Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Quiet Power

This morning after rising I spun some of the disks I purchased back in Real Groovy, on my first visit. The Richard Thompson material, which was a dominant voice in the musical choices for our many journeys on the highways of NZ, sounded even better in the comfort of our living room than it did back in December. It's amazing to think that he's still capable (pun intended) of putting out stuff like Still and Electric. Actually I have a slight preference for the latter, despite the sense in some critical quarters that the more recent Still represents some kind of return to form. The fact is he's never lost any form, ever, so there's nothing to get back to. He continues to occupy a stellar zone of his own. 

Playing Sufjan Stevens's Carrie & Lowell evoked a different response in me. As I remarked back in December, this is not music to drive to. It's far, far too subdued for that. I suppose I was mildly disappointed on a first listen, even though I suspected there were riches involved, since every song seemed to occupy the same hushed territory, with nary a shift of mood. Listening to it close up - the only possible way to listen to these songs - you realise that there are shifts of mood and texture, but all within an extraordinarily, intensely narrow set of preoccupations concerning death and grief and hopelessness. This has got to be the most intimate album I've ever heard, to the point that you feel you're almost intruding on the songs. Many references are obviously painfully personal, yet the strange thing is that a shared ground of understanding seems to emerge.

As far as I understand it, these are songs mourning the deaths of the singer's parents with whom he had difficult relationships, especially with the mother. It's genuinely heart-breaking stuff, which somehow entirely avoids the sentimental and doesn't seem at all self-indulgent. Just painfully intense. This is one to come back to; it doesn't allow you to escape.

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