We Never Complete the Rounds
249 · 4 November 99
Trembling Blue Stars: Dark Eyes
Last year wasn't that long ago, but I can scarcely remember how I used to live. I added a purchase-date column to my record-collection database in 1989, so a graph of my purchases per year, through the Nineties, is easy to produce. A graph, in fact, would be overkill, given the simplicity of the number sequence: 101, 159, 233, 345, 493, 648, 468, 562, 527. Smooth the line out a little, and it shows me having settled into an excessive, but manageable, groove of ten or eleven new things per week. Many of those I'd play once, nod at politely, and then shelve, but there was always a pile beside the player of discs I was still hoping to understand better, or records I just couldn't bear to let out of high rotation yet. The pile might grow past a dozen, or shrink towards a handful, but only a couple times a year, when I went on the periodic used-record-store binge, buying anything cheap anybody had ever mentioned to me, did the pile briefly become two. And only during the strangest, most hectic weeks would one Tuesday reach me before I'd listened to everything from the previous Tuesday at least once. There never seemed to be any real danger of running out of things to learn, but the pressures inside and outside of my ignorance had reached a comfortable equilibrium.
And then, unexpectedly, during a routine investigation of one in the endless series of half-registered pop songs, my musical life reached the end of its patience with this illusion of control. It twitched an obscure muscle, escaped my grasp, and disappeared into a gap where I didn't know there was even a between. "September's Not So Far Away", by the Field Mice, turned out to be my portal into another world, like Harry Potter's platform nine and three-quarters, and although I don't enter it as an unwitting celebrity, the way Harry did, a piece of me shares his sense of sudden belonging, of finally breathing correct air, of being handed, at last, the first lexicon of the language in which my subjective truths are most effortlessly expressed. The analogy isn't quite right, of course, because the Muggles' world Harry leaves and the wizards' world he enters endeavor not to intersect, and the Field Mice don't oppose Big Country in anything like the same way. The music I knew about and the music I've just discovered aren't two different worlds, they're a single world twice as big as I'd assumed, a universe whose borders merely flee me at a higher rate, from an earlier start. I gulp back vertigo and try to catch up in a burst. So far, it's not working. Where there was once a single pile, over by my player, I am now surrounded. A quick pile census: To my left, tonight's potential subjects (pile one) and the past subjects I have yet to shelve (pile two). Between my keyboard and screen, two piles (three and four) of back-catalog discs I'm in no hurry to deal with. To my right, the corner of my desk is now entirely occupied by three piles of things I've listened to and might want to write about (five, six, seven), two piles of new stuff I haven't listened to yet (eight, nine), one odd pile of Black Bean and Placenta Tape Club clearance stuff and Meat Puppets reissues (ten), a pile of old albums by bands whose new albums I liked (eleven), a pile of new albums I didn't like so much, but want to listen to again before I give up (twelve) and a pile of Sarah Records discs and related material (thirteen). On top of my tape deck is a small pile of abstract instrumental music (fourteen), and beside it are a stack of assorted CDRs (fifteen), the pile of Ida and Secret Stars albums (sixteen), a short pile of Lucksmiths and related Australian discs (seventeen), and a taller pile of Orange Juice and Wedding Present albums (eighteen). On the shelf with my CD players are piles for Riot Grrl relatives (nineteen) and old Parasol releases (twenty). The shelf under my turntable has two piles of recent CD singles (twenty-one, twenty-two) and nearly the complete works of Peter and Graeme Jefferies (twenty-three). On the floor is a forlorn pile of things people sent me for free (twenty-four). In front of my boxes of LPs are four stacks of seven-inch singles I've listened to (one for Harriet, one for Sarah, one for other things I liked, one for other things I didn't; twenty-five through twenty-eight), one of singles I haven't (twenty-nine), and another pile of unplayed ten- and twelve-inch singles and LPs (thirty). And around the corner are one pile of LPs I've listened to but don't have room to store (thirty-one) and another of LPs I've replaced with CDs but can't bear to get rid of and don't have room to store (thirty-two). The average size of these piles is somewhere around twenty, so put together they hold more than a year of music, by my old standard. I had hit my annual quota, this year, by the end of March, passed my record by the end of April. I insist, stubbornly, that I will absorb it all, that the curve has crested, or it's about to, really soon, but looking at the numbers it's not at all clear that's true. Maybe I can't catch up. Maybe the world, even with all the boundaries my relatively narrow tastes impose, is simply too large for me to understand as much of it as I wish to. Or maybe I can run in thirty-two directions at once, but just not fast enough. We'll see. There's no hopeless quest I'd rather pursue.
And in certain directions, I'm making unmistakable progress. After I stumbled across the Field Mice I set out to collect everything Sarah Records made, and of the four hundred and eighty-eight songs that Sarah's "everything" represents, ten months later I'm down to twenty-seven missing. I keep getting outbid on eBay for one of the Northern Picture Library singles, I don't have the flexis by Another Sunny Day and Blueboy, and I'm waiting for K to reissue Heavenly Vs. Satan. One Sugargliders b-side has eluded me, as have three Field Mice songs that weren't on Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way?, and the 14 Iced Bears single and The Sound of the Hit Parade must be really good, because nobody ever wants to sell their copies. Compared to everything else that towers around me, though, the history of Sarah Records is encouragingly succinct. If there weren't so much side-flipping, and you didn't sleep, you could listen to it all in a single day. There are no new Sarah records, so in time I will internalize them all. I sat here, one day in January, holding Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way? in my hands, locked in a dizzy fugue, like a cross between the final voiceover in American Beauty and one of those rogue Star Trek computers Kirk's about to trick into exploding its own brain, wondering where all this unbearably frail and beautiful music could possibly have come from. The long answer may be unformable, but the short one, at least, I'll soon know.
Of course, Sarah Records is finite in only the official sense. At least half of its bands still exist, in one guise or another, and several of them record for Shinkansen, Sarah's successor. Trembling Blue Stars are basically the Field Mice, and "Dark Eyes", the title track of this EP, is like every Field Mice song, every Sarah song, every heartbreaking pop song ever written, all condensed into four minutes. A keyboard whirs softly, an acoustic guitar glitters, sketchy bongos give way to quiet drum-machine click, a bass purrs a melody of its own, and Bob Wratten and Annemari Davies' voices swirl around each other, gliding from harmony to counterpoint. This is mood music for a fifth season we don't have on this planet, the hope of spring and the resignation of autumn merging without summer or winter intervening, permanent transition without a from or to. In America we never let pop music admit to this much frailty or self-awareness; imagine Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" without the boys, the girl, the car, the sunglasses or the sunlight, nothing but the faint warmth of their recent presence and the glow of their imminent return; imagine a Hallmark card without a single word or image, the message expressed in the texture of the paper. "Dark Eyes" is a love song, but as was usually the case with Sarah, it is a love song as monologue, less a story of desire and relief than a catalog of the flaws our aspirations reveal. There is always a sense in which the girl is incidental. In "Dark Eyes", in fact, the girl doesn't even exist (or she's at once Annemari and not-Annemari, the singers' past real-life history suggesting an extra layer). I take the meaning to be doubly obscure: love songs are beautiful; but the fact that we sing love songs is pathetic; but embracing pathos is magnificent. The narrator doesn't cower in his shyness, he caresses it, as if he's running his hand along the walls of a doorless room, appreciating their seamlessness as architecture even as the oxygen level drops. All honest art, it seems to me for a moment, is about solitude. "Dark Eyes", "Ana Ng" and "I Melt With You" each state the same truth, but Modern English didn't notice that their song was complete without a response, and They Might Be Giants pretended they were joking. The act of listening, itself, is about solitude, which must be why rock concerts often seem more like sports than music, to me. Communication is your attempt to apply my self-analysis to yourself, and vice versa. "Dark Eyes" scares me because the narrator can't decide whether he remains alone because he can't bring himself to go out and meet people, or eschews extroversion because he knows it's pointless, and I understand the dilemma perfectly. Romance faces a Heisenberg problem: it's impossible to both pursue a person and discern accurately whether they're worth pursuing. We sit at home wishing a non-existent girl would knock on our door because if we leave the house to look for her, we become something other than ourselves, become an avatar whose judgment we don't trust. And if she's our soulmate, she faces the same dilemma, so obviously she can't come knock. Watching the door not vibrate gets boring, after a while, so we go upstairs and take advantage of the quiet to play electric guitar without plugging it in.
So start here, if you haven't the patience for history. Pop is infinite, but it recapitulates its own legacies constantly, so really you can begin with any song. Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way? has three dozen, and this EP has only four, but one of the many things I've learned from Sarah (and should have remembered from Bach) is that four can be the perfect length. "A Slender Wrist" is the courante, with "Ticket to Ride"-ish guitar flourishes and fond Matthew Sweet jangle; "Her World Beneath the Waves" is becalmed and incandescent; and "Half in Love With Leaving", after an intimate guitar-and-voice introduction (with Annemari's backing vocals sounding sampled and unconnected, like he's singing with the memory of her), adds strings and swells towards a farewell struck dumb by the grandeur of ends. There's a continuum, in art, whether the market supports it or not, between images and novels, and part of Sarah's essential genius was Matt and Clare's cognizance that the leap from single to album bypassed a level of structure for which pop songs are actually incredibly well-suited. There are lots of Sarah songs that don't sound like this, but not many that don't share these songs' spirit, vulnerable and defiant, overthought and understated, desperate and patient. If rock often blurs the distinction between life and wish-fulfillment, aspiring to hedonism (or wanting you to think it does, or thinking you want it to want you to think it does), then Sarah songs, under whatever banner they travel, are a sparkly variant of Zen, aesthetic and ascetic, like perfect nourishment from ice cream. Calling this music "pop" is surreptitious dissidence, its apparent evanescence a coy test to see if we remember how to handle anything so brittle and precious. These are meticulously sad songs for producing exquisite teardrops, themes for extricating ourselves from both discontent and complacency, gyroscopes for demonstrating that the difference between escape and surrender is all a matter of perspective. If it were really a quest I am on, it could end here. Pop songs accomplish a hundred other things, and I could probably explain half the esoteric distinctions, but not why I care, or why you should.
But these piles of CDs around me aren't there because I'm looking for a ticket to Willy Wonka's. I'm not seeking a truth, I'm collecting them. They probably run out, eventually, but so will I; pick your race, this is mine. Shinkansen isn't exactly Sarah. There are Sarah antecedents for Cody, too (the Field Mice or the Orchids in their electronic modes, Boyracer's buzz, Shelley's slick synth-pop, anybody whose boyish singing-voice is forever teetering on the brink of falsetto), but this EP, another four songs, is the first Shinkansen release that feels like part of a new story, to me, musically ambitious where Sarah preferred artlessness, dramatic where Sarah would have been plaintive. "Rounder" itself sends waves of surging, Chameleons-like guitar crashing over precise, splattering, double-speed drum-machine loops, and ends up somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and drum-and-bass. "Cuts and Grazes" is jittery and urgent, parts of it sounding like I imagine a Yaz demo with Clarke singing the vocals himself would, other parts howling like a wounded Trans Am (the band, not the car). "Ordinance" plays the delicacy of Trembling Blue Stars and Everything but the Girl against hints of Bowie, New Order and Gardening by Moonlight, and arrives at a synthesis that could, in an alternate universe where Jim Kerr hated stadiums, be where the Simple Minds headed instead of New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) and its successors, extrapolating the style of their spiky early albums towards shimmery electro-pop instead of anthemic bombast, not sacrificing tension for scale. And the bouncy "Pipistrelle", with its sighing organ and sketchy acoustic guitar, but frenetic rhythm and insistent electric hum, makes me think, for what I'm pretty sure is the first time, that there's a way to get from Low to Thought Industry without traversing the entirety of Western popular music.
And although Dark Eyes and Rounder seem to have very different bases for claiming my attention, Dark Eyes a compact encyclopedia of emotional resonances, a memento from a year of feeling overwhelmed and a signpost that marks, perhaps, the point after which each day won't find me more confused than the last (at least on this constrained topic), Rounder a synopsis of nothing in particular, a mutation instead of a culmination, a record that delights me in part because I don't know whether it will lead me to three others or a hundred -- although one seems to encapsulate my psyche and the other merely intrigues me, which sounds like an intractable imbalance, I've had them alternating in my playlist for a while, and they coexist without any apparent strain. These pairs find each other, I think. Songs that affect me the way "Dark Eyes" does are both seductive and dangerous, like Harry's Mirror of Erised (and the Ring of Power, and every other honest mythic artifact, since anything that produces power has to also consume it), and allowing one to envelop me is both instructive (the only way, in fact, to learn anything from it) and risky. Songs like Cody's are lifelines, incursions of simple charm into the gloom of ominous significance, reminders that blocking out every distraction other than these perfect four minutes isn't the goal. Distractions are productive. Without tangents you have no space, and isn't movement a compromise between stopping and starting? The most remarkable thing, perhaps, is that pop songs can do both, reassure and excite, arrest and encourage. Or maybe that isn't remarkable at all. A paragraph can be a précis or a proposal, after all. All pop songs have to do is gleam and chime; context can supply the rest. If I were living this life in the other order, Rounder would be the redolent reminder of all the music like it I haven't discovered yet, and Dark Eyes would be the first glimmering hint, probably only understood in retrospect, that everything I know is about to change.