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?

https://youtu.be/0CQSOoFlaxI

 

 

 

 

 

 

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