In Hanya Yanagihira’s novel, A Little Life, the two main characters, nearly life-long best friends, separate the years of their life into specific periods. They give their years names, label them for easy reference: “As [Jude] gets older, he is given, increasingly, to thinking of his life as a series of retrospectives, assessing each season as it passes as if it’s a vintage of wine, dividing years he’s just lived into historical eras: The Ambitious Years. The Insecure Years. The Glory Years. The Delusional Years. The Hopeful Years.” I can’t say I’ve lived long enough to do the same – most of my labeling doesn’t go beyond “The High School Years” or “The College Years” – but if I were to give this year a name, it would be The Year of Loss. Melodramatic? I’ll give you that. And, truthfully, I haven’t suffered much; I haven’t lost, in reality, all that much, especially when compared to others. The fact remains though, that when looking back on the past year, it seems overwhelmingly characterized by losses, small and large.
So yes, loss: my great-grandmother finally passed away after a decade-long descent into immobility and dementia, and my great-uncle, too, passed away (somewhat suddenly, somewhat unexpectedly), only a couple of months after his own mother passed away. And while both deaths affected me in the usual way the deaths of somewhat distant family members do, I’ve also dealt throughout the year with the effects it’s had on my family, particularly my grandmother, who was my great-grandmother’s primary caretaker throughout her years-long sickness and who, obviously, loved her brother deeply. To lose both members of one’s remaining immediate family, to be the last one left, is an emotion I’ve spent the past eight months watching cross my grandmother’s face, watching manifest in her actions—an emotion I’ve spent the past eight months attempting to empathize with and to help with in what small ways I can. Then there was that other loss, in which a relationship of several years folded, seemingly for no compelling reason. Attempting to deal with this loss has been different, a thorough reckoning with myself that has gone on far longer than I ever expected. The dissolution of our relationship marked the loss of my best friend, someone who I quite literally grew up with and who made me who I am today through the sometimes subtle, sometimes huge, but ever-significant ways that a prolonged, intimate connection shapes the two connected. The end of our relationship also meant the loss of an anticipated future I had thought and felt firmly established. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about how a person becomes a “home” for someone, how one can embody or represent all the feelings often associated with home: contentment, security, connection, excitement, love. In the past six months, I have often felt like I have lost a home. I can think of no other way to say it.
It should come as no surprise then that most of the albums that have left an indelible mark on me this year – those albums and songs that, as Craig Finn puts it, “get so scratched into our souls” – all deal with loss, whether it be the oblivion of death or the dissolution of love. Either/or, these albums are examinations of being both inside that loss and outside of it: they examine the raw pain of the moment and the numbness of accounting that comes later, when you realize you’ve been left behind.
If you were to look closely at my favorite albums of the year, you would probably notice that I have a strong affinity for albums driven by personal, highly-allusive lyrics about death. Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’ album about the death of his mother, as well as his life-long estranged relationship with her, has an emotional intensity unlike many other albums I’ve heard, due almost entirely to the intimacy of Stevens’ lyrics. With the backing music cut down, for the most part, to a single guitar, Stevens’ voice is hushed, whispering words that have the intimacy of a religious confession. (Indeed, the songs on C&L were billed in the initial press release as “modern hymn[s]”) In “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” he sings, “There’s blood on that blade/Fuck me, I’m falling apart/My assassin, like Casper the ghost/There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross,” with the song as a whole discussing Stevens’ (or the narrator’s) drug abuse and inability to find solace in religion. Yet Stevens complicates the confessional mode he’s working in by layering his songs with allusions to Greek mythology and the Christian faith. The chorus of “The Only Thing,” for instance, consists almost entirely of a reference to the blinding of Oedipus, the patron saint of complicated maternal relations: “Should I tear my eyes out now?/Everything I see returns to you somehow.” “Drawn to the Blood” alludes to the story of Samson and Delilah, with Stevens saying, “Delilah/Avenge my grief.” Such references transform Carrie & Lowell from a typically “raw” confessional record from a singer-songwriter into something more complex, something more literary, allowing listeners the opportunity to analyze and to contemplate, while maintaining a pathos that is deeply affecting.
I use Carrie & Lowell as an example because, well, many of my other favorite albums of the year are similar in their subject matter while remaining unique in their reference points and overall sound. mewithoutYou’s Pale Horses explores grief through a mixture of simple, direct lines (“I said, ‘If you can change your shape that easily, can you take the form of my dead father? Because I think he would’ve liked to meet my wife. And I know for a fact that he would’ve liked my wife.”) and elaborate—Melvillian, one could say—passages of elusive language hung over with a heavy veil of strange imagery (“May our lips remain discreet while your traps are beneath our feet—But how long before our tails are caught by our ‘free’ thought?” . . . “I was the ISIS flag design; You were the Lilac Queen.”).
Then too there was the even more elusive songs of Hop Along’s Painted Shut, an album one could attempt to analyze and chase meaning in but that is probably better off just being felt. Is Painted Shut about loss? Sure. Maybe. It’s about a lot of other things too—like control, self-identity, and heartbreak. What has kept me coming back to Painted Shut, though, is, as so many have pointed out before me, Frances Quinlan’s voice: a raw, scraggly thing that can’t be contained. Or maybe it’s the emotion behind it—in it—that can’t be contained, that finds voice in her melodic contortions. Contortions. That’s the word. As if a pain is trying to find compartment, an easy settling, but ultimately can’t. (I’m continually moved by the moment near the end of “Horseshoe Crabs,” in which Quinlan sing-screams in the background, “What have they done/with my jealous one?” It’s a moment of pure melodic expression that soars in the awkward manner that only Quinlan’s vocals can soar and one that seems to say everything necessary simply in its ascension.) Painted Shut feels continually unsettled, seeming to suggest in its overall mood and its small eruptions that pain is never really fully contained but is ever-present, left ongoing in the background. Maybe that’s why that moment on “Horseshoe Crabs” affects me so much: because it embodies that idea so well.
“Contortions” is also a word I’ve seen used in regard to another major album of the year for me, Joanna Newsom’s Divers. At this point, most people (i.e. that would be reading this post) know what to expect with Newsom’s music: mainly her unique voice, lush musical arrangements, and the dense narratives spinned in her lyrics. Divers is worth a post in its own right, so I’ll simply note that Newsom’s examination of time and love (“Love is not a symptom of time/Time is just a symptom of love”) is, like all of her albums, something that takes time: it’s an album that’s sunk in ever so slowly over the past few months and that, I feel, will continue to do so as I age. What a feeling, isn’t it? To know not only that you’re listening to something you’ll still be listening to in several years but that it will only become more and more affecting with time’s passage. I’ve continued to think about a snippet from an interview Newsom did with Uncut, in which she talks about the intermingling of love and death, the relevance of which, given the preceding 1300 words, should be obvious: “When I crossed that line in my mind where I knew I was with the person that I wanted to marry, it was a very heavy thing, because you’re inviting death into your life. You know that that’s hopefully after many, many, many, many years, but the idea of death stops being abstract, because there is someone you can’t bear to lose . . . It contains death inside of it, and then that death contains love inside of it.” Newsom is a noted perfectionist, as you can hear in every second of her music, and Divers strikes me as the opposite of the aforementioned Painted Shut, in that Divers attempts to perfectly contain or embody ideas about time, love, and death (for example, much has been made about the circular nature of the album’s beginning and ending). That Newsom pulls it off is a testament to her ability as a songwriter and musician, even if what she does goes against the fragmented nature of life, love, death, and grief. As it is with those perfectly realized novels—as opposed to those messy, digressive ones like Moby-Dick, 2666, Infinite Jest, and so on—sometimes in finding an expression of something so perfectly realized, one derives even greater comfort in confronting the mess.
All of which brings me to the two albums that have defined my year, the two poles at opposite ends: Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear and Majical Cloudz’ Are You Alone?
I Love You, Honeybear is about love. Honeybear is also an album “about” self-awareness, about cynicism in the face of the modern world, about self-loathing, and about acknowledging the utter cliché of “true love” while at the same time acknowledging the utter truth of it. It’s a love album written in the vein of a crasser David Foster Wallace. Everyone talks about the humor of Misty’s (Tillman’s?) lyrics, and it’s true that many of these songs are funny, but what struck me from the first listen of Honeybear is how clearly you can see an actual heart behind the cynicism and reflexive irony. In its opening tracks, Honeybear captures the exuberance of being in love before transitioning into a set of songs that lay bare the anxieties that come with it: not just the possibility that someone else could take your love away (“Nothing Good Ever Happens . . .”) but that you yourself aren’t worthy of it. The latter is a sentiment throbbing beneath the lovesick lyrics of “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” (“You see me as I am, it’s true/aimless, fake drifter, and the horny manchild mama’s boy to boot”) and the asshole posturing presented without comment in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” but which reaches its peak and purest expression in “The Ideal Husband,” the lyrics of which are a litany of self-professed failures and weaknesses, anxieties and fears. Maybe it’s this part of Honeybear that moves me most. I am nothing if not profoundly self-aware (as we all are), and I see myself—my own failures and weaknesses, anxieties and fears—in this song. I can identify with Tillman’s self-consciousness, the feeling that one is totally unworthy of being loved by the one they love most. I first listened to Honeybear as I entered the midpoint of a five-year relationship with a woman I wanted to spend my life with. There’s a certain comfort, a deep one, that comes with being with someone for that long (and I’m not including the two years we “dated” off and on): a comfort that comes from knowing that you are accepted as you are—or maybe just dealt with at times, although even being dealt with can be gracious in its own way—and the knowledge that that acceptance is more than can be expected. That only a few people you meet in your life will truly see you as you are and accept that. It’s funny how I’ve come to relate to this album over the past six months. I no longer feel inside it as I once did, as if it so perfectly expressed so much of what I felt about myself; about her; about my life, really. I listen to it now, and it still moves me but not as it once did. I listen to my favorite song, “Holy Shit,” and think about how the repeated refrain—“Oh, and no one ever knows the real you and life is brief/So I’ve heard, but what’s that gotta do with this atom bomb in me?”—and the last verse capture much of what I feel about love: “Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty/What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?/Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity/What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.”
But instead of feeling like an expression, it now feels like a reminder, something telling me: “Hey, you once had that too.”
So if Honeybear details the joy of falling and being in love, then Are You Alone? is the aftermath—not the immediate one but the abiding one—of losing it. Built around gently looping beats and synth patterns, Are You Alone? is defined by its atmosphere: a deeply melancholic, meditative space. Space, to me, is one of the defining characteristics of the album; listening to it throughout October and onward, particularly while running or walking around late at night, was more like entering a headspace than listening to music. I’ve heard people describe this album as “sad” or “depressing,” but there is a distinction between “depressing” and “melancholic” that, to me, is incredibly important when discussing this album. Are You Alone? is not an emotionally raw album, but it is an emotionally forward one. Putting this album on and hearing Devon Welsh’s emotive tenor and considering his even more emotive lyrics—lyrics that read like poetic conversation—became a home to me, a world in itself that I came to for comfort. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of albums-as-worlds: albums like Kid A; The Age of Adz; Clarity; For Emma, Forever Alone; Ravedeath 1972; and on and on. Running through the streets and considering that other “home” I once had, I often felt overwhelmed by how Are You Alone? eerily echoed my thoughts and feelings.
Even that title—Are You Alone? It was an invitation to confront my situation—because I had and have never felt more alone—and an invitation to find comfort. Because if the answer to that question is “no,” then I can’t help but think that this album was not made for you. There are simply times in one’s life where an album comes along and changes you, not because it presents you with anything new but because it presents you with the perfect sound, the perfect words to parallel the moment in life in which you are present. I realize that I’ve barely talked about the music or the lyrics, but maybe that’s too hard. Maybe something can affect you so much that it throws echoes down inside you, and there is simply nothing you can say but that: “This means everything to me.” And for a time, the stark sounds and the diaristic words—almost all of which seem to be about loving someone, losing someone, and living with the effects of each—meant everything to me.
So when I think of this year, I think of two songs: the aforementioned “Holy Shit” and the emotional apex of Are You Alone?, “If You’re Lonely.” “If You’re Lonely” is a simple song, but it’s also a profoundly affecting one, simply for how much it corresponded to my situation. I suspect it is a song that most people could relate to. I played this song on a loop for the first couple of weeks after I first listened to the album. If ever a song could get “scratched into your soul,” this was the one for me. It became a comfort in the way that only a few songs do in one’s life, and it allowed me to reflect on where I was while it also moved me to do something about it and to realize what good things I did have in my life, even in the absence of the best thing in my life.
“One summer I fell in love
For the first time
It would change my whole life
I would learn to love someone
And not be alone
So slowly the love went away
And I was frozen
I didn’t want to lose that love
I didn’t want to leave behind
Part of myself
I was lonely
But I felt afraid of being loved
I thought I didn’t need the pain
I thought that in my heart
I had to be on my own
Now I see it
I was wrong to feel that I couldn’t feel love
That I couldn’t love again
That I couldn’t make new friends
And be someone new
So if you’re lonely
You don’t have to be
No one has to be that way
No one has to be afraid of being loved.”
So with December 2015 fast approaching its end, I find myself hanging onto the promise of January 1st. For the first time in probably my whole life, I can profoundly relate to the metaphorical hope embodied by the end of a year: the hope of “turning a new page” and of shedding the calcified habits and self-criticisms enabled by the events of one shitty year. Although I know that, in reality, nothing much will change, I still find myself hoping (and have been hoping, for several months now) that when that morning finally comes, I will be able to not only continue the process of renewal and exploration that I’ve felt driving me these past twelve months, the process of attempting to better myself in the myriad ways I can be better, but also to just maybe take action on the words of “If You’re Lonely”—words I’ve repeated to myself these past six months like a mantra—and “be someone new.” Here’s to hoping.