Welcome to our seventh monthly Deep Cuts article. The theme is Bitter Sweet, its prompt question was 'what music makes darkness digestible (or even tasty)?'. It's worth mentioning that most of the contributions were written over a month ago (some are even pre-Covid), hence the varied interpretations of the theme, the contributions which are not related to the largest civil rights protest of all time, the horrors that motivated it, or the astonishing black musicians who continue to push culture forward, just as they have in all the years since they invented the genres of music that make life sweet.
As always, tracks from each contribution are gathered in this month's Deep Cuts mix, embedded below, the mix's tracklist is at the end of the article, all the Spotify-able tracks are gathered chronologically in this playlist, and the illustration comes from Trav.
Stay safe, look after yourselves and enjoy x
I’m on the floor, my back to the wall, legs out in front of me, hands on my knees. That soul, those vocals that throb with soul, there it is.
The tv I watched just before this had settled my stomach, the music had stirred me, but now this track goes right in, slides right into my head. That’s the amazing thing for me about bittersweet music, how quickly it can expand, crystalising into a vivid feeling. It can be shocking, even if you knew a feeling was coming, because you forgot how real it can get. Today it activates dormant pain, it hurts, but then it's digested, it flows through me. Really, it makes me feel strong, it even makes me feel proud of 1010 Benja SL, the man who sits here by my side.
[Dobby appears at 1:05 in this month's Deep Cuts mix, embedded above]
Will is Deep Cuts' Mama.
There’s something slightly (deliciously) incongruous about this, as with much of Aldous’s work… I’m a sucker for her intriguing lyricism, tone, intonation and quirk.
She sings wistfully, accompanied by tasteful, uncluttered instrumentation: “I’ve got the weight of the planets, I’m lost”.
In the sometimes-darkened task of trying to make one’s way through life well, it can feel weighty, draining, disorientating. It’s as though the heavy truth of this state of being is delightfully played with within the light swaying curves of this song.
To me, it’s reminiscent of a dream state – in which the darkness of night can have a tasty twist. [3:50]
I first heard this song sitting by a canal, in the long grass. It was one of those ones that burrowed inside immediately – almost inevitably. And stayed there.
I feel it embodies a sense of gently breaking through a husk… coming to terms with something, a sweetly sombre reflection.
The pace, the voice: a sensual, unobtrusive yet compelling lethargy.
Songs with unique structures cut through the droves of music we consume. And Body, to me, is a stunning example. Two thirds of the way through, Julia sings over and over: “I guess it’s just my life, and it’s just my body…” hypnotic.
These words hit me at the right time, and they hit deep. They hint at the recognition and acceptance of one’s ultimate insignificance in the face of our massive existence, I think – not in a morose, disempowering way, but in a way that brings perspective and ultimately a kind of calm liberation. Bitter sweet.
'I cave in‘ repeated again and again… Ugh, I feel this.
The way it turns, swirls in..
The beat, the repetition.
The angelic & the edge.
‘Help me become divine‘.
Katya writes poetry in her spare time.
The business of living at the moment is couched in uncertainty, fury and endless frustration, there have been so many days when seemingly all there is consists in this layer of darkness, so thick and enveloping it felt impossible to know where to pierce it to make way for light. It all feels like a whirling dervish of darkness, the confinement and uncertainty brought on by Covid, the full unmasking of Leaders who prioritise economy before people, the brutalisation of Black and Ethnic minorities, the whispers of conspiracy; full on whirling dervish.
Then there’s the private sphere, looking around my community I am mostly encouraged and happy that I’ve somehow managed to surround myself with a mixture of open minded, forward thinking, gentle, forthright and fiery people. These old fixtures and new additions have helped to keep me sturdy, but a few surprises have been unsettling and left me pretty bereft, as it has for many. Then came the death of George Floyd, the match that lit the already overburdened pyre.
I spent the first day after that news in a mostly confused silence and turned to a familiar but by no means comfortable album; Funkingfusion, a Ninja Tunes compilation. Two tracks in particular punctuated the day. Get Ready by Silent Poets featuring the lyrical Titan that is Ursula Rucker and The Crow by DJ Food. One is a furious outpouring, a refusal to endure anymore bullshit, the other a promise of detachment to reflect. Both dealing with darkness, both make it beautiful. A friend introduced me to this, he found solace in it and passed on the love. Besides sharing space on a compilation album, both these tracks share a musical similarity too; they encompass the orchestral in their expressions. This says a lot about how I deal with things, using music that has an epic, layered and sometimes complex quality (no complexity today though, musically speaking they are relatively straight forward).
Ursula Rucker is a Poet and Spoken Word Artist who has worked with a whole host of well-respected, critically acclaimed musicians including The Roots, Josh Wink and 4-Hero, and stands in her own right as artist. Her style is all about making listeners sit up, I would recommend checking out her work. Silent Poets, originally a duo but now a solo project led by Michiharu Shimoda, pioneered their own brand of electronica, collaborating with a whole host of artists from a variety of genres and are responsible for laying pathway taken by more recent electronic, acid jazz and dance music artists.
Get Ready [14:33] is ethereal but entirely solid, it calls out the struggle of existence but speaks of future triumph, mining gold from shit. It’s a fight song but also a love song. First, a single, sparse beat and Rucker flows gently over the top, soft, steady, almost menacing. “Stress and strife may stay around but they can’t keep me down see, shit may look soft on the out but it’s tough on the in my friend, send your sorrow somewhere else I come up swinging, so all I’m saying is get ready when you see me coming cause I’m not running.” Gauntlet thrown down, she moves from philosophical musing to warning, using vocal dexterity to drive the message home. At first the delivery is straight, almost impassioned then she whispers again this time in full menace, “Get ready when you see me coming, I’m not running.” I challenge you not to be affected. The contrast between the gentleness of her delivery and the power of her message balances between light and dark. Silent Poets provide the backdrop, the music moves steadily from beats then transitions into strings, matching Rucker in depth and intonation. It’s a pretty simple but highly effective arrangement. It’s one of my all-time favourite collaborations, an excellent example of taking darkness – in this case the pain of struggle that comes with social, sexual and racial injustice- and turning it into gold - black gold, to quote Rucker - through the musical arrangement. The bullshit will always be there but it’s how you meet it that makes it alchemy, sweet. It’s not milk chocolate sweet, its richer, darker and earthier but for anyone who is a fan of dark chocolate with salt then I think this the one for you.
Then ‘The Crow’ by DJ Food [7:30]. This an instrumental piece that never fails to pick me up, by now it’s a little later, after Silent Poets and Rucker have made their stand. The time when day hands over to evening, I still haven’t spoken much or had want to. This track echoes the sweetness in the physical transition from the brightness of daytime into the gentle drifting of evening, providing release from all the whirling. By now the subsequent outcry, ugliness and all, has reminded me that injustice is recognised and rejected by the majority of people. Coupled with that, which was pointed out by a new friend, we have the energy to engage more fully, not in a piecemeal fashion; it feels like something real could emerge from this tragedy. It’s not yet apparent what, and the sense of menace still lingers, but that does not mean it is without beauty or the promise of transformation. That’s why I reach for ‘The Crow’.
The track builds and soars and always takes me with it, intense but calming. A double bass and beat signal the start, the initial flight, then moves into a drumming rhythm, then up, up and up. Vocal samples whisper from the sides, a flute chimes in- a pretty sharp sound piercing the warmth of the rhythm. I imagine this dark bird with powerful wings soaring, observing the chaos, detaching, at times meeting other birds there is friction but always release, returning back to its path somehow fuller, more aware and able to deal. The Crow acknowledges darkness, an example being the heaviness of what sounds like a bassoon, but it is met with strings and electronic whimsy, all while the rhythm keeps moving steadily towards sweet, restorative crescendo. By the end I am always less weighted, like the bird, aware, able and willing to deal. While words are extremely powerful when articulated by thinkers like Rucker, their absence induces space, actually creating openings in my mind that words have never been able to (I can never find the right ones).
DJ Food, for anyone interested, is another well established musician. Headed by Kevin Foakes, also known as Strictly Kev, the concept of the record was created with and aided by Ninja Tune originators Coldcut. Apparently, Strictly Kev’s DJ moniker came out of a desire to provide metaphorical food for DJs. Would very much like to hear if he’s succeeded on that because from a fan’s perspective, I would say bang on Kev, fully stuffed.
So, two rich and tasty tunes that I offer in the hope that they help when reaching for much needed light.
Other tracks that might be of interest:
Black Boys On Mopeds - Sinead O’Connor- Vintage O’Connor, the sweetness of her voice provides the relief here because it is a sharp, sorrowful lament against injustice.
Tragic X - 1010 Benja SL – Beautiful, beautiful vocals. Again, that epic quality runs throughout. Darkness meeting light.
Nana works as a tv producer, taking initial ideas and seeing if they have legs.
Livia takes photos at London’s formidable club The Cause, and works as digital ambassador for the marketing department of SOAS.
The title alone conjures images of witchcraft and cowboys, magic and menace. Opening with a beautiful yet simple acoustic guitar, before cascading into a world of nostalgic slide guitar and uncomfortable rolling harmonies. The vocals walking the line between haunting and calming, a song you could fall into an uneasy shallow sleep to. Providing a spectrum of dark colours, Jerkcurb sought to create an auditory purgatory, pretty far from either heaven or hell. [11:09]
Haig Binnie is a support worker who makes jewellery, embroidery and music in his spare time.
Alongside the above track [19:49], Ady suggested the following Kate Tempest poem:
‘There’s always some couple
in ravenous stages of loving
just when we’ve argued ourselves into cunts.
We’ll be fuming,
walking along, saying nothing,
when suddenly, here they come, skipping in front –
it makes me feel
But when I look at you
I’d much rather
have this love instead”
Ady Suleiman is a phenomenal r'n'b singer/songwriter, his most recent official release is a gorgeously sweet mixtape but the lead single Strange Roses is threaded with darkness. He recently put out a freely downloadable cover of Bill Withers' Let Me In Your Life.
My dad pulled this record out of the shelf when I was 10 and told me the song he’s about to put on would stick with me forever. He was not wrong. This was my dad giving me a lesson about being a black male in this world. This song delivers such optimism at such a progressive period of time; Whilst still upholding the harsh reality of race worldwide. Everyone can learn something from this forgotten gem. Be kind to each other x [25:49]
Jeff is the DJ behind Threads Radio's The 140 Project, which he hosts alongside his brother 140MC, encompassing all facets of 140 bpm culture, including interviews with a new guest DJ and guest MC every two weeks (pre-quarantine). A recent episode titled Peace, Justice, Unity, Equality involved original interviews and contributions from The Voice winner and political activist Jermain Jackman and British National Basketball Plater Orlan Jackman, as well as field recordings and interviews from the Black Lives Matter protest at the US embassy.
That point in the night where things are winding down. You’re in this strange dark hole and you’re spinning but it’s ok because someone puts on CMYK. [35:32]
You hear the sweet innocent synths, the vocal sample bringing you back to your 90s r'n'b days and there’s suddenly hope in the air, like this dark hole you’ve dug yourself in is about to become a lot lighter.
Then comes the release, big pulsating synths open up the song and you’re blasted into another world where all you want to do is dance and move.
I first heard it in a situation like this years and years ago, and ever since then it’s almost been like a beacon of hope in times when I feel low.
The nostalgia alone is so comforting.
There’s something so dark and haunting about this track with the relentless synths and pedal notes constantly building tension but then the perfectly timed moments of release giving glimmers of hope through it all.
Jazzi Bobbi is a producer, songwriter, DJ and multi-instrumentalist. She collaborates and tours with Nilüfer Yanya, making a particular star turn on their cover of Pixies' Hey, translating the iconic guitar line onto the saxophone with godlike deftness.
When I was growing up, I discovered Bian Eno through Bowie’s Low album. Eno’s discordant, ambient universes soon became a necessity if I wanted to relax, or get some work done. Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was the ultimate relaxant. Want to be taken away from Earth for just under an hour? Well, Brian’s here with a spaceship filled with analog warmth. It’s one hell of a trip. It really is.
I started taking Eno’s Apollo trip nearly every evening, at around midnight. I’d always accompanied sleep with the sound of a fan, or some subtle white noise. Most music didn’t give me the space I needed to zone out. Apollo was different. Eno created soundscapes with no beginning or end. You couldn’t decipher a particular instrument, or mood, or tempo. It had the vastness I needed to shut down after a day of ever present distractions.
It’s strange how your perception of a piece of music can change. As I grew older, partying meant that I spent a fair few Saturday mornings trying to get some sleep in less than ideal circumstances. My antidote was Apollo. The musicality of the album linked to scenes the night before, whilst the vast soundscapes lulled me to sleep.
Unfortunately, the album took on new traits. I started to link the sounds to the agony of my attempts to sleep after drug-fuelled weekends. After a few months, I couldn’t listen to Apollo whilst relaxing, or working. I ended up avoiding the album as my go-to sleep tool, as it would bring up eerie, insidious emotions.
I had a break from Apollo for a few years and only recently started to listen to this masterpiece again. It still gives me the same warm feeling. However, it was a no-go for me for a while. Getting lost in those soundscapes was terrifying; that’s definitely a testament to the power of Eno’s music.
[Signals and Drift from the album respectively appear at 16:35 and 37:30 in the mix]
At its core, club culture acts on a bittersweet principle. Our community of music lovers, club-goers, party starters, activists, protesters and educators are motivated by fighting ignorance and oppression. Our fervent need to be heard means that where our society faces threat, those who understand their influence use it to amplify the voices of the oppressed. Every musician I know cares deeply about this, each using what influence they have to help. Most of us are healthily holding each other to account, sharing donation pages, educating and motivating each other to continue despite obvious opposition. This community ethic within music culture sweetens the bitter failings of the institutions we supposedly answer to.
It’s no surprise this bittersweet feeling occurs, not just in our communal vocality, but right at the nucleus of what brings our community together. Club music in the early to mid 80s, more specifically Techno, was born through black Detroit’s mimesis of its industrialist self, and at its core, an Afrofuturism stemming from systemic ignorance and suppression. Drexciya, consisting of James Stinson and Gerald Donald, besides their obvious musical ingenuity, are celebrated for their mythic narrative: a community of subaquatic warriors and adventurers descended from the children of pregnant African slaves drowned during the Trans-atlantic crossing. Their seminal, debut album Neptune’s Lair is awash with fluidity, vividly traversing scenes of the deep as they enrapture the listener in Afrofuturist fable. It engenders a sweet relief from the backdrop of bitter oppression. Drexciya, alongside many Afrofuturist artists, offered a challenge to whitewashed futures and colonialist histories; an escape from white perceptions of Afro-diasporic identity, and an opportunity to give back agency through collective re-imagination.
While Drexciya provided the groundwork for Techno in the US and beyond, Philip ‘PJ’ Johnson and Carl ‘Smiley’ Hyman, a.k.a. “Shut Up and Dance”, were busy laying the foundation for UK dance music culture. [38:55] Their seminal album Dance Before The Police Come offered a unique, politically-edged commentary of institutional racism and white supremacy during the late 80s and early 90s. Tinged with melancholic samples, anguished lyrics, and unbridled emotion, the album mirrors their attitudes towards the police, government and systemic suppression of black culture. The work embodies a unification of various black influences: the samples of funk and soul entwined with Jamaican sound-system culture, dusted in rap lyrics. Their lyrics express black oppression, but their passioned physicality embodied the need for the fight to extend past the vocals. Dance Before The Police Come enabled them, along with other dancers, to express their interiorised frustration, and the album’s physicality gave their music widespread access to the escapist rave culture growing across the country at the time. The bittersweet fact is that they had to use their music, something they loved, to reflect and share their oppression. How their influence has shaped UK music culture today also holds the same truth.
Initially, this article took on a different form. To me, club music’s dynamic juxtaposition of function and emotion is what makes it so visceral and immediate. Prior to writing, I wanted to investigate this duality within the “Bittersweet” context. However, club culture’s blackness must be addressed. We are, more than ever, seeing surreptitious whitewashing by superficial advocates hellbent on personal gain (something not exclusive to music); muting the black artistry this culture is founded on. Non-black people, myself included, must understand the privilege they have: In being able to experience this culture without experiencing the feeling the fear, pain or anguish this music was founded on; In being able to experience anti-racist music without finding similarities in personal oppression; In being able to experience Afrofuturistic narratives without the visceral reminder of why an escape is so needed. We who love it need to fight for it, now more than ever. In order to appreciate the sweet, we must acknowledge the bitter; in order to appreciate sweetness, we must fight the bitter fight. I want to conclude with a poignant tweet from author Sara Collins:
“Because of racism, some of our best brainpower (Baldwin, Morrison, so so many others) had to be diverted to the cause of anti-racism, and we are still asking the same things of this generation’s finest minds. What else might they have wanted to write about? Think about that.”
McGregor's transcendant interplannetary house track Lightyears From You was featured in our fourth Deep Cuts article and mix, Wordless Tone. The proceeds from his new, equally gorgeous ambient EP Cocoon will be split between a selection of black-focussed charities.
Bittersweet music, hm? "Easy“ - I thought to myself. Instantly, personal evergreens come to my mind: Dark, INDUSTRIAL, marching stompers full of merciless rhythm…Tracks such as Lorn’s Sega Sunset
[45:40] or Dolor's Bride 4 are a sheer MUST.
But I can't stop here. Just like there are 50 shades of grey, there are 50 shades of bittersweet music. After all, what is "bittersweet" - it’s an inner contradiction. It’s an "oxymoron“ - it denies itself and yet it does exist. Like many of us do. So many of us live but don’t live their life up to their fullest. Brought up in a way to deny certain parts of their personality… and eventually just decided to deny themselves. This is what makes bittersweet music so interesting. The inner tension soundtracks every single one of us. Even you: now that you're reading this! Didn’t I just catch you thinking about that one thing you always wanted to do but weren’t allowed to? And now things have become so severe that you’ve internalized the inner voice of 'NO, you MUST NOT?'
Anyhow… I’m logged into my Spotify Account. I’ve compiled playlists that revolve around nothing but SLEAZY, sticky bittersweetness: …“Industrial & Tenderness“ … or …“Kinky Revenge“. [Editor's note: according Google there aren't any clubnights in Berlin or anywhere else named Kinky Revenge, this is bizarre.] Those playlists certainly serve special occasions, but what about that one Depeche Mode track: Surrender (The Romantic Mix - of course). This song clearly is the pinnacle of bittersweet, romantic music.
Still browsing my songs…the "Liked Songs“ list comes up with… - And without warning, Jon Hopkins' Abandon Window starts playing. Boom! Goosebumps! I get goosebumps whenever music flashes me. It’s a whole different kind of bitter-sweetness. No tragedy, no drama…Jon’s music soundtracks the INEVITABILITY of things. Inevitability can mean both endings AND beginnings. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a pessimistic guy. I just wished more people would realize the value of the LAST moments instead of the FIRST moments. To my ears, Jon Hopkins' tunes soundtrack last moments in a way no one has ever done before. Last moments are hard to detect: they’re invisible to most people and for the most part, they’re intentionally dismissed for being what they are. The bottom line under a bill full of joy.
But let’s move on…One of the latest tracks that left a deep, deep impact was Yves Tumor's Limerence - It’s just there - and it’s there to stay. Probably telling the story of a young love…torn between first moments of affection and estrangement. A remarkable mix of nature noises, a gentle, caring synth loop, and this voice…whose fragments let you image the story behind the track. Bittersweet stories being told - in a fairly INDIRECT way.
There are so many more shades of bitter-sweetness that I would love to mention - yet deep diving into them would be too much now. Instead, let me pick a few: Moments of bittersweet REVENGE are best soundtracked by Pye Corner’s Lost Ways. Modern styles of bittersweetness pretty much equal nowadays electronic ballads - tracks as The Weeknd’s and (of course! Gesaffelstein!!!) Lost In The Fire. All of this is very MAINSTREAM. So before I come to my very personal conclusions about bittersweetness, the honorable mentions are of course BURIAL (Untitled 2)- and a track that you’ll not find on Spotify, embedded above; World in Devotion by November Növelet. [Editor's note: you underestimate me... you can find this track alongside all the rest in this month's playlist!] Remembering GOTHIC heritage, this track means a lot to me: Dancing in the "Duncker Club“ Berlin on a Monday night - surrounded by surreal - yet human - figures, drowning in fog.
The last facet of bittersweetness: bittersweet MEMORIES are soundtracked by a tune that was never released as a single piece of music. Instead, The Couch simply "was" Track 7 on Alanis Morisette’s 17 song album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. I must have listened to this album on loop for about a year. The Couch caught my attention because of the beautiful way Alanis tells a story about guilt, blame and relationships. All of these are very relatable topics, aren’t they?
And last but not least: My very OWN approach to bittersweetness: I like wandering through the streets of Berlin. These Sunday strolls now have their own soundtrack.
Lichtmann is the organiser behind Kantine Am Berghain's gig series Traurig Und Untanzbar, which translates as 'sad and undanceable.'
Cities Aviv is an experimental project by Memphis-based producer WGM. On this album Raised For A Better View he explores feelings of change, self reflection and transience through sparse stumbling soundscapes populated by resampled diy sounds providing a personal and intimate affirmation of the ups and downs of life.
Echoey bellowing synths open this song up and immediately set the pace. The next 3 minutes get me staring out a window and feeling like I’ve been dropped into the sparse and foggy depths of my own head. Pushed to confront the weight that holds me down. In its opening this feels like a wistfully gloomy track about wallowing in your deepest darkest struggling to find reason in anything
But by the time we get into the second verse “you only learn from a breakthrough when you pay dues to the variables that raised you”, it's clear Cities Aviv is describing this constant battle within yourself and the power you hold over time, you get back up and keep yourself moving.
The transformative feeling of coming out the other side.
This is the perfect track to remind yourself you are tough and important and that even though life is hard it's yours. [47:39]
Craig is co-curator of the HDDN gallery in Salford.
I could write about this for ages I guess cause most of my music is sad or I’m sad a lot and music picks me up every time. Even if it’s a track that makes me cry when I need to cry or something to distract me from how I actually feel, when I put something on I can feel my own thoughts in my head dissolving and focus on the present. Sometimes when you’re sad you just want to hear someone who is just as sad as you are just cause it keeps you company. I’ve been listening to Pearl Jam a lot lately, Black [53:48] on repeat. Pretty sad lol I think it’s such a good song about rejection as a feeling or subject matter. Doesn’t really matter if you were actually dumped like the guy in the song, feelings of rejection can be so relatable in such a broad way and in a day to day basis.
If in need of a good cry and redemption, you can’t go wrong with this slice of distilled tragedy. Here, Sufjan Stevens recounts being comforted by his dying mother as she tries to make up for a lifetime of abandonment. “Did you get enough love, my little dove?” she asks halfway through and sometimes you just haven’t. [59:14]
Khalid writes for Responsible Investor about subjects varying from palm oil to repressive surveillance.
Cherry Coloured Funk (Seefeel Remix) - The Cocteau Twins
Dobby - 1010 Benja SL
Weight Of The Planets - Aldous Harding
The Crow - DJ Food
Voodoo Saloon - Jerkcurb
Get Ready - Silent Poets featuring Ursula Rucker
Signals - Brian Eno
Hide And Seek - Imogen Heap
Somehow. - Phoney Ppl
Tenderness - Jay Som
Why Can't People Be Colours Too - The Whatnauts
Don't Give Up - Volta Cab
Missing You - The Internet
CMYK - James Blake
Drift - Brian Eno
A Change Soon Come - Shut Up And Dance
My Boy My Town (Shura remix) - Mabel
Sega Sunset - Lorn
Age - Cities Aviv
Eugene - Arlo Parks
Black - Pearl Jam
Fourth of July - Sufjan Stevens