Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writing Nice Things Is Hard

I’ve written approximately bugger-all, anywhere, about what are pretty much my two favourite albums of this year; Rook by Shearwater, and The Devil, You & Me by The Notwist. (Polar Bear I have managed to write about, though.)

I’ve spent ages trying to express quite what I don’t get about Radiohead though – but can’t motivate myself to express what I do get about The Notwist. Why is this?

Sometimes I wonder whether I do in fact love, say, The Notwist’s new album all that much, because I have difficulty in remembering individual tracks, or moments within tracks, when I’m not actually listening to it – I couldn’t tell you how any of the songs go, for instance.

The positivist in me says that I’ve just heard SO MUCH music in my life now that unless things are amazingly super catchy they’ll never stick (I can hum / sing along with all The Notwist’s album easily while it’s on; and Shearwater’s, and Polar Bear’s too for that matter) unless I play them a billion times and play nothing else. Simple ratio of quantity of music to time dictates that I can never listen to The Devil, You & Me as much as a 29-year-old as I listened to Misplaced Childhood by Marillion as an eleven-year-old.

The nasty cynic in me says “you don’t actually like these records, you’ve just found a consistent aesthetic which you find ideologically acceptable and these fit it, so you make yourself like them”. Luckily, I don’t listen to that voice much, or I’d be Patrick Bateman. (He is becoming an alarmingly recurrent figure in this blog.)

I do know that there’s something (forgive me, Ian) phenomenological I love about listening to them… I did a little philosophy at university, but nothing on phenomenology. I could look it up on Wikipedia but that would be crass and reductionist, and I figure that a blinkered, fifth-hand understanding of the word is worse than just… reinterpreting it for myself. So I’m using the term as someone who likes the sound of it and what it might mean in the context of music; a meaning which I take to be about the process, the contact, the phenomenon of listening. The term appeals to me because of its connotations of sensation and physicality over abstraction. It’s not the philosophy of mind or religion or etymology, but the philosophy of phenomena, of experiences, of life.

Dictionary.com tells me that 'phenomena' means

a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable: to study the phenomena of nature.
something that is impressive or extraordinary.
a remarkable or exceptional person; prodigy; wonder.
an appearance or immediate object of awareness in experience.
Kantianism. a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself.

So I’m taking 1 as my definition here, aware that 4 seems to contradict me a little, because maybe I mean noumenon, because I’m trying to talk about the thing… but my experience of the thing is all about how I run it through my mind, my consciousness, how I experience it, and I am indistinguishable from my mind. So, yes, I’ll use that word, and await a bewildered and bewildering exegesis of whether it makes any sense to a genuine philosophical mind from Ian in the comments.

But anyway, two minutes into “Where In This World” when the rhythm gallops but the tune dissolves into whirrs and pulses, Markus Acher’s calming, beta-blocker of a voice absent and the record (and the world it creates) just… continuing… unabated. Unconscious of his presence or of his absence. As if the sound would be there whether he was or not. Much like one minute into “Alphabet”. And the detail, the texture, is rich enough to be real, even though it is a strange, unreal, digital sound. But it is… the opposite, almost, of Radiohead’s strange, unreal, digital sounds, which accentuate their unrealness, and which hold little or no tangible joy for me.

Then there is Shearwater’s album, Rook, which makes many obvious nods to Talk Talk’s latter day material, and is thus some kind of catnip to me, and the fact that I fell for it so deeply is example of just how much of my own target-market I am, how much of a sucker for a certain kind of product. But then… the INTERJECTION – here is a madness alert – I have the CD case ON MY DESK in front of the monitor and the vinyl sleeve literally within arm’s reach, and still I was surfing towards Amazon in order to see a tracklisting; how broken am I, how lazy?! I now recall a time I downloaded “Groove Is In The Heart” rather than walk eight paces and pick the CD off the shelf, a moment which inspired the writing of this.

Interjection over. Shearwater. Rook. When the second guitar fires-up in the left-channel during the start of “Century Eyes” and the two together suddenly become raw, raggedy-edged, tactile; the desolate, lonely, tiny piano to close “I Was A Cloud”, a sound of which the physical, sonic, phenomenological qualities reflect the ethereality, the ephemeral-ness, of the song title. Countless moments when Jonathan Meiberg’s voice does something extraordinary, and, because of the lack of reverb added to it, phenomenologically bizarre, surreal because it is all too real. The bent atmospherics of “South Col”. The moment the trumpet sears atop the tumult of “The Snow Leopard”, and ends it, sunders it. The whole tone of the album, which makes mystical things seem real, makes real things seem mystical, makes me fear for the environment and also fear the environment, because it is a thing bigger than us and it will survive us by becoming unrecognisable to us.

That’s why it’s hard writing nice things; half the time they come out as ridiculous nonsense.


John Blonde said...

"You don’t actually like these records, you’ve just found a consistent aesthetic which you find ideologically acceptable and these fit it, so you make yourself like them."

What a fine observation.

I'm friends with about a half dozen music geeks and each December a flurry of emails is exchanged talking about the records of the past year. Sometimes there'll be albums talked about that I can't say I actually know much about besides how the spine looks on my shelf. Maybe the problem isn't that we're no longer 11 and don't have the time to know every moment of a record, but that we're all trying to absorb too much.

When we were younger we owned much less music and therefore the stuff we had was special. Maybe it's time to cut back and listen more to less.

That said, the new Notwist is excellent.

Ian said...

Actually, Nick, you've done pretty well for an ad hoc definition of phenomenology. There's an (academic) method you're not getting into, but the gist is there.

Sick Mouthy said...