Call it a weakness, but I rarely find myself apologising. We have a culture of deference that sometimes manifests itself in needless apology; I veer from it. But on occasion, when one really screws up, one has to go beyond the call of duty in saying one is sorry. This mixtape captures that mood. Continue reading Compunction: a mixtape
Jonny Greenwood likes his music obscure and global; informed by a long-standing respect for other cultures, many of which are not even recognised as legitimate alternatives to Western culture. Thankfully, he’s also started using Spotify – documented in this Dead Air Space post – as a result of which I’ve been made aware of a certain Abdel Halim Hafez, who was apparently one of the four great Egyptians musicians of the last century. Greenwood has in fact shared a small treasure trove of Arabic music, which I would highly recommend for cultural enlightenment.
Anyway, suffice to say that I find it intriguing how certain figureheads of other cultures never make the jump into mainstream success across the globe. So I only know about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan through Jeff Buckley’s love of him. So I’ve only heard of Gulzar because he wrote the lyrics for Jai Ho in Slumdog Millionaire. Frankly, it’s a bit alarming, and I don’t think it can be explained away under the reasoning that ‘We can’t understand what they’re saying’. Music from China and music from the Arabic world are based on entirely different scales and structures from our own, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it just as much as we do our own cultural icons. I’m gladdened to see the inroads African music is making – witness the comparative success of Toumani Diabaté, Amadou & Mariam, and even Konono N°1 – but we still have so far to go. Let’s hope Jonny Greenwood keeps us updated with his latest office playlists.
I’m man enough to admit that the following albums leave me pretty much in tears by the time they finish:
- Amon Tobin – Supermodified (occasionally)
- Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
- Blur – 13
- Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
- Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
- Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
- Jaga Jazzist – What We Must
- Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
- LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
- Low – Drums And Guns
- M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
- Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
- Portishead – Third
- Pulp – We Love Life
- Radiohead – OK Computer
- Radiohead – Kid A
- The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
- TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
- Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
What does this tell me? Well, other than that I’m possibly an emotional trainwreck, it also suggests that I’m a real sucker for killer album closers, notably those that are long, protracted, portentous and often outstay their welcome. Sometimes, these final songs are emotionally charged to such a degree that I feel utterly drained. At other times, it’s just the pent-up sadness that eventually emerges from an album full of grief, depression or sadness. When a songwriter lays his soul bare on record, it’s hard for me to not empathise.
This has made me sound like someone close to the brink, which I’m not, so I’ll stop now.
People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.
Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.
Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.