The Winter of Our Content XVII: Nebraska

Saying Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is an album for winter is saying nothing new. If you’ve not heard of this album, just look at that artwork. I can feel the slushy brown snow soaking its way up my socks now.

If like me, you went from the excitement of Born To Run and the romanticism of Darkness on the Edge of Town to the restrained, dour Nebraska, and thought holy shit where the fuck is everything and everyone (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and that’s it really – just The Boss by this point, no E Street Band), and then had to put Born in The U.S.A. on to cheer yourself up, give Nebraska another listen now while you wait for your socks to dry on the stove.

Whilst not out–and–out misery, with an ambiguity to the lyrics, Nebraska remains stark, bleak, solitary–listening music. The lyrics are about working class characters (generally men) at a moment of crisis; two brothers on opposite sides of the law (Highway Patrolman), an out of work man who gets 99 years for shooting someone during a robbery (Johnny 99) and streams of consciousness from men driving through the night with a lot on their mind (State Trooper and Open All Night). While sometimes this approach has resulted in Springsteen’s lyrics being favoured to the point of the music barely being there (I found this to be a recurring issue on later album The Ghost of Tom Joad), on Nebraska there’s a balance between this starkness with melodies and rhythms that feel more solid. That said, even livelier tracks like Johnny 99, Open All Night and Reason To Believe become a lot more downbeat upon closer listening. It’s this balance, paired with the lyrical search for hope in the gloom, that makes for a good winter listen; something to go on when it’s always dark, cold, miserable and the world seems against you. Even if it’s just in the form of wet socks.

Everything dies baby, that’s a fact
but maybe everything that dies
someday comes back

– Atlantic City.


Review ‘Em All: Julian Marchal, Insight III

Like most people (I think), I don’t like 90% of music, and like even more people (back me up here), I don’t like 99.9% of classical music (‘classical music’ in the common sense of the phrase, not the phase from 1750 to 1820 or whatever. You square). Apparently it’s full of great ideas, but apparently so is Oblomov, and sure as fuck that was a painful 586 pages. This is because I find it (‘it’ being classical music. Forget about satirical 19th Century Russian literature now) to be uninteresting, which is a shame for such a large body of work that, as stated, is purported to contain such a wealth of information. Bach gets mentioned by a lot of metal musicians, how he was the master of harmonies or something, but I’ll take the intro of Damage Inc. over O Jesu So Meek any day, so what the fuck do I know really.

Anyway, it’s nice when someone lives up to the bluster. Julian Marchal is a pianist who composes his own pieces, each of which is titled Insight and suffixed by a number. Insight III (the albums are titled along the same principle) takes us from Insight XXIV up to Insight XXXIII, with the liner notes stating

The Insight’s pieces are conceived […] to put the listener into the piano. The numeral numbers replace titles in order not to create mental images before listening to the music.

Marchal takes this concept of each song being each listener’s own insight and really makes it it work. Like the best instrumental music, the 10 pieces on Insight III tell stories without using words. The removal of the human voice gives these pieces an enigmatic quality, and with his songwriting and playing laid bare with only a piano at hand there is a poignancy and contemplative quality that are endlessly attractive.

As you make have guessed by my opening jeremiad, I’ve never gotten into classical music, so I don’t know who Marchal could be compared to, if anyone. However, the universal appeal in Marchal’s playing is in his melodies. His playing is mainly comprised of homophonic (one note at at time) melodies (think of the intro to Sweet Child O’Mine) rather than chord progressions (think of, say, Knees Up Mother Brown). This isn’t necessarily the better way of doing things, but it does allow Marchal’s knack for a melody to shine through. The highlight of album is fifth track Insight XVIII, with its rolling and dark lines, fading into silence without resolution before returning muted and ambiguous. The recording doesn’t have as much of a close–up feel compared to Insight II – there’s no creaking of the piano – but there is still a tactile quality to the piano underneath a natural reverb.

As stated, classical music, much like certain metal sub–subgenres (from France or otherwise), has a niche audience, but trust me on this one; roll over Beethoven, back up Bach, cease transmissions Classic FM, Marchal’s the man with the insight.

Insight III is out now on Whale Records.