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel”. Its short lyric, with five distinct sections – they aren’t really verses per se – is densely packed with allusion and literary technique and a hundred listens won’t plumb their depths.

On the surface it’s about alcoholism. There are references speckled throughout: empty coffee cups, shaking hands, and pledges to drink all the margaritas in Los Angeles. But that isn’t the heart of the song; it’s merely a feint, a way of entering a rabbit warren (no pun intended) of multiplying topics through an easy access entrance.

Instead this is about nothing less than the fear of death and the fear of life, the weirdness of being in a place where you feel misunderstood but cannot find another place that offers you a home. It’s a 20th century Californian’s riff on Shakespeare’s song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun“. That lovely song is an epitaph of sorts. This is altogether more in medias res as Zevon ponders on his state of mind: “So sick I am not, yet I am not well” as Imogen puts it prior to her seeming death.

Zevon literally fears the heat of the sun: the first climax of the lyric and music comes with a sudden burst of orchestral fear, and the line “Don’t the sun look angry at me?” He’s suddenly alluding to Christ on the cross: “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?”

The irony is that that burst of feeling comes after one of the driest stanzas on potential apocalypse ever written. He imagines the state of California sliding into the ocean “like the mystics and statistics say it will”, but reduces that monumental tragedy into amusement by suggesting that the hotel he’s in will remain standing, “until I pay my bill”.

He knows all this is going to hell, maybe sooner than we all think. But at the same time he can’t see a way out that isn’t worse. “Heaven help the one who leaves”, he says, and I fancifully read across – a desperado caught between staying and leaving – to the wider cultural atmosphere of the time, one in which the Eagles, that same year, would try to capture the mystical Hotel California.

Zevon is no mystic though and writes achingly about the real. The vignette that comes next sums up the pain, perhaps physical as well as emotional, of his situation:

Still waking up in the morning with shaking hands

And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me

But except in dreams you’re never really free

Don’t the sun look angry at me?

And then comes a most peculiar kind of redemption. Whenever I play the ending of this song to people, the invariable response is initially amusement. The idea of an air conditioner humming a hymn is inherently risible. But equally invariably, a deeper understanding eventuates as the coda rises and grows in strength. The warmth and depth of the strings building under Zevon’s layered choir, and eventually taking him over, is desperately moving, and movingly desperate.

“Look away down Gower Avenue.” I’ve never been to LA, but from all I can read of Gower Avenue – or, actually, Gower Street – it’s the most mundane of streets. But maybe it’s that quality of the mundane that qualifies it to be elevated into this most gorgeous of melodies. The normality of Gower is what is being venerated.

It’s a song that I’ll never fathom, and a song I’ll always feel could have come from my own heart.


The late, great Warren Zevon. Copyright Neal Preston/CORBIS.


The Sunday Spotify: Take It To The Bridge

The bridge. The middle eight. Whatever you want to call it (and I know there’s a technical difference, but whatever), it’s the twist that can take a song into a different stratosphere. It’s the delicious pre-chorus that kicks you into a different gear, building anticipation for that frisson-filled final refrain. Or, sometimes, it’s the left turn that ensures a song will stick with you long after the last notes have stopped ringing.

The Beatles were probably the best exponents of the bridge in pop history. While the 1960s were the decade in which it was in its heyday, they understood its potential better than anyone. They have so many stellar middle eights that it’s difficult to narrow down to just one; I could easily have gone for track 1 from their debut album, “I Saw Her Standing There”, the downbeat Lennon intervention in “We Can Work It Out”, or the equally breezy McCartney bridge in “A Day in the Life”. But I think their best may be “No Reply”, a relatively unknown early cut with an almost mundane verse that takes off with an unusual bridge.

The instrumental bridge is also a cracking innovation. A fine early example is from Aretha Franklin’s definitive version of “Respect”. The brief sax solo leads back into a verse you didn’t think could top the energy with which the song began – but it does. “Badge”, by Cream, with its guitar arpeggios, achieves a similar effect before Clapton’s vocal and extended guitar solo threaten to develop into an extended outro.

The bridge in Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” is a comparable declaration of intent to Aretha’s from a very different musical era. Here the Queen B has to overcome Jay Z’s usual redundant, overlong intervention, and she does it in spades, soaring up to a spectacular high as the chorus hits back in.

Another way to use the bridge is to make a song more personal. Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” achieves this perfectly. The combination of the almost-weary lyric and the building piano work underneath is entirely captivating and pulls you headlong into the final choruses.

“Senses Working Overtime” by XTC is an example of a song that seems to be made up almost completely of bridges. It’s a perfect introduction to a band that always seems to cherish the unexpected. You never know where you’re ending up, but the ride, verging on chaotic, is always fascinating.

Meanwhile Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” is all verses, save for that driving, slightly-faster middle section that manages to move the narrative forward, achieve a key change and break back into the most triumphant moment song all at once. It’s a very sophisticated moment that shows off the band’s virtuosity at the same time as serving the storyline of the song’s powerful lyrics.

A lesser-spotted version of the bridge can be found in “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush. It’s a song that uses the same three chords throughout, using texture and changing instrumentation, including otherworldly backing vocals, to create difference. At 2:47 the galloping beat is suddenly matched by Bush’s urgent cry, “come on baby/come on darling/let me steal this moment from you now”, added to by equally visceral synth strings and a clatter of percussion. It’s the heart of the song.

Simon and Garfunkel’s finest example of a travelling song, “America”, would be stunning without its middle section. But what a beautiful moment it is: discursive, lyrical, and deeply wistful, leading back into that simple run-down chord sequence and the equally simple, disarming verse beginning ‘Toss me a cigarette/I think there’s one in my rain coat’. Here I’ve used the live version from the Concert in Central Park because the extended outro is stellar, with the purest of high harmonies from Garfunkel soaring into a memorable guitar solo before heading back into that chorus. It reminds me of long car journeys when I was growing up.

Next come two great rock bridges. The first is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, a criminally underrated band whose songwriting was on a par with anyone’s. Here we get a contrasting middle section with a change into a more stilted, broken rhythm and some clanging minor chords, breaking into a tasteful guitar solo that carries us home into the final verse: “guess that’s all I have to say…”

Bob Dylan wasn’t a major exponent of the middle eight but there’s a run of four songs on Blonde on Blonde that show he could mix it with the best when he wanted to. Perhaps the best of the four is “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, here covered expertly by Jason and the Scorchers who use that bridge to great effect.

And finally, it would be remiss to leave off one of the greatest songwriters of the ’90s and ’00s, Elliott Smith. Waltz #2 has one of his most moving mid-sections, with the swooning strings and backing vocals creating a crushing sense of woe that still manages to create momentum. (Bonus: check out those swooping violin glissandos in the final chorus.)

The full playlist should appear below, but in case you can’t see it, it’s also accessible via this link.

So, what did I miss?

Fred Durst: harbinger of perpetual adolescence

Songs about doing things “my way” or it being “my life” have been around forever. Most famously, Frank Sinatra sung about having no regrets, taking the blows and standing tall in 1969, although it was Paul Anka who wrote the words. It’s the most famous example of a popular song that looks back, hence its regular use at funerals; a monument to self-belief verging on arrogance.

To a person my age, it sounds foreign. It comes from an era in which Western popular culture had regained its self-confidence after the Second World War; a time of peace and love when the Beatles were still topping the charts, people were experimenting with new substances and nonconformist lifestyles, and counter-cultural self-expression was often faced with little more than sanguine paternalism.

No, when I think of songs entitled “My Way”, my thoughts turn instead to the peculiar genius of Fred Durst and his Limp Bizkit, the incorrigible scamps who took the impassioned, outward-looking, politically intellectual rap-rock of Rage Against the Machine and made it a vehicle for teenage angst.

“My Way” was released in the early days of 2001, the fourth single from the band’s third album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water. The album sold over a million copies in its first week in the US alone, and has since sold 20 million worldwide. In a conversation with friends earlier today, which prompted me to write this, it was remarked upon how, just prior to the invention of file-sharing on the internet, there was a weird lacuna when bands like this could somehow hit the heights. Somewhere between the grunge revolution of the early ’90s, the Britpop movement a few years later and the New Wave revival of the following decade, a Bermuda Triangle for musical and lyrical expression opened up – and Fred Durst charted a course straight into it.

The song itself is a perfect encapsulation of adolescent self-pity. Musically it’s vaguely competent and catchy in the kind of way that enables angry teenagers to connect immediately: simple soft/loud dynamics, crunching guitars and the kind of compressed, maxed-out production that made the new mp3 file format appear to have no effect on audio quality whatsoever.

But it’s the lyrics that really cook. If Sinatra was the old gent looking back on his life with contentment tinged with pride, Durst is providing the ammunition for the 13 year old kid whose parents won’t let him play video games. It’s the emotion today’s young professionals were raised on, and while I don’t subscribe to the well-trodden idea that the so-called “millennials” are all entitled, selfish narcissists, it helps to explain why their response to adversity can be somewhat impetuous.

Just one more fight
About your leadership
And I will straight up
Leave your shit
Cause I’ve had enough of this
And now I’m pissed

14 Perfect Moments in “A Moon Shaped Pool”

1:01, Burn the Witch

The way the staccato, Stravinskian strings drop away for the first time, to be replaced by low, brooding cellos and Thom Yorke’s full, wailing repeat of the track’s title, hits you with the same kind of gut-wrenching, suddenly sickening intensity as you feel when you almost fall down an open lift shaft.

3:10-3:40, Burn the Witch

The same feeling of teetering on the brink (or, more Radiohead-like, standing on the edge) is extended into an instrumental finale that oozes flames, death and destruction, even if you haven’t seen the Wickerman-inspired video. There’s a brief, disingenuous return to a major chord, which then disintegrates into jagged, discordant, argumentative strings.

2:21-3:02, Daydreaming

Just after Yorke sings “The damage is done”, we enter an extended reverie. It’s in keeping with the song’s title and theme. Halfway through the Reich-esque piano figure’s sojourn, it’s joined by a pulsing bass note that at first seems intended to tether us but then, as the piano swirls around it, shifts and takes up new ground. As a patient instrumental encapsulation of the pain of separation, it is devastating.

1:18, Decks Dark

The synergistic relationship between music and lyrics on A Moon Shaped Pool is arguably the strongest it’s ever been on a Radiohead record.


Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Here, just after Yorke completes the delicate first movement of this soaring, mid-tempo space ballad, he sings “We are helpless to resist”. Immediately, the gorgeous piano arpeggios and tinny drum machine give way to the solidity of Colin Greenwood’s bass, followed swiftly by Phil Selway’s never-sounded-so-real drums and a female voice choir that sounds like it just arrived from Betelgeuse.

3:13-25, Desert Island Disk

This is the tension before the resolution in a song that has spent most of its time meanderingly exploring one chord. Eventually it develops into an psych-folk drama tinged with strange sweeping sounds. The lyrics once again speak of “standing on the edge”, before concluding that “different types of love are possible”. It’s as if the music needs to convince the singer of his conclusion, physically pulling him along.

3:10, Ful Stop

Ful Stop is a dark, muddy, moody, propulsive epic. This is the moment when light breaks in, live drums scattering themselves over everything and Yorke’s mantra-like falsetto backing vocals adding weight to a song that feels monumentally oppressive. “Take me back again”, he sings, later, before the beat returns and a sinuous, Electric Counterpoint-style guitar figure is sprinkled over the top.

1:20-2:00, Glass Eyes

Radiohead no longer write songs so much as compositions. It can be helpful to hear these free-flowing compositions in movements. Here, in the second segment of Glass Eyes, perhaps the album’s most descriptive track, the downward turn of the music is matched by Jonny Greenwood’s expansive strings, which are deliciously cinematic and spacious. They remind me of Copland’s most bucolic, calming moments.

0:53, Identikit

For nearly a minute, we seem to have stumbled into a studio rehearsal or an excerpt that has made it onto the record by mistake. But then Yorke’s up-close-and-personal voice begins to duet with his lost-down-a-well voice, and everything is pulled together, tight, even as it remains loose and louche.

1:59-3:00, Identikit

“Broken hearts make it rain.” The centrepiece of the album, this minute-long stretch of increasingly majestic music, incorporating first Yorke’s vocals, then what sounds like another choir beaming in their contribution from deep space, along with the cutting addition of unusually clean synths that have somehow avoided the usual Greenwood/Godrich warping procedure, perhaps sums up the intensely personal nature of the album. It is this album’s best attempt at surpassing Reckoner’s hitherto unsurpassed “in rainbows” breakdown.

3:35-3:59, The Numbers

The swampy, bluesy juggernaut of this track, which feels like it could be a cover of some forgotten ’60s supergroup, is roadblocked by melodramatic strings, sounding distinctly miffed that they were not given the James Bond gig.

1:49-2:10, Present Tense

Bossa nova is a music designed to deliver lightness of heart. It’s a form that speaks of sun and dancing feet and some sort of delectable rum-based cocktail. You would think that such a delicate structure would buckle under the ironic weight of Thom Yorke beseeching persons unknown, “no one get heavy/don’t get heavy/keep it light and keep it moving/I am doing no harm”.

2:50-3:16, Present Tense

And yet it doesn’t buckle. Somehow, this incongruous bastardized samba keeps its footing. And that is because it is full of small moments of glorious brightness. Here is one, where you realise the heart of this track is Yorke’s total commitment, beyond reason, to the person he’s addressing: “In you I’m lost.”

2:02-19, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief

Phil Selway is not often given centre stage by the band he plays for. Especially since they took a turn away from real instruments. He’s one of the most patient drummers around. But he must live for moments, and songs, like this, when he can sprinkle his cymbal-led embroidery everywhere. His ride cymbal in this too-brief section sounds like it was stolen from the same drum kit as Nick Mason used on Dark Side of the Moon; it’s impossibly elegant.

0:00-4:43, True Love Waits

In common with many of the other songs recorded for this album, I think we are safe to presume that True Love Waits was written for Thom Yorke’s long-term girlfriend, Rachel. The difference is that this song was written at the beginning of their relationship.

The band has never successfully recorded it in the studio, until now. Its inclusion here, in a vastly different arrangement than existed way back in 1995 (video below), is gut-wrenching.

The arrangement itself, to me, betrays the change of heart. Where there was certainty, even triumph, there is now yearning, doubt, even despair.

It is possibly the most honest moment on the most personal album this most sincere of bands has ever released.

You can and should buy A Moon Shaped Pool here.

A Song for Saturday: Rae Morris – Skin

“Skin”, by Rae Morris, is a gorgeous, weary coo; a song that murmurs and flows like a river carving its way through soft sedimentary rock.

It’s the first track on the 23 year old’s debut album, Unguarded, released earlier this year; it’s also comfortably the best song on the record, which is something of a disappointment.

Although Morris’ voice is not much akin to Kate Bush’s, the confidence with which she gently unfolds the sounds on this cut is definitely reminiscent, as is the high-class, elegant, if somewhat self-consciously arty video, shot in monochrome and recalling “Running Up That Hill” in particular.

The tick tock of the music box at the beginning of this song may gradually be overtaken by increasingly authoritative piano and a drum track that ensures a constant sense of momentum, but it’s still there, buried deep in the mix. It creates the same feeling as I get from some of Bush’s work – the feeling that you have heard this somewhere before and that it was only necessary to jog your memory.

Glory and ghosts: Sufjan Stevens at the Royal Festival Hall

When the lights go down and the band slowly walks onto the stage in the darkness, I’m struggling to work out which one of them is Sufjan. I know what he looks like, but there is no indication that he is special or different. It is only when the first piano chords are struck that I am sure his fingers are the ones pressing the keys.

Sufjan Stevens (Photo: Andrew King)

Sufjan Stevens (Photo: Andrew King)

Sufjan does not have the voice or the stature of a man who sings as he does. He is tall and strong. When he speaks for the first time – perhaps an hour and a half into the show – his voice is deep and assured. It is an almost comic contrast.

Because when he sings, the sound is that of a man retreating. It is more than a whisper, far less than a shout. It is more than an echo, far less than a statement. It is the sound of a person caught between the past and the future.

In a word, it is ghostly.


Vesuvius (Photo: Andrew King)

There are many ghosts and spirits in Sufjan’s writing. Even before his best album, Carrie & Lowell, was released this year, he had explored this theme many times before. He plays “Vesuvius” as if it is part of the album, although it was released two years before the death of Carrie, his mother. The arrangement is at first jarringly different – all glitchy electronica – but as the lyrics tumble out it’s clear why he chose this song tonight.

Vesuvius, are you a ghost

Or the symbols of light or a fantasy host?

… Sufjan, the panic inside

The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore

… Vesuvius, fire of fire

Follow me now as I favor the ghost

Vesuvius, fire of fire

Follow me now as I favor the host

… Why does it have to be so hard?

He is either using the volcano as a God-metaphor or he is contrasting the destructive fire of Vesuvius with the purifying fire of the Refiner. And then what of the phrase “murdering ghost”? Why would you “favor the ghost” if it is killing you? Elsewhere in the song, Sufjan sings of following the path that “leads to an article of eminent death”.

That eminent death is also what dominates his most popular song, “To Be Alone With You”. It’s a song beloved by music pickers on American comedy-drama TV shows and romantic films, yet a song that is as explicit about Sufjan’s Christianity as any he has written. In it, he describes the sacrifices made by Jesus:

You gave your body to the lonely, they took your clothes

You gave up a wife and a family, you gave your ghost

To be alone with me, to be alone with me

To be alone with me you went up on that tree

There’s that “ghost” word again. Again the meaning is doubled; he takes a euphemism for death and spins it around the concept of Holy Spirit as ghost. Christ’s death and resurrection are both a culmination and a harbinger in the New Testament, of promises fulfilled and promises yet to be kept. The “ghost”, the holy fire that burns within the Christian’s heart, is what enables a relationship with Jesus to exist, yet for it to arrive that same Jesus had to give up his own ghost.

Outro of Vesuvius - feat. recorder (Photo: Andrew King)

Outro of Vesuvius – feat. recorder (Photo: Andrew King)

No wonder he describes it as a “murdering ghost” in “Vesuvius”. Life through death is what this ghost brings, and so when he gazes into the fire he can sing “I’d rather be burned than be living in debt.”

The Royal Festival Hall is a large space. It is more associated with classical music than with modern forms. It is the kind of room you can hear breathing. It is a place that adds warmth to sound, but leaves each instrument, each chord and each note distinct.

The band Sufjan has chosen is as carefully composed as his music: these musicians’ precision, commitment and talent seems equal to his own. In this place we can hear what each is doing, what each is giving, to this musical monument. This is not mere competence; each person on the stage cares. It is almost as if they have experienced the same weight of grief and confusion as the man at the centre of things.

Carrie & Lowell is both broken and complete. It is the sound of a man raking through all the fragments of his life to find an answer. But this act stirs up as many questions as it answers. The points of exquisite pain on this masterpiece are at their sharpest when these questions are made explicit. And they appear periodically, because grief is not linear or neat or to be reasoned away. And they pour from Sufjan’s lips in a wave that is intense and tender and so raw.

What is that song you sing for the dead?

How did this happen?

What did I do to deserve this?

What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?

What could I have said to raise you from the dead?

Do I care if I survive this?

I wonder did you love me at all?

Friend, why don’t you love me?

How do I live with your ghost? 

Everything about Sufjan Stevens’ performance of this music is meticulous. Nothing is left to chance. I have never seen such seamless precision in live performance. Each song starts and ends neatly, even when accompanied by a wash of ambient sound or a clash of cymbals and percussion. Instruments are carried in and removed by quiet, self-effacing, careful stage assistants. To call them roadies seems entirely demeaning. Everyone moves around the stage in that way: quietly, cautiously, avoiding ceremony.

Reverence (Photo: Andrew King)

Reverence (Photo: Andrew King)

That’s ironic, given that the atmosphere all of this creates is exactly that – a ceremony. Each song feels like a letter etched into a graveside monument. But it also feels like a celebration. A recognition that life continues and that while the ambivalence Sufjan feels about his mother is real, it cannot control him.

It’s more than that, too. To this Christian unbeliever, it feels like a celebration that death cannot hold us. The ability to confront death and all of its pain comes from knowing that there is both something greater than death and something greater than each of our lives. Sufjan believes in a created connectedness that sings out from that stage. It is what enables him to recognise, at the end of “Fourth of July”, that “we’re all gonna die”. This coda becomes a refrain taken up by the whole band, repeated over and over again; it no longer feels despairing but triumphant.

In “Death With Dignity”, the first song on Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan describes his mother’s apparition passing through him. It is painfully clear from the lyrics of almost every song on the album that his connection with her is so slight. The connection is real, literally umbilical. But his confusion is also real, as is the lack of definition; he never really knew her, and he knows it, and he’s almost manufacturing memories.  “Fourth of July” is the most excruciating example of this creative process, as he imagines a conversation between them that may never have taken place.

The first song I heard from the album was “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”. I have completely changed my opinion of the lyrics since I first heard it. At first, I read it almost as a recantation: Sufjan finding no help from the Jesus he had once loved and who he thought loved him. The last verse runs:

There’s blood on that blade

Fuck me, I’m falling apart

My assassin

Like Casper the ghost

There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross

The song is full of the addictions and damaging behaviours Sufjan has tried to get over the grief of his mother’s death. There are many allusions: “I’m chasing the dragon too far”, “I search for the capsule I lost”, “get drunk to get laid/I take one more hit when you depart”. Each is replete with double or triple meanings.

So when it comes to the final stanza, I’ve changed my mind. I might change it again yet. But it’s about that word “shade”. Earlier in the song he’s described how “I slept on my back in the shade of the meadowlark”. A meadowlark is a bird, the state bird of Oregon (and five other US states), in which much of the album is set. Even fully grown, it is only around 22cm long; it would cast only a small shadow.

So what does that word “shade” signify? It is another, older definition Sufjan is using. The word implies a disembodied spirit – a ghost. The “shade of the meadowlark” is just another way of describing the disembodied memories and fragments he is carrying with him through a dark place.

That last verse, read in this light, is turned upon its head. After a moment of weakness and honesty (the blood on the blade seems to refer back to “The Only Thing”, where he contemplates self-harm; ‘fuck me, I’m falling apart’ is as self-explanatory as anything on the entire album), he finds some kind of answer: his mother’s self-destructive behaviour will be the death of him too.

She is the smiling assassin, his Casper the ghost. But there is “no shade in the shadow of the cross”.

The concept of light runs through Carrie & Lowell and the rest of Sufjan’s work like a golden thread. It’s not surprising, then, that the photography and lighting at these shows were entirely exquisite. From the grainy home camera footage backing “Death and Dignity”, to the breaking waves behind “I Should Have Known Better”, there is no shortage of imagery to feast one’s eyes on.

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John My Beloved (Photo: Andrew King)

But the best moments come when there is simplicity. Sufjan, alone at the piano during “John My Beloved”, bathed in spotlights of each colour of the rainbow. Sufjan, gently finger-picking his way through “Eugene”, with a single solitary white beam playing over him. The beginning of “I’m Drawn to the Blood”, where his upward strumming is accompanied by jagged red backlights.

Nico Muhly (Photo: Andrew King)

Nico Muhly (Photo: Andrew King)

The culmination of this delicate display is “Blue Bucket of Gold”. As the song shifts out of its short verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern and into a prolonged, gorgeous ambient passage shifting between just two chords, Sufjan slowly leaves the piano behind, while Nico Muhly ascends to the heights to play the Royal Festival Hall pipe organ. As this transition deepens, the whole auditorium is illuminated solely by white uplights shining directly at two mirror balls. The rest of the stage is black. The overall impression is mournful, even funereal, but also starry. It is the visual embodiment of what is described in the song:

Once the myth has been told

The lens deforms it as lightning

… Search for things to extol

Friend, the fables delight me

My blue bucket of gold

Lord, touch me with lightning

The closing song on the album, it offers little closure. It’s a mixture of recognition that the lack of memories Sufjan has of his mother cannot be filled; that he cannot find in the fragments ‘things to extol’. Instead, he seeks out other ‘fables’; the blue bucket of gold refers to the Blue Bucket Mine in Oregon, a fabled site for a lost treasure.

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As the noise squalls around us, and deep bass notes rattle our bones, Sufjan stands quietly still in the centre of things. The billowing storm of sound is deafening and some people clearly don’t know what to do with themselves. But the band plays on. They are building a monument to a memory that is out of reach. After all the precision, all the neatness, all the clarity of expression, this feels like something else.

It is glorious. It is transcendent. It is a requiem.

The band takes a bow or three (Photo: Andrew King)

The band takes a bow or three (Photo: Andrew King)

NB: All photos in this blog post are credited to Andrew King Photography. If you like what you see, please look at his website.

Lenine – Hoje Eu Quero Sair Só

Lenine is a Brazilian musician who, were there any justice, would be as well known across the world as any American or British singer/songwriter.

One of the best things about Lenine’s music is the way it blends traditional Brazilian forms with Western alternative influences. If only Anglophones were more receptive to lyrics sung in other tongues, they would find him incredibly accessible, but also noticeably innovative and markedly different.

My favourite song by him is Hoje Eu Quero Sair Só. This was on his first solo album, released in 1997, but still getting heavy airplay when I moved to Brazil as a 12 year old in early 2000.

Brazilian music is memorable on its own terms, but its effortless, relaxed sound often enables it to act as a suitable vehicle for lyrics that are sophisticated, emotional and surprisingly direct.

This song is a particularly good example of that phenomenon. It slinks up on you, driven by an acoustic guitar playing a repetitive set of chords in typical post-bossa nova style. If you listen carefully, that guitar is at the centre of the whole song and creates its insistent sound, even when all the bells and whistles of the (very late 90s) production have been added in.

And insistent is the right word for the lyrics as well. Lenine manages to create a sound in this song that exactly matches the desire expressed by its title (“Today I want to go out alone”). The lyrics tell the story of a relationship in which the war between intimacy and liberty is raging.

If you want to follow me, it’s not secure

You don’t want to lock me in a dark room

Sometimes it feels like we got tied up in knots

Today I want to go out alone

You won’t hit me at point-blank range

Come here, let me go, kiss me

Sometimes it feels like we got tied up in knots

Today I want to go out alone

This is a rough translation of the first couple of verses. As with many Portuguese phrases, the English language isn’t actually sufficient to capture the nuances; for example, I’ve chosen “tied up in knots” as a colloquial translation of “as vezes parece até que a gente deu nó”, but by doing so I’ve made it sound more negative than it seems intended to be in the song.

The sense of the song is deeply conflicted. The singer is expressing a need to go out alone where “alone” very definitely means “lacking another”. But he also keeps saying he’ll be back before long.

And then there’s the double-edged phrase “Vai ver se eu tô lá na esquina”. Literally this means “go and see if I’m on the corner”, but in Portuguese it’s a dismissive phrase which basically means “get lost”. Again, though, in this song it’s spun around or at least made more ambivalent by the following phrase “devo estar” – “I must be”.

The way the music is sinuously wrapped around this ambivalence, creating that great sub-tropical night-time feeling that embodies uncertainty, stillness, and the moonlight that calls you to the solitary street, makes this one of the greatest achievements of Lenine’s career and one of the finest introductions I can imagine to “MPB” – Musica Popular Brasileira.

A Thousand Points of Light

Few people will know that the Prime Minister’s Office issues a daily Points of Light award. The awards are designed to reward exceptional acts of community service or volunteering. Some of the people granted awards certainly represent the very best of philanthropic achievement and endeavour.

The phrase “Points of Light” is a direct quote from George H. W. Bush (right), who first used it when accepting his nomination as the 1988 Republican presidential candidate. His speechwriters were attempting to capture the idea of the American community as

a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

In the speech, this undeniably powerful image is immediately followed by a hard-edged passage on social policy, in which inter alia Bush issues his infamous pledge “read my lips: no new taxes”; sings the praises of capital punishment; and demands “zero tolerance” for drug dealers.

To me, the phrase has always seemed backward. Light itself is reliant on darkness in order to create a contrast. The use of the phrase in the speech makes that reliance explicit: these “points of light” are stars. To take the phrase literally, it suggests a predominantly dark environment.

In other words, Bush’s phrase – with its rhetorical intention to create a sense of hope – actually implied the opposite.

Bush went on to win the Presidency. He repeated the “thousand points of light” phrase in his inaugural address. He also wanted a “kinder and gentler nation” – a soundbite that quickly turned sour.

A month later, Neil Young performed a new song live for the first time. It was called “Rockin’ in the Free World”, and it was released on record in November 1989.**

A victim of circumstance, Young’s song would quickly become associated with the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But his poetry had a very different aim. The song was, and remains, a caustic assessment of Bush’s administration: its three verses seethe with ambivalence and anger about the state of American society and the country’s influence in the world – then at its absolute peak.

In the third verse, Young takes direct aim at the emptiness and hypocrisy of political rhetoric:

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand

In two sentences Young demolishes Bush’s insubstantial posturing. The first contrasts the hopey-changey rhetoric of “a thousand points of light” with the darkness that consumes millions of lives. The second mocks “kinder, gentler” by raising the spectre of Bush’s own history as CIA head and Iran/Contra collaborator – not to mention the wider US foreign policy escapades which, in the first verse, had left Young singing “don’t feel like Satan – but I am to them”.

But Young doesn’t stop there. The third verse takes in the US citizen-as-consumer, decrying “department stores and toilet paper/styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”. He then goes on:

Got a man of the people says keep hope alive

And here is the sting in the tail. “Keep hope alive” was Jesse Jackson’s campaign slogan when running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. The mocking tag “man of the people” shows just what Young thinks of it. Against a Republican candidate basing his campaign on shallow rhetoric, the American left in the late 1980s could muster nothing but equally vacuous slogans.

David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an attempt to find another way to say the same thing. Steve Hilton, for a while the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, used to be fond of wearing a tee-shirt that said “Big Society Not Big Government” (see example, right).

The idea presented to us was that as the bloated state got out of the way, it would be replaced by a more active and philanthropic civic society. But as this 2013 demolition of the policy’s pretended principles argued, it was a mere cipher, making room for the same traditional – and inadequate – paternalism.

No wonder it was quietly abandoned.

Nowadays, in the UK in 2015, the Conservative government so lacks ways to veil its continued campaign to unpick a comprehensive state-funded social security system that it is content simply to recycle Bush’s sloganeering. So it doles out daily Points of Light awards.

I do not suggest that the people receiving such awards are undeserving. Their work is valuable and, in many ways, increasingly so. But like the inexorable rise of food banks run by volunteers, the gaps opening up in our society are too wide for them to fill. They are sailors using tiny buckets to bail out a sinking ship as the icy ocean waters begin to freeze their blood.

Here is the nub of the matter: we live in dangerous times. We live in an era when the government is able to pass “reforms” to the social insurance system we have without a shred of opposition from, well, the official opposition. We live in a corrosive atmosphere where the foreigner is increasingly regarded not merely with suspicion but with outright hatred.

And the UK left is about to elect someone whose ability to hammer out an alternative is seriously questionable. In short, they’re going to elect a “man of the people” who says “keep hope alive”, but whose version of hope is as relevant as George H. W. Bush is now. A man who says on becoming leader he will apologise for a war that happened so long ago that the gap between it and today is already as long as the gap between it and the war that preceded it.

When people see that this “man of the people” is nothing more than a decent human being trapped in a vice of his own devising, slowly squeezed to death by a combination of a totally idealistic left and a resistant right, they will turn elsewhere. They will look for other populist movements. They will look for other plain talkers. And most of all, they will want someone whose politics match their fears.

Meanwhile those same fears will be amplified, by degrees and by stealth, by the government, which will chart a course that, by comparison, seems all moderation and good sense.

Got fuel to burn. Got roads to drive.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world.*

*The total usurpation of this song was completed recently by Donald Trump’s unauthorised decision to use it when announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The wheel turns.

**The performance Neil Young gave of RITFW on Saturday Night Live in 1989 is justly regarded as one of the greatest live TV performances of all time. He worked himself into a frenzy backstage in order to mimic the feeling of performing an encore after a full two hour set. And it shows.

A Song for Saturday: Bjork – Black Lake

I have a tenuous relationship with Bjork’s music. She released her ninth studio album, Vulnicura, meaning “Cure for Wounds” in January this year, and it’s certainly not a summery listen, but I’ve come to it late, so you’ll have to deal with this somewhat unseasonal choice.

The album is as conceptual as any of her previous work, dealing with the break-up of her long-term relationship with artist Matthew Barney. It is a work of deep emotional honesty and can be quite difficult to listen to at points. Thankfully the pain of the lyrics is matched by the beauty of the music, which signals at least a partial return to the “beats and strings” approach of her early albums, Debut and especially 1997’s Homogenic, which remains my favourite of hers.

(Incidentally, 1997 was probably the greatest single year for music since the 1970s.)

“Black Lake” is the dark heart of the album, which is so precisely linked to real-life events that many of the tracks have subtitles detailing the number of months before or after the break-up. 10 minutes long, it was written “two months after”, and bears the hallmarks of the stuttering beginnings of understanding and anger that swirl around at such a time.

The singer herself professes to be embarrassed by the track, and this quote sums up perfectly the feeling it creates as you listen to it:

It’s like, when you’re trying to express something and you sort of start, but then nothing comes out. You can maybe utter five words and then you’re just stuck in the pain. And the chords in-between, they sort of represent that. […] We called them “the freezes,” these moments between the verses. They’re longer than the verses, actually. It’s just that one emotion when you’re stuck. It is hard, but it’s also the only way to escape the pain, just going back and having another go, trying to make another verse.

The film made to accompany the music is also characteristically beautiful and overwrought in equal measure.

A Song for Saturday: Tom Paxton – On the Road from Srebrenica

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War. The death toll in Srebrenica was more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, gunned down by the Bosnian Serbs under the generalship of Ratko Mladic, who remains on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity, including the events at Srebrenica.

I have been fascinated and disturbed by the genocide at Srebrenica since my childhood. One of my earliest memories is watching news footage of the Bosnian war and the Siege of Sarajevo; I have a vivid memory of the smoke and flames billowing from the Parliament building, and the distinctive yellow block of the Holiday Inn, where most of the foreign media were based during the war.

Srebrenica has special resonance for me partly because of a song written by the American folk singer, Tom Paxton. We used to listen to Tom Paxton a lot when I was a child, and many of his songs were cutesy throwaways: zany treats like “Goin’ to the Zoo” and funny little vignettes such as “I Don’t Want a Bunny Wunny“, a musing upon President Jimmy Carter’s encounter with a vicious killer rabbit.

On the Road from Srebrenica, though, is Paxton at his most visceral, serious and human; a mournful retelling of the brutal violence meted out, through a series of disturbing images. The lyrics zoom in and out from individuals among the panicked thousands fleeing; they dwell on the sickening efficacy of the murder; they provide that mixture of awful dread and just enough humanity (in the carefully hopeful third verse) to sock you in the gut every time you listen to it.

Ok, it has some poetic licence: Paxton seems obsessed with the idea that the weather was cold, even though the massacre occurred in July, and Eastern European countries including Bosnia are generally very warm at that time of year. But the essential truth of the song can’t be denied.

It is a fitting memorial for one of the greatest blots on human history. It still astonishes me that this occurred in my lifetime.