Miasma

“Put an ocean and a river between everything, yourself and home.” Sometimes, Matt Berninger seems to advise in The National’s “England”, you have to get a little distance between you and the things, and people, dear to you. Paul Haggis’s “Crash” was a clunky metaphor for how Los Angelenos are only brought together by traumatic collisions. Before germ theory found currency, people thought the origin of epidemics lay in ‘bad air’, or, miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter.

What do we do in a crisis? If you’re the protagonist of Steely Dan‘s “Black Friday”, which opens their fourth album, Katy Lied, with characteristic barbed humour, as capitalism collapses you run for the hills—or at least “fly down to Muswellbrook”—and watch as colleagues “dive from the fourteenth floor”.

Stray flecks of hi-hat and jagged bass guitar, over which wafts a faint tremor of feedback from Dave Sitek’s guitar, mark the introduction to TV On The Radio‘s “King Eternal”, a tribute to a lost friend, Nathan Maddox, who was killed by lightning in a Manhattan storm. “The hour of man is nigh / So gather up all supplies,” urges Tunde Adebimpe, over Sitek’s restless guitar and an assortment of sleigh bells and shimmery percussive implements. But the tone is one of resurrection. The storm brings horrors, but also release, and the promise of the next dawn.

“The shrieking of nothing is killing” — David Bowie.

For Stevie Nicks, her on-stage persona with Fleetwood Mac was a form of escapism so intense she ended up singing about it, on “Sisters Of The Moon”, one of several slick, motorik numbers on Tusk. Woody stabs of baritone guitar underpins much of the song, while Lindsey Buckingham’s wailing lead part, a stubborn thing, is coruscating. Nicks’s most impassioned lyrics are the most telling: “I think she knew / That the people, they loved her,” she sings, “But still they’re the most cruel”.

British Sea Power captured the dull pain of helplessness in “No Need To Cry”. The ambiguity of the opening couplet, “When it’s good, it’s not bad / When it’s bad, I don’t mind if you’re queer,” sung by Hamilton as he sips the tears “falling down in my beer”, is that of a man lost at sea. The music behind him is effortlessly elegiac: a gently deflating marching-band rhythm; the comforting, enveloping chords of an organ; the occasional punctuation of a strangled electric guitar. Halfway through, a string arrangement and whispered backing vocals add considerable emotional heft to what is already a heart-rending tune.

Berninger flees across the Atlantic to London’s stages, but still has to come to terms with all that he’s left behind. A more defeatist soul, perhaps one like Modest Mouse‘s Isaac Brock, would concede that this “Life Like Weeds” hasn’t got much going for it. The song lurches from scratchy punk into more languid, meandering fretwork, and then a series contemplative passages that could level an arena, or, more likely, echo miserably into the desert.

There’s certainly little joy in the sentiment, expressed with nonchalance early in the song, “And in the faces you meet, you’ll see the place where you’ll die”. A little later, the pace having slowed right down to a lugubrious crawl, Brock shoots across pretty spirals of guitar, “And we know that our hearts are just made out of strings / To be pulled”. The song peters out, whimpering, a mere speck in the universe. To return to a mumbled lyric in an earlier song, David Bowie‘s “Ashes To Ashes”, “The shrieking of nothing is killing”.

Miasma is:

  1. Steely Dan, “Black Friday”;
  2. Kraftwerk, “Showroom Dummies”;
  3. TV On The Radio, “King Eternal”;
  4. David Bowie, “Ashes To Ashes”;
  5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “Stagger Lee”;
  6. Queens Of The Stone Age, “Suture Up Your Future”;
  7. Fleetwood Mac, “Sisters Of The Moon”;
  8. Daft Punk, “Voyager”;
  9. British Sea Power, “No Need To Cry”;
  10. The National, “England”;
  11. Modest Mouse, “Life Like Weeds”*.

* Once again, Spotify is unable to deliver all the goods. To complete the mixtape, go here.

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