the sound you see

I have a new favourite, a new epic to love which is at least as joyous in this moment as I once found Sonic Youth’s odes to Karen, or the themed tracks of Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island.

I don’t aim to cheapen those classics by comparing them to Jack Garratt, the young musician who has exploded into the mainstream since New Year: rather I want to group him in with their richness.  Pop culture’s gatekeepers are still undecided on whether or not he will be accepted into the (alternative) canon, and whether or not hipsters will proudly display his name on their Spotify histories or hide him from view. But his new album Phase instantly appealed to all the parts of me which go cold at hierarchisation, and so I’m going to make my own appeal for him now.

Put on Jack Garratt’s ‘Synesthesia’, preferably all three parts in order. Take the first two minutes and twenty seconds of part one for yourself. Listen to the track’s simplicity and richness; register the playfulness in its production, the tastefulness of its musical choices.

It’s ‘Coalesce (Synesthesia Pt. II)’ that’s been on my mind for days. It’s sweetened every moment by playing in my mind, over and over, keeping me from sleep and pain and deepening every second of being alive. Synesthesia is the experience of one sense evoking another, and ‘Synesthesia’ brings to life that symbiotic pleasure: gorgeous, dreamlike major chords suspended on a ridge of positive emotion, it follows the ecology of the multiple orgasm, each note defined by its anticipation of the following few, cyclically, the joy of each carrying into the joy of the next. At one moment, the tinkling keyboard is distant, threatening the whole time to approach as Jack sings his wistful love. And then, suddenly, it breaks in, distorted,  expansive and heavy with aggression and desire.

It’s a simple bittersweet love song, and one day soon I will experience it as just that. But for now it’s a dreamscape, a world of its own which I can use to interpret and inflect mine.

A pressing question (and one I ask desperately as the song loses its power over me like a spent sexual fantasy) is: why, musically? How can I recover and replicate that effect?

As a teenager, I was working on becoming formally literate enough in music to pick out the precise musical features which trigger me, like I can with language. Some would argue for the necessity of understanding the affective work of music in this way, since, as I have been convinced by Les Back and Paul Gilroy, it has a significant effect on the way we construct our communities and decipher the world.

I left Music as a discipline because, at 16, I hadn’t been persuaded of that significance. Now my analysis has slipped back into the semi-mystical, and I relapse into describing only music’s magic and my sense of its perfection. But I’ll try and pinpoint what I mean. Listen to the first 48 seconds of ‘Synesthesia Pt. III’. Follow Jack’s vocals:

“I hope you know that if I have to go, it’s only if you want me to. I hope the sound you see could help you paint a picture of me and you.”

He says it twice in this time and on the second run through, he changes the final chord to a richer, fuller major chord in the background synth and piano, which underpins the half-resolution of the vocals, like a cheeky raised eyebrow or an electrifying half-smile across the room. (I know that’s not musical analysis, but I don’t have the words, or the ears to hear; I am deaf to explanations; I can only hear the images.)

Like me, Jack Garratt seems to love whatever harmonic musical device that is (I’ve given up). He uses it again in ‘Fire’ and ‘Remnants’ to pick out particular words and moments, and I never get bored of it. It’s a technique made even more palatable by his vocal simplicity and taste.

In ‘Remnants’, Jack Garratt teeters on the right side of every semitone, never failing to pick the most satisfying resolution to each chord. And yet I know deep down that something banal is going on, like when I found out that Blur’s ‘Out of Time’ only used a handful of chords, all of them fairly common and unexceptional.

Perhaps that’s the most important and affirming thing about this pleasure in music. The gentle nudging of a chord into the divine is easy enough to become quotidian. It’s everywhere, and yet that doesn’t stop it from working. It manages the same sorcery as music more generally: being utterly ubiquitous and yet still wonderful, an endlessly reliable fallback, exhaustible in each example and yet reinvented and renewed with each new and beautiful tune, lyric or harmony.

This isn’t an album review, but I’ll concede one thing – if the critics have panned this album (and I haven’t bothered to check), they will probably be dismissing it with fair descriptions: some of the tracks are hackneyed, others overdone. It’s derivative, and Justin Timberlake might want to sue for those vocal runs. But fuck the bourgeois ideal of divinely-inspired originality – in the material world of musical experience, I’m in love, fleetingly and passionately, and no reviewer’s logic can undermine that.


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