Nell’s music, in all its consistency, coherency, drastic differences, and evolutionary writhing of emotions, has been an elusive figure to me. The best way I understand their music is as a culmination of self-love, although not in narcissism, but more so as an act of self-preservation in the moment of dire failure of love of two, a weaving of insulation against the thrashing of “you”. Even in the most plain of their loves songs, Nell does not purely sing about the love of lovers or the sexually charged disparity between the “now” and the “memories”. However it certainly is of loss, of one manner or other, that becomes the preoccupation. Nell’s music career has been a sequence of elongated attempts at crystallizing this vacuity, the ever present but impossibly inarticulable absence.
In comprehending not only of the Music Video of “And, Things Left Behind” but also of the overall arc of the album, Slip Away, I attempted to put the cypher of John Berger intertext of And Ours Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos as shown in the MV in relation to Nell’s latest.
In dissecting Nell’s consideration of loss and absence, I would like to start with Berger’s words: “Once one lived in a seamless experience of wordlessness. Wordlessness means that everything is continuous. The later dream of an ideal language, a language which says all simultaneously, perhaps begins with the memory of this state without memories” (Berger 32).
Consider the cycle of water and how it flows as a rivulet, then as a collection of streams converging into a single confluence. They, as a one, roll toward the vastness of ocean. But at the ocean, the water evaporate and become a cloud. Cloud rains, falling simultaneously upon the window panes of a house five kilometers inland as well as a couple of beached lovers who are drenched in each other’s gaze.
When we say that the water flows, we imply that water flows towards something, whether it be an ocean or a more transcendent ideal of becoming the ethereal cloud. In this implication there is certain grounding of the notion of linear progression. Quite suggestive is the forward movement. But this forward movement is a falsity at best. As I mentioned earlier, consider the cycle of water.
I believe the seamlessness that Berger uses in his consideration of language, and the primordial state of the “ideal language” invites the cyclic water analogy. However, the seamless wordlessness is not the condition of our living. The contemporaries of our lives, those who walk, breathe and sing the same air as we do, are the lives that communicate through words. Then as suggested by the analogy, if language flows in a seamless and uncountable manner, then what does language do to disrupt this wholeness so that we may communicate?
Consider language and the individuated words that speckle pages as micro dams. Words and dam stop water and thought. Words put a pause, the point upon which the stream of consciousness may gather to elucidate oneself. Upon a word, whether it be “love” “hate” “you”, the ego of “I” stops and reflects itself. However, like a dam, the word cannot contain fully. It does not pose the permanent limit upon the thought. The word buys us time, so that we may consider its flow, its stopped flow, and its being. Dam, with use and time, becomes worn. It breaks, a chip at a time perhaps. But the concrete Goliath, the threshold of movement, fails.
The stream begins again.
Poems (as well as song lyrics) are exceptionally well suited for such task of rumination, because it is not hindered by the forward movement of linear progression as other forms of narratives may do. Lyric poems in particular come with certain impetus and desire to stop time, and to cultivate itself in that frozen frame. It is not hard to see the sense of fraternal bond that song lyrics share with poetic modus operandi, especially if we account for the repetitious musical backdrop.
I would like to propose that the same movement of “stop. consider. move on.” is what is at stake with Slip Away. Time in Nell’s music has consistently been amorphous, in a sense that it fluctuates back and forth, sometimes coexisting in a single sentence: “It won’t be easy, when the tears that the leaving heart had to shed and the ones shed by the heart staying behind were so uneven” (”Standing in the Rain” Slip Away). There is the promise of future (It won’t be easy), certainty of past (when the tears that the leaving heart had to shed), and the vacuity of the present “I” (and the ones shed by the heart staying behind were so uneven). There is the fracture between you an I, not just in the conventional sense of parting but in a more profoundly egoistic sense of temporality. “You” and “I” no longer occupy the same time zone.
Sentences, as rich as the one I examined, invite one to muse on the nature of love, parting, and you and I. The lyricism of the band is extremely egoistic. Unflinching and unapologetic in its need for self-preservation in the wake of tragedy of parting, the break-up or self-doubt. The vacancy of “you” amounts to exceptional evocation and amplification of “I”.
“I” will replace the “you” when “you” leaves “me”.
Where “you” leaves, “I” will live.
However, if there is such a finality of disjunct—in that the we will never be another we—then why does Nell sing?
Is it in mourning? Is it a lament, or is it celebratory?
Perhaps it is all of the above, but what I would like to draw attention to is the sentiment that is less than savoury. It is one of entrapment, to be mired into the loss.
Another great example of the ego’s inability to escape the whirl of temporality is seen in “Go”. In the starting lines of the song (pun not intended), “On your mark, get set, go,” the narrative voice of the song is that of a command. It is authoritative. It demands to be heard and obeyed. However, all this authority is undercut and dissipates when the subsequent line, “Just go,” is sung. The demand to see that “you” (whether it is a person or the fragments of memories that the rest of the lyric implicates) dissapear, loses its edge of authority, and it falls into a plea. It beseeches that the “you” let go of “I”. There is this desire to be freed from the memories of winter, Seoul, mirrors, and all the other images of time.
But I would like to assert that there isn’t a strict binary between the “you” and “I”. This parting between divisible “me” and “you” is not merely a singular or monotonous affair. I would like to conceive of Nell’s egoism as a mode of opening to the “other”. By the process of intense inward observance, the lyric implicates inversion of seeing, the moment of conversion from “I” to “You”. This movement is perhaps best articulated in Berger’s words, “At the moment of revelation when appearance and meaning become identical, the space of physics and the seer’s inner space coincide: momentarily and exceptionally the seer achieves an equality with the visible. To lose all sense of exclusion; to be at the center.” (italics added) (Berger 52). By being in the centre, the ego is able to cohere to the “other”. Whilst there may be the centre, in a sense that it processes the experiences and articulates them, there is no fringe. This particular concept of whole that is totally inclusive is quite troubling, but the effort put forth by the band is quite something.
So what does Slip Away do to contend with this ever increasing anxiety to return home, to the place and the contour of “you”? It has created a spatially self-aware album, where all the melodies and beats, subtle invocation and the ultimate susurrus of love are compounded upon each other in a cyclical manner. The album does not seem to divest itself in a singuarly memorable beginning or an ending. This is true of both the language (i.e. Titles) and sound (i.e. Composition).
The album kicks off swinging with “The Ending” and ‘ends’ with “Slip Away”. In the dire paradox of starting the album with an end, Nell prepares itself and the audience to return again and again to the ‘beginning’ of its album. Even if the audience arrives at the ‘end’ of the album, they will never fully grasp upon a catharsis, a denoument or an appealing closure.
There is to be no end in sight.
There is nothing to hold onto, the final signified slips in between our fingers. What we have at the end of the day is a Saussurian play of signifiers. We slip in and out of each other’s gaze, grasp, touch and being. The album is a paradox. The album is where all these slippages of being, of “I” and “you”, congeal. It stops us, although only briefly.
We are water. We are language. We are the faces that are brief as photos.
Berger, John. and our faces, my heart, brief as photos. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. Print.