A few months ago, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum released a new album with the Canadian musician Julie Doiron, Lost Wisdom pt. 2. And a couple weeks ago, the two musicians went out on tour in support of it. That tour is about to wrap up — they only have dates in Philadelphia and … More »
I‘ve written about love before. I’m not going to write about love again. Maybe this is selfish, maybe it is foolish. But I hope it will lead to nuance.
I’ll write about not-love-yet, maybe, about into-love. I want to write through it, to remain porous.
Or: “I’ll write about the process of becoming other: vibration, selection, recombination, recomposition” (Franco “Bifo” Berardi). Maybe then I can return to love.
Or an older swearing-off: “No more ‘I love you’s’/ A language is leaving me” (Annie Lennox).
I want to write about pop music in the last 10 years (a seemingly fatalistic descriptor — these were the last 10 years to occur before…? And then…?). I suspect writing about love is inevitable when writing about pop music. Love isn’t an inevitable end for the human experiment, but it helps a great deal. Pop music isn’t an end either, just a term that retains its gleeful and combustible arbitrariness, as it heads into these next last 10 years. (And to this sticky arbitrariness we must return. Maybe, too, to love.) Pop is, after all, an architecture of surfaces and panes, of the veneers we pass through and the ones that reflect (us) back at us. Let’s believe (we must, we can’t) that the grandest reflecting/refracting surface in pop music is love. Let’s move past and through and into it in order to feel a future, to kiss it better.
Love isn’t the inevitable language of pop music, just its alphabet. Pop music is part of the love club: everything will glow for you. Just let me lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-love you, you gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love. Fall into me and then you put my love on top, top, top, top, top (I love it like I love you like Kanye loves Kanye). I got people showing fake love to me. I’ve loved and I’ve lost and I do: I blame it on your love. You can see it with the lights out; you are in love, you are in true love. Go get punched for the love club. Must be love on the brain that’s got me feeling this way. And I think about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you, so when you say you love me, know I love you more. Drunk in love. I want you. It’s a love story, baby; just say “yes.”
I’m already in love. I must move into. To choose a verb like “into” over “in” is to elect motion past over sitting still. To move through love is to note the ruptures and hug them as they pixelate and recombine in you. Let the language shift and sheer too; “l-o-v-e-l-e-s-s generation.” This is not a love song, but I’d love it if we made it.
Back to the future, back to Berardi, who thought through “the slow cancellation of the future [that] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s” and constructs 2017’s Futurability as a way toward shifting modes of anticipation and motivation toward nextness. He chronicles, as his subtitle suggests, “The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility.” He asks: “What is a form in relation to its content? And how does it happen that a new form can emerge? How do things generate things, and concepts generate concepts? And finally, more interesting: how do concepts generate things?”
Pop music in the time between 2010 and this day revealed itself as a double-parking mechanism (Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick: “kinda-hegemonic, kinda-subversive”), both the concept-generating things and the thing as a concept. Pop forms came under scrutiny from critical, commodifying, and revolutionary forces alike, the surfaces of those forms poked and prodded before they in turn began to poke and prod. Pop came alive like never before in its trajectory as a transformative plastic apparatus. It also saw itself bought and sold with such aplomb that you could be forgiven for not believing in love left of the dial.
What is pop music in relation to its content, love? How to preserve love’s ability to mutate us without leaving it open to the afflictions of this decade — clickbait critique, vampiric capitalism, diminuating realism? We must find a new utterance for love. We must borrow shapes from Berardi: “Possibility is content, potency is energy, and power is form” (my emphasis).
In Bluets, her 2009 volume of not-love perched at the beginning of this decade, Maggie Nelson writes: “But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. ‘Love is not consolation,’ she wrote. ‘It is light.’”
I’d like to borrow those shapes, too. I hope I can earn them.
And how does it happen that a new pop music can emerge? A future of pop, a lightness of love must rip the surfaces and panes and navigate the in-between space fluidly and fluently. We have to let it vibrate. To get to next, we have to write ourselves beyond the inevitableness of inevitability.
“I call possibility a content inscribed in the present constitution of the world (that is, the immanence of possibilities).”
The present constitution of the world is impotence. Days begin too early, crusty with the crunch of paying impossibly escalating rents with depressing wages. We scroll into a news feed broadcasting a world so stuffed with vitriol and cruelty and climatic collapse that we’ve gorged ourselves on poison tea even before the commuter line pulls up. And then we go to work. Mark Fisher, a disciple of Berardi and futurability, of pop and the power of changing consciousness: “The thing about capitalism is that it provides things that nobody likes. When people talk about choice and capitalism — Microsoft, that sums up everything. Nobody wants it, everybody has to have it.”
Or, I was in a (corporate) movie theater this year juggling Skittles when the big angry purple man onscreen snapped his finger and said “I am inevitable.” I gasped (I had dropped my Skittles, you see).
“It isn’t much fun to analyze American pop culture anymore,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, another text from this decade, the one that turned me onto that Sedgwick quote above. “The cultural products now seem designed to analyze themselves, and to make a spectacle of their essentially consumable perversity. ‘They really let me showcase my creativity!’ the writers say, while churning out more crap.”
Certainly this essay is more crap. This decade had a lot of crap, some of it very good.
Certainly texts like Avengers: Endgame are such “consumably perverse” objects, worthy more of groans than rigorous critique. If, at the break of the last decade, Iron Man and The Dark Knight (both released in 2008) seemed separate from the customarily pasty entries into metroplexes and maybe even perverse in their elevation of the low (comics) to the maximal (blockbuster), it wouldn’t stay that way for long. In fact, if the Marvel Cinematic Universe began as an experiment in world-building — it didn’t, it was for a buck — it soon revealed itself as a Disney Inc.-backed lesson in monopolizing markets of commerce and interest; when Thanos makes his claim for inevitability, he may as well be cooing, brand barcode redacted, “mission accomplished.”
This decade saw pop cinema narrow its field of produceable possibilities and tie each infallible (unfailable seems more apt) property film to the purse string of a Disney or an Amazon. And so we tilted further toward the disappointing totality of inevitability, easier to imagine the end of cinema than the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What about pop music? We might point to pop cinema’s content-generating-content maw leaking half-chewed hunks into the soundstream: there’s the whiff of such conquered-world totality in Frozen’s “Let it Go” (2013), pre-ordained first filmically before opening on Broadway in 2017, a source of income that begat a source of income. The chart-ballasting success of The Greatest Showman (2017) soundtrack rode the success of another musical’s similar ode to exceptional white masculinity (albeit in confused and optimistic hues) in the blockbuster Hamilton (2015). We might also point to the rash of biopics grinding queer artists (Freddie Mercury, Elton John, constant whispers of a forthcoming installment on Bowie) into cardboard patties more palatable to Oscar’s khaki nostalgia than the kind of sounds prefiguring change.
Or, “Tell me somethin’, girl/ Are you happy in this modern world?/ Or do you need more?/ Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?” And is it just an infinity of A Star is Born reboots, each one denying the past one’s existence in order to be the most profitably consumable version of itself until the next opening weekend?
A breath. While distinctly part of that catchall cloud *popular culture*, pop music feels sometimes separate, due maybe to its elusive and eliding limbs that make it it. It also remains elastically able to exist both in and out of its own context; songs from Irving Berlin musicals are pop music, as is Weezer, as are YouTube covers of Weezer songs. “Baby Shark” is pop music (around the campfire, at Nationals Park, from speakers in subways) but so is Grimes and Janelle Monae. It’s got the ring of that old smutty Justice claiming, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” And so we must narrow the immanence.
We might consult numbers, though that means embracing the notion that popularity could be bought and sold. This paradigm held true for at least a formidable stretch in this past decade and provides our first and most impotent definition: pop music was what was bought or streamed with the most vigor. Over these last 10 years, Rihanna holds the record with nine #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by Katy Perry with 8 and Bruno Mars with 7. The top 10 is rounded out by Drake (6), Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift (5), Adele (4), and Eminem, Kesha, The Weeknd, Maroon 5, Cardi B, and Post Malone (3). In the doe-eyes and dew of 2009, were these artists inevitably tied to our concept of what pop would sound like? More pressingly: are they what pop is and must be?
If interrogating Billboard Charts for data might seems treacherous, I supply two new arbitrary totems to hold to, both selfish and undependable measures each: pop music can’t accomplish transformation if it’s tied to (1) a commodity’s formula for success or (2) formal rehashings of what already was.
The latter stipulation is easier to act on: if pop’s progress is futurity endless (always a new song, a new form, a new thing in your head until you have a new head), then it must oppose nostalgia. This dispatches with Adele, Bruno, The Weeknd, and Maroon 5, largely aggressively inoffensive gestures in retromania. Whether the gesture is blue-eyed white-muscle shoals, scentless funk-lite, tremulous soul pastiche, or an impressively resilient belief that an ever FM-lighter version of Aerosmith is exemplary songwriting is inconsequential. Pop reminds us to leave the past where it belongs: where it is, or at best on a cassette tape to be consulted with small smiles in brief moments. We can also dismiss Eminem, whose appearances in this decade always quote his presence in the last. Possibility must look toward new possibilities, not old ones (Berardi: “Possibility is not one, it is always plural: the possibilities inscribed in the present composition of the world are not infinite, but many.”)
The former point, of discarding pop only interested in a buck, or the most bucks possible, is harder to parse. I’ll know it when I hear it: I hear it in the over-rendered production of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, the way the record tears through writing partners not as collaboration, but as consumption. I hear it in VIEWS’s dour rehashing of all Drake’s moods and modes into something like an easy-listening career retrospective. I hear it all over Taylor Swift’s Lover, which sports a single that barters actionless allyship for social/literal credit while also proposing that the rich and famous suffer just as much as victims of systemic, prejudiced violence, because, well, blogs and other famous people were mean to them.
The problem (???) is I like those three records. What’s like got to do with what what’s love got to do with it? I fell hard once (and literally!) at a bowling alley for a stranger two lanes over while “Teenage Dream” banged in the Cosmic Hour, thinking, “truly, this love is true” with my three fingers in a glowing ball. I bought two sweater turtlenecks the fall of “Hotline Bling” and thought there was nothing wrong with that. Then I lost one of them to a person I spent two years of my life with, who I thought I would spend my life with. Yesterday, I put a Lover song on a mix tape for a human being I have a crush on. I will give it to them as a way of saying, “I have a crush on you.” This language is still dooming. This decade had a lot of crap, some of it very good. I won’t know it when I hear it.
I wasn’t going to write about love. I knew I wouldn’t hold true to that, partially because I love pop music and partially because I have a crush. I am susceptible to swooning. We are susceptible to pop’s love because our cultural immunity is subject to highs that crave “I Love It” or “Tik Tok” and lows that rush for the cover of “Wrecking Ball” or “Sorry.” I set out to navigate beyond the inevitable and wound up — inevitably — entwined in it. It was stuck in my head.
And so an impasse in our immanence: any attempt at interrogating pop along maximal, capital lines (its draws and intakes, its appeal or grosses) measures pop in terms so foreign to its possibilities (a future, a thing we don’t know yet) that we must disregard this model. Or: Saying something is pop because it is popular ignores the possibility of the underground or weird to attach and change the world. You know that. I know that. It’s worth re-saying, like a melody that won’t dissipate. I don’t want to write about what the streams and Incs. tell me are inevitable. I don’t even know if I want to write about pop music anymore; maybe I just want to hear it, to move in not-pop-yet, into-pop. It occurs to me that I might be at my most impotent when I am writing about love instead of acting on it, or at least dancing about it.
And yet love is the antithesis of impotence. And so pop is the presence of the possible alongside the potential for reaching that new state, that newness. What if the problem isn’t in liking or loving, but in the writing?
To clarify all this churned crap, I crave a jester’s call to potency: “Beyond the truest, hey, teacher, teacher/ Tell me how do you respond to students?/ And refresh the page and restart the memory?/ Re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?”
“I call potency the subjective energy that deploys the possibilities and actualizes them. Potency is the energy that transforms the possibilities into the actualities.”
Except this was the decade the jesters abandoned us.
Pop’s great gift is its ability to graft itself to us in moments of need and navigate us toward a next thing. Consider how you were wretching up and feeling little, almost texting them even when you knew you didn’t want them and then suddenly: “thank u, next.” And then suddenly, you felt a thousand feet tall, capable. Consider how “Juice” feels whenever you walk into your depression, how it never mocks how you need it, but rather rocks you toward neon sweetness, fullness. If pop can truly do these things (it must, it can’t), what should our reaction be when it betrays us?
Because if earlier in the text we sought to liberate pop from its corporate strings and unloose it from its needless formal conscriptions, we were unprepared when it doubled back and leaned into the same impotence we were hoping to uncouple ourselves from. The problem with selling yourself at Target is that it endorses the notion that you can buy what made 1989 and Red on those same shelves. As if aching was discountable. As if wanting was a garment. And the problem with making a gospel record after claiming you’re a god isn’t only that it’s a conflict of interests, but rather that it’s actually kind of boring. Why provide an apparatus for wonder when you’ve already worked miracles, wonderfully? Idolatry, like inevitability, is no home for transformation.
A brief fable of two energies: Kanye West and Taylor Swift, married and marred forever that September night at the VMAs in 2009. And rather than let that psychic ugliness define them, they integrated it into their pop; if they seemed a little preoccupied with narrativizing that night, they still absorbed the world and then transformed.
In 2010, it was Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, not a gesture of apology, but a toast to surviving in spite of being damned, doomed — by your family, by your country, by yourself. It was Taylor’s Speak Now, the first measure of converting the written-for-her countryish odes into locomotive gummy pop; if at the beginning of the decade, Taylor Swift was a phenomenally successful country star, it still wasn’t inevitable that she would become a dominant author of pop music. That changed with Red (2012). “And I guess we fell apart in the usual way/ And the story’s got dust on every page,” she sings, prefiguring the dusty, grimy corridors that always-departure Kanye stalks in Yeezus (2013), as much a reaction to the breezy braggadocio of Watch the Throne (2011) as it was an aesthetic step toward full-bile Kanye. And then 1989 (2014), an instructive set for having a heart set to an unremembered 80s. And then The Life of Pablo (2016), not so much a release but a landscape, a million mission statements at once, a celebration of contradiction, of ultralight beam and projectile vomit. Growth has limits; continually amassing moreness isn’t the same as transformation. And Reputation (2017) and ye (2018) feel overstretched and shallow, attempts to sing of fame and mental health but really just reassertions of Taylor Swift’s Taylor Swiftness and Kanye West’s Kanye Westness. This year’s Lover and Jesus is King adopt love and faith, not as actionable philosophies capable of bettering a world, but as aesthetic, as garment, as promotion. These recent records (to paraphrase Fisher’s organizations) provide that which we do not like that we have to have.
You could write the decade almost solely in Taylor and Kanye releases, but they aren’t alone in their selling out and buying in: Grimes and Beyoncé and Miley and JAY-Z hurried into unions with anti-unionists and Disney films and renounced hip-hop as a personal dalliance and used hip-hop as a vehicle to conflate stupid wealth with love. “All that is solid melts into PR” (Mark Fisher again, still). Dominant forces of pop music sought to reassert dominant vehicles of expression (themselves) and cooed, “We appreciate power”
How do we still love that which hurts us? We decided to write an endless cipher detailing this stress. Where did our love go? We replaced its bops and bliss with a lusting after talking about talking about pop music. We thought, “Surely we must have a ghastly portmanteau to hang this from,” and we called it poptimism and lo, the crap was lobbed.
Such crap was emboldened in these last 10 years. Letters and sentences about music, like letters and sentences about everything, had both more homes, less time, and dollar signs on mind (Kanye and JAY-Z: “everything’s for saaale,” 2011) Some music writers leaned into their own venerated and barely subtextual prejudice: “Should gainfully employed adults whose job is to listen to music thoughtfully really agree so regularly with the taste of 13-year-olds? […] poptimism diminishes the glory of music by declaring, repeatedly and insistently, that this is all it can do” (Saul Austerlitz, 2014). Others found well-observed caution in the balance of intentions and results: “It [poptimism] treats megastars, despite their untold corporate resources, like underdogs. It grants immunity to a lot of dim music. Worst of all, it asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder” (Chris Richards, 2015).
Remember: “it isn’t much fun to analyze American pop culture anymore.” Remember, writing a piece defending The Life of Pablo as inspirational bile (I did that once) or damning Jesus Is King for its void pabulum (I’m DOING that now) is “like planting a flag on the moon after forty countries have landed there before you, or on a moon whose sole purpose is to host flags” (Maggie Nelson, 2011).
Poptimism’s cause always suggested the noble fight: attempts to turn attention to historically underrepresented forms of expression practiced and loved largely by underprivileged communities while actively opposing preexisting notions of cultural critique is still good work. Fighting for the 12-inch version of “Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go” is still divine. But treating poptimism as inevitable is just as defeating as ignoring pop because it’s on the radio. “Ideologies congeal,” Guardian music critic Michael Hann writes of the whole mess. “They cease to be alternatives and become hegemonies […] movements that were insurgent become establishment […] codified by their own set of rules about what and what was not acceptable.”
Or, “Is it wrong to wish 1989 didn’t sound so anonymous? Is it wrong to demand our leaders not make follower music? Is it wrong to feel disoriented and disheartened by the effusion of suck-uppy articles dutifully praising these unimaginative songs? Is it wrong to squirm knowing that these same songs will likely saturate our public spheres for years— or maybe even the rest of our lives?” (Chris Richards, 2014)
It isn’t wrong, surely, to see the machine at work. Attempts to render in words the appeal of extra-effable un-utterable sensations are doomed from the start. It defeats love’s licks and swerves to justify it too clearly, when all you want is to get next to it. So too, though, are attempts to defeat joy similarly doomed. 1989 brings joys, to me at least, but I suspect many others too. It encourages joys in small moments in small bodies, just as Yeezus is the sound this decade that most often settled me down, its restlessness mirroring mine, cooing it, letting me lounge among its spikes. I applaud Chris Richards’s navigations of Taylor’s Big Machine of squeaky-clean dominance. I applaud nuance. The reality of this world, the one drifting toward impotence, is one where Taylor’s songs serve greater masters than the feelings they detail.
The joys remain, though, and maybe they can be the result of nuance, not its opposite. Poptimism, or rather the endless click-cycle of vacillating provocations/reassurances in taste, is impotence not only devoid of energy but also fixated on depriving that same energy from where it could activate forms and instigate change. It’s why we hum songs and not criticism. I think we know that, naturally, when we react to “Bad Blood” and “Waves.” We know how to love what we love without justifying why we love it. We know if we’re inclined to analyze it, it might not be love. We know we’re better served catalyzing love instead of analyzing it, better served by smushing the flutter in our bellies and hearts to craft new artifacts, new things to love. This is how we might actualize new consciousnesses. We know how to synthesize the pop we love without endorsing, consuming, or idolizing it. Sometimes we need reminding, but mostly, we know how to collaborate with our love. It all just seems a matter of caring enough.
Poptimism is half optimism; if on one hand we’ve spent such words and time defending the former section of that construction, the work toward the latter half, toward a fully activated optimism, seems tougher. Still: it all just seems a matter of caring for the brightness.
And so we turn our immanence to light: “Light wave, 飛ぶ/ Skyway, 叶えて ほら/ Future Pop”
“I call power the selections (and the exclusions) that are implied in the structure of the present as a prescription: power is the selection and enforcement of one possibility among many, and simultaneously it is the exclusion (and invisibilization) of many other possibilities.”
When I say “writing about love is inevitable when writing about pop music,” I mean this: if we occasion ourselves to impotence in the face of reality, it can only be because a lifetime of days is battering. Our bodies are so chemically and mechanically unsteady that it’s easy to feel lost and drawn and brittle. To those stresses, we add the systems and governances that reject our bodies and their maladies. It is hard to believe in love as a transformative power when it is hard to get health insurance. It hurts to say I love you, when saying it might get you killed. It is impossible to preach sexual healing when black and brown and little bodies are shattered and bulleted every day. The planet is dying. We forget every day. Before we were asking how to actualize next, but this inquiry begs: how do we get through now?
This decade saw us brace for the brittling; we learned to see the light between the cracks and cling to it, add to it. We found our untapped potencies in changeable forms, a pop maudit. If the cocktail of renewable boredom and scrollable reality bred clickbait pomposity, the same sense of endlessness all the time fostered vaporwave, a movement running concurrent to poptimism’s empty manifestos. Vaporwave articulated many of pop’s nobler points: that we must remain plastic and moveable, that we thrive among the refuse because it wasn’t made to take from us, that we must invent new modes. It articulated them in more enthralling tones. “Vaporwave is one genre that problematizes the entire system of lazy critical evaluation, often just by remaining left out of publications altogether,” Grafton Tanner wrote in 2016’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. “Its avoidance can be attributed to the genres’s skeptical and mocking relationship with history.” This too, is how future pop engages with history. “No more ‘I love you’s’/ Changes are shifting outside the world.”
A future pop must include in its index the zones that Ramona Xavier, Daniel Lopatin, Ryan DeRobertis, James Ferraro, et al. explored. The et al. is crucial. The et al. is us. In their 2014 mediation, The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism, James Parker and Nicholas Croggon wrote, “Vaporwave is democratic because, in principle, anyone could do it. At is most basic — which is to say at its most radical — vaporwave consists of nothing more than an act of reframing.” This reframing is the most vital power in our desire to establish a future pop, to set it free and hope it takes us with it.
By chopping and screwing pop’s tonalities and settings (and consequently, the ways in which we critically and personally engage with pop), vaporwave’s zones prepare us for nextnesses beyond rabid capital and senseless attentions. Such zones teach us how to return to the maximal bops we love and move through them on our terms, not the ones being sold to us. We knew what to do with the songs before they tried to pitch us on how to wear them. Vaporwave doesn’t teach irony, no: there is no room in love for irony, and I hear a great deal of love in vaporwave. It teaches us the affliction of affection, of moving out of it and falling back through it, a way into-love around realism. Its greatest lesson — that embracing the weird is just as effective at dismantling systemic impotence — is already being written into our pop, in the frontier camp of Lil Nas X and the skrunchy allness of 1000 gecs.
Into this future index we must also hurl the ambiences and electronics, the ever-mutating flays of Arca and the half-haunted time-skews of The Caretaker, the virtual transfigurations of Kara Lis Coverdale and the post-earth, sci-fi re-renderings of Elysia Crampton. Far from the digestible narrative that these wild experimentations exist as pop’s opposite, we find in them all of pop’s possibilities in still-moving actuality, joyful vibrations of in-between. They teach us to invent a future, and their impact is all over our first transmissions of future pop, of vibration (Charli XCX), selection (Carly Rae Jepsen), recombination (SOPHIE), recomposition (PC Music).
From these actions, we induce combustion; we breathe it in. Redefine what stick in heads: Everywhere at the end of time (2016-2019) is pop. Arca (2017) is pop, as is Klein’s Lifetime (2019) and Grouper’s Ruins (2014) and clipping.’s Splendor and Mercy (2016) and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica (2011) and Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me (2017) and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah (2014.) And Taylor Swift and Kanye West.
And if we call everything pop music, does our calling it mean anything at all? And if we allow our consciousness of pop to change, then won’t love re-render, too? Rob Sheffield wrote: “Sometimes you lie in a strange room, in a strange person’s home, and you feel yourself bending out of shape. Melting, touching something hot, something that warps you in drastic and probably irreversible ways you won’t get to take stock of until it’s too late.”
These are the strange hot things by which we make a future pop. It is too late. We must be grateful for that. This is the love pop music generates.
Once, a Tiny Mix Tapes writer (whose identity is unremembered by me now, but whose sentiment is so loved) suggested that maybe the best review of pop music would be a document with the single word “BOPS” written over and over and over again. This strikes me as a remarkably honest representation of what goes on in the space of those sounds.
In a matter of re-framing, in pursuit of writing about into-love and through it, these do too:
“Still in love: the frozen moment captured, the held gaze (Rowan Savage, 2013) & how is it possible to walk at a normal speed while coming undone? How is it possible to even breathe while falling in love? How is it possible to just fucking play it cool? (Caroline Rayner, 2017) Pop music is built on a history of love songs and becomings, of a desire to find oneself in another (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, 2018) & many of the artists I mentioned at the beginning of this review may have seemed like my entire world at one point, but pop fades like all things, and we seem to consume (and dispose of) music more ravenously now than before. Time shapes us and changes us, and we can’t always take the things we used to love with us as we step forward into the unknown (Sam Goldner, 2016) & the crystallization of a memory collapsing into the open expanse of the new. And this is the sound of this memory repeating, replete with an echo, a beat. In your ears and in your bones. Resounding, reverberating. Re-sounding, re-verberating (Evan Coral, 2019) & it’s a charged bleeding heart of sponsorship and exclusivity thrown into the throat of Yosemite. It’s a white horse galloping fiend-like across the continental divide, with a hoof-print-tire-tread that could pull the land apart (Nick James Scavo, 2016.)”
“Inasmuch as pop music means Carly Rae Jepsen, I believe it’s supposed to save our souls and reunite us with unity, not the ecstasy of forgetting or the ecstasy of remembering, but the act of singing (Pat Beane, 2019) & in the case of Dedicated, ‘love’ should be amended to ‘commitment’ Much of the album presupposes being in a relationship, but the emotional currents of each track find it either slipping out of sync or crystallizing into eternity (Harry Tafoya, 2019) & pop music doesn’t play by the same rules as other genres, and there is rarely, if ever, a purely artistic motivation or auteurist merit. And as far as pop music is concerned, Beyoncé is very nearly without peer; she sells the words and work of others, like it was the only thing that ever mattered to her. And maybe it is; stakes are high for Beyoncé, and as she gets older, they only get higher. (Embling, 2011) But sometimes you just have to let go. Sometimes it’s the best you can do (Max Power, 2013.)”
“In the context of our own narcissistic pretenses and the technologies that mediate our interactions — our constructed identities, our social media performances, our avatars and their simulations — the act of being brutally honest, of being uncomfortably direct through the highly flawed, imperfect thing we call language becomes an act of boldness and, for me, a source of inspiration (Marvin Lin, 2017) & a resonant theme is embracing other forms of love: particularly affection for community and independence from anyone at all (Elizabeth Newton, 2016) & something factual, but not necessarily real. A recollection of fiction and dream, or shared-moments. Whatever we can scrape together. It’s important at all times, sometimes (C Monster, 2018) & it should be danced, sung, knitted, and talked about, if not because it collapses these categorical distinctions itself so that its blood can run, then because keeping your head still and your voice silent is lying (Jazz Scott, 2014.)”
“Funny how sometimes we share the same memories, even if we weren’t there with each other in the first place (B. Levinson, 2016) & we do not enter and meet. We give up and begin. We stop and fade.” (Cookcook, 2019)
Those are just the ones I remember. There are so many more lights in the writing of love.
Our old notion of pop — divorced from arbitrary formal markers and set free to reform — is the song of engagement, with the problems and the hate, with the other bodies crashing on dancefloors and in darknesses, with other sets of lips and clits and dicks and every other thing, with an ear toward alternative bodies and an eye at the horizon. Engagement, then, is love by another name, a necessary inoculation against the constrictions of worldly realism. Future pop won’t inevitably save the world, but actionable love might shift it, warp it, screw it. Pop music is the process of becoming other, our only hope at a future where love surpasses inevitability and reaches realness.
This decade’s reckoning and rendering of pop registered according to reasonable expectations: pop music was a space for optimism and romance to make the best of what we already have. Our work toward a future pop, toward a future, must deny optimism and romance in pursuit of transformation and love. I want to (I will) write about a future pop that renders consciousness as something different than what we currently conceive. We must hear in future pop that which destabilizes as it constructs, that debilitates the inevitable, that refigures all our wild everything into something new.
Listening to the new Francis Quinlan single in the Shrewsbury library in rain because we must keep listening to new things. Because my crush likes it. Because I like: “I know there is love that/ Doesn’t have to do with/ Taking something from somebody.” She bends her voice around that word, “looOVve,” like all those myriad voices that comprise something like the light. I know there is pop music that doesn’t have to do with taking something from me. “I have to stop myself and admit: you make me happy.”
You do. You all do.
Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron
Lost Wisdom pt. 2
[P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2019]
You sat on your bed and laughed and said “my friend and I send each other things we see,” and then you showed me the screen of your phone. “IS LOVE GARBAGE OR RECYCLING?”
I loved that you laughed. I loved that you sighed. “Yeah, now I need a second.”
In the company of the crunch, we crave time. In walking with real things, we hope we find a moment proper enough to address the unutterable things.
I have tried to write about music with the luxury of time. I have thought that the most honest and honorable way to treat the love and loss poured into manipulated noise was to give it time to affect me, to offer something prayer-like in response. The thing about bonfires and love songs and real death and new want, though, is that there is never as much time as you think there is. This is a very awful thing to reckon with. It is also a very wonderful thing to realize. Full of wonder, stuffed with awe; we are reminded by the snap of things that everything — rather than nothing — is all we are.
There is a truth in simply saying the thing as it is (“death is real”). There is a similar and incongruent honesty in seeing the layer in the saying, in singing it. There is a second truth in the smokes that come from fires. Lost Wisdom pt. 2 possesses both strains of truth.
I came to Mount Eerie late. The first time I heard Phil’s voice was “Real Death.” I could barely imagine that I was hearing a voice that makes these sounds. I struggled to imagine what it must be to have spent a life listening to that voice, tracing it for years only now to feel its new grains and catches and heaves. I can’t imagine what it is to have a voice in your life and then not have it. A Crow Looked At Me and its companion Now Only are some of the first experiences I have with death as an adult, I think. I hope that doesn’t sound pat or reductive. I only mean that the way grief and grace dance with each other, direct and companionable, help me in this season of life where death feels both less knowable and more manageable, closer but smaller, the pressure of a held hand.
Lost Wisdom pt. 2 is very much in conversation with those songs. It is also very much a different timbre, a different burnt wood. It starts with the declaration of opposite possibilities: “Through all of my life/ I waver back and forth between/ A belief and not / Believing in anything.” It ends with a statement of purpose: “There’s nothing else I can give/ But love.” Both songs are called “Belief,” two parts of a whole. This is an album about remembering believing. This is an album about the whole of love.
If belief can be a through-line, not a something that either is or isn’t but rather a movable limb depending on what motion is being begged of it, so too is love. It is as malleable as language, as the sounds a voice can make to sing of it. Only a few vowels change loving to leaving. You is only specific in that it designates that which isn’t me — the you of Lost Wisdom pt. 2 is different from the one of previous records. This is what time teaches us. Only a few muscles change a cry of grief to a moan of want. This is what we learn. And even as a partner dies or a lover departs or a romance ends, love clings to bodies like coronas around moons.
Other things cling. Grief, like love, is renewable and knowable, a constant process. This has never sounded as clear as it does on “Widows,” which sets locomotive distortion against the unfeeling structure of a calendar: something as innocuous as Mother’s Day might devastate you. How do you get over the death of a person you loved while getting over breaking up with another person you loved? How is there room enough in a single body for all that? Wisdom, maybe, is knowing the getting over is all the time, that there’s nothing after it that’s not what was before it. Wisdom, maybe, is something like knowing how to see reminders of absence as the imprints left by presence: “Nothing is real/ Except this one thing:/ Please remember at the bookstore in the poetry corner upstairs/ I slept with my head on your lap.”
Is the human voice a metaphorizing element? “In all these years of making up songs,” Phil writes in a note dated November 5, 2019, “the aim has always been to just say the thing as directly as possible. Name it, don’t decorate it.” If this dictum felt essential to A Crow Looked at Me, this time, the songs stretch like a body up at dawn, re-finding all the ways it can move. Part of the re-finding is Julie Doiron, who sang with Phil over 10 years ago on Lost Wisdom. Her voice, when it appears alone as it does in the opening bars of “When I Walk Out of the Museum,” is a sound more suited for feeling in bones and tendons than staying in ears; I remind myself that such voices communicate twice in the same moment, with the language they speak and the sounds they sing. These voices are intermediaries; they oxidize the flame and billow up the smoke. When Julie sings in harmony with Phil, in the latter bars of “When I Walk Out of the Museum,” it all fades, not away but together. “Everything:/ the museum / the garbage/ the internet/ the constellations/ all collapse into a heap./ Light floods out / from this compost pile.”
I think this might be the answer to your question and mine. It’s not about trashing or recycling it. It’s about composting it. Finding new ways to speak old truths. I think that’s why we may be here.
I think that’s what Phil and Julie find as they wing and waver their voices around the songs of Lost Wisdom pt. 2. In death, there is love, as there is after death, as there is after love. Love, like matter, cannot be created or destroyed. Love only reorganizes and combines. And sometimes it hibernates in caves and sometimes it raves in great brights, but it is not destroyable. Though created worlds apart by wholly different collections of constantly-activating cellular processes, Lost Wisdom pt. 2 reminds me most of thank u, next, another album of living beyond loss in love. And: “What’s this new version of love that intrudes/ into the peace I thought I had?/ This love has no recipient/ but still lies there smoldering.”And: “I’ve loved and I’ve lost/ But that’s not what I see/ ‘Cause look what I’ve found, yeah yeah.”
I have tried to write these words directly. I have tried not to take too much time, just swim in their sounds a little. I need a second, all the time. I think the one I’ll keep coming back to is, “Even if I never get to see you again/ I’ll know that when we collided we both split each other open.” Surely there is something mortal to it all, all the things we never see again. But to know? To feel (until you don’t feel anymore) certain that that which has happened still has happened? Just like we never said goodbye. There is never enough time. I love you.
When this decade began, MP3s still reigned supreme. Now, at the end of it, a song is no longer even a file — it’s ephemera, on every streaming service and available to hear in myriad ways. For better and worse, the song (and the single) have become the norm for the general public’s music consumption. More »
A decade is an arbitrary measurement. They seem confined, these neat little symmetrical 10-year runs, but it’s only in hindsight that we define them, that their signifiers and trends and shorthand become codified. In reality, there are bleeds, the timbre and events of one chunk of time sliding over the border into another. If you’re … More »
Ahead of their joint album Lost Wisdom pt. 2, Mount Eerie and Julie Doiron are sharing another single, the harmonically-rich “Belief pt. 2.” It’s described by Phil Elverum as a “night song.” Of the fulfilled night? I have no words.
From Phil Elverum:
“Belief pt. 2” is the last song on the album. It comes at the end of a meandering path through uncertainty, devotion, sad reminiscence, hopeful idealism; songs coursing over uneven terrain. This album conclusion is a flag planted, a declaration of belief in love no matter what, the culminating answer to all of the asking that came before. Eroded down by life’s changes to an elemental necessity, I make an offering of a final simple gesture of love.
Julie and I recorded this song at night with the doors and windows all the way open, hoping to get the nighthawks and night air onto the recording. The other songs were recorded during the day, but this song is a night song. We tried to make our version of sacred music, under stars in the high dark cool air.
Pre-order Lost Wisdom pt. 2 here before its November 8 release date, and listen to “Belief pt. 2” below:
Last month, Phil Elverum announced that he would be releasing a new Mount Eerie album with the Canadian musician Julie Doiron, a spiritual successor to their 2008 collaboration Lost Wisdom. We’ve heard one song from the fittingly titled Lost Wisdom pt. 2 so far, “Love Without Possession,” and today Elverum and … More »
Artists and critics wax rhapsodic about Phil Elverum, but a deep understanding of his work is only beginning to emerge. His dark, compelling tales continue to mesmerize, and we are indebted to the man who always keeps us on our toes. Elverum, or Mount Eerie, if you will, will release a new album with Julie Doiron in early November.
Lost Wisdom pt. 2 will come out on Elverum’s own P.W. Elverum & Sun label November 8. This is his second record with the ex-Eric’s Trip singer, and while we sometimes say things lightly, this time, we DON’T say this lightly: the first single from the album is ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS. Speaking about the collaboration, Elverum says,
In a grab for deeper continuity, I called and asked Julie Doiron if she could join me in the recording. She has been my favorite singer since 1993 when I first heard her band Eric’s Trip and subsequently devoted my life to music and art. This 26-year path from teenage obsession to collaborator has made me feel very fortunate. We made another record in 2008 called Lost Wisdom, more flames, more love, more turmoil. Now we get to do some more singing and playing together.
Lost Wisdom pt. 2 tracklisting:
02. When I Walk Out of The Museum
03. Enduring the Waves
04. Love Without Possession
05. Real Lost Wisdom
07. Pink Light
8. Belief pt. 2
Mount Eerie tour dates (all shows with Julie Doiron except Oakland):
10.29.19 – Oakland, CA – Fox Theater (with Big Thief)
11.30.19 – Vancouver BC – Christ Church Cathedral
12.03.19 – Seattle, WA – The Neptune
12.04.19 – Portland, OR – Revolution Hall
12.06.19 – Sonoma, CA – Sebastiani Theatre
12.07.19 – Los Angeles, CA – Masonic Temple at Hollywood Forever
12.08.19 – Minneapolis, MN – Cedar Cultural Center
12.09.19 – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
12.10.19 – Columbus, OH – Via Vecchia
12.11.19 – Toronto, ON – Great Hall
12.13.19 – Boston, MA – Arts at the Armory
12.14.19 – Brooklyn, NY – St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church
12.15.19 – Philadelphia, PA – First Unitarian Sanctuary
12.16.19 – Washington, DC – Miracle Theatre
In the time since Mount Eerie’s last studio album, Phil Elverum has gotten married to Michelle Williams and separated from Michelle Williams, moved from Anacortes, Washington to Brooklyn and back, put out a live record, and played his first show as the Microphones since 2003. More »
Over the weekend, Phil Elverum performed as the Microphones for the first time since 2003 at What The Heck Fest, a show that Elverum set up in Anacortes, WA to highlight musicians primarily from his Pacific Northwest scene, including Lois, Black Belt Eagle Scout, Little Wings, Karl Blau, Pounding Serfs, D+, and Mecca … More »