Thursday, 3 June 2010

Second Person | Music | On you-turns: twin exercises in a mature ‘you’

‘You’ is a shortcut-highway to accusations of immaturity – in both word- and music-writing. Just as a fundamental rule of beginner poetry classes will always be avoid ‘I’ and ‘you’ or you’ll end up writing a diary-entry, not a poem, so anybody with even a smattering of music literacy will immediately call to mind bands such as Radiohead whose dodgy early efforts (that's right, Pablo Honey) were defined, in many ways, by their dodgy uses of the accusational second person pronoun (on ‘You’, the blisteringly dreadful ‘How Do You?’, and ‘Thinking About You’, a song about wanking). And whose proper maturity, located to the minds of most fans on Pitchfork’s Album Of The Noughties Kid A (or from it onwards, anyway) made use of a much more abstract voice, with even its occasional flirtings with ‘you’ taking the form of a much more musical, non-representational component, as opposed to sole focus – “You can try the best you can, you can try the best you can: the best you can is good enough” on the wonderfully-titled ‘Optimistic,’ for example.

But this breed of generalities tells only half of the story. For there is much more to ‘you’ than lack of refinement, than youthful directness. Indeed, possibly because of those connotations rooted in perceptions of immaturity, a switch into the ‘you’ can form and has formed the basis of many a mature artist’s most breathtaking work – especially when it comes after a career spent exploring more abstract, descriptive, self-obscuring, traditionally-profound modes of address. ‘You’ represents, then, not just the central ingredient beloved by the doughy adolescent bard: it can also be kneaded into the shape of the YOU-TURN (I capitalise it because I’m fucking proud of the coinage, to be completely honest with you – more proud, indeed, than I am of the extended bread metaphor). The you-turn: the sound of the mature artist pulling the rug from under his or her audience by reminding them that he or she exists, breaths, eats, shits in a manner far more viscerally human, and therefore potentially far less superficial, than do his or her imaginative creations.

Two such you-turns: Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call. This being Music As Reading, let’s whack the latter on top of the former and see what happens. Two different species of you-turn…

Here is not the place for either a lengthy discussion of the biographical context behind either collection (try herehere and here for entry-points into that kind of thing). Nor does it represent an opportunity to crassly and simplistically compare, I don’t know, fragments of Cave’s lyrics with stanzas of Hughes’ verse in order to come to voyeuristic conclusions about supposed similarities in their respective feelings, approaches to aesthetic translation, sadnesses and regrets. Searching for particular significance in skin-deep resemblances between a passage such as this:

Your temples, where the hair crowded in,
Were the tender place. Once to check
I dropped a file across the electrodes
Of a twelve-volt battery – it exploded
Like a grenade. (Hughes, ‘The Tender Place’)

and Cave’s ‘Black Hair’ (“Smothered me, my lover with her beautiful black hair. The smell of it is heavy. It is charged with life. On my fingers the smell of her deep black hair full of all my whispered words, her black hair. And wet with tears and goodbyes, her hair of deepest black”) is, I think, dangerous for the way that it risks seeking ‘rules’ for the personal, ignoring the fact that Cave and Hughes are writing in different ways, for music and not for music. Similarly, thematic relations between, say, Hughes’ fascination with Plath’s American-ness and Cave’s with Polly Harvey’s West Country “accent which I’m told is ‘broad’” and English culture in general, whilst interesting, are far more coincidental than they are properly significant.

Rather, let us look at what the more genre-centric you-turn relationship between Birthday Letters and Boatman’s Call has to teach us about what this moment in established artist’s careers actually means, pragmatically- and philosophically-speaking…

Both are save-up collections – as in, assembled work composed, one can only assume, over a certain amount of time. In Birthday Letters there is a full-length biography of Hughes’ and Plath’s relationship, not to mention the aftermath; Cave reflects, meanwhile, on his relationship with the Brazilian journalist, Viviane Carneiro, the mother of his son Luke, as well as his time with Harvey and a lifetime spent thinking about God. Is this key, then – that you-pieces are held back before being thrust into daylight together, even organised chronologically (as in, events-wise, not composition-wise) as is the case with Hughes’ book? Is this phenomenon born out of a desire to avoid looking juvenile with one’s early writing – to wait until reputation is established? To earn one’s right to be properly confessional by not being so? Do artists only have one collection like this in them?

Certainly, the simple almost-formlessness of many of Hughes’ poems (free verse, very few stanza-breaks) and Cave’s songs (only semi-rhyming, often chorus-sidestepping) that defines both collections seems to be a privilege purchased by a lifetime’s formal pyrotechnics, experimentalism, proof of ability, be it technical-literary or Birthday-Party-bastardry-to-Bad-Seeds-balladry musical breadth. The much-cited example of Picasso proving himself a gifted formal draughtsman before choosing to experiment with cubism seems, hackneyed as it is, somewhat relevant here. Yes, the sharpened crystal clarity of both Birthday Letters and Boatman’s Call, their slap-face directness, is the fulcrum of their respective extraordinary success – simplicity for simplicities sake this is not. However, I think it is a simplicity acutely conscious of the work the precedes it’s lack of simplicity. Would either collection have worked as either artist’s first collection – have been accepted in the way that they were? A chorus that runs “Into my arms, O Lord, into my arms, O Lord, into my arms, O Lord, into my arms,” or the remarkable monosyllabicism of ‘Red,’ Birthday Letters’ closing poem:

Red was your colour.
If not red, then white. But red
Was what you wrapped around you.
Blood-red. Was it blood?

Long and monotonous
But not in a remotely problematic way. Both Birthday Letters and Boatman’s Call are long, the former particularly so. And both don’t change very much, from song to song, poem to poem. Hughes’ book represents, in fact, a triumph of unwavering voice. Cave’s record, on the other hand, was regarded by many as proof that he didn’t need the adornment of insane character-creations, melodrama or Bad Seed instrumental fleck to write brilliantly – that lyric, voice and piano could be enough, if he put his mind to it. Both are, in short, masterpieces of authorial integrity – their monotony makes that unarguable. Without this, the you-turn surely crashes and burns…

Both represent, essentially, a barely-interrupted stream of barely-split long-poem. Cave's record draws out this facet to Hughes' book in all its different-form proof of the integrity of Hughes' stylistic choices. The mature ‘you’ will always represent such a barely-split longpoem I reckon, it's the only way the thing can work – for this is a single moment in an artist's journey, almost arbitrarily segmented for the audience palate. See also, I don’t know, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. More related in date (and, I suppose, in some ways content) to the content of Birthday Letters – read the latter with the former on in the background.

And begin to see, in word, voice and music, the singularity of these moments of twilight sad.

(To access a Spotify essay-soundtrack-playlist to accompany the above, click here)

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

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