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.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Taking Creative Endeavours Seriously

Nearly 11 months ago, I graduated from my English degree, and since then I've been very lucky to always be in work. Not only that, but I have an interesting job where I'm paid to use the degree I worked hard for and enjoyed.

Having said that, I had no idea what kind of impact a full time job would have on my creativity. I've tried to keep up reading, I've written poems when inspiration strikes, and I play piano for a musical improv troupe. But between those things, work, chores and my other hobbies, I've fallen into a routine in which my own creative projects don't feature at all.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy. I'm pretty low maintenance, so it's easy for me to be content on a salary with evenings and weekends free. But, as I approach a year of full-time employment, I've started to wonder whether my own contentment is really the end of the line...

As a kid, I always dreamed of acting or writing novels for a living, and while my job does involve a lot of writing, I shouldn't let go of those aspirations just because my day job is enjoyable and in the right sector.

So, after a few weeks of thinking, I've decided to see my creative endeavours not as a dream, but as something I can achieve through my own actions. In the past week I've done one thing everyday in aid of this cause:

Thur 31st May: Booked onto a level 2 improv course to revive my passion for stage improv

Fri 1st June: Opened a bank account for my community theatre project

Sat 2nd June: Played piano for my troupe (Rhymes Against Humanity) at the Nottingham Playhouse

Sun 3rd June: Started writing a song for the first time in a year or so

Mon 4th June: Bought and began to watch the Aaron Sorkin screenwriting online masterclass

Tue 5th June: Invoiced a client with my new community bank account

Wed 6th June: Wrote this blog post (And it's only early afternoon at the time of writing!)

Call it a quarter-life crisis (it occasionally feels like one :P), but it's so exciting to see my creative endeavours take shape, even at this early stage, and I want to continue taking them seriously, taking proactive steps to make them a reality.

Finally, if you've found yourself in the same position as me, stuck in a rut where you feel like you've let go of what you really want to do, I encourage you to change your thinking. Take small steps, do one little thing every day to make your dreams real. These things don't simply happen, they take work, so make like Shia LeBeouf, and just do it.

Thanks :)