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GUEST POST: A Ballad for the Good Times.

Since I’ve been posting my ongoing ascent into sanity post-breakup, I’ve had some lovely/intense feedback from people in the same boat.

Honestly. I write the breakup posts so I can laugh at myself and make light of it, but I’m surprised to say my cockles have been truly warmed by the response they’ve had so far. So, massively, thank you.  As a special treat, here’s a piece by a Guest Writer, who wishes to remain anonymous (what am I, a helpline?)

Here you go. Enjoy.

by Anonymous

The more you play a record, the more it changes. Think about it; every time you listen to a piece of vinyl, you’re slowly hearing it physically disintegrate as the needle scratches over the disc. And when you hear a song enough times, its original meaning slowly gets lost, like a never-ending telephone game. You put yourself into it, and it takes on whatever form you want it to have.

“Every day I’m digging a hole. I’ll probably climb out when I’m ready but the climbing is slow…” Mac McCaughan ‘Real Darkness’

I’m currently two weeks into a breakup. We’re still living together – for the time being – but we’ve managed to subconsciously engineer a Sliding Doors type scenario where, when one of us is in, the other’s out most of the time. It’s not great for sorting out logistical stuff like…y’know…when we’re going to actually move out, but it’s not a bad way to help process things. Like the fact I’m no longer with the person I’ve been with for five years, and leaving the city I’ve lived in for eight.

In the first few days, all I could bring myself to listen to was the odd song here and there – nothing with too much meaning or significance, just something to fill my ears. Mainly, though, I was catching  up on podcasts. Shows like Comedy Bang Bang and Spontaneanation With Paul F. Tompkins were perfect – improvised, ephemeral and, most importantly, fucking funny. They passed the time, but in the best way possible.

All through that time, though, the prospect of actually finding some music I could bring myself to listen to was the hardest thing. I tried record shopping a couple days after, but all I could think was “Whatever I buy is going to define me for the next however-many-weeks.” Too loaded, too much, too soon. It didn’t take too long to settle on lyrically-ambiguous nineties indie rock – my bread and butter; the messy sprawl of bands like Built to Spill and Guided By Voices filled the void without saying too much. But it didn’t take long before I wanted an actual message to latch on to.

In the end, I realised I wanted something new – something that didn’t already come loaded with its own baggage or associations. Something that I could make my own, on my own.

Two profiles:

Blur
My favourite band in the world on-and-off for about the last twenty years. Graham Coxon remains the one person I would most like to be for a day, given the chance. 13, the 1999 album written in the wake of Damon’s split from Justine Frischmann, has been daring me to listen to it for the last fortnight. I have not given in.
Go-to album: The Great Escape – Blur’s 1994 was so busy, I don’t understand where Damon found the time to get into heroin and fall into severe depression before writing this. TGE is the most artificially-happy sounding album ever made – glossy, shiny and almost offensively under the influence of Prozac. Can’t think why I thought it would help, but it kinda does.

Superchunk
I stacked up my Superchunk records by the stereo when I was craving meaninglessness, forgetting just how perceptive and reassuring Mac McCaughan’s lyrics can be. For the uninitiated – imagine an American equivalent of the Wedding Present, but with a little less scorn. Playing Foolish – written and recorded in 1994, in the throes of Superchunk’s lead singer and bassist breaking up – provided some much needed catharsis the other night.
Go-to album: Here’s to Shutting Up – after nearly fifteen years of relentless recording and touring, Shutting Up was the last album Superchunk would make for nine years. You can tell. Almost every song is about anonymous travel, long-distance relationships (the lyrics to ‘Phone Sex’ may be some of the most crushing ever penned) and reassessing why to even bother anymore. It sounds almost deliriously tired. Comfortingly so.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about.

“This is a ballad for the good times…” Blur ‘Battery in Your Leg’

All of this is a long way of saying that the two records that I know I’ll forever associate with…whatever this is are The Magic Whip by Blur, and Non-Believers by Mac McCaughan. For all my questing for something totally new to soundtrack these past weeks, it’s telling that what I’ve resorted to most is new records by people I’ve loved for years.

Oddly, they’re polar opposites, when you think about it. The Magic Whip, Blur’s first full album as a quartet in sixteen years, is shiny, hyper-produced, and rooted in one specific place – Hong Kong. Non-Believers is Mac’s first solo album under his own name, after over 25 years in Superchunk; it’s lo-fi, home-recorded, and casts a misty eye back on his teenage years growing up in the mid-eighties.

I have never been to Hong Kong. I wasn’t even alive in the mid-eighties. So what is it about these records that I’ve been so drawn to? Well, remember eight hours ago when you were reading that first paragraph? It’s that.

Both records are impossibly specific, but I’ve managed to put myself into them in my own selfish way. A song like ‘Lonesome Street’ is the only real London song on The Magic Whip, and it’s one I’ve held very dear since I first heard it. I may never need to take “the 5:14 to East Grinstead” when I go back home (I sure hope I don’t), but when Damon sings “you’ll have to go on the underground to get things done here,” it reminds me that I can forge a new future in an old place. That you can go home again.

And just hearing Graham and Damon singing together again – on ‘Lonesome Street’, the drifting melody Coxon props up behind the stately chorus of ‘Pyongyang’ – there’s hope there. If those two crazy kids can patch things up and get along, anyone can.

As for Non-Believers, there’s not much separating it from I Hate Music, the most recent Superchunk album. Although it’s a pretty romantic record, it never sounds patronising – at least not to me at this moment in time. There’s a very specific comfort to the album, and nostalgia abounds. The whole record is built on vintage synths, crudely-programmed drum machines and oh-so-eighties guitar sounds. Every time I listen to it, I hear different parts of my record collection – oh, there’s The Clean, there’s New Order, there’s ‘Sound and Vision’ – almost to the point where it becomes a game. It makes sense that the more I listen to it, the more distant it will get from itself –“faded,” as Mac sings on ‘Barely There’, “like this road trip photo from 1989.”

The two songs I keep returning to on Non-Believers appeal to both sides of my brain. It may be as much of a “you-and-me-girl-against-the-world” song as ‘Born to Run’, but ‘Only Do’ still gives me a boost when I feel myself slipping. When Mac sings “You can sit around here on the couch with the rest of this lot,” I feel caught out and embarrassed, but it’s a shame which lifts when the chorus rolls around – “There is no try – there is only do.”

And ‘Real Darkness’…well, that’s the other side of the coin. As drifting and airborne as the Cocteau Twins at their best, it’s also the most perfectly-realised lyric about depression and that I can think of right now. You know when you were an annoying teenager, and you’d pull out specific parts of your favourite songs to let the world know that really it was ALL ABOUT YOU? You know, like I have been…uh…all through this essay? I don’t think ‘Real Darkness’ is like that. It hits home because it’s vague. It’s not self-centred – it’s realistic.

“Now family, friends and strangers,” McCaughan sings in the bridge, “will lift your chin and go…”

Here, Mac’s voice leaps a beautiful, breathy octave – “’Smile, kid, smile’ until you know.”

He pauses. “Until you know…”

Another pause. Then the chorus. Three notes, two words: “Real darkness, real darkness, real darkness.”

If it had come out thirty years ago, this would have soundtracked a John Hughes scene, in which Molly Ringwald pined over some boy. It would have been the part of that imaginary movie.

“I believe that music in the long run can straighten out most things…” Saint Etienne ‘Finisterre’

Sometimes I feel like I’m too old to let music affect me this way; like this is the kind of thing I should have left behind when I started doing my own laundry and wearing shirts to work. But that’s how breakups are. You start from scratch – by force or by choice – and rebuild yourself from the ground up. You’re a teenager again, and everything’s to play for.

It’s been a long time since I’ve inhabited albums like I’ve lived inside The Magic Whip and Non-Believers. Eventually, I know I’ll leave these records behind, like I did with the music that defined me as a teenager. But I’m excited for a few years down the line, when I’ll dig these albums out of an even bigger stack than is currently waiting to be boxed up in my front room, and remember the uncertainty and promise of the weeks behind and the months ahead. I’m looking forward to looking back.

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