I’ve been writing about music for about 10 years now; as a teenager I wrote in a blog called everypassingcar (named after an Arcade Fire lyric), I did some bits here and there while studying Philosophy at Bristol aged 18-21, but I didn’t feel the same urge, partly because my course didn’t particularly inspire me, it was quite focussed on cold analysis; breaking down arguments, evaluating their logic, etc. I didn’t feel I had quite found my area, so I did a one year course afterwards in Social Anthropology, in Edinburgh, which left me feeling very inspired. Around this time I had been clubbing for long enough to get over the initial excitement, and start to make sense of the music scene beneath it, so I wrote my dissertation on the meaning of dance music, or rather how it can have meaning without having lyrics.
It was so much fun. My ultimate conclusion was that dance music is unique in its ability to capture the values of a space. At its best, dance music is a kind of dynamic democracy; it is based in collaboration, DJ shares songs by artists they like, the dancers vote with their feet, the other DJs in the room take note. You end up with music that reveals something about the space, about the way the people there feel, the things they like, maybe even the way that they are. These things are all meshed into the mental architecture of that space.
In the years since writing my dissertation, I’ve enjoyed writing the occasional review of a dance music event, wherein I’ll try to convey the feel of that space, a place where we connect. I’ve written four in the months since lockdown ended here in London (you can find them in the link here if you want). In these past months, one album has been released that really struck me, one that does a really great job at communicating a sense of space, although this is a very different kind of space to a club; Lorde’s Solar Power. Amongst other things, the album is a reflection on private space, which is ideal for me now that I’m not spending all of my fucking time in my flat. Now that I spend a couple of days a week in the office, I feel ready to reflect.
I was recently going through a load of old t-shirts at the back of my cupboard, working out which ones to keep. I come across an old Arcade Fire t-shirt that I am happy to ditch. Partly because it’s a small size and I’ve literally grown out of it, and partly because figuratively, I haven’t grown out of Arcade Fire at all, their music and the memories of seeing them live is burned into me. This flat that I live in is a funny place, filled with fragments of memories attached to things, and also with a big, vaguely defined cloudy memory of all the time I have spent here, a mixture of muscle memories and reflections of myself. Here, it is very clear to me that Arcade Fire are a burning light in my past, I no longer need reminders or talismans of them. The person that I am, or rather the ‘me’ that I present to the world, what I find funny, what’s worth saying, how I behave, it has shaped this place, and been shaped by it.
You can see this in the music of Caroline Polachek and Phoebe Bridgers. Their tracks Bunny Is A Rider and I Know The End both capture an aspect of a particular kind of lockdown, the experience of people who worked from home, in a kind of odd, shimmering isolation lit up by the blue light of social media. Phoebe’s track wasn’t even written in lockdown, it was inspired by the experience of life suddenly grounding itself after years of touring, of months spent milling around her apartment. This meant that she was able to write lyrics that perfectly describe this sensation, the odd space that is a nearly empty home which never fills up “a haunted house with a picket fence, to float around and ghost my friends.” I remember thinking about that lyric in lockdown and getting shivers, I didn’t even quite understand what she was saying at that point but it was so true to me. When I couldn’t actually see people in person, I often feel totally uninterested in texting, facetiming, any kind of conversation wherein I have to compose myself. As if the person that I am here has accepted a quiet life, at least until I go back outside again.
Then there is Caroline Polachek’s Bunny Is A Rider, a track that romanticises the personal space seperate from text messages, described by Polachek as being about "freedom via disappearance… being unavailable and being slippery and the power of non-response, which is [a] freedom that we rarely have." It’s a funny track because in some ways it’s very low energy; gentle tempo, playful lyrics and uncluttered production, but there’s a simmering drama that builds over the course of the track, and continues to rise over multiple listens, until it feels weirdly significant.
I actually wrote those last two paragraphs before Lorde released Solar Power, I thought they could develop into an article about places of connection, a connection that is not attached to communities or lovers, but to oneself. Lorde’s first album was all about the feelings and values she shared with her peers (it features zero references to romance), and then her second painted heartbreak in vividly modern colours. Solar Power is totally different; it documents the summer in the quiet, rural coastland of her native New Zealand, as Lorde experienced it herself whilst on kind of fame detox.
It’s a funny story without a clear climax, and it’s not tackled with any kind of musical bombast, the music is very simple and direct, sounding less like Flume (an actual collaborator on her second album) and more like Harry Styles (a desired collaborator of hers), earthy music recorded with a sonic clarity that wasn’t available to classic singer songwriters of the past. The first single, also titled Solar Power, implied that the album would be all about embracing nature and the good life; “forget about all the tears that you’ve cried it’s over.” But the tears are not over; it’s track 2 on the album and then the tone drops. She stops geeing her friends up, has a nap by the beachside, goes back home and back to her thoughts. The wind changes.
If anything, the album more about the experience of rethinking your own philosophy for life. Listening to the album in full, track one features the lyric “if you want a saviour, now that’s not me.” The album was released on vinyl and also as a ‘music box’ which looks like it should have a CD in it, but instead contains a poster, booklet and a set of art cards ordained with handwritten notes (all made out of biodegradable materials, hence there being no CD). One of said notes reads:
“Recipe for Joy
Lay one towel down in dappled light
Lie down, close eyes
See the sun’s warmth through
It’s exactly the kind of thing that you would write down on a particularly serene day, when you feel like you have everything worked out, which on reflection doesn’t seem quite so profound, at least not in the way it did at the time. Lying down alone with your eyes closed and focussing on the inside of your eyelids might not always inspire joy and euphoria, but it can be a reminder not to get lost in the things that you see but do not feel, a reminder to get in touch with yourself.
The strangest song on Solar Power is named Mood Ring; the music is cool and the lyrics are catching, but they’re also depressing. It reflects the negative sides of personal space, when you try to get excited about stuff and to connect to something deep, and “I can’t feel a thing.” It’s particularly depressing to hear that someone doesn’t feel a thing in amidst all this melodic fire, as it makes you realise the limits of music’s power. It’s like re-watching Harry Potter and having to accept that you enjoy watching YouTube videos analysing these films more than the films themselves now, you can’t always just step right back into the feels. You can’t always transcend this place. “We can get high but only when the wind blows just right.” In pop music, the words ‘get High’ are synonymous not just with weed, but with good times, the stereotypical stoner with a big grin. The lead single sounds like someone who has successfully gotten high, whereas Mood Ring is like the joint you wish you hadn’t smoked, beer then grass you’re on your ass.
My favourite lyric comes on Stoned In The Nail Salon; “my hot blood’s been burning for so many summers now, it’s time to cool it down, whatever that means’. For me, this was the lyric that made the rest of the album makes total sense; this is the sound of someone taking their foot off the accelerator and letting their thoughts flow without big conclusions or clear structures. It makes sense that a lot of critics don’t like it, as it doesn’t lend itself to analysis, there aren’t any pithy takeaways, but there’s an honesty to that; life is worth appreciating and recording, even when there isn’t a message there. Some singer songwriters would take this opportunity to write a concept album, layered with literary references and philosophical ideals, but instead Lorde stayed rooted in herself. It captures a time and a place beautifully, the way that a warm summer in a simple place can mesh itself into a contemplative frame of mind. It’s not happy or sad, it’s just different.
Sat, stoned in a nail salon, she thinks about her life, about what she should do. Some of it she’s sure of, like the burning of her blood. Some of it she’s less sure about; ‘Cause all the music you loved at sixteen you'll grow out of, and all the times they will change, it'll all come around, I don't know, Maybe I'm just, Maybe I'm just stoned at the nail salon again.’ I wonder if she would feel differently if she was folding up her old T-shirts at home.