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Pamphlets & Paradoxes

by Gianni de Falco

Bright Green Field

Squid, Warp Records, 2021

In his essay ‘Death Rock 2000’, Frank Kogan had some prescient predictions about the future of rock music:

Anyway, I don’t know if this [Rolling] Stones dynamic (and by the Stones I mean the Stooges-Pistols-[Guns N’ Roses] as well) will remain a central tension for music in the twenty-first century, since punk nihilism-insanity-despair needs a social context of optimism to react against, an irrational sense that we’re heading towards utopia and can break through all limits. I hope the world retains this optimism, as its legacy from America and Western Europe, but the real legacy might be economic collapse and ecological disaster, and Iggy & the Stooges just might not make any more sense. That would be sad.

21 years later and it seems far more likely that the West’s legacy will be economic collapse and ecological disaster. While day-to-day life may not feel quite that doom-laden, apocalyptic fears and political fatigue have become near commonplace since 2016, and have only intensified since the epochal year that was 2020.

So, what’s happened to rock and its historic ‘punk nihilism-insanity-despair’ dynamic if there’s no longer a context of optimism, but some mixture of cynicism, disaffection, and exhaustion? At the turn of the millennium, a post-punk revival would come to dominate both commercial and independent rock shortly after Kogan’s essay ran in the Village Voice. Headlined by the sustained, global success of the Arctic Monkeys, bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture looked back to the glory days of indie, when labels like Rough Trade and Factory and Fast Product could attain chart success. These bands pulled from the sparse gloom of Joy Division, the angular punk-funk of Gang of Four and Wire, and the droning grooves and sprechgesang style of the Fall, among others.

Notably missing, though, was post-punk’s political consciousness. If “the personal is political” was something of an ethos for the original post-punk movement, then its first 21st century significance would maintain the genre’s styles — and even advance them in certain cases — but in their lyrics keep “the personal”, while never really addressing the “political”. The seething anger and outrage about contemporary culture and local and global politics that defined the lyrics of vocalists like John Lydon (Public Image Ltd.), Ari Up (the Slits), and Mark Stewart (the Pop Group) were nowhere to be found in the stylised, commercial friendly sounds of this neo-post-punk movement. It was not as though these aughts were not fraught, politically speaking — the economic policies of Bush & Blair, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … there was enough geopolitical turmoil to make anyone feel insane, despairing, or nihilistic, especially after the tech-infused optimism of the ‘90s. And yet ‘punk nihilism-insanity-despair’ dissipated as a central tension in and driver of rock music. Simon Reynolds succinctly put the difference between the music of the late-‘70s/early-‘80s and the aughts in the closing pages of his 2006 history of post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again: if ‘how to make politics in pop work … was one of post-punk’s primary quandaries’, neo-post-punkers dealt with the problem by ‘avoiding it altogether’.

The same can’t be said for the second post-punk revival this century. You might locate its proper kick-off with London’s Black Midi and their 2019 debut Schlagenheim; but the roots of this new wave of post-punk can probably be traced back to the 2010s — to the dub-and-jazz inflected, Billy Bragg punk of King Krule, the jangly psych-garage of Fat White Family and Childhood, and the post-hardcore sludge of Warmduscher’s 2015 debut Khaki Tears. In any case, the list of post-punk bands is now expansive, including Black Country, New Road; Dry Cleaning; Goat Girl; Porridge Radio, and Squid, to name only a handful.

Although this newest revival does differ from its predecessor stylistically (you’ll find abrasive distortions and complex song structures that recall those of post-rock heroes Slint and Oxbow, as well as the meditative and melancholic textures of bands like The For Carnation and Bark Psychosis), the return to coupling politics and post-punk styles is the most important distinction between the aughts and now. These young bands have not tried to reclaim that ‘punk nihilism-despair-insanity’ dynamic that had been so important to present, pressing, and vanguard rock music. And how could they? That ‘context of optimism’ out of which it arose is dead. Instead of ‘nihilism-despair-insanity’, these groups explore fatigue, buzzing paranoia, and flash floods of emotions that strike randomly and disperse before one can understand where they came from and why. Maybe this is the only reasonable response to the sense that every corner of social existence has become irretrievably contaminated: art, politics, culture, expression, the self. From the increasingly enmeshed horrors of contemporary geopolitics and the shameless co-opting of social justice movements by corporations for their own economic gains to the total commodification of identity on social media — now more than ever, there feels no way to resist.

It’s at the intersection of ‘c’mon …’, ‘this again?!?’, and ‘where do we go from here?’ that Squid’s debut Bright Green Field resides. The album follows something of a pattern: a stable ecosystem is introduced, underwritten by taut, propulsive rhythms; that sense of stability eventually rips open with floods of entropic cacophony that shock, only to finish back at the place the song began, though with the space now fringed sinister. The strange and vacillating world of Bright Green Field is introduced with the album’s disconcerting cover and deceptively simple title. What seem to be grassy knolls, at a closer look, yield to a texture of thatch or thread; that which at first glance looks like a military unit dissolves into a mass of brown-and-beige humanoid shapes; and eventually, as the coldness of the digitised image becomes almost too much to ignore, we realise the title doesn’t connote organic warmth, but rather the abrasive, artificial light of a screen with the brightness maxed-out.

This album is one of paradox and tension. The record opens up with an artificial soundscape of metallic creaks and whooshes and bits of mangled conversation. The 45-second song is aptly titled, if ironically, ‘Resolution Square’ — ironic in that none of the innumerable musical and lyrical contradictions explored throughout the 11 tracks of Bright Green Field will get resolved. We are taken even further into the unnatural with the album’s first proper track, ‘G.S.K.’, as it lays out a hauntingly Ballardesque landscape that is saturated by the everyday features of life under late capitalism. It kicks off with two smacks of an industrial electronic snare; the Glaxo Smith Kline tower casts its silhouette over the city, telling time like a sundial. We’re in ‘concrete island’ now, where buildings are draped with ‘mosquito nets’, presumably there to save the good people from themselves and their darkest fantasies. Our narrator waves at businessman while he speeds along in his car, balancing hopes that his ‘dinner is warm’ with thoughts of ‘going through the windshield’. As vocalist Ollie Judge shouts, ‘I’ve been here far too long’, metaphor and reality melt into one another grimly, and the dystopic surreal shades real.

The band has credited the late Mark Fisher as an influence on Bright Green Field, specifically his writings on Hauntology and ‘the slow cancellation of the future’. And while his influence looms large over songs like ‘G.S.K.’ and ‘Peel St.’, it’s the ideas of another prominent English intellectual that I can’t help being reminded of on songs like ‘Narrator’, ‘Boy Racer’, and ‘Global Groove’ — filmmaker Adam Curtis and his exploration of ‘hypernormalisation’ in Western geopolitics. Coined by Alexei Yurchak to describe the attitude in 1970s Soviet society (the USSR was failing internally, but the Russian citizens and politicians could imagine no alternative, so they committed to maintaining the pretense of a functioning society), hypernormalisation denotes the point at which the line between pretending and perceiving collapses — the point at which the performance of normality becomes reality, the fake indistinguishable from the real.

Almost too perfectly do the lyrics of ‘Narrator’ appear to map onto someone losing their hold on, well, everything, beginning to patch up the gaps with hyperreal media: ‘I’m trying real hard / I think I’ve made it up / Fleshing out of your face with the features of a magazine’, Ollie Judge barks over a tightly syncopated rhythm section of chiming guitars and a punchy, funky bass riff. He continues, ‘Losing my flow / And my memories are so unnatural / I am my own / Narrator’. The potential for liberating self-ownership here —in which reality doesn’t just have to be what it is, it can be what you make of it — you are your own narrator! — is dashed away as Judge repeatedly screams, ‘I’ll play my part’. Guest vocalist Martha Skye Murphy joins in, shrieking, ‘I’ll play!’, over discordant, phased-out guitars and washing cymbals, finally catching her breath as the instrumentals calm down. The song’s over, but participation has been coerced. Hypernormalisation, performing for and complying with a system that does not work for you, but you for it: ‘a pawn in their game’, as Bob Dylan once put it [emphasis my own].

‘Pamphlets’ is the album’s outstanding closer, an eight-minute epic in the vein of Microcastle-era Deerhunter that the whole record has been building towards. The studio flourishes, the tiny, pinging guitars, the extended jamming, the space age synths — there’s even some kind of dog woof in the background of the song’s first section — and maybe the most energising cowbell you’ll ever hear. Just like it has across the entirety of Bright Green Field, it’s Judge’s performance that shoots the tune into another stratosphere of potential meaning. What catapulted Squid to the top of the post-punk revival pack all the way back on 2018’s ‘The Dial’ is still what separates them from the rest on ‘Pamphlets’: the concentrated mania that Ollie Judge channels through his scarily elastic howling. His voice encapsulates almost every response one could have to our contemporary socio-political situation. Anger, disgust, despair, humour, absurdity; his voice is hyperbolic, strained and free, all at once.

This range of emotion is all the more impressive given that he rarely sings in any conventional sense, instead moving from a near drone to a harsh scream with almost no middle ground. And when Judge embraces the back-of-the-throat and strains his voice to its limits, when he unhinges himself, its then that sincerity seems to split. Is he fed up, fruitlessly trying to provoke the abyss to punch back? Or does he just not care — his performances can be so excessive, so extreme, it becomes absurd. In this ambiguous space between sincerity and absurdity, humour emerges. In Judge’s voice, humour and sincerity do not sit at odds with one another, as is often the case with indie rock, where vocal irony walks hand-in-hand with distance and detachment. Instead, his sincerity is a paradoxical kind, sincere because of an absurdist, almost sinister, sense of humour, not despite it. His voice doesn’t just refer to the tension of wanting to resist but not quite knowing how, it embodies it. The stakes here are higher than mere identification or analysis: they are that we feel the various emotional responses of navigating this confusing and contradictory reality, failing to and yet still wanting to maintain the desire to keep trying.

As the final four minutes of ‘Pamphlets’ rise out of a momentary rest, Judge abandons all restraint: ‘Pamphlets through my door / and pamphlets on my floor / Open wide, we’ve got everything, everything that you like!’ His voice starts monotone and then stretches like Lycra over the driving backbeat, bouncing off it before fraying into blood-curdling screams. Pamphlets feel so anachronistic, inoffensive, often no more than mere recycling bin fodder. Judge’s intensity of emotion about pamphlets is funny in this context, until it isn’t. Pamphlets as the most evident manifestation of mindless, destructive consumerism, he despairs at the capitalist reality / non-reality we live in, in which aggressive, insidious forces coerce us into a zero-sum existence with no alternatives, all under guises as seemingly innocuous as pamphlets. The flyers strewn across this narrator’s floor are a proxy for his despair, a symbol for the vast, incomprehensible chaos of the outside world, and the sinister, leering forces that draw him in.

While I can’t be sure of what this narrator wants from life, I am certain that it is nothing these pamphlets are selling. The closing minutes of ‘Pamphlets’ might be a response to the admission-turned-accusation at the heart of ‘Global Groove’: ‘I’m so sick and tired of dancing / Are you sick and tired of dancing?’ If your answer wasn’t already a resounding “yes”, then by the end of ‘Pamphlets’ it sure will be. The song’s unrelenting rhythm, its syncopated cowbell that cleaves your brain, is a fitting springboard for Judge’s final howl — enough to shock you out of the dulling narcotic cycle of televised wars and after-supper sitcoms and blast the cheap tears straight off your cheeks.

It’s not clear yet if this tension — wanting to resist but not quite knowing how — will become a central tension for contemporary music, if it has not already. It should though. And if it does, the ghost of ‘punk nihilism-insanity-despair’ might just finally get exorcised. I don’t know if Iggy & the Stooges will still make sense then, but I think Squid will.

GIANNI DE FALCO read for an MSt in English at Corpus Christi College. Reportedly, his analyst was a placekicker for the Atlanta Falcons.

Art by Millie Anderson


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