“Songs are as sad as the listener.”
Jonathan Safran Foer
One of the most oft-used criticism of music, and in particular indie music is that it sounds too sad. How can you listen to that bloke, he sounds like he wants to kill himself they sneer, missing the point entirely. Because bleak music isn’t always about feeling bleak, often only by delving into the darkest recesses of the soul, or more accurately the souls of our fellow human beings, are we able to make some sense of our own thoughts.
To quote Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, what came first the music or the misery? We can honestly say that we have never gone out of our way to listen to music to make ourselves feel sad. We don’t reach for The National or Ryan Adams to make us upset about failed relationships, we don’t reach for Bright Eyes or Leonard Cohen because we wish to question our own mortality. Quite the opposite in fact, it is when we feel our lowest that the music comes to us, at our lowest often it is music that is there for us, music that says you are not alone, your feelings are not unreasonable, you can get through whatever life throws at you. Sad music isn’t here to make people sad, sad music is here because all people are sad sometimes.
If, as a band you decide to call your album Suicide Songs, as MONEY have, you are somewhat setting your listeners expectations. It wouldn’t quite be right somehow if this were a selection of sunshine pop songs about the joys of summer and puppies. On their second album though, MONEY seem to have first crafted a mood, an album, and then the title found them. The band have been quick and open in their discussion of the title, cautious neither to glamorise mental illness nor to revel in the negativity it implies. This is an album about the feelings of anonymity, an album where, as a songwriter the bands frontman Jamie Lee attempted to find some sense, even some beauty or poetry, by embracing this solitary loneliness. If it’s sounding rather heavy, at times it is, but it’s not simply a record of wallowing and pain, it’s also rather beautiful.
The recording of the album sounds as tortuous as the songwriting process. Following the release of their debut album The Shadow Of Heaven back in 2013, despite it’s critical acclaim, it perhaps didn’t quite find the trio the fame it deserved. Jamie decided then to leave Manchester where the band were based and return to his native London, setting out to become the best writer, be it songs or poetry, he could be. The band reconvened in Manchester to begin work on the album in what was a horribly low point for them; Jamie suffered with mental ill-health, drunkeness and self-doubt, and the recordings seemed directionless and bleak. Thankfully, the albums producer Charlie Andrews realised this and persuaded the band to reconvene at his studio in Brixton, three productive months later, Suicide Songs was birthed.
A richer and more ambitious record than its predecessor, Suicide Songs is the sound of musicians creating something from their lowest moments. As Jamie puts it, “I wanted the album to sound like it was ‘coming from death’ which is where these songs emerged”. It’s an album that is sometimes bleak certainly, but it also has black humour to it; in I’m Not Here, he borrows lyrics and melody from The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, on Hopeless World he seems to tease himself, painting a picture of finding someone to share his life with only to conclude, “I just wouldn’t know who to ask in a hopeless world”.
Hidden in this record is a quiet battle outside of the obvious gloom; there’s a battle between not wanting to survive alone on the outside, but also not wanting to be part of the status quo, he twice uses references to umbrellas as a metaphor for the everyday grind, in Night Came there’s “men coming back from work, clicking their hells on the sidewalk and pointing their umbrellas behind…and it’s horrific”, whilst in I’m Not Here, “it’s 7am the umbrellas are passing, I’m worried for their health”. Throughout the record there’s subtle digs, whether conscious or not at the so called “normal” life; in Hopeless world he notes, “I’m tired of things that aren’t real in a hopeless world”, on recent single, I’ll Be The Night there’s a plea to not let our children be, “buried in the flood of other’s dreams, and other’s schemes”, whilst most damningly of all in A Cocaine Christmas And An Alcoholic’s New Year, he pours drunken ire in the direction of his fellow party goes, “the people are talking like they’re winning, like the world’s not spinning, like they’re in control, like they’re Marilyn Monroe at a cocktail party and I’m someone outrageous like Jean Genet.” It’s clear for all his desire to escape his own loneliness and problem there is no desire either to be like everyone else. It’s perhaps in his inability to find a place in society to his liking that he learnt to revel in anonymity.
The other perhaps surprising lyrical outcome on this record is the abundancy of a quiet self-confidence, for all Jamie’s references to being as he puts it “a mirrorless void”, throughout there’s also a desire to leave a mark, no matter how minor on the world. In I’m Not Here, he may picture himself as, “a tramp on the street” but he still thinks his legacy is to be, “a rotting classic on a shelf”, placing himself alongside the literature other great forgotten heroes. He goes even further on I Am The Lord, whilst he might not quite be calling himself god, he certainly placing himself on the same level, noting, “he needed someone to talk to”. It seems that it’s only in placing himself alongside an inhuman god that he can find someone who shares his level of loneliness and his feelings of being completely out of sync with the world around him. Throughout its lyrically challenging and fascinating, it reveals the multitude of textures that exist within the lowest ebb of human existence, even in the bleak nothingness there’s so many shades of life.
Musically it’s a considerable expansion of the MONEY sound, this is a record that sounds like it was crafted without a thought for budgets; at times it recalls the musical excess of the 1990’s. Suicide Songs is a record that is resplendent with string sections, horns, choirs and rich full arrangements. It’s quite reminiscent in ambition, if not so much sound, of the likes of Spiritualized or The Verve borrowing influence from various music styles without falling into a sound that is anything but their own. I Am The Lord buzzes on a wave of complex percussion and the Asian twang of a dilruba: a type of string instrument from India; the titular Suicide Song incorporates a symphony of horns coming across like a funereal colliery band, whilst Hopeless World has a surprisingly jaunty sway to it, as for once it’s Jamie himself who’s spinning rather than the alcohol fuelled room around him. One of the most striking things about the beautiful production of the album is the ability for the music and the singer to at times sound entirely disconnected; Jamie’s vocal, which carries his brooding lyrics with a strained slightly ragged beauty, he seems to transcend the musical scenes the instrumentation creates, rising above them as if looking down upon the world they soundtrack entirely disconnected from the real world that carries on nearly oblivious of his presence, particularly true on the beautiful stand out, You Look Like A Sad Painting On Both Sides Of The Sky.
It is not an album that makes any grand statement, it’s not an album of resolution or stepping out of the darkness of mental ill-health, it’s an album that is bleak and remains that way. It is an album that says it is okay to suffer and it is okay to express weakness and to struggle. Above all else it is a record that is honest, beautiful and compelling, and in its own quiet way that’s a triumph in its self.
Suicide Songs is out January 29th via Bella Union. MONEY head out on a UK tour at the end of February, click HERE for details.