This may sound a bit hypocritical, coming as it is from a guy apparently hell bent on building this monument to music in text, but lyrics have never meant much to me. I saw them as, at best, an instrumental extension, discrete consonants and melodious vowels that functioned no different from the guitar or piano. Any specific meaning or intent was lost on me, especially when such meaning was debated endlessly during school break. I’d just stand there nodding along, grinning like a heathen as lyrics from The Wall were treated as tenets from heaven whilst Morrisey (that latter day vessel of scum and bile) hailed as some twisted prophet. I could only ever relate to the music, you see. The sound itself. I didn’t need the words to shape my emotions and experiences in the way that others did. But as it is easier to explain the effect of objective language than it is the effect of subjective sound, I stayed schtum. It probably also didn’t help that my first true musical idols tended to err towards a more metaphorical, stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach. After all, there’s not much to discuss about the line “Almost, Sweet Talk, Caffeine”. Since then, while I’ve got much, much better in my appreciation of words, they still need fair support by solid music for me to pay attention. If the music has me in a place, has me fully committed to the moment then it’s far, far more likely for something textual to grab me. For something textual to mean something to me. Which brings me, neatly, onto Phoebe Bridgers.
I am a firm believer that music doesn’t exist. At least not in any tangible way. It is not a thing you can hold nor point to, and any attempt to possess the sound of music will fail, because it is not a thing. What it is, or at least how I perceive it, is memory. I hear a piece as a demarcation between two points of time, the beginning and the end. Any experience that occurs within that time muddles itself with all the tones and beats, becoming as much a part of the music, or at least the memory of it, as its sound. It therefore follows that our appreciation of music has as much to do with the initial listening experience, or of memories brought by similar music, than it does with any objective logic. We’ve all got that friend who shares a tune that they just know you’re going to like because you normally LOVE this type of thing. But then it doesn’t grab you the way you hoped so you awkwardly nod along, quietly mumbling encouraging ‘yeah’s knowing full well that soon you’ll be asked your opinion and, under duress, confess: “Sorry Tony, I just think The Fall are pretty *meh*”. On the other hand, the sonic impermanence of music means a single moment can lift an already impressive song, imbuing it with emotions wholly distinct from the current experience. When I first heard Smoke Signals I was in a super good place; living in Paris with my best friend and writing my PhD on a subject I believed in. There I was, innocently sat in the library behind my computer, Live From Here podcast pootering on in the background, when those melancholic chords first washed over me. It seemed a nice song, to be sure, but not enough to draw me away from my work. So I continued writing with a half ear cocked to the music. Then it happened and I basically couldn’t work for the rest of the day.
In one 10-second phrase Phoebe Bridgers unlocked a wave of grief and anxiety I’d locked away for almost 2 years. You see, Bowie meant a great deal to me. A great deal. The sheer breadth of his church and depth of his knowledge intoxicated me. I learned 80% of my craft simply by listening to his work and those that inspired him. I could wax lyrical for an eternity; in many ways I already have. But 4 years ago, sat in Gatwick Airport, waiting for a flight to Sweden, and crying into a pint, I was lost. Now I have experienced grief before, and that of those far nearer to me than megastars, but in that moment the world had unplugged and I couldn’t help but feel that part of me died with him. Hyperbole? Maybe. But those were real feelings, deep feelings quickly buried so as not to stare too closely into the sun. Fast forward to that Parisian morning and I realized I too had been checking out to hide from life since. Not in any grand way you’d notice, I could still function and all that, but I knew inside that more could be given. Should be given. The tears welled and I had to leave. Bridgers had spoken and I had listened. For once.
I shan’t bore you, but suffice to say Smoke Signals helped reconnect the hidden broken parts and confront awkward truths, forever muddling the experience of its sound with my memory of the music. It exists in my mind as a dense interconnected slab of cathartic emotion, both good and bad, which is something I shall be forever grateful for. But then again I am a lucky one. I have someone solving all of our problems whilst I run shotgun. Speeding ‘cause, well you know why. I know we can plug the world back in again, it just may take a bit of time.
I’ve been writing this blog on and off for a while now, so why not dip back into the halcyon years by having a read of these related posts:
We need to talk about Chris Thile (and in the process dip our toes, briefly, in the ever giving fount of contemporary bluegrass)
Judge not, lest ye be judged. If you feel the urge to subjectively critique my own musical work you can find it by clicking here.