Fans of The National were anticipating sixth album Trouble Will Find Me with equal degrees of anticipation and fear. How on earth do you come back after the shivering perfection of High Violet? Importantly, they didn’t try to make the same album again, and someone got lighter and darker at the same time. First taster Demons wasn’t much to get excited about, and it’s an odd choice of lead single. It’s pleasant, but it meanders, and the middle eight moving into the minor resolve of the chorus is really the only moment that pricks up the ears. The rest of Trouble Will Find Me, however, is slow-burning magnificence. Graceless packs a punch, Don’t Swallow The Cap is burrowing unease, and Sea of Love’s ever-changing structure is both euphoric and troubling. I Need My Girl is The National at their most raw, a pleading refrain of ‘I need my girl’ set against a series of strange little vignettes (‘Remember when you lost your shit and drove your car into the garden? You got out and said you’re sorry to the vines and no one saw you’), and while it will doubtless be used to soundtrack break ups in dozens of heartfelt indie dramas, its no poorer a song for it. Pink Rabbits – like Sea of Love, it evolves into three songs over its four minutes – stands along with their finest work, with Matt Berringer at his lyrical best: ‘I was a television version of a person with a broken heart. And everybody was gone.’
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Today, Iain Banks announced that he is terminally ill. Several articles about what an imaginative and talented writer (and by all accounts, a smashing guy) he is have already appeared online, and countless more will doubtless follow, but shouting into the void or not, I felt it would be wrong not to say something about how much his writing has given me.
My first encounter with his work was eleven years ago when The Bridge popped up on my university reading list. I knew who he was, and I recognised those black and white book covers, but for whatever reason, I had never picked any of his books up before. The Bridge, for want of a better term, was a revelation. I hadn’t read anything like it before. It was an absolute labyrinth of ideas, different voices weaving in and out of each other’s stories and a conceit that, once understood, blows the whole thing open. The irregular beeping on the phone, the endless bridge that may circle the globe, Dissy Pitton’s, the bar where the furniture hangs on chains from the ceiling: it’s dizzyingly rich in memorable images. It’s not so much writing as it is architecture: the result is this incredible structure that you just want to keep taking in. I inhaled it first time round, and can’t count the number of times I have re-read it since.
I gorged on his back catalogue, and have eagerly awaited every subsequent book (his astoundingly prolific output means that he has pretty much written a book a year since the year after I was born), falling in love with the playfulness and seriousness of his craft. It’s a unique voice, but one that is extremely versatile. That the same writer conjured the wide-eyed naivety of Isis in Whit and the grizzly, gory nastiness of Complicity is difficult to believe, and yet makes perfect sense. And then you have The Crow Road: often cited as having one of the best opening lines in literature (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”), it wraps three generations up in one web of jealousy and inadequacy which is both tremendously sad and somehow humorous. The TV adaptation with Joe McFadden, Peter Capaldi, Bill Paterson and a questionable denim shirt dress is also well worth investigation.
It’s the way he plays with time that I’ve always enjoyed. Many of his books don’t have a linear structure, a constant concealing and revealing which is difficult to resist. Hell, for most of The Bridge, you don’t even know who the protagonist is. There is an unmistakable Scottishness too, but it’s never tokenistic: it’s a genuine part of the characters, and they happen to be Scottish rather than it being their defining trait. After years of reading fiercely Scottish writing at school and university, it was hugely refreshing, and as an aspiring fiction writer, I found it genuinely inspiring. There is an incredible sense of possibility throughout his work. Plus he swears a lot. Like I said, a genuine voice.
The release of his next book, The Quarry, has been moved forward so that he has ‘a better chance of being around to when it hits the shelves‘, so we have one last new work to enjoy, but it’s little comfort. We are losing an incredible talent, and if there is any solace to be found it’s that his brilliant, bafflingly diverse works will remain.
This should be enough evidence of why this band needs attention:
Playing at Glasgow’s excellent new-ish venue Broadcast last week, they were as exciting and refreshing as you could ask, a welcome affirmation of what live music can be. Listening reveals a real craft to their songs, an embarrassment of sheer musicianship, yet live, it looks effortless. Inventive, energetic and – there’s no other term for it – so damn funky. There wasn’t a still pair of feet in the house.
Good God, Rod Jones, where have you been hiding this? A second Birthday Suit album is in progress, and after last year’s excellent The Eleventh Hour, hopes were high, but not quite this high. Less Worthless Years is joyous, impossibly infectious and utterly bonkers, and it’s their best yet. The same sense of euphoria as Idlewild’s Readers and Writers with a proper shot in the arm, it’s one of those songs that’s almost over too soon, but as a piece of inventive guitar pop, it’s pretty much perfect. Available to download from Monday 9th.
Four weeks, a severe case of laptop back, a ridiculous plot twist and a few inter-character relationships that seemed to develop of their own accord, and National Novel Writing Month is over.
So, 29 days and 50,082 words. I never quite wanted to give up but there were moments where I wondered what the hell I was doing. Trying to write in a way I hadn’t tried before often left me feeling like every word I was writing was utterly ridiculous, particularly when I ended up going with the aforementioned nonsensical twist. But at the same time, writing without a brief or an editor to file to, trying only to hit a word count and nothing else was pretty liberating. Hell, the thing didn’t even have to make sense, and it doesn’t, not really.
Mr Shaky managed to complete his 10 song challenge (have a listen here), and our flat becomes a sociable place to be again. Normal ranty music service will resume shortly, but for now, I’m off to bask in the glow of not writing, just for a little while.
Well, I said I’d see you at 35,000, and I’m almost there. 34,207 at the last count, so if I get in 2,300 words a day for the next week, I can meet the deadline.
Last week was a strange one and I did a bit of a plot u-turn. My usual attempts at fiction are always about things that could actually happen, and thanks to the ridiculous twist that I somehow decided was a good idea, this one starts in the every day and ends in, well, it’s anyone’s guess as I haven’t quite decided how on earth it’s going to end or what the motivation for this ludicrous plot is going to turn out to be. But hey, I’ve got one week and 15,800 words in which to figure it out. Plenty of time.
Current listening: Afraid of Everyone by The National.