In 1990 Rosanne Cash released Interiors, her first self-produced record. In a gesture more dramatic and isolating, it was also her first album to feature zero production from soon-to-be-ex-husband Rodney Crowell. Crowell isn’t subtracted lightly from Rosanne Cash’s career. Some of Cash’s most powerful moments are in her dense articulations of his songs, particularly “I Don’t Have to Crawl” from 1987’s King’s Record Shop, where her voice drags his words with slow deliberation, as if by chain. Crowell’s voice is a shadow on Interiors, winding a low and spectral course beneath Cash in ”On the Surface.” He manages a brief writing credit on “Real Woman.” According to Cash’s autobiography, Crowell’s contribution reduced the song to “a fucking Pepsi commercial.”
It’s certainly the bounciest track on Interiors; the shuffle of the drums and the sweetness of the guitar tone blend nearly into the saccharine. Cash, however, is elsewhere, trying to determine what it means to be a “real woman” outside the realm of male surveillance. Her voice is incredible; its initially smooth texture veils a smoky interior. But as a lyricist she’s almost invisibly powerful. “I don’t want to check my appearance in your eyes,” she sings, condensing in a single line the experience and apprehension of being spectrally observed by a culture of men.
This is the reigning tension of Interiors; the immaculate production, the severe clarity in the instruments casts the raw and unresolved qualities of Cash’s lyrics into stark relief. Her gently sharpened words also reflect back onto the music, carving uncanny resonances deep in the glossy tableau. The guitars alone seem to glow from a nameless depth.
The imagery of Interiors is bracingly literal, all of its drama internally staged. Tracks one and three are titled, respectively, “On the Inside” and “On the Surface,” the latter detailing the outward calm and domestic regularity of a relationship; this tranquility, of course, is used to obscure whole annihilated dimensions within. When Cash refers to events or people outside of her characters, like chilling newspaper stories, or the substance of memories from which her characters are irrevocably withdrawn, they feel almost alien and hostile to the scene. They move through the songs with the intoxicated drift of ghosts.
"Paralyzed" ends the record with Cash’s narrator eavesdropping on a phone conversation between her husband and another woman. The entire world of the record has receded to Cash, accompanied by piano, the dry escalations of her voice inhabiting a weariness that’s earned rather than resigned. "A lifetime between us, just burnt on the wires / Dissolved in a dial tone, consumed in your fires," she sings in a perilous note, but with unbelievable, heartbreaking control, a determined crispness in her phrasing. I hear in it the sound of one’s life realigning to the length of disaster. When characters in John Cheever’s stories experience infidelity, they seem to loosen from the order of time. When Mr. Estabrook sits down on the couch next to Mrs. Zagreb, he finds himself “immersed in her mouth, as if it was a maelstrom; spun around thrice and sped down the length of some stupendous timelessness.” In Proust, Odette reveals to Swann a whole order of sensual transgressions, and Swann, already embittered and jealous, becomes for a moment lost in the pain of this revelation; it brutally alters the nature of his history with her:
The memory of the evening…was painful to him, but it was only the center of his disease. The latter irradiated confusedly on all sides through the days before and after it. And whatever point in it he tried to touch in his memories, it was the whole of that season…that hurt him.
There’s the curious way, when one surrenders to an experience that’s emotionally overwhelming, that the sequence of events in one’s life seems to dissolve entirely into a faintly understood gauze, against which disembodied emotions burn. One slips from the integrity of sense and experience into a recursive and rawly ordered loop, as if caught indefinitely in the rhythm of a song.
Interiors as an album makes terrestrial shape from this emotional imbalance, which in life is experienced in a considerably more distracted and invisible way. The record is a vision of self-destruction and restoration and individual stocktaking so intense and accurate it feels spiritually advanced, and it’s artistic success can be isolated, I think, to Cash’s voice, which has an astounding capacity for embodying narrative. At the end of “Paralyzed,” her character having resolved to leave her husband, Cash sings ”I’ll move on / I’ll go higher,” and it sounds as if she herself is lifted away.
The rain fell like a disembodied wave on the streets below, the clouds so indivisible and descended that the sky seemed a great damaged nerve hanging there. The severity of the downpour was such that the street, the buildings, the cab that conveyed her appeared as if vaporously derived. She sat there, in the slow, animal crawl of traffic, watching the rain organize into focused drops on the window and attempting to transpose them with the strange spectral blur into which the rest of the world had slipped. Even the fallen leaves looked faintly drafted. She wore a black coat, and she noted that the dimness of the cab combined with the rustling of her limbs under velvet made her appear like a whirling dark, pulsing on the rim of a grey and dissolved universe.
Al Green: “Call Me (Come Back Home)” (Call Me, 1973)
There is a quality in Al Green’s voice, or in how it is recorded, that makes it sound perfectly refrigerated. It is also capable of sounding deeply thatched, as if lacerated at the edges of its range. His voice determines the elemental drift of his songs, the way they seem to settle invisibly on their hooks. Especially this one, which flows so naturally from chord to chord it’s as if there is no chorus or verse, just waves of trembling color. Part of Green’s genius, though, is embedding innumerable tensions in an otherwise smooth and fluid surface. I think this is why, in both his vocal and physical performances, he appears to be gently contending with a darkness.
Van Morrison: “Snow in San Anselmo” (Hard Nose the Highway, 1973)
I love hearing traditional walking basslines played electrically; the amplification introduces a viscosity to the clustering notes, where they appear to flow seamlessly into each other. Also the choir here sounds broadcasted from a different and concave world.
To welcome his new roommates, he painted the entire living room white and removed all of the furniture. The idea was to invite them to decorate the empty space in some reflection of their sensibilities. Why make people feel like strangers in their own house? he thought. We have enough trouble trying to belong to the world. The roommates either misunderstood this gesture or found it too precious to bear. Neither ever applied any furniture or paint to the living room, and each kept sealed in their individual rooms, feeling a dread and responsibility for its vacancy, which ulcerated dimly in their order of thoughts.
How many men he has been: he’s half-certain he’s been everyone. It’s a chore to live so many lives, it’s an insult to live so few. Pythagoras briefly eludes consciousness and does not like what lies outside a self. It is just the howling absence of thought.
I haven’t been writing directly here about my favorite albums from this year, but this song is from the record I’ve listened to the most, just solid pop/rock full of hooks that feel effortlessly crafted and synths that are vivid and ribbony. I can’t write much about it without aestheticizing old relationships.
If there is a eulogy for this earth it will be an understatement - the visible sign of an invisible occurrence - as a testament to the fact that even the subtlest of bodies are resilient amid the sprawl.
Possibly follow tumblr user belcimer for a steady diet of elemental thread.
Words have loyalties to so much we don’t control. Each word we write rights itself according to poles we can’t see; think of magnetic compulsion or an equal stringency. It’s hard for us to imagine how small a part we play in holding up the tall spires we believe our minds erect. The the North shifts, buildings shear, and we suspect.
It is all weird. I am not always well. One block away (I often think of this), there was ten months ago an immense crash. Water mains broke. There were small rivers in the streets. In a great skyscraper that was being built, something had failed. The newspapers reported the next day that by some miracle only two people had been “slightly injured” by ten tons of falling steel. The steel fell from the eighteenth floor. The question that preoccupies me now is how, under the circumstances, slight injuries could occur. Perhaps the two people were grazed in passing by. Perhaps some fragments of the sidewalk ricocheted. I knew a deliverer of flowers who, at Sixty-ninth and Lexington, was hit by a flying suicide. Situations simply do not yield to the most likely structures of the mind.
During the night he was awakened several times by sounds not quite identified on the edge of his sleeping mind. During these periods of wakefulness he looked about him and in the total darkness could not perceive the walls, the limits of his room; and he had the sensation that he was blind, suspended in nowhere, unmoving. He felt that the sounds of laughter, the voices, the subdued thumps and gratings, the jinglings of bridle bells and harness chains, all proceeded from his own head, and whirled around there like wind in a hollow sphere. Once he thought he heard the voice, then the laughter, of a woman very near, down the hall, in one of the rooms. He lay awake for several moments, listening intently; but he did not hear her again.
There’s something eerie about running into people whom you used to crazily love. Like, there’s some sort of emotional address change that doesn’t quite prevent all the mail from getting left behind. So you see this person and there are tiny little messages waiting for you. You say hi and they say hi and it maybe seems a little bit hostile cause all the hostility was never quite delivered. Or maybe they say hi and you say hi and the goodwill was something you forgot, so it just sat there a long time and now you’re finally picking it up.
Would she ever feel like she was on the right path, or was the path just a thing that you glimpsed occasionally? Maybe life was not a thing you arrived at. Maybe it was a thing you continually doubted and reevaluated. Maybe the point was to become comfortable in the doubt, in the not knowing. She decided to try to appreciate the things in her life that needed appreciating. She tried to bear witness to pain and be of use where she could, and be emotionally present in the lives of the people who were important to her.
Sometimes she would forget this and have to relearn it all over again.
People who say “ATM machine,” people who twerk, people who aren’t trying to stop Syria, people who don’t twerk, people who can’t leverage and innovate, Citibikes, Cronuts, Obamacare, nice guys of OkCupid, and people who don’t like all the versions of Fleetwood Mac.
You think you’re the only one that has a mission…and your mission is so unique, and you expound this missionary process over and over again with something you call a vocabulary, which in itself becomes old and decrepit.
Armor For Sleep: “Phantoms Now” (Dream to Make Believe, 2003)
Despite being drawn pretty simply and strictly along what by 2003 had hardened into a schematic of emo, I’ve always found the first Armor for Sleep album to be singular and dreamlike. It’s woven near-ponderously into their design, in the band’s name, in the album’s title, in all of the lyrics about curious alienations. The bass guitar is foregrounded which gently dissolves the other instruments at the edges, so they have the width and flow of a tide. Like dreams the songs seem beholden to an unrevealed logic; they make sense mostly within their own pull. The riffs can feel unrelated: a leaden chorus evolves out of a light and streamlined verse, or vice versa. Sometimes neither are clarified, and they stream into each other as in a bath of chords.
When I dream I often find myself in dispassionately linked rooms of life. I experience the world as if nearsighted; the properties of distance are drawn away, and sceneries glide together in a new rhythm. I walk from an incandescent room in 1997 onto a rooftop in 2012 into the pale ocean of 2005 and the process will seem flawless and organic. When I feature in my own dream it’s as if my eyes hang in some timeless vault above me. Sometimes I’ll discover myself in a room of the house I grew up in and it is very much like returning to a place that has been drained of its former purpose, had some threat written into its frame. A column of air takes undeniable shape. Writer Celia Green describes it as the gradual awareness of “something uncanny in the atmosphere” of a dream. For me this usually suggests itself as too many bathrooms.
The stories of John Cheever are open exhibits of this nature of dreams. Inveterate WASPs lower absently into a depth and begin to feel that they’ve been woven into the ineluctable flow of nightmares. In the story “Marito in Città,” the character Mr. Estabrook, recently liberated from his wife and children, finds the family dog lying on the furniture in configurations of mud. He cleans and upends the chairs and cushions:
With the lights off and everything upside down, the permanence of his house was challenged, and he felt for a moment like a ghost who has come back to see time’s ruin.
Some of Cheever’s characters, seeing no escape from their continuum of despair, simply die in absentia and are transferred spiritually to a field of calm grass. My worst dreams are always after a false awakening, as if the mind is convinced that it must experience the unfathomable to cause a radical dawn of consciousness. Sometimes, though, when I find myself declining into sleep I dream briefly of falling down a flight of stairs, into a bed, where I lie awake for another hour.
Armor For Sleep recorded two more records before disbanding in 2009 and with each slowly eliminated from their music any qualities of a dream. What to Do When You are Dead is a concept album about an acutely distressed ghost, and Smile for Them seems distracted by the condensed world of fame, attention, and supremacy. Neither is as quietly compelling as the first.
Lately I’ve only wanted to write about a particular record, one that comes out in September, and that I’ve only heard so far as an intensely degraded stream. It feels inappropriate even to write carefully about it now. Regardless, through a stream that makes the album sound as if recorded inside an expiring bell, it’s a thrilling and modern consolidation of all of the music I’ve fallen deeper in love with over the past two years: ’80s R&B, both in its dreamily laminated, Quincy Jones sense and the later machinistic yet lush elaborations of Jam/Lewis via Prince; the mannered, restricted performance of tenderness by New Romantic sophisticates like Bryan Ferry, which is to me exactly the sound of being recently unfrozen; the similar but even more chilling romantic vastness of The Blue Nile; the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. The album is very teenage in subject matter and in aspects of the lead singer’s voice, but the sound is thoroughly Adult, a wallet of professional grooves. The guitars, down to their tone, seem directly conducted from this song in particular; they’re a strange elastic decoration, like shifting wallpaper. Altered saxophones walk in reliably and have the warm and peripheral nature of old friends.
No one should let me listen to records early. I’ll be intolerable for weeks.
I went up and found my grandmother far from well, more so than previously. For some time now, without knowing quite what was wrong, she had been complaining about her health. It is illness that makes us recognize that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us, with no knowledge of us, and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way (translated by Mark Treharne)