Solitude Sometimes Is

How Contemporary Music Negotiates Loneliness


words by maria sledmere

photograph by tom johnson

“Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be? Alone?” Laura Marling asks in the stuttering opening of ‘False Hope’, the beat between be and alone comprising the uncertain question of what solitude means to the self, of how to draw meaning from the temporary void. ‘False Hope’ quickly plunges towards a jagged and angsty portrayal of New York in fierce weather, its protagonist drowning in sleepless nightmares and the sound of the “woman downstairs who’s lost her mind”. Loveless and alone, Marling questions the possibility of how to be when standing apart from society. I’m reminded of a jewelline Bright Eyes number, ‘Lua’, from I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning: a tender paean to solitude that ultimately offers quiet company as the best solvent to one’s burning inward pain.

In the world of ‘False Hope’, “there’s a party uptown / but I just don’t feel like I belong / at all”; in ‘Lua’, there’s “a party at some actor’s westside loft”. Amidst the swirling storm of fame and fortune, these musicians are caught in the hullabaloo, picking the silt and tarnish off another day, hoping for a moment of future subsidence. Conor Oberst teeters through the dusty afterglow, sings the blues in a spirit of accepted melancholy: “when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I grab a coffee and the paper have my own conversations”. The bar or party become murmuring reflectors of mutual presence, the comfort of familiarity in a desolate world of “sidewalks”, “pigeons” and one’s “window reflection”. There’s a sense in which music itself expresses these inward conversations: whether Marling’s frantic, self-doubting lines or Oberst’s more plaintive ruminations. Music is that dialogue between the world and the mind, skirting the fringes and fissures of what it is to exist—to feel loved or nourished, in company or alone.

The topic of music and solitude is a rich one, entrenched in strong-rooted tangles of folk and Elvis-inspired lovelorn pop. While traditionally associated with country music or blues—alienation typically embodied by that glamourised lone-wolf on the back of a truck, smoking Marlboros and penning the next On the Road—there’s been a turn in recent years towards bedroom recordings, a lo-fi effect of protective domesticity. This is a retreat inside, behind; away from our wireless world and its threat to bring everything and everyone into the present. Angel Olsen’s second album, Half Way Home, paints a desolate landscape of lovesick nights, strange and tranquil reverie, morbid ballads and reflections on lost innocence. Its maturity is the sort of maturity to be gleaned from spending time alone, a hardening of identity’s spine against the abyssal winter nights. There’s the minimalist backing: a subtle brushwork of drums and soft double bass giving strength to Olsen’s otherworldly warble, its oscillation between surly tones, warm expression and quiet devastation.

‘Lonely Universe’ relates the loss of a mother figure: its story feels like a fireside narrative, something told to the empty room for the sake of expression alone. You picture a child, shivering as she glances in the smoke-misted mirror. Singing “goodnight sweet mother earth”, what is lost isn’t always clear; at first a mother, perhaps a lover, a sense of human belonging. There’s the feel of an old Romantic ballad, crusted into earth and made pure after rain—the wild little roots sprung from the ‘Tiniest Seed’. Something bittersweet hangs in the album’s atmosphere, the sticky quality of autumn leaves fallen then trodden into the pavement at night.

Half Way Home is a record to walk alone by, guided by the shivering, hot-splitting star of Olsen’s voice, finding your way through meandering memory, encroaching amnesiac darkness. The warm wind lifting your hair, bristling your neck in that eerie trill. Solitude allows time for melody’s germination in the stewed soil of our loves, losses and longing: “that distant thought / some growing meaning / in your mind”. These are songs that bear the languid pace of a carousel, looping back for another verse; constantly recalling the recursion of memory, still images passing slowly along.

Walking, music and solitude go hand-in-hand, of course. You return to your Romantics: Wordsworth roaming over the craggy Lake District reciting iambic ballads in his head; Thoreau’s wholesome jaunts through Walden in the wilderness alone, finding the self by temporarily shedding the presence of other relations: ‘Not till we are lost […] till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves’. You plug in your headphones and set out across the city, drowning the traffic and thump of nightclubs with your inward soundtrack, matching rhythms with the beat of your feet. You tune into the psych musicians who are zoning out of reality, tripping on whatever dazzling effect lights up that private party inside the mind. Cue Tame Impala, ‘Solitude is Bliss’ and reject the all-encompassing triumph of romantic love, the kind touted by 85% of all pop and soul songs: “You will never come close to how I feel”.

Thrash out the dull remnants of heartache in favour of psychic space, a narcissistic bliss that hones on nothing but the self and its shadow.  Maybe there’s a defiant masculinity here, a brash sort of old-school refusal to conform to sappy romance; but strength is also to be found in less kinetic forms of isolated expression. There’s loneliness in technicolour psychedelic: its twirling, mind-altering musical fractals.

Then there’s monochrome solitude: your sepia-toned Elliott Smith basement favourites, or Nick Drake’s wistful, wind-shaken ethereality; Kathryn Joseph’s bone-chilling piano, her sweet chalky voice closing upon the hurt of loss and bodily sorrow. ‘The Crow’, from Joseph’s debut LP, Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled, emits a bruised lyricism which reads like a pared-down version of Ted Hughes’ poetry collection, Crow, whose black-feathered trickster stands in for all sorts of human despair, self-destruction and social damage. Where is the shadow that flies in the night, the flicker of conscious solitude? A miasma of thought, unrestrained by the presence of others. Our worry spreads out, then there’s a moment—creativity starts to spark in that craquelure of suspended reflection…

Like poetry, music deals in space as much as sound. Joseph’s haunting, minimalist production reproduces the icy chills cleaving through your ribs, while Drake’s warm string arrangements evoke that intoxication of being set adrift on memory and reverie. Simple, molten, melancholy bliss. It’s a far cry from Marling’s howl, the sound of a whole city being swallowed up by rogue water or self-imposed solitude at metropolitan scale.

There’s the intimate, breathy narratives of an early, piano-driven Perfume Genius, recalling pages ripped painfully from a diary. The bedroom mix-tapes you made as a teenager, coming back to haunt you with impressions of There Will Be Fireworks’ frayed acoustic guitar and wolf-cries (“just a kid / in his room / no-one hears him howling at the moon”), or Frightened Rabbit baying into the bleak Scottish winter: “it takes more / than fucking someone you don’t know to keep warm”. Out of that abrasive, muscle-wrenching despair, there’s a release: a catharsis of welded spirit and sound.

On a more subdued front, there’s solitude you can squander the day in: the slow homeward drift of a Sunday afternoon, nursing the adventurous narratives of the night before. The bedroom aesthetic of Washed Out’s hazy, radio shimmer sampling; songs like ‘Floating By’ inviting that sense of sunlight aglow in dust motes, coming up easy on the intensity of your own moods. ‘I Feel It All Around’: that woozy feedback and musical blur recreating an open window, sound leaking in from outside, the snatched wisps of another car’s stereo, synths gliding across steady tremors of bass. It’s pure elation: at once the conjuring of a detached virtuality and immersive reminder that you are but one atom floating around in the millioning expanse of our mediated cosmos.

There are songs of solitude that permit a good indulgent sulk. Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, produced by Dan Auerbach, feels like rock’n’roll’s hypnotic, tranced-out afterlife: the spooky torture of the romantically roaming, motorbike spirit. I had a friend who said at 21 he used to come home from late-night bar shifts and stand at his flat’s wee balcony, looking out at the street smoking alone and listening to Ultraviolence on repeat to wind down till dawn. After the dirt, hustle and noise of a weekend bar, Del Rey’s luxurious studio voice sparkles in the darkness like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Diamond as Big as the Ritz’. There’s something incredibly seductive about her jilted ballads, her brooding and unrequited romances that never quite satisfy a hungry soul. What you learn from Ultraviolence is the quality of sadness in the shadow of the Other, that black-and-white obsessional memory that makes all life seem like a bad tragic movie. When she sings of violins, jazz and sirens, you feel that exaggerated, luminous world of the ‘Sad Girl’ superimposed upon your own. The juddering change in time signature that slips into a narcotised swing chorus on ‘West Coast’, the butterfly trills of falsetto on ‘Shades of Cool’, the jaded hipsterism of ‘Brooklyn Baby’; they all contribute to a lost in time chiaroscuro of urban ennui. On the scale of nostalgia, Del Rey is stratospherically obsessed with the olden days, the cigarette-tinted glamour; but also caught in the expansively haunted solitude of the present, the way the internet flattens everything in its oceanic, ironic lack of affect. In a strange way, it’s like encountering the roving protagonist of a W. G. Sebald novel, tripping out on asynchronous moments of deja vu, honed in on the familiar and solid opulence of a cherry cola in some midnight oasis of a 7/11. As with Olsen’s music, in Ultraviolence we enter the lonesome gloaming, surrounded by only the ghosts of others.

What unites many of these musicians is their situating of solitude mostly in relation to love and its lack. Suburban streets or cityscapes are often the backdrop for such solitude; you can almost hear Leonard Cohen’s gravelly baritone crackling in the asphalt as he sings so long to another lover. Music becomes a supplement to human company; songs are written to fill that gap or to add to its deep and wounding lament. Moses Sumney’s new album, Aromanticism, however, offers a fresh approach to solitude; one not bound up in longing for the other but rather a sense of alienation and freedom born from not feeling this lack. ‘Aromanticism’ is a term Sumney concocted himself to describe an absence of romantic feeling towards others. With this more contented seclusion comes the realisation that self-completion doesn’t always require the presence of a soulmate, neatly slotted into your life like the split second half of a love-heart necklace. The result of this conclusion is a genre-bending album that seeks sublimity in soulful isolation, Sumney’s succulent falsetto dwelling in muted, sensual beats and transcendent yet restrained chordal sweeps.

Romantic tropes of silver and gold, shooting stars, angelic choirs, veils and babies abound, but Sumney does not adhere to a sickly sweet ideal of romance—he deftly employs its arsenal of kitsch to disarming effect. His wings are “plastic” and fashioned for fleeting pleasure; relationships for Sumney seem ersatz, maybe even cheap, soaring only as sex and never destined to land in love. Where the great Romantic poet John Keats wrote in ‘Bright Star’ of his love as ‘nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite’, Sumney disregards the permanence of stars for a hermitage intermingled with ephemeral encounters. There’s a generous sincerity to this kind of transient passion: “I just wanna make out in my car.”

Aromanticism’s amorous tropes provide the poetic kerosene for its celestial exploration of the withdrawn universe. Flirting with brief, sensuous relations, Sumney confronts that secret, postcoital space of the self that does not reach out in the darkness afterwards. Where are we when we’re not in a relationship? How can I be alone? Who am I, alone? These are questions we’re faced with, breathlessly, when left behind by the binary momentum of the western world’s insatiable desire for conventional relationships. If Laura Marling has us twisted up in her complicated bedsheets, giving birth to the self through music and love, Moses Sumney coolly draws us into the polyphonic caverns of solitude. A place to confront and be comforted in, sheltered by the metallic gleam of slick production and fragile soundscapes.

What Sumney manages to achieve anew is this mixing of jazz rhythms, soul harmonies, electronic swells and beats, creating a quenching cocktail for minimalist pondering. The arc of ‘Man On The Moon’ is abstracted to choral vocals, and many of the tracks trade that classic pop orientation towards climax and completion for the more open, spatial quality of textured ambience. A dwelling in the self, an ascendance through time, identity, memory. The layering at work, from harps to guitars, strings and synths, never feels cluttered and is always balanced against the isolated beauty of Somney’s wavering falsetto. The likes of ‘Indulge Me’, ‘Plastic’ and ‘Don’t Bother Calling’ are fresh with a Beck-like bright and lush production, weaving their spidery, quivering melodies around gossamer harmonies and slick guitar. It’s on the dramatic trills and seraphic arpeggios of ‘Lonely World’ that the record reaches that inward, dark-hearted climax; a lower vocal register giving dramatic contrast to its empowered falsetto return, the repetition of “lonely” eking out its shrivelling pain over bold instrumentation and finally drawing back into whisper. This is soul music pushed to its brink, unafraid of a capella or strong arrangements—the sound of something bursting through the skintight bubble with which society tries to shrink wrap our desires. Each tacky layer of desire drifts away like a spent halo, lacking its original angel.

Intricate, sensitive and strangely melancholic, the refusal of romance on Sumney’s debut is by no means narcissistic or arrogant; rather, it offers a genuinely refreshing take on what it means to be alone, what it means to be with someone when you don’t know how to love in the way our world demands. Its complexity prompts reflection on the role of pop music in manufacturing emotion. There’s the Platonic sense that it comprises a pharmakon: both poison and cure for what ails us, sustaining the ideology of love while also offering respite and release. How many times have we lain awake at night, the croon of our favourite muse offering comfort to our solitary, lovesick, listening ear? Sufjan Stevens opens his elegiac masterpiece, Carrie & Lowell with the lines: “Spirit of my silence I can hear you / But I’m afraid to be near you / And I don’t know where to begin”. His high wispy vocals, delivered precisely over gentle ukulele, return like an ache, each time promising that invitation into somebody else’s uncertain world. It’s as if he’s tuning into an old radio, waiting for some beautiful, rasping broadcast to return from the past—a flicker of recognition, offering the distant contingency of memory, filling us with warmth like a twilight sleep.

Maybe that’s the secret: the search for another person’s solitude, the gesture of empathy that allows us to touch base with a world beyond our own. And when that doesn’t work, we must find the inward support that allows us to continue. Musicians are steadily casting suspicion on the dominant, often commercially-driven credo that romantic love cures all. Instead, there’s family, friendship, complex trysts, the pleasure of occasionally flying solo—a queer array of different intimacies. There’s Lorde in ‘Liability’, picking herself up and dancing alone in her living room, spreading her serious, sweet voice across smooth, fat piano chords like comforting honey on toast. There’s Julien Baker’s heartbroken ‘Something’, sung so loud and so pure she could swallow the whole hurt of the world, let alone the empty “parking lot” that threatens to consume her. What feels like paralysis breaks out into movement, the resistance of music. Maybe the solution is to embrace solitude and to take love as it comes; in all its twisted, fiery, perilous forms—even in lovelessness itself. Accept that sometimes we fall cold on someone, fall cold on ourselves. Be more like Morvern Callar, Alan Warner’s iconic eponymous heroine of the raves, returning from the crowds and lights to walk onwards and solitary into the night, sparking a Silk Cut along the way. We all have our special ways of smouldering, inspiring; even in the darkness, even alone.


Playlist: Solitude Sometimes Is




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