I’m setting up for 2015 now. Part one of the review of 2014, the musical side, has been written and posted and is being read (if you’ve not seen it yourself, it’s back here). New singles reviews have been drafted and mostly written; blog navigation has been improved (look over to the right and down to see the reworked category and tag clouds); and the thorny matter of scheduling has been addressed. I’m looking into a Soundcloud page as well, for playlists and occasional sound postings. Technically, ‘Misfit City’ should be better this year.
But before that… I’ve got a confession to make.
Recently, I’ve been visualising this blog as a cartoon beachcomber – something gawky and distractable which blends its enthusiasm with pathos. Blundering along the foreshore to see what’s washed up this week, it jams its head into little rockpools to take notes about the small details, and loses track of time. Overhead, the real events roar and rumble in storms which are mostly ignored. Sooner or later, there’s going to be hail; and I’m going to be caught napping.
I’m not talking about me missing coverage on big releases, or failing to ride Twitter trends effectively. Both of these come with the territory of preferring more out-of-the-way artists with less immediate recognition; and also with intermittent blogging around real-life demands of family, work and life outside of music culture. Independent solo bloggers – unless they’ve caught a wave of interest or are particularly good self-marketers – are ultimately small creatures. We’re talented amateurs, in the most positive sense; people whom, if we’re fortunate or persistent, can make our little marks and (as in my case) maybe help a musician to be known and understood and moved a little closer to a potential audience. Small stone markers; pricked-up ears; a little bridge built for people to cross. Those kind of achievements.
What concerns me at the moment is culture-bunker syndrome – when a person hides within a habit of art, closing off the parts of the world which they don’t like (or wish to be disinterested about) by developing an obsessive focus on small creations. This could be external: an account or summary of someone else’s performance or crafted object. It could as easily be internal. Becoming obsessed with one’s own lively, assertive prose or photography, for instance; or with one’s ability to get the word out quickly – to be, for a brief and flashing moment, the medium, as well as simply making use of it. For music writers, some form of this syndrome often becomes habitual and unavoidable. It’s part of the excitement, to the point that you don’t recognise your writing as being a flash-bang which ultimately only explodes inside a very small box.
At the end of the first part of my 2014 review I mentioned that in spite of my initial feelings of having gone through a “shrunken” year, in retrospect 2014 seemed to have had remarkable musical richnesses; also, that the only thing that really seemed to be missing was me. What I meant by that was that however involved with the music I was (and even when I managed to turn out a decent, or even acclaimed, review), I had a parallel feeling of disengagement. None of this was the fault of what I was listening to. None of it related to what eventually emerged and was posted on the blog. Neither did it reflect the many things which I wanted to cover on time but didn’t (or still haven’t).
What it was like… well, imagine that, while you’re working away on a project, there’s something just over your shoulder, not quite peering and not quite looming. Something that’s… there. Perhaps it’s not actually over your shoulder: it’s just that that’s where you expect it to be. The half-recognised key or clue. The bit which you’ve missed. The missing chunks of the puzzle; the provider of the voice which carries the rest of the answer. You feel, sometimes, that you could turn around and take hold of it; slot it in, make a completeness. You don’t really understand what you’ll actually have once you’ve done it. There’s just an itch. An urge to include it.
I concluded, eventually, that there wasn’t actually anything there. What was actually preying on my mind was a gap – something which I myself had allowed to grow, wilfully ducking the significance of why I’d let it happen in the first place. What I was missing was the rest of the world – and the reason why this was important was that the world was violently changing. Plugging my headphones in and looking away, I’d ostentatiously pondered music – going through recordings and concert track-by-track and song by song, meticulously tracing the emotional responses and the drawn-out meanings, and catching and writing down sparks triggered off in me by the listening. Meanwhile, the landscape which I was ignoring was darkening. Almost everyone whom we, as citizens, had put in place or allowed to prosper had at best failed us. At worst, they’d betrayed us or were predating on us.
To many people (including many bloggers and commentators) this is an old, old story, and doesn’t even exist as a dilemma. Protests and counter-action against the iniquities and inequalities of the modern world are already part of their long-standing, lifetime’s battle; and plenty of commentators on music who draw it into their perspective. At the very least, it becomes an integral part of their involvement with the world. In my case, this hadn’t happened for too long, and 2014 was the year when my avoidance of this fact finally cracked.
For me, perhaps, the evasions had been natural and habitual. I tend to feel that hitching music, on principle, to a particular political agenda (and dismissing that which falls outside it (or which fails to fit a particular set of value signifiers) blinkers the vision and creates an urge to provide answers first and then distort the art to fit them. I don’t join political parties for much the same reason that I don’t join churches. For a doubter like myself, the creeds are always too hard to swallow; too often an excuse to comfort and close the mind. There are other reasons. I was too young for the first wave of punk, and too disassociated (also, perhaps, too personally comfortable and accommodating) for the following waves. Also, when I started to explore beyond basic popular music as a teenager I found my way into weird mid-‘70s Vangelis albums, assorted textural boilings, bounding prog epics and post-punk blurrings rather than grinding riffs and blunter challenges. What I mean is that when I dealt with art, generally it didn’t look or sound much like a hammer. In retrospect, perhaps I should have schooled myself in delivering some more telling blows.
I can’t say that I don’t recommend the softer, more textured path which I took; but it was often short on the kind of immediate sociological content that spurs a person into asking certain questions. Having said that, a detailed reading of ‘Misfit City’ will reveal that I’m not exactly apolitical. There’s been coverage of LGBT artists and some outspokenly political musicians such as Ian Crause, Atona and Des de Moor, as well as certain sharper asides in other reviews. That “listening to women” tag which crops up in numerous reviews is also an example of the blog’s political grain – a quiet attempt to redress the male domination and thoughtlessness within the music industry by acknowledging and drawing attention to the women who strive within it as well (be they singers, writers, architects of sound, all three or more).
However, rather than being a good soap-boxer, I’m a good reflector… or an immersionist. Most of the time when I’m engaging with music I choose to gently unzip it and to clamber inside – to experience it through its innards and associations. As an excuse for other disengagements, I don’t know how well this works, but it’s how I’ve tended to operate. The problem is that – in its way – this approach is just as solipsistic or reductive as if I’d tied all of my tastes and my statements to a political stance, and it’s just as reductive. Blinding yourself to the world by hiding away in prettiness (or, indeed, fetishised ugliness) is ultimately not an answer. If you’re not careful, it can become no more significant than slopping some extra gloss onto the decorations.
I should also confess that another reason for my lack of fuller engagement with the world came from the conviction that an over-complex, diverse and dissenting world was impossible to summarise or act upon. Over the weekend, I was reading an interview with the documentary film-maker and audio-visual collagist Adam Curtis which refutes this. Among other things, he comments “I believe that it’s possible to make the world intelligible – however complex and chaotic it is. That is the progressive job of journalism. The other reaction – which is to say, ‘Things are just so complex and unpredictable that you can never make sense of them’ – is, I think, one of the main motors that supports the conservatism of our time.”
Though this statement briskly upends my own comfort zone, I’ve got to agree with Adam. In a national and global environment in which governments, businesses, the powerful and the assertive have rarely seemed so nakedly wicked and corrupt – at least during my own lifetime – my values (and, in many respects, my family) are increasingly threatened, and my stances are changing. Tipping point? Perhaps. All I know is that I feel that keeping silent on these matters leaves a hollow space at the heart of this blog, and that I need to do something about that.
If I am going to head in a more engaged and more political direction, it’s important that I don’t do so under the pretense of heroically filling any yawning gaps in musical and political writing. Even a cursory wander around the blogosphere will reveal the seethe and ferment of existing discourse, all of it surviving quite happily without me. During 2014, many of the hard questions and righteous ragings were already being covered by music-related writers much better suited to the task than I am – among them Neil Kulkarni, Lucy Cage and Taylor Parkes. Alongside the excellent, animated and eclectic criticism which has seen it rise to preeminence in the last few years, The Quietus’ has continued to provide broader reflections on the world. The vigorously argumentative, assertive and punk-spirited ‘Collapse Board’ seeks out debate on just about everything it covers or discovers. Forums blaze everywhere.
(As an aside, though – it’s debatable that punk culture should always claim the high ground in political and social debate. For several years now, Anil Prasad – the superb ‘Innerviews’ interviewer best known for conversations with prog, jazz and country musicians – has been delivering blistering critiques of the warped and exploitative practices within the record industry, and while he might not have the sheer acid bite of Steve Albini, he’s not that far short of it. Arguably the most continually politicised and socially articulate musician whom I heard from this year was Steve Lawson, best known for family-friendly spacey instrumental loop-jazz and eccentric fashion choices (plus the playful sense of humour that makes him the Ross Noble of virtuoso bass playing). In between releasing three albums, he kept up a stream of online posts and tweets this year which eviscerated inequalities, business hypocrisies both in and out of the music industry, Offline and onstage, wherever appropriate, he’d also put up rather than shut up.
Steve’s role as unlikely advocate (coming from a musical quarter from which few people are expected to have or to express streetfighting social opinions) was also a reminder that this year we lost Charlie Haden, the inspirational jazz bassist – a fearless musical advocate of human rights since the 1960s, and and from a current perspective as square-looking a gent as you could hope to meet. Self-satisfied pop theory be damned. Sometimes style and substance just don’t match up, and the former shouldn’t automatically take pre-eminence.)
End of aside.)
So, where does this leave me? This post could be a blip – just a lumpy expression of personal doubt and responsibility qualms before I pick up the usual threads and carry on as before – or it could be the start of something more involved. 2015 may see a darker blog, or I might simply continue to whistle against the darkness. The outcome partially depends on whether people keep sending me slabs of contextually blank noise music or self-entitled “look-at-me-and-make-me famous” rock gobbets. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer to have something to write about and around, rather than simply write on.
Yet ultimately I’m responsible for carrying out any kind of constructive re-engagement between the world and myself. I suspect that my 2015 is going to be full of missteps and stubbed toes, some of them self-inflicted in public. So it goes. It ought to be worth it. If I’m going to do this, it will have to come from personal effort and personal learning, something which leads towards writing which is more deeply grounded and more expansive than it has been before.
Statement of intent. Let’s see where it goes.
Meanwhile, the ‘Misfit City’ show continues. I’ve got some single reviews to be posted up in the next day or so. I’ve already had some other interesting reviewables come through. Some of them are suggesting questions and ideas which I might like to pursue – not necessarily the questions and ideas which you might expect from reading my musings above, but the kind of questions which at least put a shot of adrenalin into my weary mind and keep me going.
And – to end on a completely self-indulgent note – this is a fantastic-looking piano.