Latent in the language of pop is the language of fishing: ‘catchy’, ‘ear worm’, ‘hook’. Generally these descriptors are used in a positive sense, but there is a kind of violence in them too. After all, the listener is the fish in the analogy. Unaware of the trap. Or aware of it, but happy to go along anyway, to submit to the violence of the trick. Like believing in an illusion.
I am talking about a certain kind of melody here. It is obtrusive; it sticks in your mind and is irremovable. You know the kind. “I want something just like the shape of you under my umbrella.” These kinds of melodies, laced throughout the thin waters of mainstream (main-stream) radio, dangling like so many baited hooks, are designed to ‘catch’ our attention. To catch our mind’s ear and stay caught there. Sweet at first, offering an immediate gratification (a juicy worm) that makes us want to listen; then later, replaying over and over in the mind, whether we want to hear them or not. Thus making us want to hear them again. To jump back again and again into the same stream, even though we know of the barbs hiding under the surface.
For a few months earlier this year I was working in a sweet shop, and was subjected to the trickle of lukewarm sewage that is Kiss FM for hours on end. I don’t know what any of the vile bilge in the top 40 is called, but I now seem to recognise every ugly burble of melody that doppler-blasts by me in cars. And every time I do, these songs get stuck in my head again.
This might not be such a problem if the lyrics weren’t so troubling. Nearly all these songs are about sex, coached in oh-so-subtle metaphors like “I want to see your peacock” or “I just want to be part of your symphony”. Or, increasingly, no metaphors at all, as in the utterly cringeworthy: “I’d like to get to know you better, I’d like to get under your sexy body”. (One longs for the quaint days of “I wanna hold your hand”.) But the kind of sex this music depicts is hollowed out and empty. It takes something sacred and mysterious and makes it cheap. This music teaches us as much about real sexual experience as pornography does: which is to say, nothing at all. Sometimes – as on the deeply troubling ‘Blurred Lines’, a song that suggests it’s OK for sexual consent to be ambiguous – the things it does try to teach us are incredibly damaging.
This combination of bluntly effective melodic hooks and sordid bastardisations of love and sex are what I dislike so much about mainstream pop. It has become somewhat fashionable in indie circles to profess one’s love for pop music. I don’t understand why. It is not that I am am anti-melody, or even anti-catchy-melody, but that modern pop music seems to me so manipulative in its use of it. Its simple melodies and thick, electronic textures have the same appeal as junk food: they taste (kind of) good but make you feel sick afterward. Most of these songs give me a headache. Their lurid, insistent colours and overt sexual content place these manufactured products in the same circle of hell as TV adverts, which use the same cheap tricks. One can’t not listen; one can’t not look.
But enough ranting. I am finished swimming in these streams. Shower like a horse, I’m done.
Let me seek an antidote.
Ambient music is the opposite of pop music. If pop music positions the listener as the fish, then ambient music positions them as the fisher. That is, afloat on a sea of sound, fishing for meaning within it. This music will only exist in the moment it is played; it is impossible to recall afterward. It also, in its tendency to drift into the background, requires effort to actually listen to it, the opposite of the pop music that forces you to hear it whether you want to or not.
Chuck Johnson’s Balsams, from earlier this year, and Daniel Lanois’s Goodbye to Language, from September last year, are ambient records made almost entirely from the sounds of the pedal steel guitar. This is a strange proposition, for the pedal steel is usually used to add accents and resonances to other instruments, particularly within country music. But in these strange, singular works, it unassumingly takes centre stage.
Balsams is the purer of the two. The only accompaniment to the pedal steel here are some deep bass tones, occasionally throbbing softly from somewhere deep down in the ocean. (I think of sonar pulses from a whale). The steel, though, is the sparkling, sunlit surface, upon which the listener drifts. Melodies slowly, imperfectly repeat, like gentle waves. Many have an aching sadness to them. The way a pedal steel can slide one note into another, blurring the boundaries between them. ‘Balsam’ is ‘balm’ is ‘calm’.
Goodbye to Language is a stranger, more discomforting beast. Lanois on pedal steel is joined by Rocco DeLuca on lap steel, so immediately we have a sense of things colliding and coexisting: ‘overlapping’ rather than ‘lapping’. The compositions themselves are also much shorter and more unsteady than Johnson’s, more likely to alter or stop without warning. The waters are murkier and choppier, the waves shredded and disturbed by changing winds. The two steel guitars are augmented throughout by subtle digital manipulations, bits of detritus floating in on the surface.
Both albums require you to make your own meanings as a listener. Both also invite you to lose yourself in them. Johnson’s music projects such a huge sense of stillness and calm that one feels one could drift there forever. Lanois’s, meanwhile, closes quickly round you, and won’t stop shifting and changing, so that one can’t swim away. Both, though, are in their own way meditative. Neither will hook you, or catch you. They are complex, and mysterious, and require you to make time for them. They are fundamentally quiet, in a world full of too much loudness.