Friday, 1 October 2010

Millennial Melancholy

"I never wanted to big up any drugs, because I don't reckon they deserve it. It's just something that you choose to do. I probably come across as, like, 'Yeah, acid and weed are amazing.' But I don't think that at all, really. And if I did, I wouldn't want to say it in an interview. Plus, I'm never under the influence of drugs when I make music. Whenever I have been, it's always been totally rubbish. It's a real disciplined thing, making music. When you're tripping, you're just fucked. You could never get it together to make a track. When I'm stoned, I go to bed."

"only with programming you have to use your brain. The most important thing is that it should have some emotional effect on me, rather than just, 'Oh, that's really clever.' There's a lot of melancholy in my tracks." His best ones, he says, are those which evoke feelings that can't quite be described, where "you're not quite sure what emotion it is".

(Richard D. James, 'The Friday Interview: Aphex Twin', The Guardian, 05/10/2001:

"These distinctions matter because the way out of this mess (and it is a mess, fuelled by ignorance, stupidity, prejudice and weapons) is to clarify and discriminate rather than hurl abuse at anything that goes near a mosque.

I doubt many Muslims can be bothered with Amis. But he nurtures in his audience a corrosive prejudice against people they've never bothered to meet. It is culturally dim for us to form confident opinions about people based upon how they look and what we've heard they think. It is also against our interests. Nonsense abounds on the causes of terrorism but it is hard to argue that alienation doesn't channel potential foot soldiers towards radicalisation. As one solitary Muslim asked him at the ICA, 'Why such contempt for Muslims?' Amis must have known something was up because he dropped his drawl and called the man 'sir'. But he could hardly unspeak his views. And those views are certainly alienating."

(Chris Morris, 'The Absurd World of Martin Amis', The Guardian, 25/11/2007,

Carl Neville's Classless: Recent Essays on British Film, another fine Zero book, identifies the late-1990s as a time in which There Was No Alternative - to consumerist hedonism or its political parent, Blairism. When ideas and learning were restricted (and the culturally highbrow buried ever deeper in the schedules), popular culture itself lost out through lacking any contrast or focal point to rally against. It became the establishment; one that we now need to recognise as intensely problematic.

In the late 1990s, there was a resistance, embodied best perhaps by two figures, Chris Morris and Richard D. James (aka. Aphex Twin). Morris, educated at Jesuit Stonyhurst, is of course best known for The Day Today and Brass Eye, but for me the initial few series of Blue Jam and in part Jam, make up the pinnacle of his work and define the late 90s era like nothing else.

If his earlier work was a liberal savaging of tabloid Toryism and stupidity in all its forms, Blue Jam tapped into the nation's nervous systems, fears and desires laid bare: a forensic representation of a national unconscious. There is a languid quality; strong, almost primal emotions sometimes, others a completely detachment - always a serene melancholia.

Some fragments bite all the harder now for all of the subsequent 'Noughties' history: the middle-class couple's sex arrangement in return for slight reductions in house price. The Middle England couple's campaign to get their child into the 'right school', as mentioned in an excellent post by Nina Power here: The man bowing out in his prime; an ambiguous reflection on euthanasia and the narcissistic self-image of the Baby Boomer generation. The sublimely timed Mr Bentham sketches, depicting the quiet nightmare of Consultancy Britain.

The musical soundtrack is perfectly judged to create the mood of alternating unease and sadness: Morris' choices tap into a thoughtful strain of British music, electronic and ambient. The music of BJ forms an eloquent expression of his own singular qualities: articulacy, eccentricity, insight, precision. His best work in Blue Jam makes one think of Pinter, as well as Cook and Stanshall. The music is rooted in a time when the 1960s/70s born musicians began developing a hauntological music (in its more populist form, Lemon Jelly, in its more abstract, Position Normal; its most euro-electro, Broadcast).

The soundtrack Bark Psychosis. Brian Eno. Thomas Dolby. Gainsbourg. David Sylvian. The Cardigans heartrending ('Celia Inside'). PJ Harvey at her most haunting. Recontextualised 'Oh Lori' by Alessi, chilling lost summers. Reflective city music: Mono, Dubstar and Alpha.

And Aphex. Always Aphex.

The magnificent SAW2 does not need recounting; perhaps The Richard D. James Album does - an electronic symphony of English Weirdness. 'Windowlicker' is the seminal single that should have taken us into a different universe, but somehow didn't. Even Drukqs is essential; or, at least half of it is: the miraculous 'Btoum-Roumada', the uncanny 'Father' which evokes Allan Gray's spiralling piano tones in A Matter of Life and Death. The AFX Analord series is artful evidence of his growing into an elder statesman role, as dubstep, Ghost Box and Mordant Music arrived. Morris went on to make the vitally important (if occasionally slightly lax) Brass Eye Special, the flawed London media satire Nathan Barley (some valid digs at the line-quoting hero-worshipping of him in the treatment of Dan Ashcroft by 'The Idiots'; some great moments, but ultimately little of the satirical bite or scope of his previous work) and most recently, the commendable Four Lions. Not a great film overall, but a humane statement of libertarian-left sanity in an ever more sensationalised, reductive media landscape.

For millennial melancholy, one might also cite the retrospection of Black Box Recorder and, of cours,e Radiohead, whose sequence of albums from OK Computer to Hail to the Thief display no illusions about their times, as well as US bands like Lambchop and Sparklehorse. Perhaps my favourite record of this time remains Bows' absurdly overlooked Blush (1999), with Long Fin Killie's Luke Sutherland fusing diverse elements: urbane trip-hop, sedated Drum & Bass, aquatic strings, abstract harps, Scandinavian female vocals and a post-rock undertow.

Morris and James are so much more than the lazy stereotype of 'media terrorists', of people 'pushing the boundaries of acceptable taste', yawn. True, they cut through cant and politesse, but are not empty nihilists out to shock. They rather display a clear-sighted humanity, and, at their peak, an extraordinary discipline in the causes of intelligence and feeling.

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