Days 72-73: All art is worthless / The winter of 88

My contribution to the Fatima meme – photograph by Krys Alex.

It’s just over two years since I began writing this song-by-song diary of all the music I’ve ever released, from Swimmer One’s first single We Just Make Music For Ourselves, way back in 2002, until now. I’ve finally caught up with myself, after racing through quite a lot of songs over the past few weeks like a marathon runner getting a second wind. If I’m going to continue with this thing I’ll need to write some more music. I’ve only managed to finish two new songs in the past two years though, so perhaps this is it.

It feels fitting to end this diary, for now, with All art is worthless and The winter of 88. Both are about the human compulsion to make and experience art. We Just Make Music For Ourselves was too, so I’ve come full circle.

All art is worthless was recorded just a few weeks ago and, in case it’s not obvious, titled ironically. I wrote it in the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, when everyone was conspicuously turning to art for comfort – social media was suddenly full of people’s favourite books/films/albums of all time lists – while thousands of actual artists were suddenly losing their entire livelihoods with no government support in sight. It was brutal and ironic and strange watching the thing that I and most people I know do for a living being simultaneously treasured and trashed. It still is. This week, #Fatima was trending on social media after people began sharing a government advert that crassly suggested a ballet dancer could retrain in cyber security. The advert predated the lockdown but the anger it’s generated is a sharp and necessary reminder of how bad things have become for art and artists.

All art is worthless emerged from this strangeness. It’s a song about the everyday ways in which art in general, and music in particular, impacts on our lives. A bittersweet call-back to a broken teenage heart. A funeral theme. An expression of solidarity. An anthem to spur you to political action. A warning. A reminder that you’re not alone. Is there any aspect of human life that isn’t shaped in some way by art? Is there any crisis in which we don’t turn to it for comfort and guidance?

The song finishes with a brief reference to my own compulsion to make art and my limited success at it – “I’ve only trod lightly, left a faint footprint, but it’s all that I can do”. This theme is explored more self-indulgently in The Winter of 88, written seven years before the lockdown. The song was named, in part, after the year I started recording music, 1988; there is evidence of this date online and it’s not pretty but whatever, I was fourteen years old. The number also refers to the 88 keys on a piano, the year 1888 – an obscure nod to when The Last House on Holland Island was built – and the 88 people who helped pay for the recording, whose names are listed out loud in the final section of the song as I raise a glass to each of them in turn.

I recorded The Winter of 88, the song and the album, at a point when it had become clear to me that my musical ‘career’ was going nowhere, after a decade of consistently good reviews, consistently minimal radio play, and negligible sales. An enthusiastic write-up in the Guardian or the Independent won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, but I figured there were surely enough people out there who liked my music enough to crowd-source an inexpensive album by pre-ordering it. If you’re reading this, perhaps you are the owner of a CD in a hand-drawn numbered sleeve, a thank you letter from me, an album on which your name features in the title track, and one of the 88 stones featured in the cover art, all retrieved from a beach in Croatia. If so, thank you again. I was incredibly grateful for your support and I hope you liked your stone.

Lyrically, the song is typically cheery Andrew stuff, one line even pointing out how we’ll all be dead by 2088. But actually I was trying to come to terms with my artistic and commercial irrelevance as much as my mortality. I wasn’t quite there yet and I’m embarrassed by some of the lyrics. “If no-one remembers we were ever here there’ll be echoes, there’ll be traces” was presumably supposed to sound philosophical but to the older me it just sounds desperate. ‘OH GOD SURELY SOMEONE WILL REMEMBER ME’ is the subtext. And the self-pity evident in “I’ll keep on singing into the void” is not flattering. I’m prouder of it musically, even if it steals ideas a bit too blatantly from the Blue Nile, but I kind of wish I’d written my funders a better song.

Perhaps that song is All art is worthless. Musically it was inspired, although it’s probably not obvious, by Thom Yorke’s The Dawn Chorus, a song that somehow conjures something incredibly poignant and powerful from a completely monosyllabic vocal and a series of short ambiguous statements. The Dawn Chorus makes me cry for reasons I don’t fully understand, and so I went on to write a piano melody which is more or less exactly the same all the way through, a vocal line that doesn’t vary much either, and, well, a series of short ambiguous statements.

Am I a better songwriter than I was in 2002, or in 2014 when I wrote The Winter of 88? I think so. In fact, I think All art is worthless might be one of my best songs, or at least one of my best Thom Yorke songs. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I’ll ever be completely ok with my lack of commercial success. But I’m also aware of how petty and self-absorbed that is, especially at a time when so many musicians are struggling to make any kind of living at all. I’m also fairly sure that success wouldn’t have been very good for me anyway.

And, in the end, I was never doing this for the sake of a career. I was doing it because, as All art is worthless concludes, ‘nothing else gets you through’. Writing songs is part of what makes me feel alive. It’s the imagining of possibilities. It’s how I pay tribute to people I love and have loved. It’s the preservation of memories. It’s how I experience and respond to and understand other people’s art. If I’d somehow managed to turn that into a career it would ultimately have been down to blind luck, and I’m not sure I would have had any clue how to sustain it, any more than I had any clue what to do when Swimmer One were briefly courted by a London record label almost two decades ago.

Thanks for reading, and for listening. I mostly just wrote this diary for me, but if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus.

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