The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
A disdainful 20th century music visionary once noted that “when I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking, and talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships” . John Cage – who would have turned 100 this year – saw the convention of relationships in music as tedious and repetitive. But is it? It’s true that most pop records read like pained love stories with a beginning, middle and an end. But it’s also true that love songs have been the basis of artists’ highest commercial and critical success. Why is it that we find heartbreak so captivating, and what makes a good love album?
Recently there has been a lot written on noise and cathartic music, and one of my favourites describes a listen to Real Estate as “a nice nap”. That hits the nail on the head. Listening to the New Jersey band is like walking in a park where the homeless are out of sight and the hedgerows are pruned into immaculate shape. Earlier this year they played at Leeds Brudenell Social Club and the set was as sonically neat as their done up shirts and high school hair. ‘Real Days’ strikes pretty sounds but it’s no legendary record. It’s as light as it is viscerally unambiguous and it features few acoustic contradictions. Compare it to Girls’ ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’, a hangover from Mum issues, girl issues, opiate abuse and what you’d call an all-round cathartic mess, and it becomes clear that pain is conducive to pop.
Then Girls broke up in July of this year, which broaches another moot link between pain and pop. Great albums seem to follow, or be followed, by even greater break-ups. Thanks to its lengthy tour, the success of ‘Unknown Pleasures’ led to Ian Curtis’s split with his wife Deborah; but as a result, Joy Division created the illustrious ‘Closer’. Its opening track takes its name from J G Ballard’s 1970 novel ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, and Ballard’s notion of the death of affect instantly undermines Curtis’s call to “step inside”. That’s spooky, but it’s brilliant, and it’s Curtis’s nod to the change between the two records: his private life has been fissured by fame to become an atrocity exhibition in itself, an exhibition that took the form of a top 10 selling album. The idea’s shared in Radiohead’s 1997 ‘OK Computer’ in which “Airbag” and “Lucky” reference Ballard’s masochistic novel ‘Crash’.
I spent two years living and sharing a wall with a metal head, and as tenants with distinct musical preferences we involved ourselves in a vibrant, relentless and at times invasive two year musical war. We met eyes over two bands –Fleetwood Mac, which he graciously permitted as a group “that my mother listens to”, and Rammstein, who I just about accepted after hearing their tracks in a David Lynch film. Truth is that Fleetwood Mac and Rammstein both had five of six members embroiled in break ups during the production of ‘Rumours’ and ‘Herzeleid’ respectively. In the context of each bands’ genre, their romantic imperfections translated into perfect pop. ‘Rumours’ became the 6th bestselling album in the US and 14th bestselling album in the UK of all time, and ‘Herzeleid’ (‘Heartbreak’) took Rammstein from the underground East-German scene to the heights of international acclaim.
You can’t listen to these two albums without acknowledging their heartsick back stories. Heartbreak happens to everyone but it’s not debilitating in music, and if anything it can bring in huge success. It comes back to the Romantic idea that an artist has to experience something ugly in order to produce a piece of art. It is a sweet notion, but parachuting in poetics runs the risk of agreeing with Bono who mythically said, “with Joy Division, you felt from this singer, beauty was truth and truth was beauty, and theirs was a search for both”. Apart from the misquotation of Keats Bono is more than clutching at straws. With pain comes political protest and with the latter there came punk, and with punk there was the Sex Pistols show at which the Joy Division members did meet. Being surrounded by the ugly makes you search for the beautiful, that’s how the argument goes. Without heartache there would be no ‘Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine, no ‘New Moon’ by Elliott Smith, no ‘Mature Themes’ by Ariel Pink, and probably no ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ by Kanye West.
So what makes a good love album is when the music is born out of contradictions. Mark Richardson realised “how moving music can be when elements from opposite ends of the music/noise spectrum occur at the same time”, and Rammstein and Fleetwood Mac are a good example of that. Noise is exciting because it can be interpreted in many ways. If a band’s heartbroken, chances are that their music won’t be a unified listen. That’s why Real Estate are okay but Girls are excellent.
As for listeners well, Richardson insists that listening to the proto-industrial metal of Lou Reed and its noisy offshoots “is for loners”. Although I can attest to the strength of my aforementioned housemate’s social life – our wall was very thin – I also view Rammstein and that coterie of metal as a sonic stalwart against unpleasant realities. It’s true that a wall of sound can aggressively shield one’s favourite hang-out from the cold outside, and it takes little imagination to translate this into a somewhat embarrassing metaphor for unrequited love. So what, is metal music the best vehicle for a failed love story? No, you don’t have to be hessian to think that “sex is a battle, love is war”, just look at Drake’s “Love and Gunz”: “aim for the heart, battle of the sexes, all’s fair in love and war casualties expected”. Perhaps making music for a living stops you from making it for pleasure. Anyone who’s watched the documentary ‘Don’t Stop’ will vouch for the bitterness of Stevie Nicks thirty-five years on – “Fleetwood Mac is bigger, grander, heavier… and way more tense” – she says, and one can feel that her happiness was lost at the expense of her music. Perhaps John Cage was right, maybe there’s no space for relationships in music. Perhaps being a musician is inherently heart-breaking.