Disjointed notes from a Tier 3 north east coastal town.
2020 has been a challenging, clusterfuck of a year for everyone. If we’d had the vision to predict what this year had in store on December 31, 2019, most of us that live in the disunited kingdom that rotten old no deal Brexit-lovin’ England is a part of would probably have elected to fuck off to the sunshine, where at least we could have stocked up on Vitamin D while we were isolated from the friends and family that make life worth living.
Everyone has lockdown misery to share but still not that many people, right now, to share it with. We’ve lost people, we’ve lost work, income’s gone down, bills have piled up, short term plans have become mid term plans at best, long term plans can’t be made, we’re miserable, we’re alone, cut adrift, and a lot of us are still trying to work out ingenious ways to stop our glasses steaming up when we don a facemask. Still, at least our hands have never been so clean. Nobody has escaped this, even the nutjob “it’s on the internet, it must be true” coronavirus deniers, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers going out of their minds trying to put a date on the day of reckoning, stupid fucks (I do hope they come out of this ok, then go on to learn how to discern fact from fiction).
Of course, when all this started, it had that sense of fun of 1970s three-day-week power cuts, that previous occasion of Britain’s Blitz coping in a crisis spirit rearing its pathetically arrogant head. Except those power cuts didn’t go on for almost a full year, did they, nor prevent you seeing anyone outside your immediate circle, while gathering around a candle collectively humming the theme tunes of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and The Generation Game would hardly have eased the sorrow and heartbreak of not being able to visit your old mum in her care home when she was dying. An article on the Express online about the jolliness of Britons throughout the winter of discontent, in a rather predictable ra-ra-ra ain’t we an amazing nation manner, points out that “With no late-night television people went back to doing things they used to do. Nine months after the blackout winter there was a baby boom. The three-day week also enabled families to spend more time with one another.” So, there’s a symmetry with that bygone era, and I’m sure you’ve spent several months copulating like rabbits between either getting on each other’s tits in a more understandable stir crazy way or watching boxsets via that contemporary version of the contraception that is ‘late night television’ – Netflix. I’m sure those that live alone and have struggled much more as a result can hardly wait for the rise in births in the coming year. Although my gut instinct is that there’ll be a rise in separation and divorce once one can get hold of the required legal representatives.
As for weird changes and surprising moments… Now, I’ve embraced working from home for the most part of two decades and I’ve never got on well with being in an office of any description because, mostly, I dislike having to indulge in inane conversation with people I haven’t chosen to be around. Part of me is somewhat aghast that everyone else is suddenly seeing the benefits of remote working – people muscling in on territory I’ve quite clearly crafted a delightful pissy circle around – while part of me is very pleased that office life will never again be regarded as normal. As my youngest son, whose various computer, console and online device screens are merely an extension of his eyes, pointed out, we were made for this. I do hope other people are made for it too, because it’s nice being able to work within easy reach of the fridge, not get dressed, smash a day’s work and then fuck about. Yet that lack of social interaction can take its toll on mental health, so it’s not for everyone. And obviously employers struggle with trusting employees when they’re out of sight, so the biggest change is yet to come, and, rather than getting that, employers are no doubt already cooking up plans to further their exploitation of the people that fill up their bank accounts.
The biggest, and most unfathomable surprise during all this is that, amid attempting to learn the piano (rather than busk a few chords and indulge in one fingered noodling. Sort of getting there, still grappling with lines and dots), promising myself but failing to get through a pile of unread books, promising but failing to watch all the films and TV I’ve missed out on, promising but failing to be creative but, other than Discomposure, stuttering along blindly and mojoless, especially when it came to writing a collection of short stories, promising, but failing, that I’d blog about this everyday, promising but failing that I’d write a series of essays capturing the spirit of these times, mostly abandoning the noise of social media, admiring how bored I look in zoom and teams meetings, missing dancing and live music more than I thought I would, missing mates, the pub, holidays, my old mum, is that… is that Taylor Swift’s album folklore has been my cultural highlight of the year.
I know. Weird, huh?
Not sure how it happened.
Not sure why it happened.
Not sure what it means.
I mean, I’ve eaten a lot of music in the last few months. Should my favourite album of the year not be one from a more ‘credible’ artist? Should I be banging on about the brilliance of IDLES’ big shouty unit shifter Ultra Mono? Proving how down with the youth I am by giving an immediate response to Loski’s Music, Trial & Trauma: A Drill Story? Convincing you how much I adored Ed O’Brien’s debut solo album Earth? Providing a breakdown of Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela’s Rejoice which, it has to be said, did keep us company in the garden during the summer months (along with Michael Kiwanuka’s 2019 eponymous effort)? Pretending that Nicolas Jaar’s Ceniza, Caribou’s Suddenly and Autechre’s Sign all shook me to the core? Should I not be wittering on about all the glories to be found on the Super Deluxe reissue of Prince’s Sign O’ The Times? Shouldn’t my choice be more aligned to my self-confessed constant craving for heart-pumping, hip-shaking, arm-raising, foot-stomping funk, disco and big beat? Or as angry as any anarcho punk I’ve digested? Is it even acceptable for a grey-haired old white man to adore the mature work of a 30-year-old who released her first album when she was 16, an artist whose only previous work that has lodged in my brain the god-awful nursery rhyme, teen-targeted We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Some indie record that’s much cooler than hers would have been a much more obvious, nay sensible and street cred-enhancing choice, here. Or at least convincing you of the merits of some rhythmically mechanical, industrial crunchiness at 120bpm.
Still, there it is. Taylor Swift’s folklore. An album that’s arrival was announced 17 hours ahead of its release. The timing caught my attention and I bought it in a moment of boredom, to add to the pile of tunes I was working through in the hope that I’d find something to wallow in for a while, or at least to add to an ironic playlist, learn on the piano for a Christmas singalong or simply dismiss from a position of high art superiority – “you’ll never guess what shit I listened to during lockdown”.
I sat down with a cup of coffee and pressed the play button on the expensive device one now plays these things through. I was expecting plenty of pop hooks and stupidity, tunes that would work in a distant future when stadium shows are allowed again, and loads of stolen elements from current genres hoovered up and blasted back out of the commercial homogenisation tube, post misappropriation, in a slightly wonky fashion. I wasn’t quite prepared for the intimate, haunting and cinematic journey that starts with opener the 1 and continues right through to closer hoax. From the opening soft touches on the piano, the lo-fi glitches, clicks and pops, rattles, flutters and wackiness that could have been created in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop of yore, the odd sounding pads and wobbles, the fragility of the vocals, the ghostly under-production, the ‘why use too many notes when three will do’ approach to melodies, through to the space that’s left hanging in the air, the mix of reality and myth held in the lyrics, and the fine storytelling, all of these tunes demand attention – and close your eyes while you listen and you get a rather fantastic accompanying film. In an era where sitting down and listening to anything from start to finish often feels like a chore from which any distraction is welcome, and from someone who’s trajectory to singer-songwriter pop stardom was pre-paved, mapped out and hardly a struggle, pretty unexpected. Isolation’s been good for Swift, she should be left on her own more often if this is the result, while continuing to collaborate with The National’s Aaron Dessner. The use of lowercase titles, annoyingly ee cummings as they are, is a reminder, in case you missed it on listening or simply by looking at the cover art, that this woman is in a mode of stripped back understatement, aside from the occasional ladling on of strings or unnecessary doubling of vocals. Taylor Swift is searching for something, all on her own, in the same way that we are. She’s looking backwards, forwards and contemplating what it means to be here, now, with or without people. “Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me.” Existentialism has never been so listenable.
Obviously I’m happy if you feel the need to laugh out loud at me, part of me realises how silly this might all read. But I wonder if, when I look back on this clusterfuck of a year, and all that was snatched away from us, whether I’ll continue to hold Swift’s effort in such high regard.
Like everyone else, I’m bracing myself for a raft full of dystopian efforts from creatives working across all artistic disciplines trying to make sense of a world coming to terms with the impact of a global pandemic, the twisted ideology of neoliberalism, mass unemployment and what a great big looming depression will mean to our lives, and a planet doing its best to dispose of what’s doing it the most harm – us – but I reckon this slice of what is, essentially, escapism, and more of this ilk, is what I’d prefer to spend my time with. I’ve had enough of politicians in the UK failing to answer direct questions on their mismanagement of the nation’s health and wellbeing and bunging millions/billions to their mates in this corrupt chumocracy, and all the stupid fucks on social fighting each other rather than the targets that deserve it. These are worrying, challenging times. So more folklore, more tales of compassion and understanding passed through generations, more holding hands and holding on to each other as this unfathomable juggernaut picks up speed, more stories and art that connect and protect communities. Yes, more folklore.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve just read that Miley Cyrus has released a new album.