Monthly Archives: January 2016

Other Lives, or Just the Same One, Over and Over Again: Part II

Other Lives is not a band I listen to for lyrics, which says a lot, considering I’m a Word Girl.  Thus, in a year when I felt more inward, more silent, it makes sense that their album Rituals filled that silence with its own quiet movement.  I saw them twice last year, once at the free concerts at the Mural, but once, more importantly, at Neumo’s on a Tuesday night, by myself.  In her review of Rituals, their second album, music critic Kelsey Simpkins describes going to an Other Lives show as such:  “The music rolled through our bodies, beat our hearts for us.”  After the first third of the year, the survival of a break-up, the sadness of deep loneliness, Other Lives ushered me into a different room in the house of myself and beat my heart for me, asking me only to be there.


Come live on in silence,

Everything’s standing out like a loss and feels like I’ve been

I won’t fear my babbles

leave them in the silence

I live in the present

moment to moment

“Reconfiguration” is a ghost call of a song, taking part of its power from one member of the band doing a strange imitation of what seems like a child playing “Indian,” fluttering his hand over his voice to make a sound both eerie and owl-like.  The album itself was a reconfiguration for me:  of loneliness into, for a time, merely solitude.  Emily Dickinson famously says “One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” but for much of the spring and summer, I was only a chamber, a space I was uncertain how to fill.  I was, finally, unhaunted, true:  mostly busy with work, focused on writing, coming to terms with the dark angers of the winter.  I returned to my writing, talking more and more to myself, writing so much that, at times, I felt I’d replaced actual intimacy with these revisitings of my own losses, the babbles of my own heart.  Simpkins also describes the album as “a series of smaller, detailed listening experiences,” and each essay I wrote seemed, to me, like a tiny desk concert, a pleasure best experienced alone.

Moreover, Other Lives is the kind of show you can go to see by yourself and never feel alone.  Usually, when a band plays for its audience, for me, there are these moments of feeling more, not less, separate from them:  they talk to the audience and make jokes; the audience laughs, and the people around you nudge each other knowingly or comment on what’s just been said.  In contrast, it doesn’t seem to me that Other Lives plays for the audience, really—they play for themselves, for each other.  Attention isn’t called to the fact that you have no one to nudge, no one with whom to comment, because attention stays on the music, orchestral, multi-layered, unfolding before you like a thunderstorm coming across the empty Oklahoman plains from which the band itself comes, and the only thing to do is smell the ozone in the air and close your eyes as the first warm drops hit your upturned face, softly at first, until your skin gives over and becomes part of what the rain comes to fill.

I’ve always felt like that—like their music is a coming storm; I was unsurprised, then, to find the image used by Simpkins:

Like dynamic paint strokes, intimate choreography, and electrifying storms, Rituals evokes the aesthetic experience of life itself in its finest moments. The opening track, “Fair Weather,” is the like the gathering of a rainstorm from a long time coming. And Rituals is that rainstorm: spilling its long-accumulated contents on us in a deluge. [ . . .  T]here is a sound of uprooting, of displacement in Rituals, both physical and mental; an unsettling feeling of change since the release of Tamer Animals, and an attempt to redefine oneself anew.

Perhaps, as a former Kansan, I still feel that displacement, understand how the “attempt to redefine oneself anew” will always recall not just the meek and constant rain of the Northwest but the electrical anticipation of the thunderstorms of the Midwest.  Perhaps that is why it was such a surprise to find myself beginning to settle into the solitude, and why I still fight against that feeling, at times.  Change, for me, has always been charged—coming from a place I did not love, looking for things I could not find easily, I have long been unfamiliar with the feeling of life simply moving on.  More often, I have placed myself in the way of the deluge, daring myself to be uprooted:  leaving for Missouri, returning to Seattle, accepting the spontaneous moment, inviting others to do so, in return, turning over the unturned stones to see if glass hearts were buried underneath, throwing my own glass heart at hard surfaces to see how strong it is, to find out what it means, exactly, when glass breaks.

Yet last year was a year in which change did not have charge.  Spring quarter came and went; summer began.  I wrote in spring. I read in spring.  I read what my students wrote in spring, and in summer, I wrote and read what I wrote, again and again, trying to figure out not how to change my life next but how to reorganize what has happened in it, trying to find an order for the book project.  I saw Other Lives again, at the Mural, on a lawn with a hundred other people and my friend Leah.  But still, I loved them more that time I saw them alone, when I was simply in the process of living. “In their element,” Simpkins says, “[lead singer Jessie] Tabbish’s lyrics come effortlessly, like in a dream, and the sounds feel like they’ve always existed.”

And that is why their song “Patterns” is my favorite song on the album.  Although I did not know the lyrics until I began researching for this essay, it is as if I had understood all along, had heard the ironic tension in the song between immersion in the moments of the present and the realization that one is repeating, again, those same moments which have led your heart astray before, experiencing as new those emotional changes in tempo and dynamic, which are, in fact, not changes at all:

 Put yourself first, and feel yourself, and then

I wander in sleep, in a silent tone.

Put yourself far, and feel yourself in mine,

I’m wandering still, falling in love so far

Into your arms, into the void

Oh I should have known.

Oh I should have known better.

But the musical patterns in the song itself are so lovely, so lacey, so intricate, shimmering starlight across the deeper wells of an ocean, that you don’t experience the repetition as such—much as I’d begun to find the return of the same placid day less of a disappointment because it brought no change.  Simpkins quotes Tabbish, saying Rituals “‘was about the spontaneity of travel and being isolated. For the first times in our lives we were moving off on our own away from our families and kind of coming into our own.’”  For me, Rituals played on repeat-all in my chamber as I moved constantly while standing still, as I moved away from one version of loneliness to be, more firmly, in the same place.  Or so it seemed.

But remember—there I was: simply letting their music beat my heart for me, standing alone near the stage, closing my eyes and letting the music itself be what I felt, while lyrics like this were sung to me, whispering into me like the temperature of the rain which you notice, primarily, for its pressure:

The more that you give,

the less that you fear

the less that you fear

“The vision of Rituals,” Simpkins’ review ends, “needs the time to communicate its story.”  Perhaps my own vision does, too—time to be lonely, alone, silent, while the patterns emerge and change me, rain on the sand.







My Year In Three Albums. Part One: Angel Olsen and Loneliness

There’s nothing like making a list at the year’s end to make you believe you understood what just happened.

But certainly, it seems significant to me that this past year was primarily set to three albums:  Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Other Lives’ Rituals, and Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Style.  My 2015 was defined by two things:  it was the year in which I’d entered more comfortable with the idea of myself as a writer, able to fully commit to my book project as a real project, and it was the year in which, as I wrote more and more about intimacy, I faced the possibility that this loneliness I feel is permanent.

This loneliness . . . it is difficult to express without sounding morose and fatalistic, delusional even, given the many and wonderful people in my life, the time I spend with them, and my own relentlessly cheery nature, even in the face of darkness.  But something inside me shifted this year, and I found myself trying to understand intimacy on a deeper level, to confront any obstacles or illusions more bravely so that I can live, if not with a loving partner, then at least more honestly with myself.  At times, in my writing, I reached bigger insights about the love I’ve felt, and I would finish an essay teary, grateful to have the chance to understand what I’ve felt or who I’ve loved differently.  Sometimes, this experience gave me great peace.  Sometimes, it brought back the loss so clearly that the profundity of my errors humbled me—nostalgia means, as Leslie Jamison says, “the twinge of the wound.”  Sometimes, that humility facilitated more vulnerability, and I felt more capable of being more present for others, as with my students; sometimes it made me feel the best any of us can do is simply to give what we can and try not to damage each other too much.

At one point this summer, I realized that the writing of these essays itself had replaced romantic intimacy for me, that I WAS, in fact, in a relationship:  with myself, with these songs. It felt good—but how couldn’t it?  What better way to protect myself from my own heart than to stop giving it to someone?  I was in control of all the conversations, never had to address the needs of another; all the negotiations were always made in good faith because there was only one bargainer in the deal.

Still, rather than read last year as mere retreat, I wanted to honor where I was, to think about how these three albums functioned as all good relationships do:  how they gave me solace and insight, how they wallowed with me, how they moved me into different emotional spaces, revealed alternate possibilities, and how, in the end, they taught me something about myself.  Listening to whole albums is an increasing rarity—at least for me—and having three full albums in a year that mattered . .  . well, maybe you don’t need to be in love to keep learning about it.

Angel Olsen:  Burn Your Fire For No Witness

I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you
I started dancing just to be around you
Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more
I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door

I wanted nothing but for this to be the end
For this to never be a tied and empty hand

If all the trouble in my heart would only end
I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again

It’s not just me for you
I have to look out too
I have to save my life
I need some peace of mind

I am the only one now
I am the only one now
I am the only one now

You may not be around
You may not be around
You may not be around

—“Unfuck the World”

I’d first heard Angel Olsen’s “Forgiven/Forgotten” last summer and bought the album without realizing that song was by far the most optimistic on the whole thing.  “Forgiven / Forgotten” is about two minutes long and I loved it because it was like a cheerful theme song for one of my long-standing problems:  a tendency to continue to take emotional risks, even when it’s been established that there will be no pay-off.

In one of my favorite movies, The Anniversary Party, Kevin Kline and his five year-old daughter reenact the rocky marriage of the couple (Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose anniversary it is:  at one point, he pushes her dramatically away from him, and she walks sadly away, only to turn and rush back, to fling herself back into his only partially extended arms.  I cry every time, identifying with the five year-old.  “Forgiven/Forgotten” went on the last CD I made (and will ever make) the Camp Romance, a last-ditch attempt to forgive someone who didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, who wanted, moreover, to be forgotten. Why did I do it? In “Dance Slow Decades,” Angel Olsen seemed to know:  “I dance because I know this one.”

More recently, I was trying to explain a questionable romantic entanglement to a dear friend and her dear husband, together since they were fifteen.  “I mean, who’s it going to hurt, other than myself?” I said blithely.  Foreheads simultaneously wrinkled, and they looked first at each other, then at me.  “Exactly, honey,” she said.

But the rest of the album isn’t about that—it isn’t about self-destruction, about flinging oneself at all.  It’s not about risk as much as it is accountability:  that quality most essential to a risk, without which a  “risk” is merely carelessness.  It’s an album about facing loneliness and choosing to be oneself.  “If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone / Burn your fire for no witness / it’s the only way it’s done,” Olsen sings in “White Fire.” The Pitchfork review of the album agrees:

“Hi-Five”, the third song on Angel Olsen’s second album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, has got to be one of the most cheerful songs ever written about being lonely. [ . . . ]  “Are you lonely too?” Olsen warbles. A beat later, her band’s back in full Technicolor, and the next line hits like a title card in an old “Batman” episode: “HI-FIVE!/ SO AM I!”

When 2015 began, I was still recovering from the Barback, and I found a new theme song:  “Unfuck the World,” quoted in its entirety at the beginning of this section. It’s the first song on the album, and it sounds like the kind of song a sad girl would write alone in her bedroom.  Since I was a sad girl writing alone in my bedroom, I curled into it like a cat curls into a small space when it’s feeling insecure.

I was suffering to a degree clearly disproportionate to the relationship, feeling an anger I sensed was not about Jason.  And when I heard this song, I knew why.  I really did love the Barback, but I also loved that he seemed ready to give me everything I had wanted . . . with Eli.  Once, in the first month of our three months together, I’d mentioned that even after three years, Eli was never comfortable talking about getting married.  The Barback turned to me.  “How long do you think is rational before we move in together and get engaged?”  I looked up at him, startled.  “Two or three years?” I said, weakly.  “Well, I’m thinking six months to a year,” he responded.  “Eli didn’t know what he had.”  Maybe he didn’t, and maybe the Barback didn’t either, or maybe I’m just that good at inciting the one unpleasant confrontation that will end even the most committed of relationships.  But Angel Olsen knew—she knew what I had.  “I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again.” 

My heart wasn’t just breaking—it was being rebroken, in all the most sensitive places.  My grief over the end of my relationship with Eli had only reached the bargaining stage by the time I met the Barback, and I saw him, his readiness to talk about big things with me, to actively love me enough to want a future with me, as part of the bargain:  maybe if I just make the strong choice, maybe if I break up with Eli even though I love him, I will still find a lover who chooses me without hesitation and get what I want.  “I wanted nothing but for this to be the end.”  

And it wasn’t the end.  The next relationship is not the reward for “doing the right thing” in the last one.  There is no reward.  Maybe there is no right thing.  And that awareness unleashed the next phase of grieving:  anger.  It’s the emotion your friends least want to hear about, the emotion you least want to feel towards someone you once loved most.  But what I learned about anger over the first five months of this last year was that it is a motivator.  In “Enemy,” Olsen gently confronts her own disillusionment and comes to terms with the tricks her own mind has played on her:

I wish it were the same
as it is in my mind
I am lighter on my feet
when I’ve left some things behind

I knew (and still know) the anger I felt was less about either man and more about having to force myself to move forward to face being alone—really, really alone.

And I hate it.  I still hate it, mostly.  I enjoy my own company, and I do meaningful things, but I really am an extrovert, and it’s just not fun for me to have as much alone time as I do.  This essay isn’t going to end with me finding out how much I loved being alone.  The anger has dissipated somewhat, but it’s still there sometimes, although it’s changed directions (why can’t I better appreciate what so many wish they could have—this intimate time with oneself?). I still know I would far rather have a partner than be singing soft songs to myself in my bedroom.  But this album repeated to me, again and again, the soft song that would be more useful to sing:

It’s not just me for you
I have to look out too
I have to save my life
I need some peace of mind

I am the only one now
I am the only one now
I am the only one now

You may not be around
You may not be around
You may not be around

You’d think this would have been obvious—we all die in our own arms, anyway.  But somehow, this was the year in which I really understood that I might not even have someone there near the end and that I might want to start getting used to that idea.  And even though I don’t like it, this awareness feels meaningful.  Again, the Pitchfork review offers me a way to think about this meaning and grow:

Olsen knows too well that dreamers are usually loners. Not that she really minds. If she seems unafraid of—even superhumanly amped about—loneliness, it’s because her songs find an almost beatific peace in solitude. “If you can’t be psyched about your own thoughts,” she said in an interview a few years ago, “Then how are you supposed to have a meaningful interaction with anyone?”

I’m in the process of growing right now, of trying both to be open to emotions as they come, without turning them into dreamy narratives, and to stand up for myself and what feels useful, if not good.  If this year began with track one of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, it seems apt that it has ended with me thinking more about the final track, “Windows.”  After a whole album of confronting oneself and others, Olsen reminds me that all the confrontation is also not just for the sake of self-awareness—it’s so we can feel better.  I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts last year, and some of them were powerful.  The meaningful interactions were there, too.  And I hope I can keep feeling better.

We throw our shadows down
we must throw our shadows down
we live and throw our shadows down
it’s how we get around

What’s so wrong with the light?