Carey Mercer is a member of Frog Eyes, Swan Lake and Blackout Beach. You can follow him on Twitter here.
I work in schools as a casual teacher, a fill-in for over-stressed, immune-compromised teachers who need a day of rest and respite to alleviate the feeling of being crushed under a steamroller of curricular demands and children’s needs.
It’s not a bad job at all: go in, be nice to kids, go out.
In the course of my job I’m exposed to many inspirational speeches and posters.
I see a lot of posters and, as I am sensitive to words, these posters resonate within me long after I have left the environment. I also occasionally see Richard Branson’s face; I saw James Franco’s face in a classroom the other day, urging students to be well-rounded. Today I saw a Foucault poster. Different posters for different kids.
I might sound kind of snotty here, like I’m laughing at the idea of a poster. But I’m not: whatever works, whatever helps.
Anyways, I saw a poster the other day. It said, “A GOAL WITHOUT A PLAN IS JUST A DREAM.”
A goal without a plan is just a dream.
I get the sentiment, and that someone’s heart is in the right place, but don’t they know how wonderful it sounds to have a goal without a plan? It makes me think of rowing your boat, as if life is but a dream. It sounds ridiculous when you say it, but when you sing it, it turns into something else: a way of being.
Different posters for different kids. Different albums for different days, for different folks, for different moods. Some try to cover many moods, some try to cover too many moods, and some leave us with a distinct, almost singular impression. Sometimes this seems like the difference between a hand-and-breath smudge left on the window of a commuter train and a single thumbprint left by a child leaning over a glassed-in display of pastries: one befuddles meaning, the other becomes a discursive gateway into childhood itself.
I’ve brought up Being.
Jessica Pratt, the singer, songwriter and engineer of her second record, strikes me as, to invoke Hamlet, a not-Be-er. The press release for On Your Own Love Again states that she made her first recordings “some years back with no vision of making an album.”
I haven’t heard her first record, but my assessment of this second one is that it is a total beauty, a real success, a string of unadorned yet compositionally ornate six-string-and-voice songs that make a real case for not having to be an alpha dog go-getter to achieve something: you don’t always have to have a plan, you don’t always need a goal. Sometimes you need, in the words of the press release, to do what Pratt needed to do in order to make this record: “relax, unwind and let herself be.”
This last bit: letting yourself be: doesn’t it sound dreamy? As if you might be living in a dream? As if there are two states: one where you relentlessly pick at yourself, as if you are some un-actualized scab, and another state in which you might just be.
It is very hard to just be, to stop picking at yourself. A record that makes us feel like we should stop picking at ourselves — now, that is worth something.
That poster! It haunts me!
Letting yourself be (passive) is different from capital-B Being (active). Both are cool. Both are fine ways to be. Both ways of being and not-being can orient a person towards a happy life. Pratt, to quote again this press release, is “fully alive in a space all her own”; this music is absolutely charged with life.
I am in danger here of suggesting that the record has a certain lotus-eating quality; you might infer from my words that I am lauding its haziness, its blur or soft focus. But this is not true — it sounds charged! Full of life! It’s not druggy or stoned or tune-in/drop-out, though you may still like it if that’s what you like. It’s focused and taut and precise but it does not feel especially premeditated, forced or overly laboured. Like it’s gifted.
Life: You can hear the sound of pale light as it pours through coastal windows; ocean-city life, sad and resplendent, hills and parks that stretch down to the sea. This is just half-hyperbole: though you cannot hear seagulls nor crashing booming waves nor the groan of lighthouses you can hear the sound of the singer’s voice bouncing off apartment walls, and these apartment walls bear the distinct sonic tag of Pacific fog.
Just kidding. It’s in the press release: she lives in California, on the coast. This record was home-recorded. Hence the presumptive feeling that this is a port city record.
She has, in the parlance of my generation, “killer guitar tone.” Lo-fi, yes, but still bright.
I’ve been walking around my house, listening to this record. It’s just the second time I’ve heard it. I’m drinking ginger tea. The Pacific clouds are making me feel romantic and glad to be alive. I’m going to finish writing about this record tonight, after three or four listens, because that’s what I am going to do. Pratt’s her own voice, her own songwriter, but she’s also a listener. For sure. I’m trying to think of what these songs remind me of, beyond the obvious pillars of yesteryear that every other reviewer is going to mention. Dalton, Newsom, a bit of Nico’s elevated cadence, Sill, Billotte. Good influences, to say the least. I should have been so lucky.
One reflection I hear, and am curious to know if anyone else will hear: Elliott Smith. The record with “Needle in the Hay” on it.
That deceptive ease of stringing several songs together, a record containing just sophisticated guitar playing and singing. Occasional, extremely effective multi-tracking. Down-strumming open strings.
Because I’ve been talking here about a record full of life, it might seem weird or thoughtless to invoke someone who chose the not-be that we think of when we hear “to be or not to be,” not the other not-be that I’ve been talking about — you know:
But there’s more to Elliott Smith than suicide. Just because he had an unbearable moment doesn’t mean that this hangnail action has to permeate every second of his work, every second of his life. It was a moment, his last moment, but he had many other moments; this I believe. And his strumming and picking and singing, especially on Elliott Smith, will always possess a note of sweet melancholy, not suicidal depression.
Close thinkers/arguers might respond to that previous paragraph by noting that the image on the cover of that Elliott Smith record shows two bodies apparently falling to their deaths. Call me life-o-centric, but I never noticed that. I only noticed the one body, the one that looks to be jumping over that chasm.
Someday I’ll come to terms with the second body, the one that did not make it.
Listen: it’s this kind of a record, Jessica Pratt’s second record, the kind that makes you think about the big strands of our lives: the degree to which we choose, we get to choose, our epistemological states. Our ways of being. Melancholy and literally: light.