Wild Beasts are an indie musical anomaly, and I mean that less in the oh-cool-they’re-bringing-post-rock-to-the-mainstream kind of way and more in the literally-all-their-songs-are-about-fucking kind of way. Taken as a unified body, indie music is a genre generally terrified of sex. It’s unclear whether this embargo on lust is something that sprung from the C86 twee scene with its repressive emphasis on childhood, colouring pencils and libraries, or whether it results from a deeper fear of intimacy that goes hand-in-hand with the concept of outsider-ism (to labour the point, the term “independent/indie” inherently opposes mutuality, resulting in some rather masturbatory implications). When Radiohead are gushed over in the music press for being raunchy (academically the idea of Thom Yorke crooning about being a tease is kind of fun, in practice it makes me want to retch all over my hand-knitted cardigan) you know that there’s slim pickings in the sexual melting pot that constitutes indie rock in 2012. Wild Beasts stand out by virtue of their vice: they unashamedly make music with a real edge of sexual aggression (screw-gaze? intercourse-core?).
So when Wild Beasts take to the stage, unsurprisingly, the crowd have no idea what to do and there’s a brief moment of hair-fluffing and shoe-scraping going on around me. However, within minutes of the entrance of throbbing synth and animalistic imagery there is some sort of spontaneous and synchronous reaction in the belly and guts of the venue. I’m reminded of my pet pug from a few years ago; from time to time his primal midbrain would unleash a powerful hump reflex on contact with other dogs, extended human legs or inanimate household objects. The crowd is suddenly full of sex pests, and the dry-humping; oh god the dry-humping.
The band SOUND amazing. The bass is rumbling, the falsetto whispery and perfectly pitched, the guitar shimmering. This is beyond doubt a slick and professional touring machine. The stage chitter chatter is a little bit anonymous and a little bit bored and at times I feel jaded at the forced encouragements to dance. Maybe the front-man is just getting sick of all the groping in the darkened sea of hands below him and wants to see a good old-fashioned square dance. But when the music is this horny, who really gives a shit? I’m even able to put aside my usual pretty snobbish bias towards a decent lyric and am able to fully enjoy a song like ‘Plaything’ which includes some truly egregious lines (case-in-point: “I know I’m not any kind of heartthrob / But at the same time I’m not any sort of slob”) that would usually make me want to fatally dry-hump an electric fence. So yes, go see a Wild Beasts show, but be open to the inevitability that you will be grinded on and at.
The latest fine idea to be targeted by Sarah Palin’s hunting rifle of righteous indignation, in her customary enthusiastic and ignorant fashion, is that of Michelle Obama’s plan to award tax breaks to mothers for the cost of breast pumps. Of course no justification is given for Palin’s ridicule of the plan, but Obama’s rationale is that breastfeeding results in improved physical health that among other things, could cause a drop in obesity levels. However, in addition to these more tangible benefits, breastfeeding has long been considered to be of huge psychological significance to the infant, and teaches valuable lessons of separation, reunion and how to hold feelings of ambivalence. The California indie-pop of Best Coast provides a scarily illustrative example of what might happen when these concepts are not addressed while still an infant.
Melanie Klein, a contemporary of Freud, describes how the first object that the infant internalises in their own mind is their mother’s breast, long before the mother as a whole being. The breast’s significance is so great because of its capacity to feed and comfort the helpless baby. However, the infant soon realises that this comfort is not available at all hours. Sometimes the infant will be hungry but the mother will not be available to feed, resulting in intense feelings of rage and frustration in the infant. Initially this means that there are two internalised breast objects, the ‘good breast’ and the ‘bad breast’, as the infant is incapable of holding multiple representations of the same concept. To do so would cause terrifying, confusing feelings of ambivalence, whereby something so comforting and positive as the ‘good breast’ would inherently contain the potential to hurt and enrage the infant.
At the age of four to five months, after many mini-separations from the breast, and around the time of weaning, the major and permanent separation from the breast, the infant learns to hold these feelings of ambivalence and to perceive the breast as a whole, containing both good and bad elements. This is due to the blow to the infant’s psychological world caused by the realisation that the infant has no real power over the mother. She is independent from the infant and thus not controlled. This separation and ambivalence form the template for all the person’s attachments in future life. However the struggle against powerlessness and separation is something that for many never ends.
I was rather uncomfortable with the music of Best Coast for a little while. Its sunny, scuzzy guitar-pop is played against lyrics about extreme dependence (I’m always waiting by the phone, can’t wait for you to get home’ – Crazy For You) and anxieties centred on separation and abandonment (‘Every time you leave this house, everything falls apart’ – Goodbye; ‘I hate sleeping alone’ – When I’m With You). I initially took these songs to be rather anti-feminist, full of implications that the only way for a girl to be happy is when there is a man around to take care of them. I thought these songs to be regressive and slightly disturbing. However, the more I listened to this concept album of bitter-sweet songs about perpetual separations and reunions, the more it clicked into Klein’s theories of object relations. The songs are continually reliving the infant’s relationship with their mother’s breast, but transferring their feelings about that object on to partners or prospective partners in adult life. The conflict caused by the ambivalence of emotions felt towards these object is ably expressed in Goodbye with, ‘I don’t love you, I don’t hate you, I don’t know how I feel’. It seems as though these songs are longing for control and power, which is impossible to achieve. The adult will never quite get enough from their lover as the ambivalence feels intolerably anxiety provoking.
It would be inappropriate and unwise to make assumptions and generalisations about those who have or have not been breastfed as an infant, and this is in no way a comment on the morality of such a practice. But to ignore the psychological significance of breastfeeding and then weaning is to ignore a vastly important way in which the infant learns about relationships. Klein said that ‘Not until the object is loved as a whole, can its loss be felt as a whole’. Coming to terms with ambivalence and the inherent ‘bad breast’ and ‘good breast’ within all the people with whom we form relationships is crucial in learning about to deal with unavoidable separations and abandonments in life. Or you could just get a cat.
Swedish dream-pop act, jj, just put out a free mixtape (http://sincerelyyours.se/yours0159.php). How generous. It includes re-imaginings of stuff by M.I.A, Jay-Z and a couple of cuts from the new Kanye record. If you wanna space out, maybe do some focusing, download this mix.
My favourite lyrics from the past year, arranged into a narrative.
Monoprint by Guy Millon
Instead of making a list of my favourite records from twenty-ten, I decided to write down my ten favourite lyrics of the year. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which albums I liked, as I’ve been writing about them since starting this blog. Besides, I’m not sure I believe in the concept of always liking one record more than another. Catch me on a Sunday morning cooking a fry-up with friends and Beach House’s ‘Teen Dream’ would be favourite, while late at night on my own, the series of James Blake EP’s would be right up there. This all ties in rather neatly into the post-modern idea of fractured narratives, or configurations of the self, which I have been known to chatter on about.
As I was collating these lyrics, I noticed a trend emerging. They all without fail could be interpreted as a comment on some aspect of being in relationship with another person. This made me wonder whether me being drawn to these lyrics comes from the same internal space as the reason I am drawn to a career in therapy, where relationships are often both the problems that people bring to the room, and the solutions to those problems. Who knows. After having this realisation, I started putting the lyrics in some semblance of an order, to form a semi-structured narrative around the cycle of relationship patterns that most of us have entered into at some point in time.
1 ) The search for love
“I was just some towhead teen / Feeling ‘round for fingers to get in-between”
- Down By The Water / The Decemberists
Here we have the beginning: the search for intimacy, the common desire that brings people together. I love the image that Colin Meloy creates of wanting to fill the negative space between our fingers with the positive space of another human being’s fingers.
2 ) The first meeting
“The theme of this party’s the Industrial Age / And you came in dressed like a train wreck”
- The Weekenders / The Hold Steady
This is just a classic Craig Finn line. Too clever for it’s own good? Only if your life is devoid of wit and joy. The arrival of someone new into your life is like some terrifying mess of potential destruction. Maybe that can be a good thing.
3 ) The giddiness of new love
“So when I’m with you I have fun / Yeah when I’m with you I have fun”
- When I’m With You / Best Coast
The simplest line I’ve picked, but also one of the most universal. It perfectly captures the feeling of pure happiness that comes with spending time with someone that accepts you for who you are.
4 ) The growing to know each other
“But you will learn to mind me / And you will learn to survive me”
- Learning / Perfume Genius
The child-like piano underpinning this song makes these lyrics sound like a very sinister message from a parent to their infant. The parent seems to be conveying that the child must obey them and must outlive them. There even sounds like there is an unspoken threat beneath these words. If this message is communicated persistently to a child, it is something that they will be likely to replay throughout all their future relationships. I think this really speaks both to the acclimatisation period and the often transient nature of our romantic relationships.
5 ) The dependency
“And I don’t know how I’ma manage / If one day you just up and leave”
- Runaway / Kanye West
The best song from probably the best album of the year (subjectivity be damned). The vulnerability in Kanye’s voice as he finally cuts through his boasting bullshit and admits his fears of rejection. It is here that the most ridiculous man on the planet bears his humanity and it turns out he has the same insecurities as everyone else.
6 ) The dissatisfaction
“Cause it’s cold outside, when you coming home / Cause it’s hot inside, isn’t that enough”
- Not In Love / Crystal Castles
The vocals are much clearer on the Robert Smith version of this song, whose yearning voice is perfectly paired with the stabbing synth-line. The pleading to a restless partner who is looking for something more from life is answered by a repeated chorus of, ‘I’m not in love’. Ice-cold.
7 ) The numbing of feeling
“So move your feet from hot pavement / And into the grass”
- The Suburbs / Arcade Fire
One of the big themes on Arcade Fire’s record was that of aging and moving on. The references to “moving past the feeling” came again and again, most evocatively in this line from the title track. The sense of the change in temperature on one’s bare feet from a hot slab of pavement to a patch of cool, wet grass makes me think about how the move from the bustling city centre out to the tranquil suburbs relates to the passage of a relationship. This is calming, but numbing. There is less to be afraid of, but also less excitement and spontaneity.
8 ) The split
“The tap of hangers swaying in the closet, unburdened hooks and empty drawers / And everywhere I tried to love you is yours again and only yours”
- Does Not Suffice / Joanna Newsom
The physical emptiness of a home after the break-up of a couple that have been living together is described with meticulous detail in the closing song on Joanna Newsom’s epic triple album. This imagery mirrors the barren mental landscape of someone who has recently experienced a separation from their loved one, as they shift from having a shared experience of life to an individual experience.
9 ) The nostalgia
“Gimme that night you were already in bed / Said fuck it got up to drink with me instead”
- Younger Us / Japandroids
Focusing too much on the past is a dangerous thing to do. As Jens Lekman puts it, the “kind of love that reconstructs and remodels the past” has the power to edit our romantic histories into some idealised, romanticised version of our lives that was free of conflict. In this song, the Japandroids revel in their backwards-looking, determined to revisit the past. Did somebody say ‘Gatsby’?
10 ) The cycle mutates
“Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut / It comes back but it’s never the same”
- Drunk Girls / LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy is pithy as hell. Every one of his lyrics has a concise, throw-away wisdom to it that makes choosing a favourite a difficult task. This line sticks with me because of its ambiguity. It’s unclear whether he is suggesting that first love is stronger and more intense that any love that follows, or whether that every time we love someone we love them in a different, unique way. Either way, I like how it conveys the sense of warped continuity that runs through our relationship history; even after the worst break-up the feeling of love always comes back in a new and surprising way. Also: Apollo 13 was my favourite movie as an eight-year-old kid.
So those are some of my favourite lyrics that I heard in twenty-ten and the narrative structure that my mind imposed on them. Happy holidays, lovely readers!
The unmistakeable percussion that heralds the opening to ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ sputters to life on the wide stage of Alexandra Palace and moments later the gentle, shambling frame of James Murphy appears. His opening lines of ‘Walking up to me expecting words / Happens all the time’ ably summarise the lyrical concerns of the most touching of LCD Soundsystem songs. Failing to live up to other people’s expectations and notions of ‘cool’ is Murphy’s grand theme, from his first single (‘Losing My Edge’) to cuts from his latest record (‘You Wanted A Hit’). By the time the drill-like synth-line kicks in, the crowd is bouncing and a hundred guys cry out in unison as a hundred girls step on their feet in pointed heels. As Murphy sings, ‘This basement has a cold glow / Though it’s better than a bunch of others’ we get a sense of his alienation with the party and how all he really wants to do is head home, another perpetual theme of his that will manifest itself again and again over the course of the show.
The pulsating heart of LCD Soundsystem for me has always been ‘All My Friends’. It encapsulates the lonely and vulnerable emotional core of what I love about this band. The friends that I have come to this show with have slowly been dispersed throughout the large crowd, and we are all on our own, so to speak. Each of us is seeing the band from a different angle, with different strangers dancing beside us, and different pints being spilled on our clothes. Of course, this is all part of the gig experience and an active crowd is actually pretty indicative of a fun show. However, to me this also highlights the ultimate loneliness of the song. ‘Yeah, I know it gets tired only where are your friends tonight?’ Other lines are filled with self-loathing towards his inevitable ageing (‘With a face like a dad and a laughable stand’) and in comparison to the younger generation (‘When you’re drunk and the kids look impossibly tanned / You think over and over, “Hey, I’m finally dead.”’). On playing in a rock band at the age of forty, Murphy said in an interview with Pitchfork, ‘It’s like being an adult at an amusement park designed for kids. I’m like, “I can’t fit on any of these rides.”’ He seems to feel as though he is a fraud, and that his success is down to luck or an ability to deceive his audience. This lack of belief in one’s own competence is a fairly common psychological phenomenon, sometimes referred to as an ‘imposter syndrome’. This is most evident on the record label slam, ‘You Wanted A Hit’ (‘You wanted it smart? / But honestly we’re never smart / We fake it all the time.’)
The closing song is ‘Home’, the last song on the last album. If Murphy makes good on his statement to stop recording albums under the LCD Soundsystem moniker, ‘Home’ will prove a fitting epitaph. The ‘terrible times’ of trying to fit in to the hipster notions of cool in his youth has given way to the admission that ‘love and rock are fickle things’. He has come to terms with his own insecurities and embraces them as an integral part of himself. ‘You’re afraid of what you need / If you weren’t then I don’t know what we’d talk about’. As the final drum beats are being thrashed out and Murphy leaves the stage, it is time to find my friends in the crowd and go home.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow just released their new record, ‘Autumn, Again’ as a free download (http://www.autumnagain.org/) and it’s really worth hearing. It’s full of hazy synthesizer loops and lilting female vocals. What I love about dream-pop is how the unintelligible lyrics reveal themselves in different ways on each listen. Because the vocals are lower in the mix than in a lot of other music, only the lyrics that touch on something in me jump out. This varies depending on the mood I am in when I listen to it. I think that this is a record that sounds best on headphones, as it feels as though the music is originating from within my own skull. Now go put it on!
The experience of seeing of Montreal on tour is rather akin to watching a multi-headed psychedelic animal tear itself to pieces on the stage in front of you, the dismembered body parts grappling and struggling, before somehow fusing in a harmonic expression of unison and solidarity. And then, the night terrors recommence! I recently had the good fortune to see this joyful, spiteful cycle of decomposition and reformation play out in Manchester (so much to answer for), and found myself thinking about how this form of expression relates to contemporary philosophies of the self.
Photo by Sarah Graley
Post-modernist philosophy has challenged traditional ideas of the self as a single, unitary concept. The demands of life are myriad and often contradictory, and thinking, feeling or behaving in the same way across all situations would be impossible. Therefore more recent thought has conceived of the self as a fragmented concept, comprised of multiple aspects that think, feel and behave in very different ways. The dynamics between these different fragments, or configurations, are what give rise to the self as a whole. Each of these configurations is a pattern of thoughts, feelings of behaviours that together are conceptualised by the individual as reflecting a certain distinct aspect of themselves. For example, in therapy, a client might describe that a part of herself feels like a ‘little girl’ who is vulnerable and seeking protection, while another part of her feels like ‘a real bitch’ who takes pleasure in causing upset to others. When these configurations become overly dissociated from each other, it can lead to split-personality disorder, but a healthy balance between these voices is a normal and psychologically protective way of being.
Photo by Sarah Graley
Bearing this fragmented view of the self in mind, take a look at the attached photos from the of Montreal show. There are tons of people in costume: escaped mental patients, Mexican wrestlers and fish-headed demons. This might suggest that of Montreal is a band writing about lots of different characters with different stories to tell. This isn’t strictly true. Of Montreal is really the one-man recording project of Kevin Barnes, and the majority of the songs from his recent albums have been about one thing: the ups and downs of his own marriage from his perspective. The other musicians onstage are there to flesh out Barnes’s songs and they contribute a lot. But there is no mistaking that this show is all Kevin Barnes. On his records, Barnes often multi-tracks his voice, so he can harmonise with multiple versions of himself. What all this implies is that the different costumed dancers are all part of Barnes, they are all different configurations of his own personality. The gurning guys in straightjackets could reflect the madness of his love, the Mexican wrestlers might expose the violence and theatricality of his being in an unstable relationship, while who knows what the fish-head on stilts could represent?
Photo by Sarah Graley
These configurations of Kevin Barnes’s self-concept are present the whole time, in dynamic relationships with each other. Person-centred theorists believe that allowing all the configurations of the self to express themselves is a healthy way of existing, even when those configurations are destructive or unpleasant. The of Montreal live show is a celebration of the ever-changing dynamics between the different fragments of the core of one person’s humanity, where each configuration is allowed a voice. Sometimes these voices talk over each other, creating a disharmonic mess of noise, out of which can rise the beautiful sound of different parts of our selves responding individually to unique situations.
Recently on my counselling psychology course I learned about a procedure known as Focusing, which is sometimes used in the Person-Centred Approach (PCA) to therapy. Focusing is a technique used to bring attention to an internal feeling that is directly experienced, but can’t be as of yet articulated into words. This can make these pre-verbal feelings more tangible and ready for discussion in therapy. I have recently come across a piece of electronic music that for me helps with this process. James Blake’s Klavierwerke EP is a series of four songs that continue to startle me in how they force me to focus on my inner senses that are not yet at a point where they can be verbalised.
Focusing was originally conceptualised by the American philosopher and psychotherapist, Eugene Gendlin, in the 1960s. His procedure for Focusing is based around four main steps:
1) Clearing a space: This involves bringing attention to the centre of one’s body and feeling what concerns are present. These concerns should be held at a suitable distance from our attention, where they are close enough to be felt and examined, but not so close that they are overwhelming.
2) Felt sense: This is where the focuser chooses which of their concerns is of chief importance. Though the problem may be comprised of many aspects, it should be thought of as a whole, in order to give an overall sense of what the concern feels like.
3) Handle: Here the focuser attempts to find a word or phrase that summarises how the concern physically feels. This could be something like ‘heavy’ or ‘fluttering’ or it could be an image like ‘a pan full of simmering water’ or ‘a knot in my chest’. The description is then explored to ensure that the focuser is sure that it accurately represents their concern.
4) Asking: Finally, the focuser asks themselves why the concern feels the way they have described it. Asking this question should result in a feeling of release and a sense of direction in how to proceed.
The reason that I find James Blake’s Klavierwerke EP to be relevant to the Focusing procedure is that his music provides the perfect environment in which to try the technique. ‘I Only Know (What I Know Now)’ works particularly well for the process. This song sounds as though it is coming from the inside of the listener. Part of this feeling I attribute to the lack of comprehensible vocals. No words are articulated, but the sporadic handclaps and breathy moans actually make the track feel more human than most songs filled with lyrics. The contrast of this almost painful, lonely humanity with the deep, intense silences gives the listener an opportunity to calmly examine their concerns. The steady drum beat and the piano and television static noise forces the listener inwards into their own physical core. Here they can concentrate on what the felt sense of their own individual problem is and how it relates to what they are hearing. I think this is the point at which the song is at its most powerful. By providing the listener with the physically human sounds of breathing sighs, heartbeats in handclaps, the steady pounding of blood in the gut, and intense guttural moans, the listener can gain a handle on their own concern. The song’s fragile human physicality allows the listener to catch the physical feel of their problem and in the weighty silences, ask themselves why they feel that way.
Focusing is a difficult topic to write about; as by it’s nature it is the examination of the processes that have not yet surfaced in the verbal areas of the mind. The title of this blog post, ‘Basic Space’ comes from a song by The XX, another artist that explores the physicality of sound in a minimalist way. That particular song seems to almost perfectly describe the first step of the Focusing procedure as, ‘Basic space, Open air. Don’t look away when there’s nothing there’. This clearing of mental space is followed by the intensely physical image of getting into a ‘pool of boiling wax’, the felt sense of the suffocating relationship that is being sung about. I think that music such as ‘I Only Know (What I Know Now)’ and ‘Basic Space’ can help shed light on the Focusing technique and assist in its use. By doing this, we can feel the great release characteristic of truly understanding the emotional effects that our problems are causing, and how they make us physically feel.
‘Open up your, open up your
Open up your throat
And let the all of that time
All of that time, all of that time go.’
‘Brother Sport’ by Animal Collective.
‘In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth.’
The first entry in this regular feature on different therapeutic models is on the Person-Centred Approach (PCA). I’ve chosen to start with this because it’s the simplest therapeutic model to describe, although certainly not the easiest to practice. The band I most associate with PCA is Animal Collective, as to me they exemplify all the core qualities of this approach.
Carl Rogers, the founder of PCA, believed that the success of therapy is dependent not on the techniques or strategies deployed by the therapist, but rather on the qualities they communicate to their client. The three qualities believed by Rogers to be both necessary and sufficient to psychological healing are empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. If a therapist exhibits these three qualities in their relationship with their client, then Rogers believed that the therapy would be successful. The focus was on ‘being’ with the client in order to understand their unique and subjective view of the world, rather than an expert ‘doing’ a therapy to the client in order to bring them around to the therapist’s view.
Animal Collective are a band that exude these core qualities throughout their work, but particularly so in their song, ‘For Reverend Green’. The song’s title is not only a reference to legendary soul singer and pastor, Al Green but also seems to be a homophonic pun on the phrase ‘forever in green’. These words suggest that humans are inherently natural and good, and that people only do bad things because of their circumstances. The following lines are a powerful exploration of the core conditions of PCA:
‘Now I think it’s all right we’re together
Now I think that’s a riot
Now I think it’s the best you’ve ever played it
Now I think that’s a riot
Now I think it’s all right to feel inhuman
Now I think that’s a riot
Now I think it’s all right, we’ll sing together
Now I think that’s a riot.’
I’m going to discuss these lines as though they were addressed to a client from a therapist using PCA. Firstly, they communicate empathy, an understanding of the human condition. They acknowledge the emotions present as being justified under the circumstances of the client (‘it’s all right to feel inhuman’). Secondly, the lines are genuine, the therapist gives his authentic reaction to the client’s words (‘I think that’s a riot’). There is no masking of the therapist’s real feelings. Thirdly, unconditional positive regard is given. Whatever the client does, the therapist will accept the client without judgement or rejection (‘I think it’s all right we’re together’).
Interestingly, that same song explores what happens when no psychologically healing relationship is present in an individual’s life.
‘From one moment to a next
Red negativity in the street
Maybe it’s the earth, maybe it’s the heat
A baby on the bus smiled at me so easy.’
This verse touches on the idea that we are all born psychologically healthy and that it is with negative experiences and particularly damaging relationships that we lose this. This is further explored in a verse that examines the freedom of childhood, where life is unhindered by poor quality relationships that fail to provide the three core conditions:
‘A running child’s bloody with burning knees
A careless child’s money flew in the trees
A camping child’s happy with winter’s freeze
A lucky child don’t know how lucky she is.’
An important concept held by Rogers was that people naturally have what he referred to as a self-actualising tendency. Rogers was a keen gardener and drew parallels between the intrinsic nature of plants to strive for growth and life and the basic need for humans to reach their full potential. The Animal Collective song, ‘Brother Sport’ deals with this concept. The title is another homophonic pun, as when repeated, it sounds like, ‘brother, support your brother, support’. This is in itself indicative of a loving relationship that provides Rogers’ three core conditions of empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. The following lines are repeated a great number of times, becoming a mantra:
‘Until fully grown
You got a real good shot
Won’t help to hold inside
Keep it real, keep it real, shout out.’
I think that these lines acknowledge the importance of an empathic relationship which allows the individual to be fully understood by another (‘won’t help to hold inside’). and support Rogers’ plant metaphor whereby humans have an innate desire for self-improvement and growth (‘until fully grown’). This song also reflects the emotional power unlocked by such a psychologically healing relationship. By being shown the three core qualities, the client can self-actualise. Not only are these ideas explored in the lyrics, Animal Collective songs are often characterised by a honeyed warmth that gradually builds into a joyful outpouring of emotion that to me represents the achieving of increased self-actualisation. In these songs, we see the entirety of the therapeutic process in its simplest form: communicating the core conditions of empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard which nurtures growth and life and leads to self-actualisation.
A key concept in psychoanalysis is the innate human drive towards self-destruction. Freud wrote about this unconscious instinct towards annihilation and death as an opposing force to the drive for life and growth. This ‘death drive’ is often referred to as Thanatos, named after the personification of death in Greek mythology, while the ‘life drive’ is known as Eros. Freud described this death drive as ‘an urge to return to an earlier state of things’. This destructive regression that fights against the instinct to live, grow and reproduce is a common theme in today’s society. Terrorism, Lars von Trier’s film ‘Antichrist’, and the desire to smoke (as pointed out in the very first episode of Mad Men) could all be perceived as examples of Thanatos.
In 2002, The Mountain Goats released ‘Tallahassee’, a concept album themed around the breakdown of a marriage. The focal song of the record is ‘No Children’, a spitting, despairing plea for destruction of the singer, the singer’s wife and the entire world. However, this is not a defeatist song. Death and ruin are not presented as desirable because they are an easy way out – they are something to be savoured and cherished. The destruction begins on a relatively small scale.
‘I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight.
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it’s already too late.’
Here the singer is praying that whatever ways in which problems were being dealt with in his marriage fail and that it is past the point where reconciliation is possible. Soon after comes the anthemic ‘I hope you die, I hope we both die’ which is sung with a significant pause between the first and second halves of the phrase. This makes the listener initially believe that the singer is looking for an escape from his wife so he can be free. However, when we hear ‘I hope we both die’, we come to understand that what the singer is actually yearning for is total annihilation. In a later verse, we hear more about this apocalypse.
‘I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over.
And I hope you blink before I do
And I hope I never get sober.’
This desire for the situation to deteriorate even further in a greater hopelessness is characteristic of Freud’s death drive. The only possible way for such a downward spiral to end is the nothingness of death. However, the song’s true power comes in the way the final verse shows how the drive for death and the drive for life can intertwine.
‘I am drowning
There is no sign of land.
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand.’
Thanatos and Eros are hand in hand, just like the husband and wife. The desire for possession of another and for intimacy is mixed with the bitter hatred and desire for mutual destruction until the two drives are indistinguishable. The two characters, and the two drives, are inseparable and will forever be impossibly attracted to each other despite their irreconcilable differences. It is impossible to say whether this incongruence is responsible for psychological disturbance and mental health problems or instead whether it actually provides the balance required to exist in an uncertain world.