I want to make a few posts on songs I listened to in 2012 - not my favourites necessarily - paired up.
Charli XCX - “Valentine”
Dirty Projectors - “Gun Has No Trigger”
Something I thought too often in 2012 was “Martin would have liked that.” Martin being Martin Skidmore, our friend who died last year. It’s hard when you lose someone who gobbled up culture as much as he did because so much you encounter seems marked by it, delightful things turned into a minefield of small sad moments.
Martin would have liked Charli XCX a lot and I’m certain he detested the Dirty Projectors. The link for me is his ideas about soul music, which he saw as a thing of sublime craft, the artifice of creating a sung language of emotion which could work as a vehicle for recreating – night after night, across the live circuits of the Southern US - intense feelings not at that moment truly felt. Stage magic, essentially: technique as a machine for repeating the impossible. Soul music’s greatest achievement was to make extreme mannerism seem natural.
Martin left me with a new respect for mannerism in singing – contortions, put-ons, in-your-face artificiality as a way of scratching at something under the skin of a song. Charli XCX is a really, really mannered singer, which I adore. This year’s “She’s The One” wasn’t her best proper-release single but it worked as a kind of vocal checklist: drawled half-rap, pop-singer cries and swoons that come off as both heartfelt and precisely sheared and positioned, and pancake-thick high gothickry.
In Charli XCX’s “Valentine” – her actual best release, despite a howling flaw or two - she’s writing an indie-pop song, toytown melodies and vivid four-color heartbreak. A really good one, too. But what kept me coming back to the song was her vocal effects, as her choruses get more slurred and desperate, words slipping pell-mell into one another – “youdidn’twannaseemyFACEinyapersnalSPACEanniwannedtoRUNAWAYYEAH” – never losing the rhythm. If the emotional tone on “Valentine” is Roy Liechtenstein benday dots – “*SOB!*” – the singing is like expert comics lettering*, stylisation giving the feelings weight and shape.
On “Valentine” the craft of mannerism is still being used that old soul way, as apparatus to reveal a truth in a moment of song. But on “Gun Has No Trigger” Dave Longstreth rotates the stage and makes the machinery grotesquely apparent – feeling out each unlikely note, threading his way through his contorted melody line as if he’s cracking a safe. He has a nasal, pinched voice, and he’s pushing it too hard, turning the song ugly, which means the resolution at the end of the chorus is that much sweeter: the year’s hardest-won hook. (The music is bare, the backing vocals supportive but not actually helpful.)
I have never liked a Dirty Projectors song much before, so I was surprised by this, how I kept replaying it. It took me a few goes to work out what I was responding to – who I thought Longstreth is channeling: Dylan. Dylan’s voice – more accurately, his phrasing – is the trollish heart of his greatness, the thing people who hate Dylan simply cannot stand, and the thing even Dylanologists often overlook in favour of a line or two, or a haircut or a biographical datapoint. All very fair, but Dylan’s voice is amazing. He dislocates his own phrasing live, which is further misdirection, but on record his emphases and hopscotch stresses fall just right and let his punches fall harder.
Longstreth never sounds as biblically cruel as Dylan can, but Bob is hiding in there nonetheless. The line that woke me up to it was “But now the BANKS are CLOSED, and nothing GETS BIGGER” – a very Dylan line, but it was how he wrestled down “CLOSED” that sold me on the ghost of Bob in this song – or the ghost of my love of Bob in my hearing this song, if we want to be strictly accurate.
Longstreth’s mannerisms – borrowed or carved out of his own block, I don’t care – work because they sound so effortful. Maybe once, in some lost Rock Eden, you could make this kind of song – a riddle-game, a skeleton of baleful images – sound effortless, like Dylan used to. But now the banks are closed and the easy routes taken, and our overwrought boy saviours have to try so very hard. But at least Longstreth admits it.