Tuesday, 6 May 2008

PORTISHEAD: Silence


"She saw a dim spot of artificial red moving round the shoulder of the rise. It disappeared on the other side."
(Thomas Hardy, Far From The Madding Crowd, chapter XXVIII: "The Hollow amid the Ferns")

There is now a new blue in the air, which will eventually make it harder to breathe; I woke up in Tory London on this Bank Holiday weekend and perhaps I should have written about the Pretenders song "My City Was Gone" but there are more pressing songs to sing. I still find it almost impossible to believe that this city which I thought I knew would elect a virtual fascist to run them for the purposes of "entertainment" and making "a change," in the same way that Pinochet was a change from Allende but I hear the braying boasts in pubs and cafes around me, impossible to escape in this heat, the Horst Wessel-esque shouts of "WE WON!" But how?

We can blame the suburbs, blame the Evening Standard, blame Livingstone for not remaining an independent - but then the latter is like permitting Labour to not be a socialist or even a particularly left-wing party. That someone deploying the same vocabulary and outlook, exactly four decades after another maverick Tory's nonsense about "rivers of blood," doesn't only demonstrate (again) that people who watch history but will not learn from it will repeat its mistakes, but also the rotten bark of the New Labour tree which, in the end, is to blame for Johnson's triumph. Even Thatcher at her least merciful drew the line at doubling the taxes of the poor while leaving billionaire oligarchs free of any tax burden in order to propagate the illusion that Britain is still a leading world power, as opposed to a duller Dubai, a glorified tax haven/arms dump/Third World nation with paranoid delusions of grandeur, whichever way people want it to lead.

And I'm afraid we must also blame ourselves; the supposedly active public ultimately happy to let things work themselves out, even though we should have been taught that they never do, secure in protecting our personal pleasures and whims even though humanity is likely to become extinct by dubious virtue of its unshakeable and finally fatal fetish towards the internal combustion engine, watching others freeze or starve to death because their utility bills have been increased beyond bearability in order to subsidise the lifestyles of anonymous international shareholders who employ others to look at their bank accounts.

Anywhere else...a revolution. And I find painfully little reflection of this daily diminution of the world in contemporary music, or writers' reactions to music. As in politics, the old order has re-established itself, the myth of meritocracy demolished to reveal the same old cracked gargoyle of a system where, after all, how far you get in life depends upon who your parents are, which school or university you went to, whom you got or were persuaded to know; whether X-Factor or Brit School, the aim is to reinstate a permanent 1953 where everyone knows their place on pain of something worse than death (the real consuming poison in society today is not the fear of death, but fear of the bailiffs). Our theoretical response has proved a failure, whether hauntologists burying their necks in a misremembered childhood to avoid having to deal with now and today, or poptimists who felt that fun would quench everything, even though all unquestioned or unsubstantiated "fun" did in the end was fuel the fiires of the revenge of the Right (voting for Boris because he might bring "fun" back to London, Busted and their fellow Conservative youth movements now standing as a ghastly prelude to this grim acceptance of pushing London, and eventually Britain, back to spank them for even thinking that the last half century happened). We thought - I see now mistakenly, and grievously so - that people would be wise enough to see through the Child Catcher facade of New Conservatism and we could proceed with scintillating fan fictions and let boring old politics take care of itself, only to find that "boring old politics" is now likely to have swept away the futures of most of us.

Not in whose name?

And into this sit down and be counted nightmare scenario, enter, after a decade's gardening leave, Portishead.

A Brazilian Portuguese radio voice (after Zeca?), explaining "the rule of three" (Third is the album, in both studio number and title), and warning of "this lesson you must learn - you only get what you deserve" as nightclub piano and brushes tune up in the background, all suddenly swept away by nuclear raid siren guitar, thunderous cardboard box beats and miscellaneous noises emanating from a zoo now insane, sepulchral Moog bass digging a country of graves, guitar wildly weaving and bleeping from octave to octave, and is that a cowbell or a ticking death clock? An impatiently urgent tempo, with the same cold grandeur of "Rawhide" or "Cossacks Are...," apocalyptic stallions heralding the end over the plainer plains, a far-blown undertow of neurotic strings which could have come straight from Septober Energy.

She enters at 2:10:

"Tempted in our minds,
Tormented inside life,
Wounded and afraid inside my head,
Falling through changes."

And nothing else in 2008 abruptly sounds as urgent, as beaten. "Did you know when you lost?...Do you know what I wanted?" Is she singing to anyone? Her voice is suppressing hysteria like a finger in the least holy of dams; an expectation of destructive flood, "empty in our hearts, crying out in silence." The requiem already sounding for the last battle where the good guys lost.

Crowd noises, separated by an unfunny plex of unbreakable glass.

Two 'cellos, trying to lend a dying air of authority and tenderness to this hammering song which nails a new soul with every second, the gas, the screams, the final realisation of the horrible mistake that we have made, the impossibility of reversibility, a rush for the dividing line of time which makes Madonna and Justin's four minutes even more absurd and hypocritical (since they're only thinking of saving their world) and at 4:59 the thing is cut off entirely, the coil snapped, five minutes and they were almost there and it wasn't enough but then a birth well could