Radio On

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Sometimes a line in a song connects with something in your brain, more than the alchemical process of electrical signals converted into sound waves converted back into electrical signals. It resonates personally to a degree that seems impossible. It clicks, stirring up something within you that proves that transcendence is not just the preserve of the pious. The devil has it too. It can be the delirious mystery of a line that makes the difference (Dylan’s “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” from ‘Visions of Johanna’) or the emotional impact (“And she never did nuthin’ to William Zanzinger” from his ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’). It can be heartache like Tindersticks’ ode to denial ‘Travelling Light’ “There are places I don’t remember…” or the devastating clarity of Tim Buckley’s ‘Once I Was’, “And soon there’ll be another to tell you I was just a lie”. It can be a fluctuating mixture of emotions as every line of Dory Previn’s haunting and yearning ‘The Lady with the Braid’. Sometimes it’s inexplicable. I can’t quite understand the last line of Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police’ (“Phew, for a minute there I lost myself”). The reaction to it is as uncertain as its meaning, being somewhere between bliss and the chills every single time I’ve heard it, even though I must have listened to it a thousand times. Similarly, there’s The Beta Band’s final line in The Hard One, “Once upon a time I was falling apart, now I’m always falling in love”, a corruption of a lyric from Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous if ever there was one.

There’s a John Peel quote regarding music and the allure of the past, “People ask me, ‘What was the best year for the music?’ I always say, ‘This year is the best year for music. Prior to that it was the previous year.'” We have everything that happened before, a vast repository of music to dip into, as well as music as a living breathing entity in the present. It’s a perspective that makes me want to take the Walt Disney approach and have my brain cryogenically frozen in a jar just so it might be possible to return to hear what music those lucky bastards in the future might be listening to in a hundred years or a thousand.

Without the need to have our heads detached and dipped in dry ice, this year’s been an exceptional one so far for music. On the electronic side of things Jon Hopkin’s album Immunity is impressive as is Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest. Jagwar Ma’s ‘The Throw’ also promises great things. Foxygen have made a really good psychedelic pop album called We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic and Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse is an overlooked strange beauty of an album (as Year of Hibernation was before it). Bonobo’s ‘Cirrus’ manages to have the best, and most revoltingly trippy, music video of the year. There’s some real gems scattered on albums by The Veils, Steve Mason, Bowie, Camera Obscura and Primal Scream as well as Atoms for Peace’s Fela Kuti-influenced set.

Push-The-Sky-Away

The albums that really stand out for me though are Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (a massive leap in the right direction from their earlier work), the glorious stoned sprawl of Kurt Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away. The latter is astounding, not least because it’s their fifteenth studio album, but so subtle its best characteristics are easily missed on first listen. It seems not only a move away from the entertaining histrionics of Grinderman and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! but it continues on from Cave and Warren Ellis’ sublime soundtrack work (The Proposition, The Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). It’s as if they took what might have been a fatal occurrence in a lesser band (the long-term guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey leaving) and turned it into a strength, building an entire album around an absence, less the elephant in the room than the “ghost-baby in the incubator” as Cave put it.

You could pick several individual lines that might confound from Push the Sky Away, sometimes not for the entirely complimentary reasons. There’s some really stunning imagery, as always, that would be the envy of any poet: “the trees will burn with blackened hands” (‘We No Who U R’) and “they’ve hung the mermaids from the streetlights by their hair” (‘Wide Lovely Eyes’). Cave has always flirted with self-parody, sometimes knowingly, sometimes less so. When you hear a line like “I was the match that would fire up her snatch” or the spoken-word introduction to ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ (“And when I awoke, I believed I’d taken a bride called Mary Stanford / And I flew into a frenzy searching high and low / Because in my dream the girl was very young”), it’s hard to know what to think about the author’s intention, whether it’s mischief or hubris and to what extent humour is intentional or otherwise. Accompanied by the kind of languid hypnotic groove you hear on the second side of Neil Young’s On the Beach, ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ spies on the Faustian pact between Robert Johnson and Lucifer at that moonlit crossroads from a previously unseen angle (“don’t know who’s gonna rip off who”). And just when you’re entranced Cave almost capsizes the whole thing with references to Hannah Montana and “Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Taluca Lake.” He’s fucking with us but then again why shouldn’t he?

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There’s one line on the album that strikes me as something close to genius. ‘Jubilee Street’ is a magnificent song particularly the way it builds from a sparse opening to a crescendo of strings and sighs. Its story is a familiar one of decadence, voyeurism prostitution, hypocrisy and damnation, with again jarring lines (“I got love in my tummy and a tiny little pain… I got a foetus on a leash”) that seem perched unsteadily between brilliance and atrociousness. The one indisputably great line (technically it’s two lines) has all the complexity and ambiguity that a noir writer would kill for. “The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page.” The interpretation is as open and sinister as the fates of the two leading characters. Was the name written so many times because he kept visiting her or was it something more intriguing? Was the obsession his or hers? Consider the weight of that simple opening “The problem was…” and everything it suggests would come to pass. Where did the book end up? Where did she? It’s cinema and literature, late-Cronenberg and Dostoevsky, in the form of a six and a half minute song.

If you listened to Push the Sky Away and were underwhelmed like I was at first, maybe give it another listen (I’ve included ‘Jubilee Street’ (NSFW) below along with my current favourite songs from the Vampire Weekend and Kurt Vile albums). Its best points, like the key change at the end of ‘Waters Edge’, are so subtle that they’re barely even there. It’s nearly a different way of making music, stripping it down not simply to the bare bones but to the echo and shadow of what it could have been. Maybe that also requires a different way of listening.

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4 Responses to Radio On

  1. I have been really enjoying the new Vampire Weekend — I believe you are correct, darling — this is their Document; their Joshua Tree. They’re really turning a corner. I have not yet heard the new Nick Cave, but a friend saw him at Massey Hall and said it blew his mind. I will have to check that out. You seem to have great taste; I’ll trust you.

    • aye it does seem they’ve broken through to another level. Document is a great comparison. it’s almost like Radiohead too in the sense there’s a confidence and complexity to the songwriting now that I can’t imagine them forgetting now that they have it. hopefully many more great albums to come.

  2. Was trying to write songs recently to get a breather from the prose and have started to appreciate the work the writer must do to let the beauty of the lyrics shine. It’s an art I respect all the more for trying myself and realising how far away I am from the result. How close to poetry song-writing can be. Nick Cave’s ‘Jubilee Street’ is a find. Always wondered about the lyrics of Leonard Coen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. Every line has something.

    • couldn’t agree more Jennifer. Cohen is a master at it. probably the best given he’s still got it. some of his lines just floor me. I think he’s the greatest poet on the topic of love there’s ever been because he sees all the different aspects of it, not just that it can be a beautiful thing but the fact it can be terrible, it’s there in the late-night desolation of Famous Blue Raincoat or the masochistic voyeurism in Paper Thin Hotel. he’s so clever but graceful with it too, the way he tries deflating a song of wistful regret like Chelsea Hotel #2 with the last line, somehow making it more poignant in the process. you hear a line like “there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” and you think, this man isn’t just a poet, he’s better than that.

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