Today on the subway I saw a middle-aged man lift his body up by the ceiling handrails to perform a few short, sinewy pull-ups. In my experience the people who typically produce this scene are teenagers trying to reduce boredom and impress each other. This man was alone, and his glossy deltoid eyes contemplated a distance that was not contained in the subway car but assembled importantly beyond it and which gave his minimal aerodynamics meaning. There was a sinister aspect to it, seeing him unattended and revolving noiselessly upon his joints. Through the window behind him the details of a station scattered.
Before The Myth of Sisyphus he had carried round The Unnamable and Nightwood for at least a year, and for two years before that the ultimate overcoat book, Heart of Darkness. Sometimes, driven on by horror at his own ignorance and a determination to conquer a difficult book, or even a seminal text, he would take a copy of something like Seven Types of Ambiguity or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire out of his bookshelves only to find that its opening pages were already covered in spidery and obscure annotations in his own handwriting. These traces of an earlier civilization would have reassured him if he had any recollection at all of the things he had obviously once read, but this forgetfulness made him panic instead. What was the point of an experience if it eluded him so thoroughly? His past seemed to turn to water in his cupped hands and to slip irretrievably through his nervous fingers.
The Afghan Whigs: “Lost in the Woods” (Do to the Beast, 2014)
The bloom of his cigarette tenderly cast his features in amber, and this combined with further distortions of his mood made his mouth look like a woven insect. The rain falling on and around the awning placed in the air an ambient whine, as if evolving a jet engine. He stood here for twenty minutes maybe, but the abrupt halt in his actions deeply amended his sense of time and purpose, and after a while he could no longer determine in which direction he had been walking, and whether it had not always been raining, and whether this was the narrow shape of his life, a distracted glow in the rain. Leaves fell damp and graceless from a tree nearby, none of their conventional flutter, and he felt the order of nature had been accelerated, and that he alone contained in the limits of his body the word “delay.”
What is this? Strings programmed to perform little angry, efficient quarter turns. Synths that have the shape of a computer error. Real, fleshy drums. Max Bemis’ voice, equally annihilated and smoothed, so tenderized. All angles and blurs, no shapes. The new Say Anything album was written and performed without guitars, and their absence is tangible. The songs feel subtracted from, their textures all weightless and desiccated. Violins and keyboards sound like ghosts of another album. Voids everywhere, like a spiderweb. In the odd allusiveness of this landscape, Bemis himself sharpens; his lyrics cluster and flurry. Feeling persecuted by fans, critics, invisible enemies, he unfastens, raveling just beyond the range of comprehension. Bemis has never been an entirely conscious lyricist, and on occasion he’s unspooled completely into racism and misogyny. The chorus to this song renews his confusion of other oppressed people with himself (“I’m just a sick little Injun”). His method of self-reflection is reckless and omnivorous; he takes other people and countries with him.
Meshell Ndegeocello: “Love You Down” (Devil’s Halo, 2009)
This is a cover of the 1986 Ready for the World song. I first became familiar with this song through INOJ’s cover from 1997, which exchanged the vaporous quality of the original for revolving drums that weave the listener into their rhythm. Ndegeocello’s cover, in contrast to both, is patient, disciplined; it’s probably the most earthly version of the song. The instruments lock into place with an audible click. It only allows itself a kind of lift-off at the end, guitars conducting a shape that resembles a blushing polygraph. Otherwise it acts as a solid, discrete center to Devil’s Halo, an album of songs that more often than not move in bright and convulsive blooms, as if produced by a logic of flowers.
The steam from the coffee rose slowly and mingled with the breath from my mouth. On the school playground that lay squashed between two blocks of flats twenty meters up from my office the shouts of children suddenly fell quiet, it was only now that I noticed. The bells had rung. The sounds here were new and unfamiliar to me, the same was true of the rhythm in which they surfaced, but I would soon get used to them, to such an extent that they would fade into the background again. You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.
I suppose it is submerged memories that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What matter of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?
Hungover and therefore having developed new sensitivities to light I have determined that the light in my office is malevolent and has the hue of a corpse. Sunlight is indistinguishable from the light gleaming off a blade. Candlelight is floral.
DJ Sprinkles: “House Music is Controllable Desire You Can Own” (Midtown 120 Blues, 2009)
I listened to K-S.H.E.’s Routes not Roots on the train home from Long Island Sunday night, and it struck me again how house and techno music and especially deep house feel almost derived from the rhythms of public transit. There’s a regularity to how the track and railing uneasily anchor the train, the body of which undulates gently, as if in a cradle. It reminds me of the idea that all forward motion is merely an organized kind of falling. You remain upright at all through the mingling of different gravities. The movement of the train also feels cellular, belonging to the order of circulation.
Terre Thaemlitz’s music is largely designed to remember and solidify details and contexts. Dance music is a product of suffering, specifically the suffering experienced by queer black and Latino communities in America. Dance music is also about shifting contexts, drawing several musics into one space so they may unfurl into each other. DJs unconsciously absorbing the rhythm of the bus or train to the club, taking that rhythm inside with them, translating the patterns of industry to drifts of human bodies.
Additionally, as my train glided across the water into Manhattan, it occurred to me that at night the ocean and sky have interrelated depths.
Often my cats will enter a strange, unconscious orbit, lifting their little paws around importantly, driven by obscure patterns, and they’ll begin to resemble the slow introspective aliens of a first-person shooter.
The new development, a fleet of condominiums, then in their initial grids of construction, inconvenienced his view, which previously encompassed the water and, across it, vast clusters of buildings and trees, all of which absorbed an athletic variety of light and either threw it back at him gently or wove it in complex patterns through themselves. For a week everywhere he went his eyes had a compromised look about them, as if he couldn’t see enough. He’d stare at things as if the center were missing until he made himself sick about it. I invited him out to lunch and he spent a half hour minimally digesting a salad and the remainder of our date throwing up depths. When he returned to the table I examined his movements as he sat, trying to understand the disorder that crept over him. His fingers gripped a cup of tea in shaking crescents.
Life is too serous for me to go on writing. Life used to be easier, and often pleasant, and then writing was pleasant, though it also seemed serious. Now life is not easy, it has gotten very serious, and by comparison, writing seems a little silly. Writing is often not about real things, and then, when it is about real things, it is often at the same time taking the place of some real things. Writing is too often about people who can’t manage.
I’ve been dreaming about Fred Durst a lot lately. The other night I dreamed that after a group of us performed “Misunderstanding” as a group karaoke/drinking song, Fred was explaining what rap music was to some old person, using his own lyrics as an example. This morning I dreamed that one of those Twitter tweet memes was going around to the tune of “tweet your suicide note in rap lyrics” and I tweeted “I came into this world as a reject!”
Rehabilitating the entire Limp Bizkit catalog as the elaborate, multivalent design of Fred Durst, existential poet, “It’s just one of those days where you don’t want to wake up. Everything is fucked, everybody sucks,” a miniature Bernhard novel.
Then the sweet memories came back to me. She was my grandmother and I was her grandson. The expressions of her face seemed written in a language that was for me alone; she was everything in my life; others existed only in relation to her, to the judgment she would pass on them; but, no, our relations were too fleeting not to have been accidental. She no longer knows me, I shall never see her again. We had not been created solely for each other, she was a stranger.
Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah (translated by John Sturrock)
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.