It’s adorable to hear a kid barely out of school lamenting about how much hard living he’s seen. Most of us at 17 haven’t seen very much beyond our own living room. There are, of course and unfortunately, plenty of children who’ve seen lifetimes of horror in the years in takes most of us to figure out there’s no Easter bunny, but I have it on good authority that Jake Bugg wasn’t one of them. But here is where the artistry comes in. If you can’t imagine a life outside your own circle, you’re not much of an artist, and songwriting is all about empathy and imagination. If Jake can imagine himself as a real tough who’s been to a lot of knife fights, we can imagine it too.
Lucinda Williams can be hard to listen to sometimes. She writes about real life, life so real it doesn’t belong in the world of entertainment. There are things that even songwriters, novelists and poets have a hard time confronting head-on, and those are people whose business is to confront the human condition. It’s also their job to make the human condition bearable, and some things just can’t ever be made bearable. Suicide is one of those things. Sure, there’s a lot of songs and poetry about suicide, books and Netflix shows about it, paintings of Ophelia looking luminous in her watery grave. Which just goes to show that there is literally nothing in the world too ugly to be turned into an Instagram aesthetic. But that’s just posturing, not real life. Real life tragedy burns a ragged hole in the people who experience it, right down to the soul. That’s something we like to avert our eyes from, not seek to be entertained by. It’s something only the most fearless artists dare to confront, and what they come up with isn’t really ‘entertainment’. More like collective therapy, personal catharsis, a lesson of some kind, a moment of empathy and recognition. The real experience of grief makes art that can’t be mistaken for exploitation or romanticized posturing. Lucinda wrote this song for the singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt, who died by suicide partly because (and it will always be partly and it’s always conjecture, and we’ll never truly ever know these things) he could not, even as a relatively well-known and successful musician, afford the medical care he needed as a disabled person.
I’ve long been saying that pop music needs more choirs. Gospel choirs, children’s choirs, Gregorian monk choirs, you name it. There’s just something magical about two dozen people’s voices all coming together into one. There’s no substitute for it. If you need more humanity on your record, hire a choir. So, if you’re compiling a playlist of well-deployed choirs in pop, here’s a candidate by Moby, whose bread-and-vegan-butter-substitute is adding nuggets of vintage humanity to futuristic electronic soundscapes.
Wherever you were in 2014, I hope you fell in love. Like, with a person who reciprocated your feelings and stuff. Me, I actually did the opposite, but I did fall in love with Future Islands, and falling in love with music is way better than getting attached to people. (I’m totally warming up to celebrate the anniversary of my most miserable breakup, stay tuned for that shit.) What music does, and why we cling to it so much, is make art out of feelings. Feelings are mundane, hormonal and stupid; art is forever, and it validates the feelings that created it and the feelings that it creates in turn. Every once in a while a song will come on the radio that just speaks to every feeling you’ve ever had, and you’re like “Yes! welcome to the soundtrack of my life!” So it stays on in your life long after whatever it was you were doing that day or than summer or that year has faded from memory. Fortunately for me, as it were, this doesn’t remind me so much of the shitty summer of 2014, but it does remind me of someone I spent some time with sometime later, who was charming and fun, and who I have no hard feelings towards, though I have no real desire to see them again.
(Photo by Harry J. Roth)
Changing gears to an entirely different mood. Ladytron certainly creates a sustained atmosphere, and it’s a long way from chilling at the seaside. It’s sleek, hypnotic, distinctly continental, reminiscent of long nights specked with glitter and cocaine. If dancing and twitching all night in a faded-velvet upholstered nightclub is your happy place, well then, welcome to your happy place. Ladytron takes their cues straight from the source: European glam-rock, of course. It’s music that reflects a precise moment of inspiration. Original story: the dissident art kid who buys a Roxy Music album on the black market in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Get outta here with your songs about seahorses, Devendra Banhart, go back to 1968 where you belong. Banhart very often sounds like he’s channeling the spirit of 60’s psychedelic folk music. Imagine peak Donovan, with more Latin flair. Which is not at all a drag. 60’s psychedelic folk is one movement that yearns for a full revival. We really could use more idealism and gentle fantasy in our pop culture right now. We need more songs about seahorses and wonderful things. We need pop stars who see the world as glittering and full of magic. We need some fucking whimsy over here, please.
If you’ve been hunting for something enjoyably downbeat and relaxingly depressing, something that’s just really really good to mope to, may I recommend The National. Singer Matt Berninger just has a sad voice, the way some people have sad eyes. Not all of their songs are trying to be sad, but there’s definitely a lot of them that are about love (the sad kind) and crying and at least one song appears to be about suicide (it isn’t this one.) This song is actually one of their less gloomy offerings, having a little bit of a faster tempo, though, of course, the lyrics are still mopey. It’s perfect music for crying in the bathtub, and don’t you even try to tell me you don’t have a ‘crying in the bathtub’ playlist. Let this be a valuable new addition to that playlist.