“Real love,” Adrianne Lenker declares about 10 minutes into Big Thief‘s debut,“is a heart attack.” Hers is a lexicon of split lips, blackened lungs, all the interstitial cracks that provide rough outlines for a human body, the scribbles of a deity bent on gallows humour. Like so many of their Saddle Creek forebears, Big Thief can’t help but stare at your wounds; not because they’re sadists, but because they’ve noticed something incredible in the way you choose to cauterise them. It’s a shared experience, and one that Masterpiece documents with stirring emotional fortitude.
There are two kinds of strangers: the ones who arrive that way, and the ones whose shadows lengthen over the course of time. On the title track of Marissa Nadler‘s 7th album, we learn which of the two this record is primarily concerned with. “I am a stranger now,” she sighs, and it’s that temporal qualifier tacked on the end which pushes the album’s themes beyond an implied ending, and towards the wreckage left in its wake. What follows, both lyrically and musically, is a hugely accomplished addition to her brand of saloon-at-the-end-of-the-world Americana, and a worthy follow-up to 2014’s sumptuous July.
“But I think I’m gonna kiss you,” she says, finally, a dramatic pause teased out across eons. It’s the emotional money shot on “Winterbreak”, the highlight of MUNA‘s second – hell, let’s call it – their breakthrough EP, The Loudspeaker. The line follows a rhyme on “tentative ellipsis” and “parting of your lips,” which, frankly, is already enough to engage me in journalistic hyperbole mode: as much as I lost my shit alongside everyone else the first time I heard “The Mother We Share”, you start to feel like the perfect pop promise of a band like Chvrches could finally be realised in the dark, stormy-night elegies bequeathed to us here.
People sometimes ask me when I was happiest, and I say, “Oh, you know, a bit of everything,” because I’m not really listening and I assume they’re asking about my taste in music. When I think about it, though, it’s never a specific occasion, but snatches of memory that come floating back at seemingly uncoordinated interludes. The goal I scored from an unlikely scissor kick on the school football field; but not that day, because later I sprayed Lynx in my eye. The laugh elicited by an old girlfriend when I fell off a tire swing; but not that day, because I fell off a tire swing. The first time I successfully bred a gold chocobo on Final Fantasy VII; and actually the whole damn day, because some joys cannot be bridled by circumstance.
What all of these moments share is that they took place before Manic Street Preachers released “Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)”. Not one of them is compromised by the knowledge that the band who spat The Holy Bible at an unsuspecting world has now pressed a soft, dripping flannel down the back of international football. I can’t live with that.
Of course, the Manics spent their force years ago. Precisely how long depends on your level of sympathy with efforts made to channel the old fire (Journal For Plague Lovers, Futurology), but nonetheless, it’s unfair to expect anything other than tired nods to former glories. On their new track, though, the level of apathy directed at producing anything of artistic merit approaches a magical quality all of its own, almost as if they’ve struck on a new way to provoke a hostile public. It’s just that 25 years ago it was “You Love Us”, and now it’s the insinuation that Aaron Ramsey is a world class footballer.
Like “Three Lions”, the track begins with the sound of terrace chanting, followed by exuberant commentary about heartache, followed by an initial wave of crowd-sourced indie rock gusto. When the verse arrives, it sounds a bit like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Andy Williams, which sounds ridiculous until James Dean Bradfield starts actually singing the melody to adjusted lyrics: “But now that France has arrived, it feels so good to be alive.” Oh, you’re lampooning us. It was a simple lampoon. Then there’s a bit rhyming “Gary Speed” with “heart on his sleeve”, and after that it all gets a bit blurry.
I remember buying The Holy Bible on CD as a 14 year old. I didn’t have a CD player, so for a long time I just read the lyric booklet and imagined what the songs would sound like. “Yes” was a rap, for example, and I could still rap the version that existed in my head to this day. But that’s the point. The lyrics were so densely packed that it seemed impossible that any of it could be scanned into a rock song without sounding ridiculous. And yet! Through an alchemy unrivalled before or since, JDB transformed the garbled rhetoric handed to him by Nicky and Richey into musical gold, as if reeling off a list of serial killers or countries impoverished by US imperialism formed a logical accompaniment to post-punk guitar riffs. All of which makes it more galling that a simple, thumping turd of a line like “When Gareth Bale plays, we can beat any side” sounds exactly as bad as it looks. If anything, it actually sounds worse than it looks written down.
Even the dullest of us have known love, if only for a short time. But those future glories – weddings, and late winners, and New Year’s kisses, and such – will forever now be tarnished. The salt that collects in my eye from watching younger family forge their own muddy paths, the way I did, cannot be tears of joy. After hearing the voice that sang “hospital closures kill more than car bombs ever will” intone, with the same force of meaning, that “with Ashley Williams, we can win any fight”, any renewed bliss will come to me adulterated by its presence, like the jolting remembrance of herpes flushed through a young bride.
After today, nothing can be perfect again. New career highs will be tainted by the faint but pervasive fart smell memory of this song. No fresh swathes cut through my neural passageways – not the first steps of a child, nor of my own in a new country, nor of my last in the country I knew best – can ever wipe clean the stained imprint of Hal Robson-Kanu’s name lazily printed on a sheet of A4 paper, a shit prop to a shit music video.
One day I hope I will have children of my own, and that they can understand the duress of our times. That we survived a collapsed housing market, a collapsing national health service, a culture that knew the price of knowledge and the value of content. I know that they won’t. Words are cheap, and they’ll see that. I know that when my daughter looks up at me and asks what I did in the great viral media wars of 2016, I will have no choice but to look her in the eye and say, “Forgive me, child, for I tolerated it.”