It remains one of my strongest music memories, when I randomly saw The National at Rote Fabrik in Zurich on a Sunday in 2005. We were perhaps 50 people there, most of us hungover and lethargic. The National had been stuck at the border and looked a bit annoyed and tired as they entered the stage. The singer, Matt Berninger, drank white wine from a milk glass. A few songs in I could not believe what I was hearing, and at the end, when they closed the set with a ten minute version of About Today, they had the entire crowd in their hand. I knew they were something else then, this song from their new album is further proof.
You walk the dark streets of Casablanca while listening to The National.
Such a cliché
Matt Berninger sings “You must be somewhere in London walking every lane”. You see yourself in the lyrics. You put the moody sounds into the 31 degree evening and walk on past the smoking men with their evening papers.
You walk with heavy steps; looking into people’s eyes as if you know something they don’t. You think that these streets are yours. These empty yellow streets where cats hug the walls and people walk quietly next to the petit red taxis. You walk every lane in this Arabic costal town with its oversized seaside mosque.
The begging women on the streets raise their hand towards you. They want one diram as they bend their heads down towards the pavement. You walk past them, never meeting their eyes. Past the luxury hotels on the street named after the former king, past the idle security guards.
You increase your pace as the drums in “England” gallop in your ears. You beat your dirty black shorts with your dirty white hands. You stand in an intersection together with two cats, dusty colonial buildings around you.
You think your loneliness is reflected in the music, as if it is some kind of internal art exhibition. You walk past raised hands and lowered heads on the boulevards, walk with your melancholy, with your self-absorbed thoughts, with your carefully selected second hand wardrobe.
Such a cliché.
“I never thought about home when I thought about love” Matt Berninger sings in “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. You walk past more cafés and more Moroccan men who sit with their coffees and rusty skin. You walk past everyone, past the cheap souvenirs, the newspaper salesmen who spread their Arabic and French papers on the sidewalk, past the fake Rolex sellers, past the couples, past the tourists with cheap straw hats, past the old man who sells individual cigarettes for two diram, past the restaurant owners who asks if you are English, past the bored security guards outside the bank buildings, past the taxi drivers who wash the dust of their taxi’s with bottles of water.
You think you stand above them, with your record collection in your limited edition Ipod, with your International Herald Tribune in your bag, with your individualized hardships, with your exotic stamps in your passport.
Such a cliché.
It’s Ramadan and during the evening prayer you listen to the minaret’s old voices that cover the streets. You stand in alleys, peak into the Mosques, see lines of men kneeing on small mats. You tell yourself that it is special, that it is meaningful for you to see. You have no direction or meaning so you borrow it from other people. Make it your own. Fold the Muslim prayers into your life as if it was just another piece of pop culture that you could add to your collection. You take a picture and write a funny line about, post it on Facebook, have people “like” it. You are fascinated by the green laser beam that is shooting out of the giant Hassan II mosque by the ocean.
All the symbolism you find and throw around you.
In the Casablanca Media the men smoke hash in long thin wooden pipes during the evenings. You sit next to them with your mint tea, think that you are participating. You smile towards small girls who play while their fathers talk about matters you understand nothing of. They look at you and you look at them. You take a photo of them posing in their dresses.
Such a cliché.
As if a plane ticket automatically would bring you closer to understanding. As if sharing a taxi with six Moroccans that you cannot speak with would make you understand this culture, make you a participant. You travel with your white skin and music. You look at sandy mountains through old Mercedes windows while Arcade Fire sings that they don’t recognize their old friends.
You think seeing the Moroccan desert makes you different, that the silent gazing on the dusty Atlas Mountains brings you forward, that it’s enough to change landscape and listen to Arcade Fire while climbing a mountain in Morocco. As if it is different from doing the same thing on a sidewalk in Stockholm.
When you come home you will speak about new perspectives, about the old men on the streets, the sales people, the smells, the craftsmanship, the traffic, the mosques, the food, and you will show pictures of monuments and provide anecdotes from your guidebook.
The same ones you could have gotten from a Wikipedia search.
The same photos that the German tourists with socks in their sandals took.
You will speak of empty dark alleys and homeless people sleeping in street corners.
You will speak of them with great passion, about the sadness in their rugged faces, about their children and their lack of a future. But you will never mention their reaching hands that you avoided while walking past them with your new The National album.
The never ending construction of yourself.
Such a cliché.
You take the words of Win Butler and Matt Berninger. Walk the streets a final time; you feel that they speak about you, about the changing nature and melodrama of modern life. And you pass by the reaching hands on the sidewalk. Another misunderstood idealist unaware of his surroundings.
“Choose your side I’ll choose my side” Win Butler sings in “Suburban War” when you jump into the taxi and whisk away to the airport.
Such a cliché.
The humidity in the room caused sprinkles of water to fall down on our heads from the ceiling. But it didn’t really matter as Cut Copy put the sold out humid room into a dance frenzy that saw most of us completely soaked in sweat only a few songs in. The Australian electro poppers put their hits into a neat row and then kept on throwing them out in front of a sold out crowd that had little choice than to throw some hands and shake some hips as a sign of appreciation. Cramped in under the low ceilings of the Strand venue, with the velvet red drapes covering the concrete wall not really managing to dampen the industrial feel, the atmosphere became euphoric. At least in my own mind.
After a few beers trying to recover from the concert dehydration I took two busses home. Listening to rap music. For some reason I felt compelled to write ‘leave it all up in the air, aida i can hear the sound of your laugh through the walls’ on my Facebook wall. This quote from The National’s song Ada seems somewhat pretentious today. And I also misspelled Ada.
Then I dreamt about how to park an old Volvo that I had bought for 2000 Euros. This Volvo first appeared in my dreams this mid-week when I bought it in a gas station because I needed to drive somewhere. It was a silver station wagon from 1997 and I was driving it on summery Stockholm streets listening to Black Milk’s Hell Yeah worrying about the car’s fuel consumption. Apparently the ‘dream me’ is an environmentalist. In this second dream the car had become a real liability. I kept driving around, no longer listening to awesome rap music, wondering where to park it and how much I would have to pay for it. The price of parking made my heart race. When I woke up there was a few minutes where I could not clearly remember if I was an owner of a 1997 Volvo station wagon or not. There was a sense of relief when I realized that I still don’t own a car.
The morning has been spent in the key of nostalgia, which is ironic since I am very much against the concept of nostalgia. Many find this ironic when looking at my reoccurring Amsterdam trips. Still, when seing my former favorite band Stars, playing one of my favorite songs of all time (Your-Ex Lover Is Dead), in a city I have lived in (San Francisco) there are all kinds of nostalgia bells ringing.
So instead of taking advantage of the baby blue sky that spreads over Stockholm I listen to Stars and feel a sense of relief that I am not a car owner. And that I once again was able to see Cut Copy wash away the five day work week haze that I was walking around in before.
Decided to rent a car and drive it north. Went to a gas station and picked up the smallest one. No studs on the tires. No cruise control. Rushed home in the freezing clear afternoon. Parked without paying and ran around. Bought a fleece. Bought some candy. 50cl Diet Coke. Five a clock and 450km in front of me. Through Stockholm’s heavy traffic. Trying to get north while setting up the GPS on my phone. Eating candy as if there was no tomorrow.
The radio talking about Libya and Tunisia. Trucks honking their horns. Me pointing fingers from my tiny car while driving past expensive BMW’s with maked-up women. I just got a new fleece baby. Shaking up the highway in 150km/h, can’t find the button for the beams. Have no time to stop. On the radio people discuss former Prime Miniter Olof Palme. Great at giving Sweden a voice on the international stage but less good in terms of actual policy achievements is the conclusion.
I blaze past the University city of Uppsala, the snow blowing around the car as I pass the open plains. Heading north on a deserted four lane highway, pushing the pedal to the metal, candy in my mouth. Audis and BMW’s in my rear view mirror, their aggressive headlights and timid middle age drivers look at my cheap rental Japanese ass. Still trying to find the correct switch for the beams.
I reach Gävle and turn off the high way, temperature -18. Blow past three trucks on the road towards Sandviken, dark forests, sparse traffic. I cut this pine forest landscape like a fucking Swizz Army Knife. A filled to the brim Skoda with a family in front of me. Me and my Yaris blow past them, listening to The National, the same destruction in our driving. Blowing snow into their legal speed limit turtle movements. Feeling joy. Me and my small rental car own this Swedish evening.
Down the hill towards Hofors, the giant wood processing plant paints the black sky yellow. A dozen chimneys shooting up pink and orange smoke. The illusion of the unpolluted Swedish woodlands. Clouds from nuclear bombs lingering in the air. Empty parking lots bathing in yellow lights, frost covering every inch of the nature. A quiet tractor clearing some snow next to the entrance to a large factory. The industrial heart land sitting quietly in the freezing evening.
By an empty bus stop four people wait for something under a yellow street light, fumes from their bodies and breaths slowly rising into the air. Interviews with journalists trying to get into Libya on the radio, horrified people talking about massacres in Arabic. Outside the eternal quietness of Dalarna. I put on my Iphod but First Aid Kit sings ‘we don’t know anything at all’ and I shut it off. I know everything in the forest. Me and my Toyota Yaris, my new fleece on the passenger seat, English bassets in my mouth and clear roads in front of me.
I approach Rättvik, the small city’s yellow and white lights curving around the snow covered lake Siljan. The area where the image of Sweden is produced; the hand painted Dalahästar and traditional Midsummer celebrations. Me and my Yaris don’t know nostalgia. I take over the empty roundabouts in town, never shifting down below forth gear. The city is empty, 9:30 in the evening, -22 degrees. The winter tires rip into the soft frost that sit on the quiet streets.
I motor up hills in a frenzy, passing a tourist bus and its heavy body. Me and my anemic engine blending into one. Past Falun and the German tourists who drive as if it’s a fucking Sunday afternoon. I got time to kill and not you. I drive five hours straight, try and make it to my destination without stopping. After 420km the tank points at empty, after passing five slow moving cars between Malung and Sälen I am forced to stop for gas. I shut the engine off at an empty gas station, stumble out of my small car, my right leg cramping after putting constant pressure on the accelerator. Dry -22 degrees evening air as I put gas into the car and take a leak in a pile of snow.
Five minutes later back on the road, up the long hill towards Sälen and after 5:30 hours I open the door to the winter cabin. My sister greets me with a smile, shaking her head while telling me I drove too fast. Me and my Yaris both shake our heads.
US indie music had a huge year with older bands such as The Walkmen and The National releasing fantastic albums while a new San Francisco orchestra and stoner surfer girl doing some perfect pop music paving new roads. Today two of those albums are given a closer look:
The Walkmen – Lisbon
I only found the Walkmen’s song The New Year (that I wrote about here) in 2010 and immediately thought it was one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. I think this often but this time the feeling stayed on for longer. As I sat with a troubled mind this summer both in the lyrics and desperation completely smacked me in the head. In a good way. Then came their new album Lisbon and it was pure class all the way through. This fall this was one of the records that was around the most as the desperation and raw power in their music reached whole new levels with this album. Outstanding songs: Juveniles (above) and Stranded.
The National – High Violet
This year my favorite orchestra came out darker and heavier than ever. Hope was nowhere to be seen and Matt Berninger stood in an ocean of angst beating on his heart while screaming ‘it takes an ocean not to break’ during the Way Out West festival this summer. I felt like going home afterwards so I would not risk losing the sheer power this band has on me. Then I ended up staying and dancing to LCD Soundsystem. Many people have written many great things about this band (I can suggest this recent review of a London concert for those interested), and it would surprise me anyone reading this have missed them, so I will not dwell on but just conclude that in my book this is the greatest band on earth. For those of you that do not believe me I will forward you to my last.fm page.
For continued coverage of the 2010 year in music check back after the holidays where Swedish indie pop, strings and magic things will be explained and covered.
In my so far most pretentious ‘I want to be a writer’ move I am spending a few days alone with a fire place in the Swedish country side. Here I will write my ass off but before I do that I thought I’d try and put the year in music to rest. This was the year that The National sang ‘It takes an ocean not to break’. It was the year when Deerhunter released that shimmering pop song Helicopter. It was the year when walking in parks longing for love was given its ultimate soundtrack in Beach House’s Walk In the Park. To name three crucial pieces of immediate beauty that will last long after the inevitable hungover that will greet 2011.
2010 was quite something. My own life took a serious of dramatic shifts and it is easy to feel that music took the back seat when life itself had enough drama. But, whatever I went through the music was always there. No matter if it was cruising through a dry southern Spanish landscape listening to this years breakthrough rapper Jay Electronica or walking in yet another new neighborhood, in yet another suburb, listening to Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs. The music was always there painting pictures, filling in gaps, building dreams and putting words on feelings and emotions without being asked.
This is why I keep listening and writing; because as an art form contemporary music that is produced in the context of now always speaks as much about these times as it does about ourselves. In a series of posts I will put the magnifying glass on some things that I’ve found important this year. I will forget much and not have the energy for much more. But if you are looking for inspiration and music that made a difference for me you are free to tag along. Tomorrow you’ll read about the man in the video above.
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I follow a teenage girl into the delayed commuter train. It’s always snowing in Sweden but she had chosen leopard colored tights as her pants of choice. She talks on the phone, I try and fall asleep, curing a lost floorball game with The National. Her father has just told her that he and her mother is getting a divorce, she laughs and explains how awkward it was, how her dad had asked her where he would be during Christmas. As if I would know, she says while nervously biting on her pink nails while looking out on a winter Stockholm.
When we reach Södermalm the tunnel cuts her phone off. She tries to redial but fails, she is starring at her phone in disbelief. I cherish the silence outside the angst of The National’s music in my headphones. After a while she gives up and puts her phone down. Suddenly tears fall down her cheeks, I turn towards her. Trying to think of something to say. She looks at me with angry eyes, telling me without words to shut up and leave her alone. I change songs but only hear her quiet tears. I see her putting on a Pink song on her ipod. She has the same version and color as I do. We both get off at the same stop and disappear into the snowy evening.