The backing track of Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods” develops almost impressionistically, a landscape of glossy echoes and shadows for which there are few visible sources. Convex drums whirl in and out of the song like wind through a room. When Swift sings she is one of the few elements of the song not mercilessly fed through reverb, which makes her voice sound as if it’s hatching out of negative space. The song depicts a couple who have either broken up or live forever in the drifting saturation of a Polaroid photo. “We were built to fall apart / then fall back together,” Swift sings, constructing a loop through which the characters in her song move.
Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer describes a woman named Charlotte Douglas, who escapes her abusive first husband and her pragmatic second husband in order to find her daughter in the Central American country of Boca Grande. Her daughter is not in Boca Grande, and there’s little reason to believe she’d install herself there after hijacking a plane and incinerating it to satisfy an obscure Marxist criterion. Boca Grande is blank, literal, and administratively insecure enough to receive Charlotte’s projections, which envelop her and through which she translates the events around her. She absorbs images but fails to assimilate their meaning.
The images in “Out of the Woods” wind an oblique course through the song. The couple are so bright in the Polaroid that the rest of the world blurs and desaturates. Trees take on the aspect of monsters. The couple shifts the furniture of a room so they can dance, adjusting the shape of one context so it can contain another. These are vivid projections one imposes on the world from the center of an insecure, mercurial relationship.
Charlotte is described early in A Book of Common Prayer as “immaculate of history, innocent of politics.” She is sustained by her dimensionally narrow images of people and places, of her daughter and of Boca Grande. Not that the revolutionary politics of Boca Grande are anything but typical or environmental. Things in Boca Grande are constantly changing into themselves, half-lives caught in a loop. “Everything here changes and nothing appears to,” according to the narrator Grace Strasser-Mendana. “A banana palm is no more or less ‘alive’ than its rot.”
The choruses of “Out of the Woods” are perhaps Swift’s most repetitive—usually she compresses as many discrete syllables into a song as it can bear—but the repetition enhances the song. It embodies the feeling of being caught in a narrow, doomy loop of one’s own thoughts, of walking into the center of continuous panic. Didion often employs repetition as a rhetorical device, in order to impose narrative and order where there is none. It doesn’t take; time, memory, and human motivation resist her structures. They are meant to fracture. At the end of each chorus in “Out of the Woods” a bass drum insistently blooms, like a shadowy throb of memory. “I remember,” Swift sings.
Memory itself is a kind of woods, a wilderness. Throughout A Book of Common Prayer Charlotte endures massive dislocations of memory. Grace narrates, “She remembered certain days and nights very clearly but she did not remember their sequence.” When she tries to explain to her second husband Leonard the fact of a bomb going off at the abortion clinic where she works, she cannot convey its details without misdirection. She is unable to detach herself from the periphery of the explosion: She was removing a tampon. Leonard at one point characterizes Charlotte as someone who “remembers everything.” Later, drunk, he corrects himself: “No… She remembers she bled.” The focus around the blood drifts, becomes obscure. When Charlotte unearths a braided memory of the deaths of her parents and her infidelity with a lawyer, she tells Leonard, “I am so tired of remembering things.”
"Out of the Woods" seems sculpted from a discursive flood of memory, like a cliff face composed over time by the waves of the ocean. An image of tenderness, of one character looking after the other as they endure stitches in the hospital, conducts another memory, one of exhaustion: "Remember when we couldn’t take the heat / I walked out, I said ‘I’m setting you free’." The memories come all at once, almost out of order, and together wield a kind of symbolic power. They inform something about oneself that resists examination, that fails to come into focus, a haze around the continuous bloom of one’s pulse.
The haze is the woods. Boca Grande is not necessarily a woods but there’s a quality of wilderness to a politically unstable country situated in an equatorial climate. It is a place that resists history. A geography free of history is a geography where history repeats. In the woods this recursion is literal—clusters of trees that are so identical as to seem oblique echoes of each other. Errors in time.
Woods often hover within atmospheres of horror and menace. In horror stories people loosen from time, into a continuous order of evil. In the 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre there is a scene of the main character Sally being pursued by chainsaw-wielding Jedediah “Leatherface” Sawyer through the skeletal brush of Central Texas, after Leatherface saws Sally’s brother Franklin into wailing shadows. The woods, if they can be characterized as woods when completely annihilated by the sun, are minimally lit; Sally and Leatherface appear as mere brushstrokes of blue in the night. For a few minutes it looks as if Sally is falling through an infinite universe of desiccated branches.
At the end of the film, Sally leaps through the window of Leatherface’s house, and she spills into the incomplete light of dawn, the visible order of the world recomposing itself. Sally finds herself on the bed of a pickup truck, emitting high staccato cascades of laughter, overwhelmed by the fact of her own survival. “The monsters turned out to be just trees.” There is the shot of Leatherface, reduced to mortal frustration, weaving his chainsaw in gorgeous helixes over his head. “When the sun came up, you were looking at me.”
The ceiling light in the bathroom burned out last night. I haven’t replaced it because the four discrete, naked bulbs above the mirror still light up and cast the room in a narrow, autumnal glow. Lit in this way the bathroom seems to belong to another order of life. For instance, the order of the weather. (Dreams, too, but I tend to think anything warm and umbral endures the logic of dreams.) This causes the room to feel molecularly unstable, as if it could sink seamlessly into the air. We live on the third floor. At this altitude it is preferable that rooms not shimmer with unreality. Lately I’ve been trying to cross the threshold of the bathroom without making a sound, as if a loud enough footfall would evaporate the tile beneath me.
It’s both an inconvenient and symbolic thing to have lived in an apartment long enough for the lights to reflexively expire. I still flip both light switches when I walk in and out, and the synaptic failure of the overhead bulb makes me think it’s absorbed all the light in the room and is ulcerating violetly, like a hovering bruise.
Later, when I’m trying to fall asleep, the cats make noises in the dark. If I can I try to decode the noises without leaving the bed. I mostly try to make sure they are not deconstructing anything. If I hear a crinkling, the precise helix of the sound determines whether they are batting a toy around or pulling recycling from the mouth of the can. Sometimes they run after each other, their paws gathering into a miniature gallop, which at the edge of sleep merges gently with the tidal bath of traffic from the open window. The refrigerator clicks on and drones importantly. Horses run into the waves of the sea.
So if “manufactured” is unfair, what is the right metaphor for Britney’s relationship to the pop machine? Scanning the pop culture of the late 90s gives us a better possibility: mecha, the Japanese anime genre where beautiful, tragic youth fuse themselves to sublime, state of the art machines. Britney is not the machine’s puppet; she’s its pilot.
It seemed a melodramatic way of phrasing it at the time but he felt he could only describe himself as having lost control of his body. A pain constantly radiated from the area of his kidneys and stomach, like cracks spidering through a pane of glass. The geography of the body grows obscure when one is locked inside the boundless center of a pretty routine pain, even as the pain itself appears to shatter through its environment and leave whole radioactive blooms of damage. When he thought of his midsection he thought of a crater on the moon through which slow fractures wove.
His perspective on reality adjusted in order to absorb this pain, and he found his focus had detached considerably. It was impossible to inhabit a minute, at least without also having to inhabit and reflect upon innumerable microseconds of pain, cresting within him reliably as the waves on a beach. In order to forget it, he would force himself to go out, and there he would inevitably remember it harder. The detachment cultivated in him by the shapeless flares in his abdomen would cause him to separate the flood of reality into individual threads. Experience, memory, projection, once useful unconscious processes that kept the flow of his existence rich and coherent, were now like severed electrical wires convulsing sparks. No focus or direction to the current of his life, just anxious volcanic eclipses, collapsing into a darkness he now nearly always felt vibrating at the edges of his body.
He had spent considerable amounts of money on doctors, compromising what he had set aside for rent and groceries, which seemed to him more important than an ulcerating ambience in the core of his body. The doctors took blood, scanned yards of his skin, but could not isolate a single source of the pain. Each of their foreheads marbled with uncomprehending veins like leaves in sunlight.
He would try as often as he could to see the bands he liked, the pain having not entirely reduced his ability to lose himself—his body—in music. It was his favorite thing as a kid, and he heard it in the flutter and pulse of James Brown records especially, almost rising from the glowing whorls of its surface—how someone could completely dissolve in a song. How a song could travel all the way through them, head to toe. James Brown did not create the groove, the groove created and recreated James Brown, cell by frenzied cell.
In the minutes before anyone walked on stage, he would look at the other people gathered in the room, gently decrypting what pain they might have to live with, which they carried around like a bag they had forgotten the contents or purpose of. He wondered how they translated this music through their own illnesses, or how they might tune it precisely to the music and feel a warm and evocative symmetry there. Later, all the notes in the songs would appear to him like flares in a life monitor, gorgeous skeletal pyramids that leap out of an unrelenting flatness.
This is my new favorite song. Sometimes when I listen to “Crush on You” the small expressive world of it telescopes out and I see it arranged in a constellation with my other favorite songs. These songs all share physical properties which pin them to their narrow ribbon of cosmos—for instance I think ”Crush on You” and Womack and Womack’s “Teardrops” are both animated by a kind of skipping pulse, like a multiplied heartbeat. Whenever I hear either song it feels as if insects are fluttering through a bouquet of my nerves. It’s an occasional relief when my feelings about music aren’t totally aimless and confused and instead are able to gather themselves into reliable patterns and designs, collapsing intelligibly into points of light.
Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. The wind that sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that hide one yard from another in summer, and the houses seem to draw closer together. The roofs, that looked so far away across the green tree-tops, now stare you in the face, and they are so much uglier than when their angles were softened by vines and shrubs.
In the morning, when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I couldn’t see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon, when I was coming home, the town looked bleak and desolate to me. The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautiful—it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: “This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.” It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.
The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
Nail clippers Spare change Unraveled clotheshanger Bell attached to ribbon Reed of pasta Dehydrated snacks I bought them when they were mostly immaterial kittens A fly Dismembered plastic bag Box of macaroni
I saw this band for the first time last night. Their 2012 album Bury a Dream was one of my favorite records from that year; it’s still sort of astonishing to me that a very tiny Austin band produced a song cycle so dense. The songs sound like individual glowing crypts. The new one, Unimagined Bridges, is just as good, if a little more convalescent and sunlit. Live, they intensified what I found captivating about them on record; there’s an acute energy that circulates between each instrument. Drums, bass, guitar, and horns vividly envelope each other like halos of flame. Both vocalists sing in simultaneous yet digressionary rhythms which will suddenly accelerate and braid together. The guitar tones resemble events of phosphorescence.
"It shocks me how few people read The Hot Zone when they were ten years old like I did. I just broke the news of how ebola works to someone. They aren’t happy.”
"A great cleansing fire of ebola. Yeah, how was every kid not obsessed with lethal monkey disease?”
"Who am I to not be into cleansing fires? And yeah. Come on, people.”
Was the “Contagion” arc of Batman about Ebola? I was obsessed with that as a kid, even when they admitted to illustrating it kind of speculatively, probably because it was more expressive to depict blood just totally whistling out of someone’s face.
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.