Note: Paint It Back is a new series where writers and friends will look back at some of their favourite albums from the past.
We also spoke to James Graham about the record. You can read that interview here.
I’ve always found something thrilling and wholly satisfying in discovering and recognising novelistic references within songs. The act of immersing yourself within a book – inventing worlds within the text, forming bonds with the characters therein – remains a brilliantly insular and independent act. Unexpectedly unlocking a subtle reference to these worlds and old friends within an album, a song or just a single line, feels something like the sharing of a secret; a sly nod of the head, a subtle wink of an eye.
Jeffery Eugenide’s quite-brilliant 1993 debut The Virgin Suicides was a tour-de-force of a novel, that, on the surface, dealt with the listlessness and pitfalls of teenage life and familial relationships but, upon reflection, was also a commentary on the voyeuristic stylings of society. The key to the novels success lay in the way that Eugenides almost entirely withheld key pieces of information; never revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of the Sisters who provided the novel with its morbid subject matter.
Choosing to exclusively tell the story through the eyes of a neighbour meant that we only ever saw tiny fragments of the full picture that slowly unveils alongside the girls suicides; in fact, we learn more about their plight from the ever-diminshing state of their physical home than we do from their own actions. This deliberate ambiguity creates a genuine sense of wonder around the key characters, and results in a yearning to know and discover more, echoing the frustrations of the narrator and making the eventual outcomes even more poignant and harrowing. Whenever tragedy occurs, even more so in this day and age, we, as members of a community, have an urge to learn all the details and nuances about it; who, where, when and what. What Eugenides novel does so brilliantly is to point out that when human suffering is involved, one can discover every cold fact and still not be any closer to working out ‘why‘. It is, in part, what makes us so unique.
In 2007, The Twilight Sad released their debut LP Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters. A brazen, brave and often bewildering record, it shares many parallels with Eugenides’ signature novel; mostly in the way that it pitches the listener firmly on the outside, so that we’re only ever offered infrequent scraps of the seemingly tragic tales of discontent that exist throughout; many of which are also based around the all-encompassing passage between childhood and adulthood.
The albums centre-piece, ‘Mapped By What Surrounded Them’, takes its name from a critical passage in Eugenides’ novel and, while that is the only definitive reference to his work, there are many relatable points that echo both the tone and sentiment of that song-title’s source. Lyrical themes regarding stifling youthful vexations crop up across the entire record, no more so than on ‘That Summer At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy’, which is one of the records more opaque tracks. “I’m 14, and you know that I’m looking the wrong way,” James Graham sings, before adding that “they’re sitting around the table and they’re talking behind your back.” The track even takes its title from a line in Stand By Me; itself one of the most renowned coming-of-age films of our generation.
Less specifically, but just as pointedly, Fourteen Autumns… mirrors The Virgin Suicides stifling and dreamy ambiguity; a feeling heigtened by the way in which it switches from harmlessness to quiet devastation in a heartbeat, recalling the novels hazy recollections of youthful abandonment that suddenly give way to the shock of each of the girls suicides. The aforementioned Mapped… swiftly turns childish imagery (“She’s sitting in the primrose garden and she’s playing with her toys“) into something far more darker (“…and she’s taken far too young“) without ever expicating the full story; though talk of “walls filled with blame” and visions of the protagonist watching “Emily dance” in his dreams, only leads us to to the most awful of assumptions.
These jaunted dynamic lyrical shifts are also replicated in the discordant elements of the album; the opening track, Cold Days From The Birdhouse, drifts along on a bed of minimal guitar noise and an incessant child-like piano until James sings “I won’t wear your shoes and I won’t clip your wings” and sets off a bone-crunching head-fuck of guitar noise that remains as thrillingly abrasive now as it did upon first listen.
These abrubt musical deviations are present in many of the songs. ‘And She Would Darken The Memory‘ is one of the albums more accessible tracks. Or at least it is until the vocals dissapear, exposing the brutality of the instrumentation. Guitars build and build…and build further, and it seems as if the only outcome is for the track to collapse in on itself, until, out of nowhere, the drums return and reign it all back in. It’s relentless and brutal and utterly hypnotising.
What great art does, for me, is challenge us through only ever revealing as much as it wants to. When this is something resoundingly oblique we tend to add our own inflictions and desires and experiences on to it in an attempt to distort it into something that we can find solace, meaning or magic within. I first heard this record during a particurlarly difficult time in my life. A time when I felt lost, alone and exasperated with both the decisions I had made and those that had been made for me; and this album simply floored me. Both the subject matter and palpable sense of anger and resentment in James Graham’s voice appealed to me in ways nothing else really could at that time. It offered hope, escapism and an outlet for my own anger at my discrepencies. It created another world for me to disappear in to.
For all it’s opaqueness, it’s a wonderfully organic piece of music. The swirling guitars, clattering drums and ever-growing sense of darkness are a perfect reflection of the long, drawn-out Winters that Scotland delivers each year; and I wanted all of it. I wanted to climb inside the songs, to be dumped into the heart of the stories, to find myself in places that were new and different and challenging and anywhere but where I was. And that’s what I did. So often, in fact, that whenever I hear that strange and unsettling first couple of minutes of the albums opening track, my mind jumps straight back to the place I was in during that time. I can see it, and I can feel it, and it’s as real and tangible as any of the more-specific and physical memories I still draw upon from that period of my life.
Take my own experiences out of the equation however and the tracks and the characters within them remain muddy and shrouded in as much uncertaintity as they ever did; perhaps even more so now than when I was first eneveloping myself within them.
“In the end we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.”
Much like the ageing boys in the final chapter of the book, I was once determined to work out the stories behind the songs found on Fourteen Autumns, to decipher lyrics and build meanings and context around them, as if that would hold some kind of benefit. I soon realised that it wouldn’t. The songs had already done there bit. I had already applied my own situations to them and found relief and release in doing so. The songs were now mine and the characters within in them belonged to me. I am not moved by art because of the relationship it has with its creator, I am absorbed and stirred with the way in which it affects me. This inevitably means that gaps remain; pieces of a puzzle I won’t ever find or relate to. This, however, doesn’t diminish the strength of what I do have; uneven remainders that continue to enthrall, inspire and resonate with me even now.
Six years on from its release, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is as compelling and striking as it ever was. It’s a record that offers poetic and macabre sketches of desolate landscapes, and the disorientating and isolated anthropological existences that pass through them. We catch occassional small glances into the heart of them, but we never see enough of the spectacle to create full portraits; and it’s those abstruse yet alluring oddities that makes the record so resoundedly intriguing to this day. A demanding but profoundly moving masterpiece.
Written by Tom Johnson, with invalubale help from Imogen Bidwell.
We spoke to James Graham about the record, and you can read that interview here.
Congratulations on making it this far. As a reward, we’re giving away a pair of tickets to any show on The Twilight Sad’s October UK tour. To enter, simply send an email to email@example.com and tell us your name and which date you would like to attend. The full tour dates are;
18 Thur NEWCASTLE Cluny
19 Fri WAKEFIELD The Hop
20 Sat MANCHESTER Sound Control
22 Mon BIRMINGHAM Hare & Hounds
23 Tue LONDON Dingwalls
24 Wed BRISTOL Louisiana
25 Thur CAMBRIDGE Portland Arms
26 Fri LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
27 Sat PRESTON Mad Ferret