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In Search of the Time to Read Proust

March 25, 2015

I did it. I read it. Seven volumes. 3,090 pages. Proust’s ‘A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu’, finished.

Well, for now. I read the latest translation (overseen by Christopher Prendergast), but there are others (in particular the famous Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation) and I will be making time to read them.

Is it worth it? Yes.

Did I enjoy it? A resounding yes. I had imagined it be ‘rewarding’ and ‘enriching’, but I had not imagined that I would enjoy is as much as I did.

Why was it worth it and why did I enjoy it? Now, these questions may take a little unpacking, but I’ll try and sum up my thoughts.

A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is not an easy book to read and not merely because of the sheer volume (a tip, courtesy of Andy Miller: take breaks with other books – I particularly enjoyed chasing it with the short stories of Lydia Davis and Julian Cope’s autobiographies – because it will take you a few months). The sentences unwind tangentially, sometimes over the course of a page or two. If asked to do the washing up, I could easily say “I’ll be with you at the end of this sentence” and – remaining true to my work – still be sat reading 10 minutes later. However, this difficulty is not the same difficulty as with, say, Faulkner, Joyce or Pound. The meaning behind the sentences is easy to pick apart and, once you learn to ride the language, getting carried along becomes easier and easier.

The book provides peculiar joys. You might not believe it’s possible to enjoy a description of someone ringing a doorbell that unfolds over the course of 4 pages, but it is and I did. There are joys scattered in the middle of seemingly arduous paragraphs, which made me shift in my seat on the bus and want to tell the person next to me all about it. Obviously, I didn’t do this, because I’m not a maniac. Like all socially awkward modern book-lovers, I took pictures of the passages, posted them on Twitter to be ignored, and moved on.

Occasionally, it can seem like a shallow book, with long sections describing the social make-up of Parisian salons, but underneath the surface of this lies a surfeit of complexities and emotions. There are strange touches, such as in this passage, where the narrator describes the skyline of Paris in almost surreal terms.

As I was not in any hurry to arrive at the Guermantes soiree… I whiled away the time outside; but the summer daylight seemed in no greater haste to move than I was. Although it was after nine o’clock, the daylight it was still which, on the place de la Concorde, had given to the Luxor obelisk an appearance of pink nougat. Then it modified the tint and turned it into a metallic substance, with the result that the obelisk did not merely become more precious, but seemed thinner and almost flexible. You fancied that you might have been able to twist it, that this jewel had already been bent slightly out of true perhaps. The moon was in the sky now like a quarter of orange, delicately peeled but with a small bite out of it. Later it would be made of the most resistant gold. Huddled all alone behind it, a poor little star was about to serve as the solitary moon’s one companion, while the latter, even as it shielded its friend, but more daring and going on ahead, would brandish, like an irresistible weapon, like a symbol of the Orient, its marvellous ample golden crescent.”

It’s a sensual and sexual passage, laden with simile and metaphor (Proust is a fan of both), which sets the tone for long sections of the novel that discuss sexuality, in particular homosexuality.

These sections on homosexuality are controversial, partly because Proust was gay, but wrote from the point-of-view of a straight man, but also because there are some fairly unflattering portraits of homosexuality. In particular the narrator’s distaste for the perceived lesbian tendencies of his girlfriend and obsession, Albertine, can be jarring. However, I think some of the criticism and controversy misses some rather sensitive portrayals of homosexuality, even by modern standards.It is also important to remember that the narrator, ‘Marcel’, is unreliable. Proust is unafraid to let the narrator make a fool of himself. At times he is snobbish and dislikeable, as many of us will have been in our youth. Some of it makes uncomfortable reading, but often because it is easy to recognise your own faults in his. Proust may not have been a modernist, but he is a very modern writer, particularly in his use of psychology, philosophy and the unreliable narrator.

Another point to make is that, for all its highbrow reputation, it is a very funny book. There are moments that are reminiscent of Wodehouse. In one particular scene, the snobbish aristocrat Baron de Guermantes has returned from attending an gravely ill cousin to make sure that he makes it to a fashionable party. He has told his servants to make sure that, if news comes through that the cousin is dying, they should let him know so that he can return to the bedside, as he should. However, the Baron hints that the servant should do no such thing and really wants to go to the party whatever the situation with the gravely ill cousin. The Baron’s servant does not pick up on this and soon informs the Baron that his cousin is, in fact, definitely dying. The Baron replies, so that everyone can hear – and to the servant’s bemusement – that he is enormously glad of the news of his cousin’s return to health, which means that he can proceed to the party.

The humour is not all broad, however, and there are Morrissey-esque touches of dark humour throughout the latter stages of the novel, as the narrator begins to age:

True books must be the product not of daylight and chitchat, but of darkness and silence

As for happiness, almost its only useful quality is to make unhappiness possible.

The characters that fill this book are brilliantly drawn. There is the often-monstrous, increasingly corpulent Baron de Charlus, the fashionable, snobbish and stupid Mme de Guermantes, the flighty and adroit Albertine, the social-climber Odette de Crecy and the gauche, but brilliant Swann. The minor characters are as fantastically comic as any of the minor characters of Dickens and often more fully-formed (the advantages, perhaps, of those 2,000+ extra pages). There is the villainous Morel, the pedantic Brichot and the writer Bergotte, whose sentences on the page are dexterous and sensitive, but who is unable to articulate an intelligent remark when speaking.

Proust writes brilliant passages involving these minor characters, such as the artist, Elstir, the zen-like impressionist artist, who passes on wisdom to the narrator through his work and his word. These passages reoccur and inform the rest of the book:

It was the enchantment of this sea that Elstir, like the people who dozed in those boats held comatose by the heat, had experienced so profoundly that he had been able to capture and set down on his canvas the imperceptible ebbing of the tide, the throb and thrill of a minute of happiness; and to see it in this magic picture was to fall suddenly in love with it, to be filled with the resolve to seek out that vanished day, somewhere in the world, and savour it in all the dormant immediacy of its charm.”

As this passage demonstrates, one difficult thing about A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is how to define it. It’s not quite a novel. It’s part novel, part autobiography and part philosophical tract. There are long, brilliant passages on the meaning of art, time and memory (involuntary memory is, as is well-known, the main theme of the novel).

All this can make it sound as though there is a lot of padding around some extremely bare bones and it is fair to say that Proust does not, at times, seem particularly interested in plot. He writes at one point about how imagination is not necessary, if one has sensitivity and intelligence:

It may well be that, for the creation of a work of literature, imagination and sensitivity are interchangeable qualities, and that the second may without any great disadvantage be substituted for the first, in the same way as people whose stomach is incapable of digesting pass that function over to the intestine. A man born sensitive but with no imagination might none the less write admirable novels. The suffering that other people cause him, his efforts to prevent it, the conflicts that it and the other cruel person created, all of this, interpreted by the intelligence, might make the raw material of a book as beautiful as it would have been if it had been imagined…

However, despite all this, it seems to me that a lot of commentators (perhaps including Proust himself) forget about one of the greatest aspects of the book: the plot. It may not be a Dan Brown twist-a-minute extravaganza, but it is gorgeously put together. There is his love for and obsession with first Gilberte, and then Albertine, the portrayals of which are both grotesque and utterly human in the frailty and jealousy that underpin the relationships. Throughout the novel, there are set pieces that are mini-masterpieces, mixing comedy of manners with passages on ego, insecurity, snobbery, death, art and love. Finally, there is an over-arching narrative, which oddly, does not really pull together until you reach the final volume, where, in an astonishing final 100 pages, Proust pulls together plot strands (not altogether faultlessly) from across the volumes and which left me reeling.

The novel that it most reminded me of was Eliot’s Middlemarch, perhaps more for the way it affected me than anything else. There is a similar grown-up feel to the writing, in particular in the final volume. It deals with difficulties in adult relationships and with philosophical thought in a way that is beautifully engaging, but, like Middlemarch, it takes hard work to get the most out of it. There are also great similarities with Tolstoy and even Dostoevsky in the mixing of philosophy and narrative. There are references throughout to these writers, who are a clear influence on Proust.

One of Proust’s most brilliant qualities is that he elucidates thoughts that you may have had, but have not put into words. In this, I kept being reminded of Heaney’s words about literature, which at its best, can be ‘like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering’.

A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is worth getting to the end of, because it continues to reveal things and plays out to a close-to perfect conclusion. It is a joyous and enriching experience; what great literature should be. It is worth the hard work. I might have finished A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, but I don’t think it’s finished with me.

The final passages are particularly magnificent. His writing on literature is some of the best I have ever read; right up there with Schopenhauer, Woolf, Nabokov and Carey. But don’t take my word for it, read the man himself…

Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it. And so their past is cluttered with countless photographic negatives, which continue to be useless because their intellect has never ‘developed’ them. Our lives; and the lives of other people, too; because style for a writer, like colour for a painter, is a question not of technique but of vision. It is the revelation, which would be impossible by direct or conscious means, of the qualitative difference in the ways we perceive the world, a difference in the ways we perceive the world, a difference which, if there were no art, would remain the eternal secret of each individual. It is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as out own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing only a single world, our own, we see it multiplied and have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, all more different from one another than those which revolve in infinity and which, centuries after the fire from which their rays emanated has gone out, whether it was called Rembrandt or Vermeer, still send us their special light.”

You can consider A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu added to that list, Marcel.

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My Favourite Books of 2014

December 15, 2014

What follows are some thoughts I’ve had about the books that I have most enjoyed in 2014. These are not all books that have been published this year, but I am hoping that if you’re reading this, then you might consider picking up one of two of the books that I have loved in the last year.

Cynan Jones – The Dig

I read this book earlier in the year and it stayed with me for a while. The prose is simple, crisp and sharp. It’s a short book, but it packs a brutal punch. Despite the comparisons with Cormac McCarthy, this is a distinctive novel, rooted in the claustrophobic British countryside and not the apocalyptic landscapes of the USA.

Jenny Offill – Dept. of Speculation

I absolutely loved this book. It reminded me of Renata Adler’s great 70’s book ‘Speedboat’, in that it sacrifices narrative for a more fractured approach. It’s full of astute observations, perfectly captured vignettes of modern life and its frustrations and enervations. It is also very funny. Every paragraph is a discrete delight, but the sum is even greater than the parts. It returned to me week after week to reveal something new.

Joshua Ferris – To Rise Again At A Decent Hour / Then We Came To The End

These two books are two of the funniest books I have read this year. The former was published this year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Ali Smith should have won the Booker – she’s a genius and, like Nicola Barker, I can read pretty much anything she publishes, even the not-so-great stuff, because they’re so distinctively brilliant (see Nicola Barker’s In The Approaches, which wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but still contained moments of pure Barker genius) – but this, despite also being brilliant, was never going to win because it’s properly funny and the Booker doesn’t seem to like properly funny (wry, yes; funny, *turns up nose*).

Then We Came To The End was Joshua Ferris’ first novel, which I read after finishing ‘To Rise Again…’ and it’s even better. In fact, it’s among the best books of the century so far, along with Darkmans, The Line of Beauty, The Corrections, Wolf Hall, The Road and a few more that I can’t think of right now. It’s almost entirely told in the first-person plural (with the exception of one astonishing and heart-breaking section about two-thirds of the way through). It could seem tricksy, but it works brilliantly to capture the anxious ennui of corporate office life. It’s hilarious, acerbic, despairing and has heart. It reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s wonderful ‘The Mezzanine’, but with the microscope that Baker uses inverted outwards.

I cannot recommend TWCTTE enough. It’s a work of genius.

Marcel Proust – The Way By Swann’s / In The Shadow of Young Girls In Flower

Madeleines, eh? Don’t get me started.

Marcel Proust (pictured above playing a tennis racquet as a guitar) is a name that generally conjures up a few things: small cakes, remembering things and people saying “oooooh, la dee daaa” in a silly voice, then accusing you of pretentiousness. The above picture, I think, shows off the thing that is rather un-Proustianly forgotten about Proust: he’s brilliant, funny, charming and an all-round delight. Sure, his sentences are sometimes so long that I occasionally can’t remember how they started and the sheer size of A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu is mind-boggling (following the advice of a very wise man, I have found it’s best to keep other books on the go to retain sanity), but these books are wonderful and far easier to read than you might think. I’ve found myself (inwardly) gasping at the lucidity of his descriptions of our inner lives and his writing about art, love, friendship and everything else in between. It’s gloriously rewarding and that’s why it’s a good thing to think about reading the ‘great’ books, the ‘great’ works of art. They are difficult, but ultimately they enrich you.

Word of warning though: I’m currently about 150 pages into the third volume and he’s still not eaten that bloody cake.

Andy Miller – The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life

One of the reasons I decided to start reading A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu is because of The Year of Reading Dangerously – part memoir, part self-help, part literary criticism, all hilarious and all (whisper it) joyous.

Andy Miller is a former bookseller and editor. He is also a fine writer (his short book on the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society is excellent), however, it seems even the greatest lover of books can become jaded when the routine of commuting and childcare takes over a life. I don’t know much about these things, because I am a highly immature 31 year-old, who moved to London 2 1/2 years ago, but I’m pretty sure at some point I will have to deal with the adult world. It’s an awful grind though, isn’t it, this whole ‘living’ business?

The premise of the book is that Andy Miller, despite being a man of exemplary literary background, had let himself go. He had also lied about having read ‘great’ books. He has never finished Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Pride & Prejudice, The Communist Manifesto and at least 46 other books.

We’ve all done it, haven’t we? A friend of mine recently text to say she was starting War & Peace and was tremendously excited to be able to talk to me about it. I loved Tolstoy. I had read Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I’d also read War & Peace, hadn’t I? I’d certainly sung its praises, using lofty phrases. My friend now knows I am a pillock, who has not read War & Peace. I’m pretty sure she doubts that I’ve read Anna Karenina as well. I promise I have and I genuinely thought it was incredible. A truly great book. If I loved Anna Karenina (I also adored The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata), I would love War & Peace. So, I basically loved it already and had therefore read it. Right? Hmm.

In this book, that sort of logical delusion is picked apart and fretted over by Andy Miller. He also looks at what makes a great book and, in a genuinely laugh-out-loud chapter compares Moby Dick (a ‘great’ book) with The Da Vinci Code (‘arse gravy’ – Stephen Fry… I won’t spoil the author’s neat put-down of Fry’s not-so-neat put-down).

Seriously, I was bothering people on the bus with my tittering. I blame Andy Miller for the distaste with which my fellow travellers on the W7 look at me.

It’s not all LOLing and self-disgust though, there are some moments that are genuinely moving, without ever being mawkish. The reflection on The Tiger Who Came To Tea is lovely, as well as Miller’s memory of his own childhood books, which despite (apologies, Mr Miller) being a decade younger had me in a nostalgic reverie.

The best chapter, for me, though, is the letter to Michel Houellebecq. I read Atomised when in Sixth Form and recall enjoying it, but being a little baffled. I intend to re-read it soon, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not you like, care, or even know about Michel Houellebecq. The letter itself was, to me, what this book is about. It is the unabashed joy of finding a book that speaks directly to you and that can affect you to your core. It’s the joy of discovering what it means to discover what ‘great’ art really is, even if it seems nebulous. It’s why great books, great songs and great art stay with us until we’re dead in the ground and someone else picks them up. It’s a glorious chapter, full of sincere irony (David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker) and, thankfully, not ironic sincerity (half of Vice Magazine’s output). It’s full of analeptic energy and references to obscure Neil Young albums. It was the moment when the book burst open for me, like that exhilarating moment in The Beatles’ A Day In The Life when it skips from Lennon to McCartney (for the record, now I’m 31, I can safely say that McCartney is better than Lennon – imagine that, John). This was the moment when a book that was ostensibly about great books became great for me. It spoke to me.

This is not a book of po-faced literary criticism for the pages of the LRB (NB, I read the LRB and enjoy it, but I once went to a screening of B.S. Johnson movies at their bookshop and some of those guys need to lighten up). This a book for those who grew up in the suburbs without an independent bookshop, who lived their lives in the library, who don’t sneer at the thought of buying a book from W.H. Smith, who have come to love Tolstoy, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul McCartney and Sherlock Holmes, who grew up with the Mr Men, Asterix & Obelix, Winnie the Pooh, Dennis the Menace, Mr Toad, Peter Rabbit, The Secret Seven and The Twits. It’s for those of us who love books, but have found ourselves forsaking the great ones, thinking ‘there’s only so much time’. It’s a nonsense. You have got the time and it’ll be worth it. Don’t take my word for it, though, read this book and take Andy Miller’s word for it. Then blame him.

Andy Miller’s belief in the ability of great books to enrich us and better us is not just righteous; it’s infectious. This book has already led me to pick up great books by Jean Rhys, Gordon Burns (Alma Cogan is an absolutely brilliant novel that should be in the list above, but I’ve not been able to fully articulate my thoughts on why I love it so much), Arthur Schopenhauer and Julian Cope. It’s encouraged me to read books I haven’t got around to yet (see below). It’s full of lipstick traces and anecdotes (there’s a particularly wonderful one about Iris Murdoch; probably the most Morrissey Morrissey book-buying story it’s possible to find; there’s also a slightly upsetting one about an unnamed film star, who may or may not have starred in such films as Peeping Tom and Frenzy).

It’s even inspired me to start on my own List of Betterment. I used to think I was quite well read (it helps that I work in a law firm, where great books are not high on the list of things to think about – reading books is my thing, compensating for me being less clever, less sharp, less able to construct analytical arguments than my colleagues), but I realised that I still had a lot to read and a lot of lies to compensate for.

If you like books, or have liked books and want to like them again, go out and buy Andy Miller’s book. If you don’t, I’ll probably buy it for you.

Here’s the first 30 of mine (order to potentially be re-worked at a later date). Don’t judge me too harshly and feel free to recommend books to me…

1. Marcel Proust – A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu (volumes 3-7)

2. Leo Tolstoy – War & Peace

3. Charles Dickens – Our Mutual Friend

4. Malcolm Lowry – Under The Volcano

5. John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces

6. Henry James – Portrait of a Lady

7. Hilary Mantel – Beyond Black

8. Philip Roth – Sabbath’s Theatre

9. Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire

10. Colin McInnes – Absolute Beginners

11. Joris-Karl Huysmans – A Rebours

12. Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamozov

13. Virginia Woolf – The Waves

14. Laurence Sterne – Tristram Shandy

15. Louis-Ferdinand Celine – Journey to the End of the Night

16. James Joyce – Ulysses

17. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary

18. Patrick Hamilton – The Slaves of Solitude

19. Jean Rhys – Tigers Are Better Looking

20. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

21. David Niven – The Moon’s A Balloon

22. Don DeLillo – The Names

23. Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita

24. Gogol – Dead Souls

25. John Updike – Rabbit, Run

26. Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

27. George Eliot – Daniel Deronda

28. George Gissing – New Grub Street

29. John Dos Passos – USA Trilogy

30. Thomas Hardy – The Mayor of Casterbridge

Maybe it’s time to come up with your List of Betterment.

p.s. you don’t have to copy Andy Miller’s list – the Venn Diagram of those wishing to read The Communist Manifesto, American Psycho, Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmiche Musik by Julian Cope and The Essential Silver Surfer is going to be pretty limited. Sorry, Andy.

Warning

December 15, 2014

If you’re reading this and know me, you might realise it has been almost two years since I last wrote anything on this blog. Partly, this is down to indolence, but mostly because I had an epiphany revolving around the crapness / crapitude / crapsatchel / Crapola in Crayola, that is my prose.

Not only that, it also struck me: “Who cares about what you, who work in a law firm, think about music or books or films or art or anything of importance and substance? Your top cultural achievements of the last five years include finishing some quite big books and not making a complete dick of yourself when you had a brief online conversation with Jonathan Coe.”

It’s taken two years, but the funk* of self-pity has finally lifted. I’ve realised that it doesn’t really matter if my writing is an abominable excrescence; it’s a decent way to exercise my brain and, damn it, I quite like it when it’s not getting me down. Also, the two or three friends to whom I have whimpered were reassuring and/or told me to stop being a prat, which if anything is more reassuring than just being nice**.

So, having got that out of my system, my next blog post will be a list of my favourite books of this year. In the words of Mr Chuck D Esq.: “Consider yourself… WARNED.”

*I’m thinking beanie-hatted slap bass botherers pronouncing the word ‘funkay’ as opposed to, say, Funkadelic or Sly Stone, for whom Vince Noir’s egregious slur of funk in The Mighty Boosh as ‘jazz’s deformed cousin’ is just plain wrong.

**Please don’t take this is carte-blanche to call me a prat, I have a fragile ego and I will shun you for approximately 34 seconds if you call me a prat.”

My Songs and Albums of 2012: A Full List (with added extras)

January 1, 2013

mo-farah_2307758b

Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to read my end of the year blog. Special thanks to Robin for his advice, to Sam for recommendations, and to Ali for recommendations and for bringing me extra readers.

Here are the final lists, plus my favourite films and television from 2012.

My Albums of 2012:

  1.  Field Music – Plumb
  2. Saint Etienne – Words & Music
  3. Liars – WIXIW
  4. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
  5. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
  6. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
  7. Tame Impala – Lonerism
  8. Darren Hayman & The Long Parliament – The Violence
  9. Chairlift – Something
  10. Grimes – Visions

My Songs of 2012:

  1. Hot Chip – Flutes
  2. Solange – Losing You
  3. Saint Etienne – Tonight
  4. Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
  5. Chairlift – I Belong In Your Arms
  6. Bat For Lashes – Laura
  7. Neneh Cherry & The Thing – Dream Baby Dream
  8. Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
  9. Plan B – Ill Manors
  10. Jessie Ware – 110%
  11. Blur – Under The Westway
  12. Grizzly Bear – Sun In Your Eyes
  13. Killer Mike – Reagan
  14. Pet Shop Boys – Leaving
  15. Hot Chip – Don’t Deny Your Heart
  16. Burial – Loner
  17. First Aid Kit – Emmylou
  18. Bobby Womack – Please Forgive My Heart
  19. Magnetic Fields – Andrew In Drag
  20. Richard Hawley – Seek It

My Favourite Films of 2012

  1. Berberian Sound Studio
  2. The Imposter
  3. The Master
  4. Rust & Bone
  5. Django Unchained

My least favourite films of 2012:

1. Holy Motors

2. Skyfall 

3. On The Road

My Favourite Television of 2012

  1. Parks and Recreation
  2. Getting On Series 3
  3. The Hollow Crown
  4. Limmy’s Show Series 3
  5. The Thick Of It Series 4 (the final two episodes in particular were fantastic)
  6. From The Sea To The Land Beyond

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all have a wonderful 2013.

Right, I’m off. In the words of Peter Mannion MP…

My Albums of 2012 – No. 1: Field Music ‘Plumb’

December 31, 2012

Field-Music-Plumb

How many of you reading this haven’t heard of Field Music, or if you have heard of them, haven’t listened to them? Possibly fewer people than this time last year, after their Mercury Prize nomination, but definitely still too many for what this band deserve. They are the national treasures you haven’t heard of yet and ‘Plumb’ is their masterpiece.

‘Start The Day Right’ kicks the album off with the twinkling sound of wind-chimes, before strings and piano build up to the start of the song proper – and what a song. The vocals drop in: “I’m sure I was dreaming, or was I just tired? A chance to start the day right”. It perfectly mirrors that feeling of waking up and wanting to make good use of the day. This lyric is swiftly followed up with the sort of guitar riff that will lodge itself in your brain for months, before the dreamy, vocals of the verse drop back in. Then, at 1:33, the time-signature changes and in comes a glorious piano-led middle-eight (I think?!), before the riff kicks back in. Then the song ends – after 2 minutes and 18 seconds. It’s a perfect introduction to the album: complex arrangements, changes of time-signature, beautiful melodies, great lyrics and, above all, pithy.

This album doesn’t waste a single second. The fifteen songs clock in at just over 35 minutes. The use of time and the melody is reminiscent of Abbey Road – I genuinely believe that this album stands up to that lofty comparison. There is so much to discover in this album that it rewards repeated listens, as the worn grooves on my copy of the LP prove. Picking out specific songs seems fruitless, given the quality over the course of the album, but the peculiar funk of ‘A New Town’ is particularly wonderful, with another of those brain-melding riffs and, above-all, the gorgeous melodies and harmonies. Even if you don’t care about the time-signatures, or the riffs, the melodies will keep you listening over and over again.

‘Choosing Sides’ looks at the complacencies and frustrations of modern life, of people opting out of choosing sides and of wanting something better than consumerism: “I want a better idea of what ‘better’ can be that doesn’t necessitate having more useless shit“. This is an album that is political, but without being preachy or reciting slogans. Instead, it looks at the minutiae of modern life, but with a focus on wanting to improve somehow, even if they (and we) don’t know how to set about improving just yet – it suggests the need for change, but doesn’t force this down your throat.

There is something very English about this record, but not in any jingoistic, patriotic sense, nor is it London-centric – not from this (very much) Sunderland-based band. This is the England of Larkin and Betjeman, with all its quiet desperation, made more acute by the distractions of consumerist life. This is best summed up in the final song, a song about obfuscation and the difficulty of trying to sum up complicated political notions for a mass audience, ‘(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing’. It’s astonishingly intelligent and it’s as catchy as the common cold. It’s everything indie music, pop music, whatever you want to call it, should be.

Field Music aren’t a fashionable band; they are never going to move down to London to pursue money and fame, but quietly, subtly, they are becoming one of the great British bands. Plumb is a masterpiece and, for me, by far and away the best record of 2012.

 

 

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #1: Hot Chip – ‘Flutes’

December 31, 2012

hotchip

Before the release of Hot Chip’s latest album, Joe Goddard of the band (who had just released the first album of his rave-influenced side project 2 Bears), mentioned in an interview the influence of 80s 12-inch singles on the band. This influence was nowhere more evident than on Flutes, the track’s gradually unfurling house clocking in at just under 8 minutes, with Alexis Taylor’s glorious mournful-sounding vocals running over the top of everything.

The vocals culminate in the enigmatic mantra “one day you might realise, that you might need to open your eyes”, but only after some fantastically cheesy 80s inspired dance instructions: “Work that inside outside, work that more. Work that right side left side, more and more”. The juxtaposition of these two lyrics is just one reason why this is such a glorious record. It’s a dancefloor-smash that you can nonetheless listen to alone in your room, with your headphones on. It reminds me of the best New Order singles from the 80s, which is just about as a high a compliment as I could give a single, given my love for that band. It’s also, in my opinion, Hot Chip’s best song ‘Over and Over’. So, go and get some rug, stick this record on and give that rug a good cut. Yes, please!

(the below video comes with a warning: do not watch if you suffer from motion sickness… seriously)

My Albums of 2012 – No. 2: Saint Etienne ‘Words and Music’

December 30, 2012

St

You will have already seen my review of Saint Etienne’s ‘Tonight’, which was one of my songs of the year. If the award was for best album cover of the year Saint Etienne would walk away with the prize. It looks great and you could spend hours working out all of the pop references. It’s an apt cover as well, because this is an album that revels in the love of, well, words and music. It’s a soundtrack to the lives of music-lovers, although it’s probably better suited to those over 25. However, this doesn’t stop it being a great album, in fact it’s a paean to the continued power of music in people’s lives – music is actually a better experience for those with a little bit of experience.

If this sounds like the boring ramblings of a man approaching 30, then, well, it might just be, however, this is not a boring rambling record – it’s a joyous, brilliant pop record. It’s an album that ponders the question of whether music can still have the same effect on you when you’re older, and answers that question with an emphatic “yes it bloody well can!”.

The opening track, Over The Border starts with a recollection of a group of older kids going around to Peter Gabriel’s house, goes on to remember watching Top of the Pops (“I used Top of the Pops as my world atlas” is such a glorious lyric) and taping the charts, discusses the fetishisation of music writers and record labels; basically it plots out the life of a music lover, with warmth – and a cracking chorus. ‘I’ve Got Your Music’ is a giddy celebration of headphones, looking at the act of listening to music alone with a misty-eyed wonder at having music “everywhere you go”. ‘Record Doctor’ is an a cappella hymnal to that friend who can always pick the right record at any given moment. There might not any song quite as funny as the Red Hot Chili Pepper dissing on 2005’s ‘Teenage Winter’ (the kicking off point for this record), but that doesn’t seem to matter when the lyrics and references are this absorbing.

Musically, it’s probably the band’s most commercial record in a decade – mixing Xenomania pop productions, balearic dance, the dreamy pop of the Carpenters, the stately pop of Blondie and Pulp into a heady, effervescent rush.

It may be that this is a record that cannot be loved by a casual music lover, in the same way that a Taylor Swift or Hot Chip record might, but for a music lover like me, this record is nigh-on perfect fodder. As a testament to the redemptive power of music, I cannot think of a better album.

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #2: Solange – ‘Losing You’

December 30, 2012

solange

Solange Knowles, or as she’s better known, Jay-Z’s sister-in-law (arf!), signed to Interscope around 5 years ago, released an album that was admired, but didn’t sell much, split with Interscope and popped up watching Grizzly Bear with her sister, covering Dirty Projectors ‘Stillness Is The Move’ and then releasing this Dev Hynes (of Testicicles and Alexa Chung accessory fame) penned single on Chris Taylor’s (of Grizzly Bear) Terrible record label (Terrible is the name of the record label – in a move reminiscent of Jez and Super Hans calling their band ‘Various Artists’ to “fuck with iTunes”). Cynics suggested that she was just embracing indie chic to relaunch her career, however the video and the flipping brilliant nature of the single itself surely go someone to dispelling this accusation. Both video and single are such a joy – the video for her fantastically suave and simplistic dancing style and the song for its Prince-when-he-was-good glorioius effervescence.

The single is that perfect pop beast – melancholy lyrics set to a (mostly) upbeat tune, which is almost guaranteed to both pull at your heart strings and get your Elvis-leg swinging. Dev Hynes has come along way from the tuneless hipster posing of Testicicles (more memorable for his pink guitar than for their racket). In a just world this would have been a huge summer smash hit. Unfortunately, this summer was damp, then subsumed by Olympic fever and then damper – it left no room for pop smashes for anything but Korean novelty songs and established artists, like the monolithic, dystopian R’n’B robot, Rihanna. It’s beautiful, simple and deserved a lot better.

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #3: Saint Etienne – ‘Tonight’

December 28, 2012

saint-etienne

I’m not sure there’s a better band in the world at both simultaneously celebrating pop music and making great pop music as Saint Etienne. ‘Tonight’ comes courtesy of some assistance from Xenomania and Richard X, both of whom have been behind some of the best British pop of the last decade (Rachel Stevens’ ‘Some Girls’, Girls Aloud’s best songs) and it sounds glorious.

It’s about that anticipation that you feel as a teenager just before going to see a gig from your favourite bands. Anyone who loves music knows that feeling, that giddy anticipation wondering whether they’ll start with “an album track, or a top 5 hit, no turning back” and there is no better band to capture this feeling than Saint Etienne. However, the song is about more than just that feeling; it also conveys looking back upon that feeling as an adult, which is a richer experience than the original quickening of pulse you felt at the time. There is something wonderful about looking back on that rush you felt before the gig and knowing in retrospect that the gig lived up to your anticipations (or exceeded them). Saint Etienne put this feeling to a fantastic pop song, leaving you wondering if there is a place in pop music for the oldies. I hope so.

 

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #4: Taylor Swift – ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’

December 28, 2012

taylor

I’ll admit that the first time I heard about this song was a few weeks ago, from my brother, who insisted on its brilliance.

Before this, Taylor Swift’s records were, for me, things to be ignored. They were the sort of records that boring people would earnestly describe as “soulful” and “resonant”, which they weren’t; they were “boring” and “trite”. It was earnest “MOR country rock” music (see also bore-merchants Lonestar, Faith Hill and Rascal Flatts) whose poor record sales in the UK made even this Bernard-Shaw fan feel a patriotic glow. It was music that made The Eagles sound like Steve Reich. In short, I was more than a little sceptical of my brother’s recommendation.

Then I looked the song up on Wikipedia and I found out that Max Martin was involved: the man behind undeniably brilliant smash hits like Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”, Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” (although even Martin couldn’t make the execrable faux-rebellion of Pink tolerable).

On Wikipedia the song’s critical reception is summed up as follows: “The song received mixed reviews from music critics; some praised the catchy, radio-friendly hook while others felt the song lacked the thoughtfulness of Swift’s previous, more guitar-based work.” Guitars laid to one side? Radio-friendly hook? Lack of thoughtfulness? YES, PLEASE!

The general reaction to this record seemed to lay out, in microcosm, the current fight for the heart of pop music. It is a fight that is also being waged on our TV screens via the X-Factor. The fight is supposed to be “credible pop music” (boring) vs “silly pop music” (fun). Not to get all Pseud’s Corner on your arses, but it’s a false dichotomy.

First, just as it’s possible to make great dumb pop music (Girls Aloud, Backstreet Boys, The Saturdays), it’s also possible to make interesting, clever pop music to which you can dance like a loon (Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, Prince). Secondly, it’s quite possible to make “credible” pop music that’s a steaming pile of dog-jizz, trite, earnest and unconscionably dull (James Blunt, Snow Patrol and Ed Bloody Sheeran). Thirdly, just because you’ve banged on about how much “fun” and “danceable” your pop song is, it doesn’t stop it occasionally being the musical equivalent of that person in your office who will, without any irony, describe themselves as “wacky” or “zany” (i.e. irritating) and state that they “just tell it like it is” (i.e. they are plain rude). This type of pop will relentlessly bang on about how much fun is, use “party” as a verb and generally irritate the fuck out of anyone with more brain cells than an Alsatian with a head injury. In reality, it’s the Louis Walsh of pop: it’s so inane and stupid that it somehow goes full-circle back to unconscionably dull (Pink, Black Eyed Peas and über-clown Olly Murs). However, it was the “credible” crowd who were the most insidious.

It is the X-Factor’s continuing insistence on finding “credible” artists that has led, in part, to the success of Christopher Maloney. Yes, he appeals to the granny market, but it is that combined with his novelty “cumbersome karaoke nincompoop” shtick that has kept him in the competition to the end, ahead of supposedly “credible” singers. Even having watched a mere smattering of this year’s show, I would certainly vote for Christopher Maloney if it meant I never had to hear from James Arthur ever again, a man who seems to be labouring under the illusion that the only thing you need to be a serious artist is an acoustic guitar and a collection of rubbish hats. And if you think that the bosses of the X-Factor are actually happy about the success of Maloney, or that it’s all some nefarious scheme to keep viewers hooked, then take a look at the series of negative stories about him that have been “leaked” to the tabloids by “insiders” in recent weeks. Perhaps, finally, the public are tiring of the show’s judges constantly harping on about “real music” or “credible artists”.

There isn’t “credible” pop music and “silly” pop music, there’s just pop music. It’s all “credible” until it’s shit, or unless you’re hanging around with the sort of blokes who call each other “lad”, engage in “banter” or, worse, “bants” and claim to have actually enjoyed the Beady Eye album.

Anyway, back to the actual song. Well, it’s just a mega pop smash isn’t it? It’s massive. It’s catchier than a superbug in an hospital ward for the elderly and it also has one of my favourite lyrics this year: “You will hide away and find your piece of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” In short, it’s a three minute “fuck you” to the false notion of credible pop.