Wednesday 5 October 2016

In defence of loving difficult music

Some years ago, in his book 31 Songs, Nick Hornby wrote, "I don't want to be terrified by art any more."

His assumption was that listening to hard-edged, difficult music was for people too young or too self-satisfied to really know pain or grief, that you like easier, more reassuring music when you get older, that you need comfort when you're tired.

The one rebuttal of sorts to it that I read cited Nico's legendarily obtuse album The Marble Index and Scott Walker's Tilt as examples of things that you should listen to. They were good for you. No one actually liked them, right, but art is not there to be liked. Art is there to speak and to be understood. It's like the musical equivalent of broccoli or Brussels sprouts; no, you don't like it, you can't like it, but that it is good for you. It has value to it. It's packed with intellectual proteins and minerals. And to some extent I understand that, but at the same time there was a problem for me: I really liked The Marble Index.

I had for some time owned a copy of The Marble Index, and it was already one of my favourite records, and I immediately went to eBay and bought a copy of Tilt.  

I don't find that difficult. Granted, it's one of the easiest Nico songs post-Chelsea Girl and it's stark and windy and echoey, but it strikes my heart deeply, the tale of a doomed, lethal love affair so messed up that all it leaves is a hollow wail, in the wreckage. The breaking of a heart is the Twilight of the Gods.

I defy you to say that it isn't beautiful.

Maybe you can. Maybe you hear nothing in it. but I find it beautiful. It doesn't terrify me.

I cheated. There's much harder from Nico. Stuff that really is terrifying. Atonal, bleak. Did I like it straight away? I don't know. I remember there was a time when I would have been utterly dismissive of this sort of music; one day something inside me went click and by the time I heard the first notes of The Marble Index, the wailing hurdy-gurdy, I was in a place to meet it.

Did you know that Throbbing Gristle's last release (they decided to do no more after the death of Pete Christopherson) covered Nico's Desertshore album in its entirety? It's pretty forbidding. I'm very fond of it.

I've already written about Scott Walker. His 1995 album Tilt – hard, troubling, desperately sad – was the only album of his I had, but I didn't listen to it because it was good for me; I listened to it because it struck me deeply, resonated with me. That's the easiest song on the record.

I listen to it because I like it. I'll grant that Bish Bosch and The Drift are harder propositions, and Climate of Hunter (which I'm listening to right now) is only a bit easier, but I listen to them. Because I want to. Because I like them. They don't terrify me. They intrigue me, they make me sit up and take note, but they're not a thing that I'm afraid of.

Recently I acquired copies of Scott 3 and Scott 4, which are the orchestral pop albums on which Scott Walker's reputation rests, and which are widely adored among those in my circle of friends who care about such things, and well, the most common thing said about Walker these days is some sort of statement expressing puzzlement about how he got from ‘The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore’ to where he is now, to which I find myself thinking "Have you even heard Scott 4?"

Seriously, that's a bleak record. Also, anyone who can't see how the man got to ‘Farmer in the City’ (the Pasolini song) from ‘The Seventh Seal’ (the Bergman song) needs to go back to the critical drawing board.  

I digress.

I mean, as far as critical tools go, I'm not without some knowledge of the method, but I'm lazy, and when I write about music I write less about the technical aspect of it, on which I'm almost entirely untrained, but about the effect it has on me.

And I think even the music that most people find the hardest to listen to has someone out there who is moved by it, who plays it because they want to feel. I mean, look, when you're looking at something that's got some Serious Respectability like Walker or Nico that's one thing, but really it's no different to being into death metal and finding intricate beauty in the guitar lines of Carcass's Heartwork. Why are there people who are really just happy to listen to mucic that sounds like so much noise to people who don't like it?

And a lot of music is for the young, and people who are in their teens and early twenties now will hold dear to their hearts things lost to their own children, and which will make noises and hold structures that they will not understand, and maybe they'll find things to love in the music that moves their children, but it is not for them.

Scott Walker and Nico aren't really artists you listen to when you're young, anyway. Like a lot of things, they're later-life discoveries, and why isn't there a word equivalent to juvenilia for the things you like and make when you're entering your middle years?
And I mean, I love sappy music as much as the next man, and my Nick Drake love is well-documented, but there's awkward music I love just as much, and I suppose I was going to make some big point about art and music and how it changes you, and about how you change, and about how sometimes the things you like are hard for other people to listen to, and about how that's OK, but in the end I suppose it boils down to only this: Sometimes you just like a thing.