Awake When We Should Be Sleeping
470 · 29 January 04
My Favorite: The Happiest Days of Our Lives
I know these people. "Why I could not touch her, why we had to just watch films instead", he sighs, and I know both of them.
It is his doom to fall in love, of course. Most dooms are of this form. His particular doom is to fall in love with someone who has externalized their conception of romance, or possibly had it torn out of them and then glued back onto their skin. He has fallen in love with someone who knows what love is, and still believes that it is the center of meaningful existence, but who has lost the ability to participate in it. And so she loses the ability to participate in her own inner life, and maybe even loses track of the idea that her inner life should be inside of her. And he loves her enough to accept, at least for a time, the terms of her company. Probably her boundaries are even part of the appeal, at first, while her devotion to romance can be misconstrued as a capacity for it. A shared understanding of intimacy feels like a profound commonality, and should be one. His failure, then, because his doom is his responsibility at least as much as hers, is in accepting her terms too fully. I understand that, too. I understand the slow gravity of her alienation. By the time he could know what damage she has suffered, it could easily be too late for the relationship logic to be contradicted in part without being rejected in whole. If you watch enough movies together without touching (and especially if you call them "films"), you will reach a point where touching is no longer responsive. He has become an audience for her loneliness, and thus complicit in it. Now they are lonely at once, which is not the same as together at all.
But I know her, too. I know what it feels like to know more stories than you've lived. Isn't that the point of stories? I think of a thousand story-references a day, flashes in my physical reality that evoke moments from songs or movies or books. My internal narrative of my emotional life is largely a sample-collage, and to the extent that we apprehend in schemata what we perceive in atoms, it must be partly true to say that these stories mediate my awareness. So it's painfully easy for me to imagine having let myself fall deep enough into my collection of other people's epiphanies that I could no longer recognize my own. I have lived along that exact trajectory. Maybe it's a form of living suicide, but then loneliness hurts, and one way out of the pain is to replace the person in your own stories with people who aren't as lonely. Story characters can only reach you as much as you let them, and with stories you have the grand luxury (as you never do in your life) to defer your commitment decision until you see how things end. So I understand how you could enter into personal relationships so guardedly that you end up recruiting co-sufferers. I can't see how such a relationship could remain stable in its suspension, but of course it doesn't have to to accomplish its harm, it just has to resist collapse long enough for the other person to give up. "Laying in the gutter, looking up at the stars like an idiot", he says, "Waiting for the bomb to drop". After a while it's easy to imagine that if you stay, you have to accept her idea that the bomb is coming, and it's not worth the risk that believing will make it true. And so her waiting defends her, from the bomb that isn't coming and from everyone that is.
"(a tragedy)", the album's subtitle reads, and although its zoetrope portrait is nominally of Jeanne d'Arc, she's only obliquely an icon of the tragedy of writing a self-narrative that excludes you. The real subjects are the kids with whom her stubborn obliteration resonates. "Nostalgia for meaningful things is all I've ever known", Andrea Vaughn chirps on the title track, her character perfectly missing the self-contradiction in this declaration. The dancers in "Homeless Club Kids" look beautiful and indivisible, and she's there to share their anonymous safety. "Asleep when we should be dancing", she and Michael Grace Jr. lament in "The Suburbs Are Killing Us", when even anonymous dancing is too much contact, and "a pathetic mythology is better than no mythology at all", and they should never have let those become the only options. "Alone in your dorm trying to stay warm, you're scared of the words that you might write if you stay in again tonight", they sympathize in "L=P", the title equation abbreviating "Loneliness is pornography to them, but to us it is an art", precisely the characters' emotional premise and their essential error. "I was an architect, she was an actress", they sing in "Burning Hearts", pouring themselves into roles. "White roses for blue girls, grey days for the detectives", they categorize in a suicide poem, outlining abstracts in colors. "I went to your room and I laid in your bed and I looked out your window, back towards my house", Michael wheezes through mesh in "John Dark (Goodnight, Major Tom)", continuing the permanent-yearning story from the Field Mice's "Emma's House" and My So-Called Life and a hundred other fixations on idealized childhood crushes. "We spent the summer in his room... / Feverish and celibate, listening to the black cassette." "It's never like the books you've read." "I am the pictures on my wall, and then I am nothing." "The halls were crawling with vampires, because after your shelf life expires you're not a kid, you're a monster." And, because Morrissey was a master at this, "At a seaside home for convalescence, I took his name in vain during piano lessons."
But phrases could be a chapbook of this tragedy, and this album is more. Three fourths of it had already come out on the EPs Joan of Arc Awaiting Trial, A Cult of One and The Kids Are All Wrong, but collected and completed and recollated it is a hundred times more than an omnibus. Four songs at a time, these sounded like cheerfully retro new-wave pastiches to me. Assembled into an album, they are what I thought they only imitated. Maybe this album couldn't exist until Dare and Organisation and Soul Mining and The World Won't Listen established some parameters, until New Order survived Ian Curtis and Teardrop Explodes survived Bowie, but nine albums out of ten are created in contexts, at least, and The Happiest Days of Our Lives is a New Wave masterpiece no matter how belatedly or haphazardly devised. Arguably it takes perspective to reach this deep an understanding of a form, so there are always masterpieces that can't be made until long after a style's moment of currency. And anybody can research synth patches and scatter "Major Tom" and "Absolute Beginners" references, so distance isn't sufficient in itself, but My Favorite know, beyond textures and beat counts, why "New Romantic" seemed like something some of us wanted to be, and how drum machines sounded like freedom in capitulation and then real people drumming under synthesizers sounded like freedom in rediscovery again. New Wave was at once a fable of the potential of technology and an allegory of our relationships with our own artifice, but now that Gary Numan and Yaz and Propaganda's statements of first principles are in the historical record, pushing further into the same dimensions becomes a study of what we hoped to gain and to escape, and the machines in the music serve the same function as the films flickering at two kids' desperate lonelinesses.
And loneliness is neither an art, nor an obscenity, it's merely a torment. So bless you, Michael and Andrea, for singing these songs without irony. The kids you were or knew or saved thank you for giving them that much credit. Trivialize their isolation and you only compound it. "Rescue us! With our photocopied tragedies", you have them sing, and you have found the way to reach them. "I read it, then I wrote it." You rescue someone from seclusion in stories by writing their story universe inside out, and letting their own inward inertia carry them back out again. You goad them up off the couch, where they sit with the cushion divide between them, and give them something to dance to together. "The Happiest Days of My Life" stomps and slashes and sparkles, like a GarageBand garage band updating "A New England". "Homeless Club Kids" pings and shimmers like the Chameleons' swirl cut with Thompson Twins fizz. "The Suburbs Are Killing Us" careens around the same corner "Like Leila Khaled Said" turned. "L=P" casts piano notes and guitar chords into reverb wells and draws out their echoes. "Burning Hearts" is wistfulness's answer to "I Melt With You", and "White Roses for Blue Girls" crosses "Biko" with "The Perfect Kiss", which is a romantic's triumph on the order of Angela's jealousy of Anne Frank. "John Dark" could be R2D2 humming along to the Chariots of Fire theme, and "Half There and Dancing" is a piano dirge in a rainstorm. "Black Cassette" does for listening to music in place of real contact what "The Radiation" did for avoidance through movies. "Badge" channels New Order through the Pixies, "Le Monster" could be Big Country's "Wonderland" via Sarah Records, and "The Radiation" could be INXS's "Don't Change" as a Jules Shear ballad. "James Dean (Awaiting Ambulance)" sees the screen-crash through Culture Club and Prefab Sprout's eyes. And "The Lesser Saints" borrows Laurie Anderson's vocoder and Brian Eno's calm and Propaganda's ominousness and Joe Jackson's candor.
And as if making up for chopping this body of work into less-than-their-sum EPs the first time around, My Favorite accompanies the finished album with a fourteen-track bonus disc of remixes by labelmates and friends and other like minds. This is a throwaway in conception, especially for anyone who reads through "Double Agent, Future Bible Heroes, Soviet, Phofo, Leisure Enthusiast, Kitch, Alexander Perls, Flowchart, San Serac, Chuck Blake, Brother Frost", the remixer list, and only recognizes the Magnetic Fields, but a new masterpiece in an old form yearns to join its referents, and there's no better way to rush your passage into the past than providing your own future. These remixes, most of which are mercifully circumspect about their stylistic motivations, pay their source songs the ultimate compliment, or if the ultimate compliment would be leaving them alone, then the best one a remixer would know, which is to take them seriously. Double Agent disassembles "The Suburbs Are Killing Us" into cello feedback and toy piano clink, and reconceives "Homeless Club Kids" as the pulsing soundtrack to a rocket's launch and its first serene Earth orbit. Phofo turns "Le Monster" into frothy spy-music, and then Flowchart buzzily sublimates it. Kitch makes an electro-drum mash of "Rescue Us", and Leisure Enthusiast arrives with a hard-drive full of shameless Propaganda synth-riff grafts. Brother Frost performs an inspired hyper-jittery defibrillation of "John Dark". But even when the remixes succeed the originals more predictably, as on Future Bible Heroes and Alexander Perls' similarly minded disco deadpannings of "Homeless Club Kids", they play the songs like they grew up with them, or like they can imagine what that would have felt like.
And so the remixes end, and the shards of what these songs are and become and inherit and imply clatter and clutter in my head. I know these people, too. I know what it feels like to retreat into the self-contained universe of what songs stand for and what they say to each other. I know how to spend nights alone with Pause buttons and lyric sheets, and I know how important it is that we understand why that's possible to some of us, and why it's compelling. But I know, too, as My Favorite realize and these kids in their songs may still learn, that sad songs about loneliness are an art, but nights alone with them are not. As long as we hope to be people, not just characters, then we must remember how to listen as a study, not an art, and know how music can be a means as well as an end. And we have to remember that we study loneliness to learn how to be touched.