Thursday, 30 July 2020

Out of Kilter: on 'All Living Can Anyone Be Here'

On songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here.


I am walking along Creek Road from Greenwich to Deptford, just passing the Tesco Express, on a quite ordinary chilly winter’s weekday, close to midday. The next junction is the corner of Deptford Church Street where you have to wait for the lights in order to cross the road as the traffic filters into the turning from a number of different directions. The work on the Thames Tideway super sewer has caused various reroutes of the traffic, resulting in continually changing reconfigured traffic flows and temporary road crossings; negotiating the junction is as confusing for the pedestrian as probably it is for drivers. Ahead of me, roughly halfway between me and the junction, is a woman, walking slowly. She is wearing a large parka with the hood up, a ‘snorkel’ style hood with a lining made of some kind of fur-like material, which I can see from behind as a kind of fuzzy halo. I’m walking faster and catch up with her fairly quickly. Just as I’m about to walk past she stops and turns. I am almost immediately behind her and she seems slightly startled, with the hood blocking her peripheral vision she’s unaware that I am there until she turns, and while I’m not so close that I bump into her, I am close enough that had she turned a second later we might have collided. As I walk past she mumbles an apology and I notice that she clearly is, or has been, crying. Her tears have made her eye make-up (mascara, eyeliner, or similar) run down her face, the light brown colour of the streaks looks like dry blood. 

This image struck me as deeply affecting. I imagined this not to be an unusual occurrence, it seemed entirely possible, given the state of the world, of society, if you like, that people are routinely openly weeping in public, the ‘dry blood’ streaks on her face suggested not so much ghoulishness, but a mundane corporeality, a material symbol of the way things are for some. Perhaps there was an idea for a song driven by this image. 

I thought about the possibilities for this song, an early version consisted of something very close to the narrative description of the incident at the beginning of this piece. It gradually transmuted into a kind of response to a regular reviewer of my albums who, to my occasional bemusement, seems intent to read into my songs some kind of commentary on the state of society, or some such, that the songs might be “attempting perhaps to come to terms with the human condition”, disturbingly describing one as a “…suicide-inducing existential song…”, another as offering “…a bleak vision of the human condition…” and suggesting another as presenting “…may be what Ball thinks about the UK political state just now.”. 

These are readings in search of meaning, the reader brings an assumption to the text, an assumption of intended meaning, however the songs are more often produced as complex constructions of diverse material than they are direct reflections of, or personal expression about the state of the world. So for 'All Living Can Anyone Be Here' I decided that I would work with material that directly reflected on or reported about the conditions of life for people in the UK today, conditions which are a result of iniquitous government policy, austerity, poverty, and discrimination, gleaned from media reports and my own observations such as the one reported above, observations which suggest a pervasive state of anxiety, depression, a kind of general sadness, a condition echoed by Lucy Ellmann in Ducks, Newburyport when she states “…sometimes I think that today people must be the saddest people ever… I’m sure people haven’t always lived in such a constant state of alarm…”. 

I compiled newspaper and Twitter reports of suicide, the public despair of ‘professionals’ begging, homelessness, the upsurge in use of depression and anxiety medication, and so on, appropriated text directly from such sources and adapted it into lyric form. The grimness of the lyric exceeded my expectations as a ’snap shot’ view of contemporary Britain, it was, if anything, an almost parodic caricature of grimness, maybe something of a candidate for the saddest song ever written (which was its working title). If I were to continue use a more direct approach, a more straight forward narrative description of the instances would have potentially been rather voyeuristic, perhaps exploitative, a kind of disaster porn, or alternatively suggesting a phoney empathy with its subjects. Equally the song wasn’t to be an agent of social reform. I thought it was more interesting to present a more refracted broken landscape of the state of things, one that would distil the essences into a kind of textual material ambient intensity. To achieve this I used a tried and tested ‘cut-up’ method, introduced an alphabetical arrangement of the lines, and in this configuration what became the first verses was: 
all living can anyone be here, a woman who, abruptly faced, acute mania, all looked away, and he sells, anti-depressants, as anxiety levels, anxious withdrawn, apologise, appreciate, and I write, being released, benefits cut, blinkers her, blood trickling down, on childhood happiness...

…and so on. 

The cut-up fragmentation was intended to be less an avant-gardist disjunction, more to facilitate textual ambience, a striated refraction that echoes a distributed mundanity. The first line became the title and the title track of the album. I chose the title for the album because of its enigmatic slightly melancholic quality. Like the song it doesn't necessarily parse into ‘meaning’ as such, but hopefully resonates with a sensibility, an out of kilter quality that pervades the whole album. 

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