Cheered by George Galloway's takedown of Gavin Essler on Newsnight but then appalled by the idiocies of the former Spanish Prime Minister, for whom the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with the Madrid bombings or the London ones, I listened to Smog's Knock Knock. An old album, one whose cover cheers me (H. has it on LP - that, and a gatefold Dongs of Sevotion), and one I know through playing at least a hundred times. Why play it? To remove myself from the world and from the news ('It's all bad news, on every page'), to clear a space.
Then is Knock Knock comfort music? Is it escapism, a kind of lullaby - that homecoming that would allow a favourite album to make the territory to which you return? Is it reassurance I seek? Writing quickly, and without thinking about it, I would say simply that Smog's music - Bill Callahan's voice, the loping repetition of the music, that of which is sung, its humour and its darkness, gives me truth. It as though it were one with the forces that steer the universe - as if he were able to sing of something like fate. Yes, that's what I'd say, and I've said it before, each time as if for the first time, each time without thought.
Speaking the other night to a musical friend, I thought: I've almost found a way to write about music, I think, all except for one thing: how to mark a sense of despair, a sense of the inevitable, that great steering of the world into ruin? How to mark that in the music I love which is a music born in despair? Why do I always want to part ways with Deleuze and Guattari, with their marvellous, fierce joy? Why is it to songs attuned by sadness that I turn? Sadness - but also a laughter in sadness, as if to say: how could it be otherwise?
Could it be otherwise? Of course, but who has the strength to sustain hope in this otherwise, in the contigency of the present, in the contigency of the future? Of course I've said nothing about Smog. I've written of that mood in which I turn to the music and then that mood to which it attunes me. What of the songs themselves - their intimacy, their movement? What of the songs in which hope is possible and there is laughter and not laughter just at the inevitable downturn ('Natural Decline')?
Vague impression: there is comfort in the singing of Smog's songs - in the singing of his narrators - at being able to sing them. As if a right has been won and a score settled. In the last reckoning, there was the song which records what happened, which witnesses it. So it is with a song like 'Rock Bottom Diver' from the new album, which is already a song of survival. The child, seeing a gold ring, leaps from the riverbank into the river. Upon what does he seize? Perhaps only the golden flakes of the reflected sun.
He takes leave of his family and he plunges; but then his parents, his sister, retrieve him again. But was there a gold ring, and was there a river? Was the plunge not a figure for the great fall from the world, the fall into addiction ('The Bowery'), the fall from the plane of the everyday? Then it is a song of thankfulness - the one who fell was rescued. He is rescued (he rescues himself) and carries with him a kind of wisdom. He has touched bottom, as they say. There was no lower place; he looked. He was there and then turned and swam up to the light. The light of the sun as it dazzled across the water.
'And from the bottom of the river/ I looked up for the sun/ which had shattered in the water/ and the pieces were raining down down/ Like gold rings that passed through my hands/ As I thrashed and I grabbed/ I started rising rising'.
And what of the song with the fancy title 'Psalimpsest'? Great melancholy lightly sung, the song not a plunge into melancholy so much as its steady confirmation. The sense that it could only been thus, that there was never any choice. 'Why is everyone looking at me/ as though something were fundamentally wrong?' - that word 'fundamentally' stretched out - 'like I'm a Southern bird/ that stayed North too long'. And then, 'Winter exposes the nests/ and I'm gone'. Ah, but there is the song that allowed the narrator to mark his despair. There is the great beauty of the song in its brevity and its sweetness.
The third great song is the second one, with its strange title, 'Say Valley Maker'. Song of passing down a river, song of the bliss of this passing marked by the singer's entreaty that if it should stop flowing then he is to be buried and will be reborn:
'Bury me in wood and I will splinter/ Bury me in stone and I will quake/ Bury me in water and I will geyser/ bury me in fire and I'm going to phoenix'.
That rebirth is the song, the beauty of the incident recalled in song, even as it happened nowhere else. There is always that comfort with Smog: despair can be marked, it gives itself to be sung, it looks to clothe itself in a voice and a music.
Up goes the death count in London. Rising, too, the death count everywhere else. Lives in obscurity, lives unrecorded. The comfort, the non-comfort of Smog: recorded despair. Music which resonates with the despair of the world.