Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 POP: A TOP TEN

10) The Tallest Man on Earth – Burden of Tomorrow


This is utterly devoid of idiosyncrasy, originality, discord, or any of the other things that usually make pop great. Nevertheless, it’s possibly the best song in the Top 10 for sheer endorphin-inducing melodic brilliance.

The Tallest Man on Earth sounds exactly like a person who isn’t Bob Dylan doing an exquisite impression of Bob Dylan. Analysis-wise, I don’t really have anything more to add, except to say that he is brilliant regardless of this fact.

“Burden of Tomorrow” turns and twists and bends, then it leaps and soars and resounds from the top of a mountain before saying, once I held a pony by it’s a-flagging mane! Then it shimmies around and around and judders and soars again and says once I held a glacier to an a-open flame! before it ends, perfectly.

9) Sleigh Bells – Crown on the Ground


Unlike The Tallest Man on Earth, Sleigh Bells sound totally new and wonderfully discordant. They are also quite breathtakingly loud.

Their genuinely loud loudness is proof that smashing established sonic barriers to smithereens can still be a defining part of avant-garde pop practice. One of postmodernism’s most patently bogus maxims was that everything has been done before; hence we might as well recycle the past. In actual fact, there is still lots left to do, and thankfully, people like Sleigh Bells are still doing it.

They splice together beatific nineties-style girl pop with monolithic slabs of guitar and utterly disorienting Dan Deacon-esque programming. The results are startling. “Crown on the Ground” sounds like David Lynch pumped to the gills with amphetamines and happy pills (ie. very good).

8) Owen Pallett – E is for Estranged


The template here is filmic pop-minimalism of the Michael Nyman/Yann Tiersen variety. But Owen Pallett is charming and delicate enough to ensure he rises way above middlebrow Classic FM territory.

“E is for Estranged” features vamping piano chords redolent of Blur’s “Sing”, and shows that vaudeville stripped of jovial irony and put into a minor key is one of pop’s golden formulas (see also: those Smiths). If only Blur had done this more often they might have been a great band, instead of an infuriating 50/50 mixture of excellence and mockney tat.

Owen Pallett is one of the very few live performances I have enjoyed, ever. The Reichian phasing also makes more sense in the context of the loop-pedal live act. Sublime, evocative, orchestral queer-pop of the highest order.

7) Deerhunter – Helicopter


I hesitate to include this, because Deerhunter have been getting more than enough props from other sources, notably Pitchfork. This makes me suspicious. They’re not all that amazing really are they? An above-average indie band from 1993.

“Helicopter” though is the closest thing to consensual alt-rock “event tune” I can think of in 2010. I couldn’t get past the retro-fashionista surface-sheen of “Round and Round”. Likewise, These New Puritans’ Hidden was good but didn’t have a standalone outstanding track, to my ears.

Hence, this was 2010’s only answer to “My Girls”. Lovely shimmering experimental melodic Perfektpop.

6) Big Boi – Daddy Fat Sax


I’ve always preferred Big Boi to Andre 3000. He’s crunchier and less arch – a better foil for Outkast’s outré production aesthetic. Also, “Hey Ya” reminds me of some truly awful nights out during my student days. I get irritated now whenever I hear Dre’s flights of fancy.

Anyway, “Daddy Fat Sax” is one of the highlights of Big Boi’s superlative solo debut-proper Sir Lucious Left Foot the Son of Chico Dusty. It is perhaps the only tune in hip-hop history to feature an accordion (anyone know better?!). In fact, the instrumentation in this is generally awesome: vibes, synth strings, slowed-down vocals, bizarre guttural percussion noises. Orchestral-futuristic genius.

Hip-hop is going through a funny stage at the moment. It seemed to get a shot in the arm with Obama, but this was short lived. I can’t really see many better ways forward than Big Boi’s approach: getting old gracefully but weirdly, with an ever-more rarefied, cerebral sound. We are now many miles above the streets though.

5) Sufjan Stevens – Too Much


This tune begins with some gratifyingly filthy white noise, and just keeps getting better. The percussion track is jagged and disembodied, but (probably) funky enough to dance to. After nearly a minute the melody kicks in, and it’s a true belter: a three chord hook with a 7/8 time signature, one of those glitch-rhythms that sticks in your memory like an oddly-shaped bastard.

By this point the tune is in the bag, and Stevens can get away with just looping the hook for another six minutes. The arrangement gets freakier and freakier until the whole thing collapses into a techno-classical heap just before the 7-minute mark.

Super Furry Animals used to do this sort of thing pretty well, and I was mildly saddened to hear they’d split up earlier this year. I say mildly, because they hadn’t really done anything good since Rings Around the World in 2001 (and even that was patchy). Unbeatable at their peak though (see Radiator, Guerilla, the Ice Hockey Hair EP). This one is for them.

4) Rihanna – Rude Boy


“Rude Boy” is based on a chord sequence/instrumental motif that has become ubiquitous over the past year or so. It all started with Calvin Harris’s “I’m Not Alone” in 2009; since then variations on the theme have graced Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and a couple of tunes by the execrable Ke$ha. You know the one I mean. It’s a sort of minor-key pop parody of an Ibiza trance breakdown.

I don’t care what they say: formalist trends like this seem to prove the existence of such a thing as a collective unconscious in pop writing, and I look forward to spending my dotage charting all the bizarre little lineages and half-plagiarisms in pop history.

Anyway, “Rude Boy” is class. The hook is quintessential pop scatting: all about letting rhythm lead the way. The verses are about sex. The beats are crisp. There’s the added frisson of Rihanna’s relationship with real-life rude boy/lassy-basher Chris Brown. 10 out of 10.

3) Beach House – Walk in the Park


This tune rides in on a terrible, terrible programmed drum track, a perfect example of what friends of mine used to call The Devil’s Beat. But that aside, “Walk in the Park” is superb.

Teen Dream was by far my favourite album of the year. I could quite happily have put “Zebra”, “Silver Soul”, “Norway”, or “Lover of Mine” up here, but “Walk in the Park” just about shades it. This is mainly because of its beautiful, beautiful outro. I love good outros.

In 2010, pop can’t really get much better than Beach House. Affirmative, exultant music isn't really possible in the current climate of endemic fear and cynicism. Hence, the best we can hope for – for the time being – is dreamy, hermetic melancholy that seems to speak of the profound sadness of our lonely, solipsistic lives. We’re being slowly buried alive by neoliberalism; Beach House is the sound of subterranean survival, and hope.

 2) Owl City – Fireflies


This would have been my number one if it wasn’t so obviously a total one off. It’s difficult to get excited on a grand scale about an MOR amalgam of Blink 182 and Bright Eyes.

But “Fireflies” is unequivocally A Great Work of Art. Like “Wuthering Heights”, “All That She Wants”, “Don’t You Want Me”, “How Soon Is Now?” and other all-time-great pop tunes, it embodies a sense of magical human encounter with technology and form. You can just hear this guy lighting on a good thing by complete accident, experiencing an epiphany in the dead of night. This is some shamanistic shizzle.

Despite widespread evidence to the contrary, you don’t need to win a TV talent show or have gone to a private school or to have studied music at uni to write a good pop song. “Fireflies” is palpably the sound of a clueless individual producing something transcendent before clichés and professionalism have had a chance to destroy him. I say again, magic.

1) Robyn – Hang With Me (both versions)
 

In a musical world that has been depoliticized to the point of total surface-worshiping paralysis, Robyn’s exquisite artifice is as good as it gets.

Damn it, there is an emphatic lack of context in modern pop music, which makes writing about it very difficult. Robyn doesn’t really have a context. She makes formally perfect pop music. That’s all there is to it.

Something is lacking, but we might as well enjoy deracinated formalism like this until something better turns up. I know what’s on your mind, there will be time for that too ... There will always be time for life-affirming Scandinavian Perfektpop. It’s just that I’m holding out for some of the other, more mindful, contextual stuff, too. 

This though, is its own justification.

[Also good: Field Music - "Measure", Joanna Newsom - "81", Radio Dept - "Heaven's On Fire", 3OH!3 feat Katy Perry - "Starstrukk", Morning Benders - "Promises", Tony Allen - "Secret Agent", Charlotte Gainsbourg - "In The End", Delorean - "Endless Sunset", Pantha Du Prince - "Lay in a Shimmer", The-Dream - "F.I.L.A.", Tinie Tempah - "Pass Out"]  

Saturday, 11 December 2010

ARMSTRONG'S CITY

Every spare evening
Armstrong works
delicately at
his matchstick
city. He is
trying to
put into
splintery wood

what his mother
could never
quite say: there
are still far
too many
desolate trees
round these
parts.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

DAY OF THE HEADLESS CHICKENS

 
I've been moving house/room this week so only time for a short post on the latest Toon debacle.

Underneath the shards of absurdist debris (Pardew appointed because of a gambling habit, Hughton described as "not big enough" like he's some kind of subhuman homuncule, Freddy Shepherd lecturing fans on their "duty" to stick by the team) the main upshot of the farrago is that the British football plutocracy has once again been exposed as an utterly irrationalist tendency that defies analysis.

As with the renaming of SJP (see below) there does not even seem to be any substantial motivation on the part of Ashley himself to have acted in this way. The dangers of replacing Hughton are obvious; just what on earth are the possible advantages? As with Clegg and the Lib Dems, Ashley's latest emphatically malign and unpopular decision looks like an inexplicable piece of self-immolation (though Clegg at least has the "excuses" of careerism and the possibility of a future outright defection to the Tories). I cannot think of a single rational explanation for Ashley's actions.

Has neoliberal capitalism reached a stage of development wherein the disgustingly wealthy and powerful indulge in arcane, provocative, bewildering behaviour just because they can? Does some natural human inclination toward frisson and conflict lead mandarins like Clegg and Ashley to be this visibly stupid and corrupt merely in order to provoke an outraged response? If so then by god they'll get it.

Events like those of the past two days underline the utter bankruptcy of the notion that the rulers of the country are somehow pragmatic professionals living in a "real world" untainted by adolescent idealism, committed to unavoidable "progressive" action, to soberly "getting on with the job". These people are not only gutless and soulless but totally, maniacally headless.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

MIKE LEIGH REVIEW


My penn'orth on the superbly prescient Another Year.

Monday, 29 November 2010

[AGAINST A BACKDROP OF WIDESPREAD FEAR, ANGER, AND DEMOS AGAINST THE MASSIVE RISE IN TUITION FEES, I RECEIVE THIS LETTER ...]

Dear Alexander,

It is my pleasure to invite you to the St John's College Ball of 2011. We on the Ball Committee are very excited to see our plans taking shape, and hope to persuade you to come to the college to enjoy a very spectacular night.

Our theme for the Ball is "This Side of Paradise", invoking the style and sophistication of a more elegant era. It is our opinion that the standard of balls in Oxford has been dropping for some time, and we hope to revive the Oxford Ball in all its glory. With this aim in mind, we would like to bring you back into the world of Wodehouse and Waugh, and to show you a college transformed.

The night will be a celebration of the best that Oxford can be. We offer the chance to enjoy gourmet cuisine, be serenaded by a string quintet, dance the night away to classic jazz, indulge in some ballroom dancing, pay tribute to the best of Britain's bands and revel in the music of the headline DJ.

Dinner and dancing are of course the essence of a proper ball, but we are pulling out all the stops to make your night as fun-filled as it will be refined. To that end, we can offer you outstanding young comedians, fun-fair stalls, fairground rides, wandering troupes of performing artists, flash photographers with classic cars, a casino, not to mention a hot air balloon.

The ball shall take place on Friday 1st July, marking the end of the academic year 2010-11. The event will begin at around 7.30 in the evening and last well into the early hours of the morning.

Two ticket options will be available to you: a non-dining ticket will cost £135, with the dining option (involving a fine 3-course meal beforehand) costing £175. The dining option is limited, so will be balloted for in groups.

We look forward to seeing you at our ball.

Yours faithfully,

Ms. X
Ball President.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

KNOWING THE DANCER FROM THE DANCE: THE TWO ANDY CARROLLS

 
I hate Andy Carroll, I love Andy Carroll. He’s the problem, he’s the solution. A thug, a folk hero. A provocation to anger, an emblem of hope.

We are all used to having to negotiate fiendish binaries when it comes to footballers. But surely we should learn how to know the dancer from the dance? Football is after all a highly surface-oriented art form. Founded in the lyrical grace of human interaction with angles and spheres, it doesn’t really communicate anything. As such, why should the off-pitch personae of players matter a jot? Aren’t they just “players” in the Shakespearean, dramatic sense? Aren’t they merely, as the Italian Futurists seemed to think, aestheticized robots, human conduits of speed and furious motion, abstract symbols at the centre of a modernist-formalist exercise in technique?

Dynamism of a Football Player by Umberto Boccioni (1913)
In a sense, this is what the doyens of the modern game would have you believe. For those with a commercial stake in the sport, the idea of football as an abstract formal entity capable of being transported into any conceivable leisure context is an attractive one. If you are Rupert Murdoch, Roman Abramovich, Malcolm Glazer, or Mike Ashley, football is basically a deracinated PS3 game, and football players exist solely as the expensive avatars of a high-level corporate roulette.

With this paradigm in mind, we can see how the contemporary situation has developed, in which players are sophisticated machines on the pitch and pathological childish psychos off it. If football is no more than aesthetic entertainment, a compound of high-octane superstar skills, celebrity glamour, and a smidgeon of watered-down tribal emotion, to be paid for and ingested at the weekend or after work via satellite TV, then it really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from or who is taking part. If Andy Carroll is god-like for the duration of the 90 minute slot we have paid for, then that is that: the service expectations have been met. Exchange value stands in for any other method of valuation, and Andy Carroll is indeed a god, a hypertrophied superman perfectly inhabiting the role of the crowd-pleasing ingénue.

But football is not yet, despite the concerted efforts of the Glazerites, a wholly consumerized, leisure industry sport. Unlike, say, British pop music, British football still has some level of connection to a grassroots reality, to the places, lived experiences, and communities that have by some wild fluke managed to retain a central, if vastly underrepresented, position even in today’s thoroughly finance-oriented game. For a large percentage of the north-east population, Andy Carroll feels like an integral part of a community identity that extends on to the pitch. He feels like one of us. A good lad. A real-life embodiment of an inchoate spirituality. A representative of something.

So if he inspires and represents the genuine hopes of a group of otherwise marginalized, exploited human beings, isn’t Andy Carroll therefore a very real hero, an on-balance good thing? Shouldn’t we just leave it at that? I think not. It is precisely because he represents something tangible and important that I cannot accept a convenient distinction between the man and the player. Because Andy Carroll is not a computer game character, because he is a real person, playing for a real club, in a real city, I can’t ultimately justify celebrating the heroic footballer Jeckyll by ignoring the existence of the thuggish, lassy-bashing Hyde. In a world in which the heroizing relationship between club and supporters went both ways, and in which salaries and hyperreal celebrity didn’t put up concrete walls between communities and their representatives, we wouldn’t have to deal with these infernal dilemmas. In a better alternate universe, Andy Carroll really would be one of us. Make no mistake, I’m unequivocally glad he’s still scoring for Newcastle. But I’m equally certain that Carroll is part of the problem rather than the solution, and that his on-pitch genius shouldn’t obscure this fact.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

PRESENTIMENT

A child lies in the undergrowth
waiting for age.
Somewhere else a cable snaps
taking its cargo up into the ether.

Under silk covers
bodies wriggle and splutter.
A sudden burst of rain
sprinkles relief along the motorway.

At some point
engineers cluster on either side of a gash in the valley
hawking hopes
ideas and sound advice

across air that will contain no distance

Saturday, 13 November 2010

YEAR OUT

We packed body protectors
for horse riders.

I would say we were
saving lives, meanwhile

so many of the women
in the workroom

watched their dreams
disperse like

stray threads

out of broken
Singer machines.

Friday, 12 November 2010

BASIL BUNTING AND BIRDS, OR I LOATHE MICRO-CRITICISM AS MUCH AS THE NEXT MAN BUT BEAR WITH ME, OR AN IMPULSIVE RESPONSE TO BBC4'S SUPERLATIVE BIRDS BRITANNIA SERIES (DO CHECK IT OUT)



Basil Bunting’s greatest poem Briggflatts was written in a context of enforced misanthropy in the mid 1960s. Some years earlier, his friendship with Ezra Pound had resulted in the publication of Poems 1950, which was put out (in Texas of all places) by the Poundian acolyte Dallam Simpson. But the post-war years had mostly been a total washout for the aging poet. In the US, he enjoyed a very modest renown because of the Pound connection, and because of his association with 1930s “Objectivists” like Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. In the UK, he was more or less a total non-entity. There are rumours that Eliot refused to publish Bunting at Faber on more than one occasion. But at least he was listening: in the age of Larkin, Amis, and Betjeman, pretty much no one else in Britain seems to have acknowledged Bunting’s existence.

Living in Wylam, Northumberland with his mother and a scandalously young Kurdish wife, Bunting resigned himself to a career as financial correspondent for the Newcastle-based Journal and Evening Chronicle newspapers. Fine publications though they were (and remain), this was a depressing low-point for the onetime modernist adventurer, during which almost no poetry was written. Finally, in 1964-65, Bunting sprang to national attention with the appearance in print of The Spoils, which was followed by Briggflatts and a collected poems.

Most people will be familiar with the story of Bunting’s mid-sixties “rediscovery”: how the teenage Beat poet Tom Pickard knocked on Bunting’s door and persuaded him to become the focal point of the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle, how Ginsberg and Creeley visited and wrote encomiums about this living link with first generation modernism, how Bunting seemed to become an unlikely godfather of that nebulous beast, the so-called British Poetry Revival. Bunting was transformed into a public figure almost overnight and had to deal with the ramifications, good and bad. At least he showed a degree of self-awareness about this when he joked in the early seventies that he was thinking of getting himself registered as a local monument so he could charge people sixpence to come and visit.
Baz + Ginsberg + lads
Briggflatts itself however was largely written before this modicum of poetic celebrity struck. In fact, Bunting wrote it on the train on the commute into work, on the Tyne Valley line between Wylam and Newcastle. It is the poetic autobiography of an isolated individual engaging with the only things to hand: with poetic form, with memory, and with a surrounding environment that traversed the rural-urban divide in a way that is perhaps unique to this part of the country. (I'm aware that Cornwall/Devon might be a corresponding instance).

On the one hand, Briggflatts embodies the cosmopolitan urbanism of its high modernist author. On his way into work Bunting would have passed the thrusting Brutalist developments of council leader T. Dan Smith’s assertive new Newcastle. (NB: The striking affinities between the arch-regionalists Bunting and Smith will be explored in more detail elsewhere). Smith had tried unsuccessfully to get Le Corbusier to build his first British work in Newcastle, and the buildings which did spring up in post-war Tyneside reflected this hubristic, hyperborean modernist spirit. The tower blocks of Cruddas Park would have loomed large to Bunting’s left as the train made its way into town. Meanwhile Owen Luder’s iconic Trinity Square car park, sadly demolished in the last few weeks, was being built on the other side of the river (in non-T. Dan-controlled Gateshead) at exactly the same time as Briggflatts was being composed. If there was an architectural correlative for Bunting’s difficult, muscular verse (see Bunting’s poetic gloss on Pound’s Cantos “There are the alps … / They don’t make sense … crags cranks climb …”), Luder’s visionary Brutalist monolith was it. 

Towards the city of Dioce. The late Trinity Square car park, Gateshead, designed by Owen Luder.
Mountains, masonry, and stones of all kinds are perennial fixtures in Briggflatts, where they are often linked to motifs of strenuous labour and human ambitiousness. It seems certain that Bunting’s experiences of the industrial north - and urban Newcastle in particular - were significant influences on this aspect of the poem. There is a unmistakably Geordie flavour to lines like

hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim
crushed grit.

However, for all its urbanity, Briggflatts is on the whole a distinctly rural poem, reflective of Bunting’s great love for the Tyne valley. While Newcastle/Tyneside is (or was) a bustling international industrial port, a little further inland the terrain very quickly becomes bleakly bucolic. This is not the Archers-esque countryside of the English Home Counties, where affluence and Anglicanism are the shibboleths of a largely upper-middle-class populace. The Tyne valley has always had its aristocratic and professional caste like anywhere else, but it is also a longtime stronghold of the non-conformist rural proletariat, a place where mines and factories pepper the landscape from Gateshead to the foothills of the North Pennines. Bunting’s Briggflatts is a poem that draws heavily on the mixed heritage of artisanship and rural hinterland that defines this part of the north-east.

A key figure to introduce at this stage by way of a historical antecedent for Bunting’s peculiarly Northumbrian version of pastoralism is the eighteenth century engraver and radical Thomas Bewick. Bewick was born and lived for most of his life in Mickley, the next village but one along the river from Bunting’s Wylam. Like Bunting, Bewick worked sporadically in urban Newcastle, but it was to the countryside of the Tyne valley that he looked for inspiration. In seminal works of natural history like A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and the History of British Birds (1797-1804), Bewick recorded the animal life of his rural surroundings in a series of precisely observed visual vignettes. Unlike many engravers of the period, he would frequently juxtapose scientific naturalism with touches of social commentary: beggars, snarling dogs, and haggard old men populate his portraits, hardly the stock stuff of the sublimated pastoral idyll. Bewick’s naturalism is harsh and difficult as often as it is pretty and welcoming.

Magpie by Bewick. Toon Toon.
In composing Briggflatts, Basil Bunting set about recording exactly the same ecological locale as Bewick, and with a similar mixture of affection and anomie, a stance that differed markedly from the Romantic-pastoral idealism of the mainstream of English literature, and that reflected the generally isolated, marginal character of this geographical setting. While he maintained a Pound-like virulent opposition to the London-based “obsequious idlers” and “insidious charlatans” who “fill chairs and fellowships at universities, write for the weeklies, or work for the BBC”, Bunting remained dedicated to a Poundian artistic project of objectivist right-naming, an outlander’s naturalism that recalled the radical Thomas Bewick’s meticulous, unregulated engagement with a rural environment.    

Both Bunting and Bewick can be situated in an alternate tradition of pastoralism that is quite different from the more typical English perspective, epitomized by a contemporary example like Prince Charles: an establishment figure with an urban power base who rehearses the late-Wordsworthian fallacy of the countryside as refuge, as an inviolable conduit of all the goodness, truth, and beauty that is absent from the metropolitan “court”. Bewick’s anti-establishment radicalism was politically oriented, while Bunting’s sprang mainly from his Quaker background (he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, and Briggflatts takes its title and much of its setting from a Quaker meeting house in the North Pennines).
More Bewick, this time in social crit mode
In both cases, there is a notable affinity with the American and American-leaning wing of Romanticism - with Blake, Paine, and the nineteenth transcendentalist tradition – which existed at arms length from the more orthodox English lineage that culminated in Housman and Hardy. As such it is appropriate that Bunting’s late-twentieth century poem Briggflatts should have much in common with American modernist poems like William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Paterson, and Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers” and The Maximus Poems, works that updated the transcendentalist mode, and that moreover offered a distinctly fluid view of the rural-urban divide.

While Bunting knew and counted WCW as an influence, there does not seem to be any definite connection with Olson. Nevertheless, these “sons of Ezra” were in many respects parallel figures in the world of post-war modernist poetry, both intent in their different ways on realizing Pound's ambition, stated in the Pisan Cantos: "To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars". Bunting would certainly have agreed with sentiments of Olson’s Maximus (“O tansy city, root city / let them not make you as the nation is”) though he would have substituted English Newcastle and the Tyne valley for New England Gloucester and its environs. Olson’s avowal of civic communitarianism – his notion of “polis” – is mirrored by Bunting’s galvanizing relationship with north-east regionalism and with urban Tyneside, the high-watermark of which arrived with the 1960s readings in the Mordern Tower that took place a near-derelict section of the old Newcastle city walls.

Bunting’s view of the natural world also closely resembles that of Olson. For now, let us look very briefly at just one naturalistic trope: birds. The first poem in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology The New American Poetry (1960) Olson’s “The Kingfishers” describes animal subjects that are stripped of any magnificent literary heritage:

But not these things are the factors. Not the birds.
The legends are
legends. Dead, hung up indoors, the kingfisher
will not indicate a favoring wind,
or avert a thunderbolt.

In a vignette that is redolent of Bewick’s demystified portraits of rural life in eighteenth century Tynedale, Olson’s kingfishers are seen nesting on a bed of fecal fishbones:

On these rejectamenta
… the young are born.
And, as they are fed and grow, this nest of decayed excrement and decayed fish becomes a dripping fetid mass.

The opening section of Bunting’s Briggflatts echoes this juxtaposition of birds and organic ugliness as a metaphor for creative generation:

A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter …
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the graves slot
he lies. We rot.

Decay thrusts the blade,
wheat stands in excrement
trembling.

For both writers, birds exist in tandem with a harsh, unlovely ecology, a countryside that does not differ markedly from the city (note the presence of the industrial mason in the Bunting extract), and that is not described by way of a form that is lush and magniloquent in the manner of a Keats or a Tennyson. This is anti-conformist organicism, American-esque literary minimalism that revels in the mulchy unpleasantness of nature, in its realism, in its potential to enact a radical overhaul of the past. 

For Bunting, birds emerged out of a painful, realistic engagement with an ambiguous environment. His fondness for birds in his sixties poetry (see also the 1964 ode “A thrush in the syringa sings”) if nothing else embodies the sheer boredom of a commuter's grey daily routine. Riding on his scooter to and from night shifts at The Journal, he was taken with the exotic range of bird and animal life of all kinds that came out of the woodwork in the dusky twilit hours. In keeping with this backdrop, birds in his poetry are symbolic of a yearning for unbridled magical expression, spiritual sustenance for an internal émigré living out a lonely life on the margins of a culture, like the nineteenth century urban industrial migrants who kept birds in cages as a reminder of the ambience of rural life they had left behind. At this point, like countless frontier-dwelling Britons and Americans before him (since at least as far back as St Cuthbert and his eider ducks), Bunting seized on these little paragons of bathos and indomitable beauty, not because they were part of some pastoral myth of organic order, but because they were very close to being everything he had.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

POSITIVE SOLIDARITY

I don't really have much to add to Nina Power's excellent summary of yesterday's events. What a tool I am for not getting the bus into the smoke.

There were some really encouraging, very ordinary listener responses in support of the students on a Radio 5 talkshow early today. Scratch the surface and there is an instinctive sense of injustice and solidarity lurking in the British political unconscious. The radically negative mood music of the Murdoch press could not, and will not, obscure this.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

THE MINERS' CATHEDRAL, SALFORD

In a quiet spot on the edge of town
A nineteenth century church wallows
In indifference. Children drown
And are buried noisily elsewhere,

But here the congregation stoops
Beneath ornate Tractarian arches.
As another light goes out upstairs,
Smoke swabs corporeal cares.

Only a handful of shoes maintain
A movement, shuffling shapes
Under gothic wood. The rain
Spatters harmlessly outside.

Monday, 8 November 2010

ECO-CRITIC IS ARCH-TORY SHOCK!


This really does beggar belief, particularly in light of this.

"How on earth have we got ourselves into this position?" Indeed Mr Bate, indeed.

Friday, 5 November 2010

SUPERSONIC, EDWIN MORGAN, ADORNO

 
"The beauty of art is a brief gasp between one cliche and another" - Ezra Pound

Like Champagne Supernova, Supersonic is often viewed as an apotheosis of Gallagherian nonsense. This is certainly fair with regard to the verses:

I'm feeling supersonic
Give me gin and tonic
You can have it all but how much do you want it?
You make me laugh
Give me your autograph
Can I ride with you in your B.M.W. ?
You can sail with me in my yellow submarine

I know a girl called Elsa
She's into Alka Seltzer
She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train
She makes me laugh
I got her autograph
She done it with a doctor on a helicopter
She's sniffin in her tissue
Selling the Big Issue

But we need to look beyond this, which is just arbitrary filler, melody-serving word music of the kind that is ubiquitous in pop. This is a song that underlines the necessity of selective discrimination within the confines of a work of art. Reading Edwin Morgan’s Glasgow Sonnets in a poetry reading group the other day, I was struck by the perversity of the fact that we are often willing to dismiss entire works (sometimes entire oeuvres) because of one or two isolated instances of banality. The trouble is of course that this impulse usually ends up stifling inarticulate, uneducated, or marginal voices who make occasional verbal gaffes and incline towards sentimentalism. Think of the hysterical positivist mantra of Anglo-American analytic philosophy: “define your terms”. In an iniquitous world, it is nearly always the privileged and the powerful who will be best at logical definition, who will be most fluent in the “terms”. We are missing out if we rule out the gauche and the irrational, if we heap praise only on the fastidiously unified, the classically wrought.


Dig a little deeper into Supersonic, and we find some really quite beautiful lyrics:

My friend said he’d take you home
He sits in a corner all alone
He lives under a waterfall
Nobody can see him, nobody can ever hear him call

The Smiths’ How Soon is Now seems to be an obvious influence here (“and you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home ...”). In fact, a lot of early Oasis borrows from Hatful of Hollow-period Smiths. (And we should remember that early Morrissey is an entirely different beast from the later Bengali in Platforms-era Vaudevillian egoist – see Tom Ewing on this). Witness Fade Away and its devastating chorus (“while we’re living, the dreams we have as children fade away”); see also Live Forever (“maybe I just want to breathe”) and Half the World Away (“I would like to leave this spirit / you find me a hole and I’ll live in it”). This is the grey, melancholic disillusionment of a disenfranchised individual watching life slide out of view, fighting to be heard before it is too late. It is what makes both early Oasis and early Smiths so powerful and poignant.

Supersonic was apparently written and recorded in a single evening, and it is all the better for it. The opening statement (“I need to be myself”) is trite but apposite: this is truly an Adornian autonomous artwork, a brief, resounding gasp before reification has had a chance to kick in. From the coruscating guitar bursts, to the ridiculously simple drumbeat, to the ethereal backing vocals, this is the sound of a band of desperate, inarticulate people clutching at straws and hitting on a means of magical expression before they know what to do with it. Like Champagne Supernova, it is one of the most simultaneously sad and affirmative pieces of music I have ever heard. Only a fool would let the bombast, the nonsense, and the clichés get in the way of this.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

BACK TO THE FUTURES I AND II AND THE LAST GASP OF POST-WAR MODERNISM



These brilliant films appeared in 1985 and 1989 respectively, bookended on either side by Jameson’s Postmodernism (essay and book). Like their near contemporaries Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the TV series Quantum Leap, the Back to the Future films gave mainstream expression to a widespread spirit of senescence and belatedness in the mid-late eighties. Herein were the first tremors of that millennial insecurity which would burgeon in the ‘90s into endemic culture-wide retroism and the fin-de-siecle “end of history” zeitgeist.

The post-war years had been a golden age for sci-fi of course. But the shift towards the popularity of the time travel theme was a notable one - "certainly the end of something or other, one would sort of have to think" (DFW). Like Quantum Leap, the first Back to the Future was self-reflexivity in extremis: the time travelling took place exclusively within the post-war period itself, a barely historical immediate past. Marty McFly travels to 1955, only about a decade before his birth; 1985 is the “future” he must get back to. 

History, it seemed, had been downsized.

 
Light was being thrown on a distinct 30-year epoch as it reached a close, and here the plot's musical orientation is significant. ‘55-‘85 exactly delineates pop music’s confident, classical foundational period. But by the mid-‘80s it was increasingly looking inwards and backwards for inspiration. CD reissues of classic albums glutted the charts. ‘50s artificiality pervaded mainstream pop (cf. Shakin’ Stevens, the ubiquity of covers, and the chilling revival of the saxophone in records like “Careless Whisper” and “The Heat is On”). Further to the left, the major indie bands of the day - The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream - initiated alt-rock’s long-running love affair with the sixties. Psychobilly blossomed. Acid house was just about to offer a postmodern reprisal of the Summer of Love. From this moment on, self-consciousness and pastiche would set the dominant tone in pop.

Back to the Future, with its saxtastic Huey Lewis soundtrack, and climactic performance of “Johnny B. Goode”, expressed all this in deceptively charming, undeniably prescient Spielberg-esque blockbuster fashion. The first film marked an end of sorts for popular post-war sci-fi, and the replacement of futurism in pop culture with an introverted, accelerated version of cultural memory.


But Back to the Future II took a couple of steps back, and gave a précis of what I had left behind. II is an uncanny masterpiece which explores the myriad possibilities of time travel (see 4Qs: the paths we didn’t take, the world of speculations etc) by way of a classically sci-fi modernist mode. It flits back and forth between 1955, 1985, and a projection of the 2010s that is in many ways remarkably accurate. Witness the Café ‘80s revivalism complete with a virtual “ghost” of Michael Jackson; the rainbow-coloured, ersatz consumer gaudiness; the hyper New Urbanist corporatism of Hill Valley circa 2015, with its comprehensively privatised public services; the alternate 2015 in which the millionaire Biff rules over an anarchic, state-less dystopia.

For a mainstream film aimed at the holiday season market, Back to the Future II was a bizarre and intellectual film. But its real value today is as a record of time in the not so distant past when fantastic speculations about the future were a standard facet of pop culture. As our engagement with technology has become passive and uncritical, as our imaginations have been dampened by nostalgia for just-obsolescent consumer pasts, we seem to have lost our taste for the wonderments of time travel. Some basic sense of inquisitiveness, some basic need to predict and to speculate and to self-determine has been lost. Who ever heard of a Hoverboard? 

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Interview with Owen Hatherley is out at The Oxonian Review.

And here is Owen's write-up of the Oxford tour on his blog.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Thursday, 14 October 2010

METAPHYSICAL TOWNSCAPES: DE CHIRICO AND THE BATH SOUTHGATE SHOPPING CENTRE


Continuing in a surrealist vein: we house sat for some friends in Bath over the summer, and Giorgio de Chirico's "metaphysical town square" paintings of the 1910s kept springing to mind every time I wandered into the new SouthGate shopping centre (which replaces an earlier building by Owen Luder).


De Chirico's works are based on the sort of Italian archetypes that have been the basis of an architectural education since the Renaissance. You could apply the same argument to any instance of neo-classical town planning. But I think there's something profoundly uncanny in a peculiarly Chiricoan sense about the SouthGate's lobotomized brand of corporate pomo.

A very striking feeling of a lurking, shadowy absence persists here, a weird sense of artificiality and vacuity that I suppose is the case with lots of Poundbury-esque stuff. The SouthGate seems to reach new heights of sinister, hieratic eeriness though. It's a stark rebuttal to the notion that commercial post-New Urbanism is a warm, humanistic corrective to modernism's Sachlichkeit coldness.




Partly, I think this is due to the carpet-like smoothness of the walkways. The indoor/outdoor ambivalence of modern city centre shopping "malls" means that the basic act of walking is riven with uncertainty. What exactly are my feet connecting with? Is this a street or an aisle? What is this palpably synthetic space for? Who created it? Who owns it? These are narrow, privatized spaces, purged of both organic subtlety and artistic daring: a flat, undead, anti-terrain, and a pathological refusal of the notion of public space.

     
Of course, the other bizarre thing is the deafening lack of detail. Walking round the rest of Bath with me Pevsner, desperately trying to bone up on architectural vocab, I got into a neck-straining habit of looking upwards and looking closely. At John Wood's eccentric masonic-druidic entablature at the Circus, for instance:

(And obviously, there is an extremely long-running and noble tradition of nifty elevated masonry in this town):


Wander back down to the SouthGate though, and you're faced with a sickening absence of ornament, which would be fine if it wasn't also such a blatant, timid attempt to "fit in" with the Augustan effusiveness of Georgian Bath. Truly, this the unfamiliar at the heart of the familiar, the work of an alzheimers patient making ever-depreciating reiterations of a half-remembered past:

 
It's indescribably depressing to walk into these courtyards of erasure, where every surface is emphatically, sheerly devoid of any human consciousness whatsoever, a fact that commands you to keep your eyes fixed firmly downwards, gaze locked on the ground floor shops. This is town planning for five-minute tourists and weekend shoppers, an ersatz historicity that is imposing and intimidating for all its gloss of smiley blankness.  

The Bath SouthGate is the atrophied, automaton-like unconscious of a blithely aggressive, elusively imperious consumerist autocracy, and it scares the hell out of me, very much like one of the looming disembodied black objects in a De Chirico painting.


Friday, 8 October 2010

"CHAMPAGNE SUPERNOVA" AND THE DROWNED WORLD


Liquid permeates the early music of Oasis to an extraordinary degree. There are dish-filled sinks, songs about the sea, countless alcoholic drinks, bubbling flanger FX, whirpool iconography, and underwater vocals swimming in reverb. Above all, there is that great wall of oceanic guitar sound borrowed from early-‘90s shoegaze. When this sonic element was phased out (from Be Here Now onwards) the band would be left sounding utterly lumpen and pointless. 

The obsession with an engulfing, swamping fluidity culminates spectacularly in “Champagne Supernova”, the final track on What’s the Story, which is simultaneously the band’s masterpiece and their very last moment of artistic sentience.
 

Emerging from the instrumental jam “The Swamp Song” (a presentiment of the band’s retro blues-bore future) “Champagne Supernova” begins with an ambient recording of waves crashing against a shore. This quickly elides with watery musical motifs: a sustained, tremulous mellotron chord, and some lilting pentatonic guitar runs.

The song’s much-mocked “nonsensical” lyrics (“slowly walking down the hall / faster than a cannonball”) are in fact, on the whole, powerful and haunting. The two central motifs are especially resonant:  

How many special people change
How many lives are living strange 
Where were you while we were getting high?  
...
Someday you will find me caught beneath a landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky. 

We need not resort to patronizing caveats about grammatical errors or grumbles about elements of cliché: this is an epochal poetry couched in beautiful and evocative surrealism. 

In particular, the imagery of the “we” that is “getting high” gives the song a deep melancholy weight. The locution is accusatory. It suggests that the group or community has been deserted, and that the process of getting high is mostly negative (as in “getting wrecked”, “getting shafted”, or “getting annihilated”). The wider connotations of this mixture of hubris, hedonism, and betrayal, coming from a working class British band in the mid-‘90s, shouldn’t need spelling out.

Moreover, the ghostly lyric about a man being engulfed by a champagne landslide is classic latter-day surrealism, of the kind expounded in J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. Ballard’s novel of 1962 describes a future in which most of the northern hemisphere has been flooded as the result of a climatic disaster. London survives only as a few scattered tower blocks peeking above the rising water levels. In one chapter, protagonist Robert Kerans dives below the sea and discovers the ruins of a submerged planetarium left over from the late-twentieth century. His fascination with the building seems to embody all the vast sadness and loss of the Drowned World, a place where history, science, and art have been erased, and the main characters seek to regress into a state of primitive individualism and subconscious self-enclosure. (See also T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, “Death By Water”, which Ballard alludes to in the novel many times.) 

“Champagne Supernova”, with its corresponding image of buried idealism and an individual overwhelmed by a fear of death by water is, like Ballard’s The Drowned World, an elegy for the end of history (though in neither a Marxian nor a Fukuyaman sense). Both works are sublime visions of a world rapidly slipping into waterlogged meaninglessness. Oasis dreamed of the sun and the stars (“I live my life for the stars that shine”, “you could wait for a lifetime / to spend your days in the sunshine”, "we'll find a way of chasing the sun"). But their artistic trajectory ended in any worthwhile sense with a tragic recognition that the aspirational individualism and self-fulfillment which had started out as their subversive raison d’etre could ultimately only lead to the annihilation of their tribe and the loss of their collective soul. Henceforth, their historicist summary of the late-twentieth century - originally humane, inclusive, and life-affirming - would become an introverted pathology, a conservative denial of the possibility of the future. 

“Champagne Supernova” put the submerged planetarium of Ballard’s Drowned World into succinct, epic song form in the mid-1990s. It did so in a way that was unutterably graceful and profoundly sad. It is by far the most salient song of its era, and it has riven my dreams for fifteen years now.