The thing about music is that you’re not really supposed to be writing about it. Music is fundamentally subjective – your review scores will never be right, your readers will just get bored if you just list whatever instruments were played on each track, and your personal emotions do more to shape your opinion on a record than any objective qualification. You’ll never actually be able to translate the experience of listening to a song into words, at best you can just distill the intensity into something that spurs others to seek it out, and at worst you can just sound like you really want to be an academic. I don’t think I’m personally capable of writing objectively about music and that freaks me out a little, mainly just as I’m running out of phases of my life to condense down into paragraph segments. There’s only so much you can say about listening to Sam Ray records on trains and you can only make so many vague references to records being intense until your reader (let’s be optimistic and assume we even have one) gives up and returns to their really intense Geoguessr session. Whenever a record doesn’t fully click I often find myself scrolling through its RateYourMusic reviews in the vain hope that by reading about another person’s strong emotions I’ll suddenly gain an appreciation by proxy – I don’t particularly care about what some random person thought about the drum machine used on a certain track but I find myself obsessed with the feelings said drum machine surrounded. Writing is arguably at its best when it focuses on translating an unattainable intensity – a gig on the other side of the country, an emotion you’re yet to feel, or the experience of actually understanding the appeal of metal. What that looks during a time where a decent chunk of everything recorded is available on Soulseek is really beyond me however.
In an essay on James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’, Mark Fisher remarked that “[i]n the 21st century, there’s an increasingly sad and desperate quality to pop culture hedonism”. ‘NYC, Hell 3:00AM’ by James Ferraro takes this idea to its logical conclusion, taking the downer haze of records like ‘Take Care’ and accelerating it to the point of resembling a picture buried under an insane amount of Instagram filters. James Ferraro’s work has always been more about capturing a certain feeling than making a compelling record and that’s what makes him interesting to me – whenever I try to talk to people about his scarily large discography I sound more like I’m discussing a Paul Durcan book than an album designed to sound like an explicit Flash game and I find that really exciting. In nearly every single interview Ferraro claims that whatever record he released last was never intended to take the form of one and I think that shows – ‘Far Side Virtual’ was to be a collection of ringtones, ‘Skid Row’ started out as a poetry collection, and Ferraro seems more interested in making hold music than full-on albums. Ferraro is amazing at painting oddly-specific pictures and ‘NYC, Hell 3:00AM’ is no different. This album feels like the experience of anhedonia, this notion that everything is available to you yet all of it seems shite. The tracks that make up this album are beautifully shambolic – rhythm is often forgotten about, the vocals border on being out-of-tune, and the lyrics become nearly laughable at some points. However, to notice these flaws is to miss out on the point of the record – this is an album about being incapable of paying full attention (or deriving enjoyment) from something and begins to make sense when you play along with it, mindlessly browsing through the same three algorithmically-generated feeds over and over on top of your bed. Some of these tracks border on being boring but that’s the whole point of the thing.
I feel like ‘Close Ups’ is one of the better cuts off this album as it perfectly depicts the anhedonia Ferraro attempts to replicate. I’ve seen this track described in the past as sounding like “Michael Jackson drowning in a bath with a television flickering in the background” and I feel like that’s fairly apt – the anemic production, sluggish organ synth, and sliced up RnB samples create a thoroughly lethargic sound, giving the impression that this song barely has the energy to keep itself together. Ferraro’s vocals enhance this notion, reminding me of highly self-conscious reference vocals sung into a laptop at some ungodly hour of the morning – it doesn’t seem like the musician particularly believes in what he’s singing and perhaps that’s to be expected. I think Miles Raymer hit the nail on the head in their Pitchfork review when they described Ferraro’s minimalist production as sounding “sickly and enervated, like the songs once had more parts and a more robust sound but have somehow been starved down to their current states”. This track sounds like the experience of getting dizzy while walking downstairs after not eating for over a day and that makes it an interesting listen, even if it probably won’t be a particularly enjoyable one (unless you’re me of course).
Around the time that I originally started writing on this blog consistently (and long before Fiteclub) my life was based around the music of Xiu Xiu, an American experimental rock band based around singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart that I dread having to actually pronounce at some stage in the future. Stewart formed Xiu Xiu after his last band disbanded in 2002, releasing their debut LP ‘Knife Play’ that February only for everything to collapse in around them. Yvonne Chen left the band, their equipment got stolen, and Jamie Stuart’s father passed on, leading to Stuart recording the intense material that made up ‘A Promise’, one of my favourite records of all time. The key to understanding early Xiu Xiu is accepting that it isn’t actually that abrasive – Stewart is an amazing songwriter due to his ability to take pop tropes and amplify them, revealing the vulnerability that lays below. I think Stewart’s music meant so much to me as it translated intense emotions that defined a certain point of my life into caustic sounding pop songs – Xiu Xiu’s waves of noise felt cathartic at a time where I felt incapable of finding some form of identity. In an interview with Pitchfork back in 2003, Stewart mentioned a conversation he had with his father about intensity in music. “My dad at one point was a really famous record producer, and he told me that the only regret he ever had in music was not going over the top enough. He talked to me kind of long and hard about– you know, not necessarily that we’re doing this successfully, who the fuck knows, but he talked to me about– any time you’re doing something in music that makes you feel kind of uncomfortable, then something actual is happening. And sometimes it’s successful, and people can get touched by it, and sometimes people are like, “Is it a joke?” But the times that it’s successful never happen unless you go fucking balls-out on something and just rip yourself apart”. Xiu Xiu’s music serves as a soundtrack to rip yourself apart to and I’m eternally grateful for it.
I’m going to end this post by talking about one of the most cathartic songs off ‘A Promise’, ‘Blacks’. In his drunk commentary for this album, Jamie mentions that nearly every lyric off this song was something his father said to him before taking his life – somehow making this track even more haunting. It’s scarily hard to find the words to explain what makes this song special – the sudden bursts of energy, the cleansing rawness of the shouted vocals, and the layers of noise all come together to create something both fundamentally unique and freeing. Xiu Xiu’s music is undeniably idiosyncratic, at best I could refer to this track as an accelerated version of Joy Divison’s ‘Disorder’ but that doesn’t really seem to do it justice – ‘Blacks’ feels like watching Ian Curtis dance, raw energy is exuded that eludes proper description but expresses something vital. For the longest time this song served as the backdrop for my “lowest” moments – the hours that followed an anxiety attack, the day that proceeded an attempt to return to society, or the car trip on the way to finally waste my money by seeing a GP. There’s no real notion of hope within the world evoked by Stuart’s songwriting but that’s not the point – these records feel like sudden outbursts, the final recognition that things can’t continue in this way. You can’t relate to a Xiu Xiu record forever (in the same way that manic bursts eventually dissipate), but that inability opens up the space to build and move on from the emotions that make their work so engaging. May as well revel in the moment while you’re at it though.