And so we drag on. The days become weeks and the weeks no doubt will become months as the world collectively deals with this escalating crisis. Think about that for a second. The whole world is dealing with this together. All of us. It’s utterly mind-boggling. A shared experience of grief and fortitude that, despite the grimness, is kinda heartening. I can’t help but think of the years to come once the storm clears (because it will clear) when I shall meet citizens of China, or Afghanistan, or Nigeria, and we shall talk about how we managed in our isolation. How we entertained ourselves and kept spirits together as the numbers went up, desperately hoping one day to wake up to the news of a flattening curve. Once it passes (and it will pass) there will be no denying the actuality that we have far more in common than drives us apart. The future me will tell those I meet how the artistic community, despite having their economic legs pulled from under them, quickly recalibrated to the times, flooding an anxious public with art and culture in order to soothe our mental anguish. Of all the live shows and streamed performances, one gesture particularly stood out to me. The sly release of not one but two new albums by Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts.
Yeah, this blog isn’t about those albums. At least not directly. But before I get on to the true matter at hand I will say that I enjoy them, muchly. Ghosts, for those that don’t know, was originally a 4 EP set of experimental ambience that just appeared one day in 2008. That Trent (Reznor, the living embodiment of NIN) was a) working on addenda and b) specifically finishing them early so he could release them to us nervous fans seemed such a generous gesture that it compelled me to write about him this week. But I won’t be writing about Ghosts, you would better serve the band by looking them up and listening yourself. No, this week I want to talk about another incredible NIN instrumental that flies in the face of the industrial metal tag. This week I want to talk about La Mer.
I have been anxious before. Not pandemically anxious, mind. More that whole early-20s “what the exact h*ll am I meant to be doing with my life?” existential dread which sporadically returns with each major career step. When it first manifested, back in the dying light of my secondary school days, I had yet to fully build my audible support network and was left floundering under the academic pressure. Gotta get them degrees so you can go to a good university, get a good degree before finding a good career with which to support your future family. Of course, this meant there was always the possibility of bad, an awareness that the choices made at the age of 16 could lay ruin to any future plans I might have had. This coincided with a time of musical naïveté where I was more concerned using music to exorcise anger than muse on the consequences of my actions. Noise and shoutiness were ascendant and there was little time for anything more…reflective. That changed on ‘discovering’ NIN’s The Fragile and with it, La Mer. I still am yet to find a piece of music anywhere that comes close to its blend of poly-rhythmic layering, relentless evolution, and creative joy all wrapped up in one intensely churning slab. A rippling piano appearing from the mist in cyclical patterns, building steadily (but determinedly) to a sculpted climax of noise, before crashing back into a calm emptiness. There is much for a mind, especially a young, impressionable one, to process. It’s beguiling complexity lulls you in before it’s too late, trapping you on this journey whether you like it or not. And that’s the point, La Mer, constantly moving and changing and evolving, is the quintessential musical journey. Because of this I found it easy to impose my anxieties on it, to visualise the pressure increasing with the music until both it and I were locked in an intensity I felt unable to contain. But then the music relented, the storm passed, and I found that my worries lifted with it. At least partially, even I’m not stupid enough to claim that listening to one song can make it all better. It normally takes at least 5 listens for that to happen.
Now that we’re back in anxious times again, I find myself thinking a lot about how music allows this emotional transmission. I mean, it’s weird if you think about it, that simply hearing some stupid little tune can make you feel better, despite the circumstances. It’s a subjective thing, of course, and if you were listening to Britney instead of NIN back in the day you would likely find her music as soothing as I do Trent’s. But you could never deny that sound alone can, in context, make things that little bit better. That little bit more manageable. I find I’m listening to far more music than usual, I find that I’m writing far more music than usual (though that’s a story for another time) and in doing so I’m working through my anxieties one drop at a time. That’s all we can do. One drop at a time.
Stay safe, stay calm, and wash your hands!
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:
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.