Main character syndrome: 2021 was the year of the narrator

Squid © Holly Whitaker

Words by:
Photography: Rosie Foster, Rich Gilligan, Machine Operated, Holly Whitaker, Steve Gullick

“The climate was changing, like the character of the land.”

This is a line from the 1967 experimental sci-fi novel Ice by Anna Kavan – a dreamlike odyssey of climate breakdown and gendered violence, often heralded as far ahead of its time. The book tells the story of an unnamed narrator chasing an elusive woman who is in the grips of a violent lover, as the world is eclipsed by a giant sheet of ice. It reads like a parable for our era of global heating, sexual abuse reckonings, post-Brexit fuel crises and pandemic mismanagement. But that isn’t why Squid have a song about it.

“It’s a book that really opened my eyes to non-linear storytelling, and how that same process can be applied to song structures and lyrics,” says Ollie Judge – the band’s lead vocalist and drummer, discussing the song Peel St. from their debut album, Bright Green Field. The track stands as a tribute to Kavan, but although it’s the only track on the record written in the thick of lockdown, it wasn’t directly inspired by the grand themes of our catastrophe-ridden zeitgeist. “I was really interested in the idea that Kavan used the novel as a metaphor for her struggles with addiction and mental illness,” he says. “It’s so interesting how it could be taken as an extremely dense and metaphorical autobiography as much as an experimental sci-fi novel. I think I’ve always really liked people who blur the lines between their actual and fictionalised self, like Larry David or Chris Eubank.”

Dry Cleaning © Steve Gullick

“I think there is attraction to seeing something laid in permanence when everything else does seem very ephemeral. I wonder if that’s a rarity when a lot of what we perceive is heavily filtered”

David Balfe, For Those I Love

Larry David and Chris Eubank: two men unused to being cited as influences on contemporary post-punk bands, but somehow, it feels apt. This year has been the golden age of the non sequitur, and Squid are one of the greatest to do it. Their track Narrator is a kind of manifesto for this songwriting approach: a national anthem for a generation of troubled narrators with main character syndrome, whose jagged thoughts are part products of faltering memories, part expressions of self in a crumbling modern world.

It’s a kind of upfront, at times absurdist social commentary that runs through much of this year’s most exciting music – and it doesn’t necessarily have to make literal sense. “It’s not what you are saying, it’s how you are saying it with your performance and emotion,” explains Wu-Lu, whose releases this year have shifted from woozy experimental R&B to cutting post-punk with a powerful clarity. “I’m always going to find myself talking about what is right in front of me. When I dropped South, that was a song that felt like it came out of me at a time where I was pissed off with a lot of stuff, and the year it came out was the tip of the iceberg. Things being intense in our day-to-day has heightened that for me.”

It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you can also find this amplified intensity in the verbal maelstrom of black midi or the internal strife of Black Country, New Road’s songs. The music press has been tentatively sketching out the boundaries of a new genre, though that beleaguered word ‘genre’ is possibly too encompassing for such a fragile thread. As NPR’s Matthew Perpetua put it in an article about what he termed ‘the post-Brexit new wave’: “Talking around it is awkward: ‘Uh, I’m really into these UK bands that kinda talk-sing over post-punk music, and sometimes it’s more like post-rock?’ But there is something happening in the United Kingdom and Ireland.”

Black Country, New Road © Rosie Foster
Squid © Holly Whitaker

Some critics have dubbed it ‘monologue rock’, focusing on the “I think there is attraction to seeing something laid in permanence when everything else does seem very ephemeral. I wonder if that’s a rarity when a lot of what we perceive is heavily filtered” vocal styles that are coming to the fore, especially that of out-and-out speak-singers like Dry Cleaning frontwoman Florence Shaw. This technique – sprechgesang, or spoken singing – can be traced back to Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century, or to post-punk pioneers like The Fall. Dry Cleaning have talked about how their style was inspired by Will Powers’ Adventures in Success, Grace Jones’ Private Life, Mark Murphy’s What a Way to Go, The Anemic Boyfriends’ Guys Are Not Proud, as well as listening to Susan’s House by Eels as kids. It’s a dizzying map of influences. And the same goes for other artists who could be cautiously included in the same trend, like For Those I Love.

A lot of the music that I’ve been attracted to at seminal points in my life have been made by artists who were extremely lyrical, and very focused on storytelling,” says For Those I Love, whose real name is David Balfe. The Irish musician released his debut album I Have a Love in the period following the death of his best friend, the spoken word artist Paul Curran. It’s a tender and raw masterpiece, combining vulnerability coloured by grief and expressions of love with uncompromising portrayals of his working-class upbringing in Coolock, Dublin.

© Rich Gilligan

“I would describe it as [artists who are] mouthy with their creations,” he says. “There’s just always this abundance of verbiage just again and again and again… I see the pathway between the stuff that I was interested in and the music I was making, and never really saw it as anything new or revolutionary.” But he’s open to considering that while relentless lyricism is a quality of music as old as time, there could be something about today’s world that’s pushing artists with this tendency to the forefront. Could it be something to do with living in a world of abstracted social media personas?

He’s cautious about speculating on what could be a glib point about ‘everything’s on social media these days’, but perhaps. “I think there is attraction to seeing something laid in permanence when everything else does seem very ephemeral…” he ponders. “People keep saying, like, ‘That’s so real.’ I wonder if that’s a rarity at a time when a lot of what we do and a lot of what we perceive is heavily filtered, heavily graded, heavily controlled.”

“We ended up writing an album where there wasn’t much to discern between a film, novel or bus ride as the start of something to talk about”

Louis Borlase, Squid

Balfe’s work stands as a tribute to Curran: a permanent monument of their friendship intercut with archival audio from good times shared. “One thing that’s important to me is memory,” he says. Listening to Balfe’s lyrics, it’s as if he sees memory as a collective endeavour: something achieved through storytelling. “I’ve done this thing for years with my friends where we tell each other the same story,” he explains.

“Something that happened to us all, something we all experienced, but we tell it from each person’s point of view. I think that helps you to remember more clearly, to get more colour brought back into your memory… One of the things that drew me to storytelling in the first place was to use that as a vehicle to preserve memories.”

While Balfe’s work is particularly personal, it’s an observational quality that resonates with bands like Squid. “From a lyrical perspective, Bright Green Field is an album-oriented on observation,” Louis Borlase from the band confirms. “All the information around us took the place of stories to be imagined as the basis of songs. We ended up writing an album where there wasn’t much to discern between a film, novel or bus ride as the start of something to talk about. The everyday was at the centre of the whole album, the mundane coming-of-age.”

Squid © Holly Whitaker

The surrealism of the band’s lyrics in part stems from producing these observations collectively. “I suppose there’s occasionally an absurdist element when we let conflicting narratives go alongside one another, written from different perspectives and from differing timeframes…” Borlase says. “With [the track 2010] I really liked how in order to make sense of the words, first we had to treat them as blocks of rhythm which then revealed the song’s actual meaning.”

It’s a collective approach to songwriting exemplified by Black Country, New Road, too, albeit not lyrically. “At the initial stages of writing songs, we very rarely make conscious decisions relating to what kind of music we’re going to make,” saxophonist Lewis Evans says. BC, NR’s collective approach leads to a tantalising sonic mix, from the minor key party music of klezmer to post-punk overtures, creating the perfect backdrop for the high-octane introspection of frontman Isaac Wood’s lyrical style. Like Squid, there’s a combination of the closely noted and the seemingly random: some of the band’s most memorable lyrics feel like repurposed snatches of real conversation – “leave Kanye out of this!”, “the absolute pinnacle of British engineering!” – akin to Dry Cleaning’s lyricism.

Black Country, New Road © Rosie Foster

Indeed, it’s Dry Cleaning’s Shaw who arguably perfected the art of 2021’s special brand of non sequitur, with lines like “a woman in aviators firing a bazooka” and “are thеre some kind of revеrse platform shoes that make you go into the ground more?” Her vocal work veers into bizarro oddity more than Squid, Wu-Lu or Black Country, New Road, but is perhaps even more rooted in observation and, in a sense, memory. Her method is to collect advertising slogans and other everyday ephemera in her notes app, then splice them together as lyrics. It’s equal parts absurdist and observational; a Dadaist kitchen sink drama.

But while Shaw’s lyrics might sound disjointed and nonsensical, this is just more non-linear storytelling, like the Anna Kavan writing style that inspires Squid. It may prove impossible to trace exactly what links these artists together. They respond to social themes, but they’re not political, and not explicitly satirical either. It’s as if the world is too pluralised, too splintered, to warrant the mono-narratives demanded by satire. Climate crisis and pandemic anxiety or even post-Brexit worries might provide a backdrop, but this isn’t an explicit theme. Instead, in a fleeting world, it’s the way these artists give expression to a unique, highly subjective and personalised form of narrative that chimes with contemporary listeners. A style of music that is collective and individual all at once. Unreliable, but meaningful. As Squid would put it: “I am my own narrator.”

Wu-Lu © Machine Operated

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