Saturday, 30 June 2018
Hope in the hopeless: alternative music in a post-2016 world.
For many, the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 was a terrible end to a pretty terrible year. High profile celebrities dying early every week, Britain choosing to leave the EU, and now the impossible President. Surely it couldn't get any worse.
And in many ways, it hasn't. Across the globe, mortality rates and cancer deaths decrease while wealth and education levels rise. The world of medicine is very close to completely eradicating polio. But in many ways it has got worse. Opiate addiction is rising in Western countries, civil war continues to rage in parts of Africa and Asia, and every week the news brings us stories of refugees being refused a secure home.
In a world that needs so much help, how can music have any kind of impact?
Well, maybe popular music can't.
Now, I'm prone to ranting about the charts. I can often be heard (both on this blog and off) dismissing pop music with its shallow subject matter and its focus on electronic over-production. But when all is said and done, chart music does what any popular media should - it entertains. Just as a romance novel provides escapism from the burdens of real life, pop music helps you forget the cares of work, and enjoy the evenings and weekends while you can.
Alternative music (defined here as any music that doesn't regularly appear in the UK top 40 singles chart) has a different role. And it's that something different that means it can't be pop music. Alternative music, almost by definition, is the anti-chart music. It doesn't help you escape from the world, it confronts the world head on. Alt music has thoughts and opinions on the issues of the world, and it wants to share them, however pretentiously (see Alt J) or humbly (Athlete) that might come across.
With this in mind, I've chosen three alternative albums that have come out since Trump's nomination as Republican candidate. They're all excellent, and I highly recommend you go listen to them. They are great examples of the role alternative music can have in exploring complex ideas in accessible format, while offering beautiful music for our ears to enjoy.
In October 2016, British folk artist Kate Rusby released Life in a Paper Boat. Those familiar with her work might see this as a classic Rusby album - lots of folk tales and traditional ditties set to new tunes, mixed in with some original songs - albeit with a new, more synth-led sound. However, those people would be somewhat missing the point.
The title track takes the perspective of a refugee mother, carrying her newborn baby across oceans in the hope of finding a safe place to rest. The woman is caught between the despair of her situation ("An ancient land I've left behind / In ruins now lies she"), and the optimism of the new life she has brought into the world ("This bundle that I carry is worth more to me than life"). The song is left unresolved, the refugee crying "will I feel my feet upon the sand?" echoing how, to a hopeless refugee, the world is a great, scary unknown. This plaintive, lilting song is a cry, to governments and individuals alike, to show compassion to those without help.
But Rusby's vision on this album is far from pessimistic. The final track of the album, 'Big Brave Bill', tells the story of a Yorkshire-based superhero named bill who saves English people from problems big and small. The song never fails to make me laugh, touting Bill as 'the hero who drinks Yorkshire tea all the time', but the meaning runs deeper than that. We should be proud of our homeland, and the things that make it ours, but not to the exclusion of others. Bill is a symbol of local pride, but also of selflessness and compassion. Through this album, Rusby asks us to take note of life's nuances, not just to take the news at face value, and to use our capacity for compassion to do some good in a broken world.
Life in a Paper Boat - Kate Rusby (2016)
Favourite tracks: Hunter Moon, Life in a Paper Boat, The Witch of the Westmorland, Big Brave Bill
Until very recently, I just saw Elbow as the band who did 'One Day Like This,' and that was enough for me. But after their Beatles cover on last year's John Lewis Christmas advert, I started to explore them again. I'm so glad I did. Their 2017 effort Little Fictions is full of beautiful melodies, poetic lyrics, and so many meditations on the state of the Western world that I don't know where to start.
The most obviously political song on the album is 'K2'. named after the world's steepest mountain, the song paints an unrelenting whirlwind of current events - Brexit, the American-Mexican wall, the freedom of the press, and the misuse of social media that might "send us to a digital end". Yet within all this there is hope, and (perhaps predictably for Elbow) that hope is love. Garvey sings that the love shown by individuals has built a shelf on K2 that stops us from slipping to the bottom. "Love / Opens the fist just enough for a hand / to slip into the hand."
The rest of the album has a similar theme. Despite its bleak subject matter, it's a joyful record. 'All Disco', perhaps the highlight of the album, reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously: "What does it prove if you die for a tune / Don't you know it's all disco?" Tracks like 'Trust the Sun' and 'Head for Supplies' acknowledge the growing tensions of today's society, "Something we dared never dream on TV everyday", but love and personal relationships always win out in the end.
Little Fictions - Elbow (2017)
Favourite tracks: All Disco, Head for Supplies, K2, Kindling (Fickle Flame)
The most recent album in this post came out just over a month ago: Chvrches' long-awaited third album Love Is Dead. This is perhaps the album closest to pop music, as the band often get mainstream radio play for their accessible, synth-heavy music style. However, it's the ideas present in the lyrics that lump this album in with the other two.
The album title is pretty pessimistic, as is the album's lead single 'Get Out'. In the lyrics, strains on a personal relationship cause singer Lauren Mayberry to lose her sense of self, and her only solution is to "get get get out of here" in the chorus. Similarly, ' Graves' comments on how those in power do nothing to stop the evils of this world - "They're leaving bodies in stairwells / Washing up on the shore / Do you really expect us to care what you're waiting for?"
But again, this is only half the story, and the album is more optimistic than it seems. The album's climax is the gritty, forceful "Never Say Die," Where Mayberry challenges us never to give up, even in our direst moments. In an interview about the song, she said she "really wanted to sum up a feeling of trying to be optimistic when you feel disillusioned by the people around you, but trying to keep going." And this is the theme of the album. Yes, there is trauma, personal and global, but we all have the capacity to keep going.
Love Is Dead - Chvrches (2018)
Favourite Tracks: Graffiti, Get Out, My Enemy, Heaven/Hell
I think my point has been made, but I'll conclude briefly. One of the things that keeps me listening to alternative artists, and keeps me looking for more, is their ability to create exciting, original and intelligent music. They are aware of what's going on in the world, but they know it's not their job to offer escapism. As songwriters, they have faced the issues head on, and still they have found reason to be optimistic. Every listener is an individual, and these artists' belief in our individual capacity for love, compassion and change, is a much-needed empowerment in a world like today's.
Well done if you got to the end, I know this was a long one. Do listen to these albums, I don't think you'll regret it. Thank you for your attention and I'll see you next time.