As this issue goes to print I’ll be going through the process of cramming for the Leaving Certificate, a set of exams you’ve probably not sat in ages but have had appear in anxiety-ridden nightmares. These exams serve as a glorified sieve for third level – supposedly filtering students into limited college courses on the basis of merit. This merit is backed by supposed anonymity – we all fill out the same papers, somehow making the whole process meritocratic. Nobody particularly likes the Leaving Cert but it somehow lingers on – if anything just because people are deathly scared of altering it. […]
Football holds a concerningly large space in my life, if anything because of how constant it is. There’s always something ongoing within the sport to tug at your attention – be it the mother of a French player flipping shit, a shock equalizer in extra time, or it somehow coming Rome. To badly quote that one ‘Mitchell and Web’ skit, football means so much as there’s “everything to play for and forever to play it in” – there’ll never be any real resolution, meaning you can tune in and out at ease. The sport is always there in some form or guise, eating away at time, boredom, and the awkwardness of small talk in the barbers. It’s hard to understate how comforting endless highlight shows can become, especially at a time where any shred of normality has been stripped from our lives. As Sam Diss put it for ‘Mundial’, there’s “no better salve for a sore head or a tired body than to sit in front of the warming glow of the 13” laptop screen and quietly watch Spurs and Chelsea scrap it out for two-and-a-bit hours including the inane chit-chat”. This calming certainty is hard to understate – you almost know what exact emotions to expect, what players will get shouted about on Twitter, what talking points you’ll pad out inane chatter with. But what happens when these expectations get shattered?
I don’t remember exactly when I was first exposed to the /r/soccer headline list, in part as you can’t really seek it out. The post has no central location or author, with random members of the subreddit reposting it under cursed stories. This list compiles weird events in the sport without context or discretion – almost overwhelming the reader through sheer absurdity. These weird headlines cover all aspects of the sport (and life in general) – be it Leroy Fer accidentally buying a horse, Wayne Hennessy being ‘desperate’ to learn about the Nazis, or Zlatan calling France a shit country. In the six years following its first appearance, the list has grown to comical lengths – you always discover something new each time you revisit it, as if the punchlines are waiting to reveal themselves. On account of this, I’ve found myself showing the list to new acquaintances as a weird quasi-icebreaker, in one case reading it out to an (admittedly quite ambivalent) ex as I sat there in a McDonald’s. This collection of dumb football stories has taken on a significant role in my life, even if I can’t work out exactly why.
Quite unsurprisingly, this current heatwave messed whatever remained of my schedule up. The past few days have gone by in a strange blur – with me spending as much time as possible outside, having all nighters snowball into something larger, and constantly refreshing the HSE’s vaccination portal. Ireland very rarely experiences warm weather on this scale, meaning everything went out the window the second I had to open it. Productivity flatlined, skin failed to burn, and anything beyond reading dumb books on my Kindle felt impossible. On account of this, I’ve done fuck all this week beyond overthinking about producer Lorenzo Senni – bringing my semi-ironic obsession with Italy to new heights. It’s set to rain shortly after this piece goes live, hopefully meaning we’ll be back to more regular programming by next Friday. That or I’ll throw together a 3,000 word essay about Giorgio Chiellini, scaring away all three of my readers in the process.
The cynical side of my brain is convinced that Ireland is a country based on waves – be they of COVID, careerist coalition partners, or emigration. It sometimes feels as if we’re stuck having the same few conversations every five months or years, running into depressingly similar problems without any real conclusion. I guess this habit has been accelerated with this never-ending pandemic – what was initially experienced as tragedy quickly arrives back as farce the second it exits our memory.
There’s an undeniable sense of déjà vu in the media cycles during each surge – almost as if we’re watching the exact same b-roll of pubs, the exact same debates about generation gaps, the exact same lobbyists chatting pure shite without any repercussion. It sometimes feels as if we ritualistically psych ourselves up each season, angrily staring at empty restaurant tables or teens drinking cans. We then delude ourselves into thinking that COVID can be bartered with and promptly act all shocked when the virus refuses our brown envelope. Existing as a young person here can often resemble being endlessly bashed against the same wall – with those around us feigning a false sense of novelty.
On some level all the music I’ve tried writing about this year has been based around intensity, be it the roars from some MAX/MSP monstrosity, the catharsis of tacky screamo, or the pure dread induced by the uilleann pipes. It feels as if I’ve always been obsessed with art that reaches the logical conclusion of its respective genre, if anything just because of how easily it can unsettle the audience. What was once familiar is presented in stark, uncomfortable terms – shocking us into finding new perspectives in the process. These harsh deviations further our understanding of genres we love by actively demolishing them, an experience that lends itself well to overanalysis and one that brings us to this specific moment in time. This week I’m going to cover some of the most intense music released this year, if anything just in the hopes of capturing this feeling of annihilation.
One of my worst habits is assigning way too much meaning to the menial. This excessive enthusiasm is pretty much endemic when it comes to cultural criticism – any piece of art you enjoy suddenly has deep political meaning and single handedly redefines everything around it, even if that makes no real sense. As the personal and political get even more inseparably blurred this tendency in the wider music press has seemingly accelerated – fun pop songs made by rich people are suddenly representative of something larger and whatever (or even just if) you choose to stream supposedly mirrors your personal values. I’ve been stuck grappling with this train of thought in the time since I stopped writing regularly on this website – if a cigar is infamously sometimes just a cigar, what makes a cool guitar riff any different? Is there any way to cover interesting tunes without it inevitably devolving into weird personal rants? I’m yet to work out any clear answers to this question but have instead spent my time listening to tacky (scr)emo records, which is arguably a fair bit cooler depending on who you ask.
Now that I’m free from exams a scarily high percentage of my time has been spent trying and failing to explain the constant spectacles created by football. Something I’ve always found surreal about the sport is how isolated those around me are from it – events that I view as seismic and definitive barely cross their radar, melting my brain in the process. These aborted attempts to explain my passion usually end up following the same few patterns – excerpts from the /r/Soccer headline list, that one Erling Haaland interview that sounds like anxiety-ridden third years flirting for the first time, and cliché walls of text based on the comfort of endless highlight shows. On some level it feels as if my obsession is based more around the humans behind the sport rather than the endless games they play – there’s something endlessly fascinating about the stories and cursed facts surrounding each fixture, even if I’ve retold them all countless times.
It could be argued that my excitement for Euro 2020 was fuelled more by this urge for spectacle than an appreciation of Kylian Mbappé. The actual football within this competition isn’t usually of the highest standard, with Portugal winning the tournament in 2016 after finishing third in their group and only winning one game within ninety minutes of play. This mixed quality creates the perfect conditions for shitehousery – with a team coached by a part-time dentist managing to knock out the Brits, Gareth Bale pretty much carrying his country, and random drunk Irish supporters fixing cars for the boys in green. The Euros are arguably so fascinating specifically because of how varied results end up being, pretty much anything can happen as long as it doesn’t make sense on paper. I guess the last five years have been spent just waiting for a return to these oddly consuming spectacles, a return to having new stories to tell. The tournament’s definitely delivered in this regard, just not in a positive way.
This is now my second attempt to write about Autechre, something that feels risky once you recognise how hard it is to do without seeming like an utter arse. The work of the Rochdale-reared duo doesn’t really lend itself well to the format of pretentious blog posts, something Pitchfork writers are stuck dealing with each time they resurface. Obsessive fanboys of the duo often get mad at the inaccurate narratives peddled by the music press in reviews or features, understandably raging at the same three or four anecdotes about a lack of any real melody, absurd album lengths, and a supposed absence of humanity within their (insanely sprawling) creative output. It often seems like journalists are unable to accurately capture what makes the group so compelling, generally falling into the habit of portraying them as stoic mad scientists working in seclusion to redefine the limits of music, or just as some annoying eejits passing off computer fart noises as high art.
Neither description really hits the mark and this distortion of what makes their work stand out is what had me so hesitant to initially cover them. What exactly is it about Autechre’s work that eludes annoying English majors? Why is it so easy for certain people to get so utterly obsessed with their work? Will writing this mean I can listen to literally any other music? I don’t think there’s any clear answers to these questions, but part of me is just saying that so posters on /r/Autechre don’t shout at me.
I’ve spent a concerning amount of time thinking about the work of David Balfe, something my friends are all painfully aware of by now. This obsession with their creative world started almost by chance, with a listener of a podcast I occasionally edit shouting out his Jools Holland performance – sending me down this rabbit hole in the process. To say that Balfe’s performance struck me emotionally would be an understatement – the weeks following my initial exposure were spent obsessively trawling the internet for any sparse information, shouting at friends about it’s major importance, and counting the days down until the March 26th release date of ‘For Those I Love’. The project had initially been released in 2019 for the immediate friends and family of the musician and that fact nearly tortured me – I knew it was out there in the digital ether and finding the few remaining traces of it became my main coping mechanism as lockdown dragged on. ‘For Those I Love’ is a record that infinitely more interesting and talented writers have covered and because of that I’m going to be a bit more specific in my approach – you most likely know how cool this album is and because of that I want to focus in on what fuelled my initial obsession, what made these deeply personal tracks about friendship and loss so utterly poignant, and what prevented me from being understandable by non-Irish mutuals for the past while. Balfe’s music melted my brain in the best possible way, here’s a lame attempt to explain why.
I’ve been using the term “cultural colony” a lot more than I should lately. A dumb combination of the Yank elections, endless Twitter discourse, and my constant urge to annoy people has had me obsessed with how much hold American politics and culture seem to have over us all. Ireland was always doomed to some degree of East Yankery on account of our Anglosphere status – our shared language leads to an anaemic local press and an easier ability to completely opt-out of what’s going on nearby. However, I can’t help but feel that lockdown has accelerated things a bit further – a world where we’re stuck living online is one that can become extremely American quite rapidly.
I think this acceleration was seen most blatantly through our embarrassing obsession with the Yank election – you had insane anti-maskers droning on about QAnon on one side and middle-class weirdos getting concerningly horny for John King on the other. I’m reminded here of ‘Watching the U.S. Election While Irish’, an article published in the New York Times that seemingly depicts one of the most terminal cases of yank-brain humanly possible. “On Saturday afternoon our time, Wolf Blitzer crossed the spaceship floor of CNN’s studio to announce Mr. Biden as victor. The game, or this part of it, was over. We greeted the news like it was an acquittal for a crime we had not committed, gasped at the commentary for another hour or so, and promptly switched off CNN for the first time in four, long days”. How did we collectively get to this point as a nation, why do we need to break from it, and what does breaking even look like in an extremely online and globalized world? The answers are (somehow) more convoluted than you’d think.