a single moment of vulnerability

The first half of 2017 was marked by both political turmoil (of the orange or avian types, depending on which side of the Atlantic you subscribe to) and — perhaps reacting to that political upheaval — an intense need for quiet, for whispered (or screamed) words of comfort, of relatability. 2017 part one was a test to the anxious, a marathon of searching for respite where often there was none to be found.

Frank O’Hara, in his My Heart, said: “the better part of [me], my poetry, is open.” This is a list of songs (and, often, by extension, albums) that held my hand and made public transport and waiting rooms less cold, less impersonal, in this first half of the year. Songs that made sensory overload turn simply into sensations, that gave meaning to headphones, to long walks alone, to solo ramen cups. Songs that touched on the vulnerable sides of their performers, and by extension, reminded me of my own.

(A coming-of-age playlist for the age of coming to terms.)

“I think I know who I am a little”

IU / Palette: A follow-up to her equally confessional 23, IU returns with Palette with a(n even) more mature view of herself and her own history within the idol industry, a clearer vision of who she is and what she still has ahead of her. Besides being one of the few able to bring down to earth one of the cockiest idols of K-pop (Midway through, G-Dragon comes in and raps, simply, I’m not ready, but I’ve become a grown-up, talking to IU herself about his own doubts but also offering reassurance about the future) IU also masterfully achieves the feat of revealing herself without showing too much, continues the pretend to be a fox that pretends to be a bear game from 23, but does so with the maturity of a woman who’s closer now to her thirties than she is to her teen years. It’s the end of an era (both for IU herself and for her same-age fans) but also the start of something perhaps a little more meaningful, if for no other reason, then at least because this new IU comes with the weight of lessons learnt — and personas shed — to back her up. At the very end of the song, IU harmonises with herself, almost shy: I still have a lot to say. She refuses to be silenced or limited, either by an industry that will likely soon start to question her relevance, or by her own past successes. She closes with a play on the words from the chorus: I’ve truly found / I know who I am a little, leaving the door open for deeper understandings of herself to unfold, later. On her own terms.

“Why won’t you ever say what you want to say”

Harry Styles / From the Dining Table: Hailing from a solo debut that sins for being too polished, too approachable (a quality often attached to Styles’s name) and that almost fell down the road of pastiche and reference for the sake of reference, From the Dining Table shows a side of Styles that we don’t see anywhere else in his self-titled album. Dining Table is, truth be told, still filled with tidbits of reference (one in particular that comes to mind, and that’s also permeated of half-said things, and mumbled heartbreak, is Paul McCartney’s Dear Friend from his little experimental 1971 album Wild Life.) but it avoids becoming just another guitar-led ballad by showing Styles exactly as he is: a former-boyband member who has just recently started to come to terms with the end of his own adolescence. Much like McCartney — another iconic nice boy from another iconic broken up boyband — he is at his best when he shows real personality behind the veneer of niceness. Alone in a hotel room, I never felt less cool, he sings, and it’s a confession one feels he almost doesn’t want to make, doesn’t want to share. There’s no doubt that Styles — understandably, considering he’s flying solo for the first time — thrives at the opportunity of harmonising with himself, the greatest of musical narcissistic acts, but Dining Table brings a touch of resigned desperation to his falsetto. He concludes his plea from the chorus with a but you never do, and it’s passive-aggressive, petty, and just the right amount of human. Comfortable silence’s so overrated.

“If my misfortune is your happiness, then I’ll be unhappy”

Suga (Agust D) / The Last: There’s a line in Hurricane, a sometimes overlooked song from the second act of Hamilton (the act where everything starts going to shit) where Lin-Manuel Miranda’s delivery is at its finest. He sings, about surviving his mother’s death, the destruction of his town: I couldn’t seem to die. He’s matter-of-fact, almost longing. Hamilton’s life is a story of repeatedly lucking out of dying — up until he can’t anymore. Lin-Manuel Miranda called Alexander Hamilton the embodiment of hip-hop: Fucked up childhood, fucked up adolescence, glory through his own hard work. When Min Yoongi (aka BTS’s Suga aka Agust D — a play on his stage name and his hometown rapping crew’s) released his first solo mixtape — some four years in the making and in the middle of his group’s rise to success — it surprised many. Not necessarily for how fast he could rap, or for how clever his wordplay was, but because of its content. Agust D is vulnerable in a way that borders on challenging, angry. It lays down its rotten bits for you the examine, and dares you to flinch. It’s flawed from beginning to end, juvenile at times, too shy at others. But none of that robs it of its value. Min Yoongi is dead: I killed him, comes the flat delivery right at the beginning of The Last. It sounds almost mocking. Of Suga himself, of his illness, of the state of his life. As it progresses, and as the story of The Last truly unfolds, Suga does not allow you for a second to forget what this song is about: The doctor asked me something, I said without hesitation that I’d been like that before. It’s the struggle of battling with mental illness, and with greed, and with recognising yourself while you stand between those two. His success, the idealised something that was supposed to give him a more solid sense of self, ends up, as Suga sings, making him feel like a monster — something else he can’t recognise. The repeated line in Hurricane — a song that marks the start of the end of Hamilton’s journey — is the spat out I wrote my way out. It’s Hamilton with gritted teeth, and about to open himself for all to see. From Seiko to Rolex, Suga brags in the chorus, listing how far he’s come since being an underground rapper in Daegu. But still it sounds questioning of its own value, afraid of whether the gamble of youth for success was (or will be) really worth it at the end.

“Then maybe I will see you, in the night I’ll see you”

Mitski / Happy: The best way I could ever find to describe Mitski’s music is that it makes me feel like I’m not being watched. It’s the sort of sound you play when you are at your most consciously alone — happily or not, literally or not. I like to do laundry listening to Makeout Creek, an album that made many of my friends cry but, as a teenage Laura Marling once said about Ryan Adams, only ever makes me strong. Mitski has that sort of power, of evoking an aloneness that doesn’t feel stifling. The train in Happy, the haunting voice, the bass sound, that keep circling back around between disappointments and bouts of joy, echo to me the mail train from Bob Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh: it gets nowhere and comes from nowhere, and still it keeps on going, helpless, helplessly. Mitski manages in Happy to remind of old blues motifs, of old country/folk simple heartbreaks (An I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you that rhymes so delicately, so unpretentiously) and still remains undeniably its own. Well I sighed and mumbled to myself again, I have to clean, she sings, repetition wrapped in repetition, a train rolling back around, and I’m brought back to being alone and unwatched, to simple, repetitive tasks. Puberty 2 is not a sequel to Makeout Creek by any means, but its core is the same: small bouts of living, fully, unscathed — not exactly running, but moving, still, despite everything.

“If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame”

Leonard Cohen / You Want it Darker: Rediscovering God at the very ripe age of 18 was not the revelation I had expected. It involved a lot of bargaining. A lot of give me the will to remain alive for the next three and a half hours and I will. Eat, even. My prayers for the past half a decade have leaned more towards Tevye talking to God in Fiddler On The Roof than to candles and whispered, reverent thanks. But no problem. God, as Yentl’s dad would say, understands. Or, even more terribly, we understand him. Leonard Cohen has always sang to and about God with the authority of someone who intimately knows his subject matter, who’s debated with the subject matter almost to exhaustion. Cohen sings a million candles burning for a help that never came, making sure God is always held accountable — if the shoe fits. Music, singing, used to be for God’s ears first, the holiest of offers. When Cohen sings here I am, here I am he isn’t just echoing Abraham’s (shaky, but still determined) answer to God in Genesis. He is reminding God of bargains made in the past. Cohen sings, near death and still talking about the same thing, to the same guy, I’m ready, my Lord — and it sounds nothing like defeat: It rings like a challenge.

Other songs that people who had the misfortune to live with me also listened to nonstop:

  • Elza Soares: Comigo // I carry my mother with me, / Maybe because we’re so alike
  • Paul Simon & Derek Walcott: Born in Puerto Rico // We came here wearing summer clothes in winter, / Hearts of sunshine in the cold
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hurricane // And when my prayers to God were met with indifference, / I picked up a pen, / I wrote my own deliverance
  • Nas: N.Y. State of Mind // I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death / Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined
  • Elba Ramalho: Lamento Sertanejo // Sou como rés desgarrada, / Boiada caminhando a esmo
  • Hillel Tigay: Shema
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