I woke up late this morning. Or rather, I woke up early, before 9, to the sound of the garbage truck. It's never woken me up before, but then again, tonight the window in our bedroom was open. So I then fell back asleep and didn't wake up until after 11. This is a bad thing.
One thing about the work schedule I now have (3-11, Monday-Friday) is that it places at least some of the rest of my day under certain restraints. I have to do the dishes every day now, whether I want to or not, and I have to make a meal and also make and eat another one before leaving for work. Today I am going into the university with K. to see some people before work, so the time pressure I am under is much worse.
All of which makes me glad I chose Radiohead's 'Permanent Daylight' for this week's WES, and that I didn't do the responsible thing and get it finished the night before.
For a while, somewhere between The Bends and the post-OK Computer EP Airbag, Radiohead specialised in a couple different kinds of songs. One of these was the kind, and this is difficult to sum up in words, that could be easily soundtrack in a video to some white collar drone slowly going insane. In fact, for one of the Airbag tracks, 'Palo Alto', that's basically what the video was. The focus was on white collar in general, but when you're going for a mood of alienation and rejection, why focus on one person?
'Permanent Daylight' is an older b side, from the My Iron Lung EP, and from something I read on a fan site a long, long time ago, when I was just getting into music and Radiohead were the first band I liked, it was a bit of an homage to Sonic Youth. I don't see it myself, then or now. It's short, loud, and Thom Yorke's normally pristine vocals are distorted almost out of existence.
The lyrics are short. In their entirety they read:
The easiest way to sleep at night is to
Carry on believing that I don't exist
The easiest way to sell your soul is to
Carry on believing that we don't exist
It must be hard with your head on backward
As with many of this sort of Radiohead songs they speak of resentment not anger, frustration not despair, sarcasm not hate. Which is not to say that Radiohead would go on to include those latter qualities; their later-period work may not be the same thing at the era that spawned 'Permanent Daylight', but I've so far found no harm in giving it the benefit of the doubt.
This is an old song, and not one that used to be one of my favorites. So why did it pop into my head five minutes into shift yesterday and stay locked there?
The reason is the title. I have had nights where I have been goofing off and looked up and it is dark outside my window and I've thought 'oh, it's night now'. But working in a factory is entirely different. We tend to keep the side doors open so that some fresh air comes in, and I remember looking across at one of them at about 10 pm yesterday and being surpised that it wasn't night. When you're sitting in your apartment the light slowly alters as day draws on; the quality of light in the plant, open 24 hours, never changes. Permanent daylight. It kind of messes with your head.
But also, last night I was bored out of my skull for long stretches of observation. I actually spent part of the night walking in circles, to ease the pain in my feet and to occupy myself. Sure, Radiohead usually framed songs like this with scenes of officebound ennui and stress, but a more industrial setting for them wouldn't have altered the content in the least. And considering I'm going from an easy office job I've done for years to an interesting albeit challenging factory one, right now my mind is more where 'Permanent Daylight' is at.
I woke up this morning with some stuff I wish I'd thought of yesterday and added into the column; here it is.
Belle & Sebastian make outsider music as much as any death metal band does. The outsider each tries to reach is, of course, different; in Belle & Sebastian's case, where men are always boys, women are always girls, and school is always on, their audience is composed of the people who make up the subjects of their songs. Girls who sculpt the Velvet Underground in clay for a high school project; Boys who are hapless and lazy and vaguely artistic and so forth. Indie kids, mostly. Of course, we should keep in mind the couplet I mentioned yesterday: Being a rebel's fine/But you go all the way to being brutal. While not as retiring as, say, the Field Mice, Belle & Sebastian also speak to the meek, the shy, the marginal, the can't-be-arsed.
The band has managed to reap a large audience beyond that, due to the pure beauty of the songs, but those are the people, as a rule, who think that the band speaks to them. Lately they've also begun poking fun at themselves and their audience ('Nice Day For A Sulk' being the prime example). Their audience is often annoying, sometimes even to them, and when the odd burst of action and determination bursts through the restrained loveliness of most of Belle & Sebastian's output, it is both wonderful simply for the contrast and also proves that they can do it when they choose. The wonderful 'La Pastie De La Bourgeosie', from the same series of EPs as 'Lazy Line Painter Jane', is perhaps the most thrilling example of this, but 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' definitely belongs to the same part of Belle & Sebastian's oeuvre. There is a determination here; Jane may be sleeping in bus stops, but she has a resolve often lacking from Belle & Sebastian's songs. She will have a boy tonight, maybe she will have a boy tonight, and she hopes the world will see. But in any case, she's thinking about her name, and not how to live with it, but what she's going to do about it.
Recently I wrote briefly about my love for Belle & Sebastian's most recent album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. As Belle & Sebastian are one of the bands I love but don't listen to terribly often, this sparked a mini-renaissence in my Belle & Sebastian listening. That, combined with the albility of my Minidisc player to put all three of the EPs in the Lazy Line Painter Jane box set into one group*, had me listening to this song again recently.
If I love Belle & Sebastian, then why do I listen to them so rarely? The question could be applied, quite frankly, to vast tracts of my record collection; but the answer would only rarely be the same for different bands. In Belle & Sebastian's case, and this might be one of the more common explanations, I forget the way they make me feel. Some bands just feel right to some people, and Belle & Sebastian became one of those for me right after I heard 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' the first time. There's never that many of them, New Order being the only one that springs to mind right now, and they are precious.
The song itself, of course, is marvelous. It is long, almost six minutes, certainly one of the longer songs in the Belle & Sebastian discography**, but it is one of those rare and precious songs that ends too quickly for me, even with an extended instrumental coda.
'This Is Just A Modern Rock Song' is perhaps a good song to compare 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' to. The former is, even at its height, still melancholy, and it seems to me that its length is to give the song time to stretch out and take flight. 'Lazy Line Painter Jane', on the other hand, is flying from the beginning, and stretches out of pure joy over the pleasure of the song. The lyrics aren't that happy (although Being a rebel's fine/But you go all the way to being brutal is still one of my favorite couplets), but there is confidence in the chorus, and Stuart Murdoch and Monica Queen both infuse You will have a boy tonight/Or you will have a girl tonight with a kind of heedless glee; the possibility that she won't just doesn't occur. And that organ! It hovers and flits in the background behind the band's sixties groove, and finally breaks free at the end, during the instrumental coda, and then the whole song just lifts. There is perhaps no other stretch of music that gives me the same feeling of pure joy as the end section of 'Lazy Line Painter Jane', from Lazy Jane/All the time/Painting lines/You are sleeping at bus stops/Wondering how you got your name/And what you're going to do about it to the end.
Queen deserves at least some of the credit here. Murdoch is the nominal frontman of Belle & Sebastian, but Queen is a bit of an enigma. Her voice is amazing; powerful, throaty and full. I've never heard her anywhere else, and don't really expect to, although I'd love to. Sure, I could Google her, but there's a certain appeal in having that voice remain mysterious.
Any time I put something together where I've decided to try to restrain each band to one song (and Wednesday's Emotional Setup is one of those things, although how will be explained in the future), some bands always frustrate me. Ultimately the song I choose for them will be a stand in for other songs of theirs. On another project I'm working on Belle & Sebastian's stand in is 'This Is Just A Modern Rock Song', but here it's 'Lazy Line Painter Jane'. It is, like some of my other favorite Belle & Sebastian songs, strangely cinematic, both of its time and also timeless, and full of joy. Not the empty, hollow sort of joy that accompanies most 'uplifting' songs (and, sadly, most Christian music; Low is a notable exception), but one that fully recognizes what we often have to fight through to find happiness.
*Living in Canada, my first exposure to those EPs was as a set, and so I persist in thinking of them as such, as almost another album. I did, however, omit 'A Century Of Elvis' from the minidisc version.
**If my memory serves me, only 'The Rollercoaster Ride' and 'This Is Just A Modern Rock Song' are longer.
It is with some trepidation that I bought Think Tank, Blur's new album. This was tempered with chagrin when I discovered that I could have obtained it for free, from the school paper, had I waited for a few days. I've only listened to it once so far, not nearly enough to have formed an opinion yet. So all I have is 'Out Of Time', the single, which I downloaded a while ago. That alone would not be enough for me to do a column on, but 'Out Of Time' is happily enough one in a long line of my favorite kind of Blur songs, the heartsick ballad, and I've been listening to them a lot recently.
Last week was, for all intents and purposes, my party week. Tuesday night to Friday night, inclusive, I was somewhere that was not my apartment, drinking at least a little, and staying up late. Considering how often I could afford to do this during school (i.e. maybe on the weekends), this was a lot of fun, culminating in a fairly major drunk at the Albion and Underground on Friday. This ended with some of my friends being quite sick, although thankfully I dodged that bullet. I then went home with K. for Mother's Day. Bit of recuperation. The reason for no normal journal entries in the interim is the simple fact that nothing else really happened. I've been lazy.
On Friday, at the Albion, I put on one of my customary Albion jukebox songs, Blur's 'I'm Just A Killer For Your Love'. In its lurching, uneasy guitar line, muttered vocals and vaguely menacing sentiment, it is the perfect song for hunching over a table with a few chums and murdering a pitcher or five. 'I'm Just A Killer For Your Love' comes from Blur's self-titled album, which was the first thing I ever bought by them (and, serindipitously enough, the most recent I bought, after getting rid of it a while ago).
I was not one of the 'Song 2' converts, not really. I'd heard it, and liked it, but this was when I had just started reading NME, and the reviews for Blur's albums were (at the time) uniformly glowing. So I picked it up, and really liked it. Living at the time in a town of 6,000, with only a Radio Shack selling CDs, meant that when said Radio Shack stocked anything I even recognized, I snapped it up. Such was the case with 13, Blur's next album, which was nothing if not a change, but again, I liked it. I didn't have the baggage involved with starting to listen to the band back in the Modern Life Is Rubbish era. I have since picked up The Great Escape (choosing it over Parklife solely because it had 'The Universal' on it).
So, unlike a lot of Blur fans, I don't view each new song and album through the prism of "well, it's not as good as their classic stuff". 'Out Of Time' still appeared at first listen to be rather underwhelming. It's Damon and his acoustic, with various sound effects*. Not as sweeping as 'The Universal' or 'This Is A Low', nor as despondent as 'He Thought Of Cars' (still one of my favorite Blur songs) or 'Yuko And Hiro'. Nevertheless, 'Out Of Time' shares an ancestry with all those songs.
The most notable thing about 'Out Of Time' to me is that it seems like Damon is singing to himself. This is not a criticism, necessarily; if Blur is a great band, as many have contended (including myself on occasion), then it is the sort of great band that have been self-reflexive from the very start. My cursory reading of Think Tank seems to show that Damon is very much over Justine, at least in terms of airing his dirty laundry in public, and so the lines You've been so busy lately, that you haven't found the time/To open up your mind/And watch the world spinning, gently out of time find their most appropriate target in Damon himself. And if 'Out Of Time' is a gentle rebuke to the singer himself rather than grandiose tales of loss that generally inhabit Blur's songs, than this can only point to a more mature outlook from the band, Graham Coxon's departure notwithstanding.
Also note that in most songs by Blur or elsewhere, the "world spinning gently out of time" line would not be a good thing. Not only does the delivery here take away any sort of menace or fear from it, but the world 'gently' would seem an odd juxtaposition if that wasn't the way Damon sang it. But his delivery turns it from some vague disaster into something that sounds natural, peaceful even. There is a reproach here, but it's more rueful than anything else. Later in the song, after these lines he adds Tell me I'm not dreaming/But are we really out of time?, which only reinforce what Damon says in Think Tank's first track, 'Ambulance': No I ain't got nothing to be scared of.
The impression, ultimately, is not one of doom, but of fate. If before Blur Blur had social anxiety (as do all good social critics), and during it and 13 we see the turmoil of a relationship and a band ripping themselves apart (although Blur seem to have survived the amputation successfully), Think Tank finds Blur, and Damon, at peace with themselves for the first time. If that adds a bittersweet tang to the proceedings, it doesn't necessarily have to reduce Blur's effectiveness.
The reason 'He Thought Of Cars' is one of my favorite Blur tracks is, of course, the chorus: He thought of cars and where, where to drive them/And who to drive them with/But there, there was no-one/No-one are some of the saddest lines around in their utter despair - not only have the character's ambitions shrunk to thinking about cars, but even there he is resolutely defeated at every turn. And above and beyond that, Damon's performance is one that must be heard - heartbreaking not for the sadness in his voice, but in the dull, hopeless monotone he adopts, mirroring his subject. Many of Blur's older songs were like this, and while it didn't exactly quiet any fears of Damon cracking up, they were great songs. Now he sounds well-adjusted, and if that's to be devoutly desired on the one hand, on the other there's the question of whether he can still tap into the part of himself that lets him make such great songs. Because 'Out Of Time' is a good song, maybe even a very good one, but not a great one.
*Of course, closer examination reveals 'Out Of Time' is a full band song, albeit a quiet one. It's the impression of minimalism that I'm referring to here, which in itself is interesting, as Blur's ballads generally don't take that tack.
Hefner are an interesting band, and they've gotten a lot more interesting in the last few years. Originally they played the sort of bedsit indie rock that critics and a small fanbase find intoxicating and most other just find annoying, but recently Darren Hayman has revealed a deep love for vintage synthesizers and a willingness to use them. There are two caveats to this, two preemptive responses to possibly unspoken questions: the first is that Dead Media, the album where Hefner first employed their new style, came out back in 2001, and all indications from their making-of dairy indicates that this was no attempt to hitch onto the nascent 'electroclash' bandwagon, and indeed their sound has never really gone in the same direction as, say, Ladytron. The second caveat is to reassure the timid reader that Hayman has not simply bolted some squeaks and squelches to the existing indie chassis; instead Hefner have taken the more interesting turn of putting out full-fledged tracks of what might bear a slight resemblence to synth-pop, where their more traditional output recently has tended more towards the quiet, folkier end of the pre-existing Hefner spectrum.
'Dark Hearted Discos' is an example of the former from 2002's The Hefner Brain EP, and it is remarkable for two reasons. The first is the lyrics, marking a new turn, or maybe the completion of that turn, in Hayman's writing. The other is simply that it is one of the best songs Hefner has produced out of a fertile field, with a chorus that is nigh-irresistable.
The lyrics are phrased basically as advice from Hayman to a younger female (he calls her 'sweetheart', but this being Hayman, that may not mean anything). I once characterised earlier Hefner as being a series of songs in which Hayman is perpetually losing the girl, has lost the girl, or is about to cheat on the girl, but that has gradually faded with age. Early Hefner was touched with adolescence in much the same way as the Buzzcocks, last week's subjects, were. This is not a criticism - much of rock is about adolescent urges or feelings in some sense, and harnessing it creatively can be a powerful thing. In early Hefner the love songs and the lost-love songs are exaggerated with hormones and longing (witness a song as early as 'The Librarian': Her tears have not truly been dried 'til her tears have been dried on his tattered shirt sleeves/Her body has not truly been stripped 'til her clothes have been ripped by his nail bitten fingers; as with most of our adolescent proclamations its patently false and a bit dodgy when written down, but sung it's glorious). One of the functions of rock music, if not the only one, is to glorify that ackwardness, that feeling of separation and specialness, that comes in teenhood.*
It is interesting to note that a sentiment that has recurred twice in recent Hefner songs is that 'life without you is half a life'. while codependancy in music lyrics is far too prevalent, and generally odious, here it is interesting to note that in the past Hayman would be too busy either treating her horribly or projecting his own desires onto her to truly assess what losing her would be like. His realisation that life is, in fact, better with her, and that alone is enough to be happy, mirrors Rob Gordon's progression through "High Fidelity". Neither Gordon nor Hayman (nor any of us, of course), ever fully succeeds, but at least they try.
'Dark Hearted Discos' marks one of the first times that Hayman explicitly puts himself into the role of the older, wiser person. The song starts off with In the 1980s we had dark hearted discos/With dark hearted disco queens. Hayman has often dealt with remembrances of the past, but he has never had any truck with something as facile as nostalgia. As has been often noted, nostalgia colors everything more positively than it actually was, and although Hayman no doubt had some good times in the discos, they weren't good places. I'm sure we've all been to the equivalent of a dark hearted disco, whatever it was called. Those establishments where it seems to be impossible to make friends, with the cold pickup artists playing their intricately simple games and the bad drinks and the girls who you would never, really, want to meet: the dark hearted disco queens. I'm not going to be picking through the song line by line, but it's significant that the most pronounced difference between Hayman's narrator and the girl he's talking to comes soon after, while still talking about the disco queens: Oh sure, I bet you're right, i bet they were unhappy/Oh sweetheart you can be a child, just as long as you want. I don't take the latter line to be reassurance; he's clearly disagreeing with some part of her assertion. On the one hand, he's dismissing the naive belief that since they were unpleasant people, the disco queens must naturally have been/are unhappy - life doesn't work that way, even if it has happened to this time. But he's also, I think, rejecting the idea that we should take pleasure from their pain, or even worry ourselves with whether they are feeling pain. Life is, always, too short. A marked contrast with some of Hayman's older sentiments, for example the blunt statement in 'Another Better Friend' that No matter how you try you'll never be as cheap as me.
Which leads nicely into the advice offered in the chorus: It's only love, don't break your heart/It's only faith, don't push too hard/Cause you've got time and you can start again/It's only sex, you've got to laugh/God don't exist, don't pray too hard/Cause you've got time and you can start again. Here, certainly, is a rejection of nostalgia. But if 'What Do I Get' was the disingenious concealment of knowledge behind an affected pose of ignorance and youth, 'Dark Hearted Discos' is the opposite, Hayman hiding his lack of certainty behind cynical advice. Not that it's bad - any advice to the young that includes the fact that they are going to screw up, but that it's not fatal to do so has got something right. Hayman's ghostly, slightly tired delivery, especially on the you've got to laugh, humanizes the advice; it's not so much the "oh, you know, you've got to laugh" kind of defeatism and a command: to live, you have to laugh.
This is all matched, of course, to a steady disco pulse, reaching the heights of its effectiveness as the chorus is repeated near the end. As with all effective dance music, made in whatever way, it seems to be reaching for some sort of transcendance. And what would you get if the girl follows Hayman's advice? Someone self-contained, certainly, but that's highly underrated in our society. You'd also get someone with humour, a sense of hope, but perhaps a bit too cautious. You could do much worse. Or, as Hayman himself puts it: I am old but not wise and I think you could do better/If you've patience and tolerance
* One of the best recent examples of this was JJ72's self-titled debut. When you have Mark Greaney howling Why won't it snow/Like they said it would you're clearly dealing with either a person in an arrested state of development or a deliberate attempt to capture something. True, the album came out before any of them were 20, but having spoken to Greaney, I can confirm it was the latter. Greaney said he has been trying to sing on that album "as if no-one had ever meant a love song like that before", and he mostly succeeds. The album thrusts you back into the mindset where everything that matters matters completely and utterly and you will always feel the way you do right now. Until the next thing comes along. One of the chief disappointments of I To Sky, their next album, is that it loses that sense of angst, although sonically all elements are in place.
Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.
imathers at gmail dot com