Clarify Your Love
What happened to British Indie Rock? Music journalists seem to have finally given up asking this question, probably because a lot of British music that’s followed it has been so much more interesting. Well I’m revisiting it just one more time, because of FKA Twigs. She’s just released her debut album LP, it’s gut wrenchingly brilliant and intelligent and daring, and to me she represents what it was that our Indie Rock scene lacked. A crucial building component that the mid 00s boom of skinny jeaned, horny and briefly very successful rock bands forgot to focus on, resulting in ultimate collapse.
The Arctic Monkeys invited you to listen to Alex Turner’s kitchen arguments in Mardy Bum, the Libertines let you in on their band squabbles with Can’t Stand Me Now, and Bloc Party told you their disillusionment of modern love. These bands managed to get through difficult albums and hiatuses with their fanbases intact because their fans cared about them. If your mate confesses his insecurities and problems to you, it’s a lot harder to forget about him, and easier to put up with his bullshit from time to time. What’s more, it may actually act as comfort for you as well; you’re not the only one feeling these things. The same applies to music. However, the majority of the male-fronted UK rock bands – eg: Editors, Courteeners, Kaiser Chiefs, Klaxons etc – with their guitars and Smiths influences would occasionally hint at their more serious emotions, but generally maintained a stoic distance between writer and listener, refusing to talk about their most personal, painful emotions without a heavy sheen of metaphors and implications.I can report that as a 13 year old rock fan angered by the xFactor, this sense of ‘coolness’ can be inspiring, as it makes you imagine you could emmulate it, but as you grow up it becomes clear that obscuring the precense of your more serious emotions is just unhealthy: these feelings are there, and you shouldn’t ignore them.
I’m not completely putting down all the NME-endorsed bands I loved aged 13: a lot of then put out some great, fun records that I really enjoyed listening to, tracks perfect for pogoing to at gigs or soundtracking E4 programs. But there was no intimacy! The best bands understood this and let their fans in at choice moments, but the majority left their fans with nothing to connect to or really empathize with. My personal turning point was with The xx’s debut album in 2009, which raised my bar for emotional intimacy, emboldened by their stark, minimalist musical style. I remember buying their Basic Space single on cd, and feeling incapable of taking it off repeat; it felt like I was being let in on something personal and special, almost like a privelige. 5 years later, the uk’s biggest bands all hold that principle at heart; Disclosure, Chvrches, London Grammar, Foals, and Haim (yes they count, they’re essentially based here) all sew bare, emotional honesty into their records. One could even trace the US’ growing trend of emotionally honest hip hop to them, as Drake thanked them in the liner notes of his first album, before sampling them in his second, a record that involved him admitting feelings of loneliness and longing for his exes.
This week, the London R&B singer FKA Twigs released her – utterly brilliant – debut album. Exactly 5 years after The XX’s debut, coming from the same city and record label, it’s hard not see see some kind of lineage. She continues where they left off, bringing emotional intimacy to an extreme, whereby listeners may even be driven to the point of discomfort (as I talked about last year). Her breakout single Water Me is a bruised snapshot of rejected love that sounds like it was performed in the self-enforced calm after a tearful fit. One of my friends once reacted to it by saying he found it hard to listen to because of how lacking it is in salvation or hope, but I feel that’s the point: real people feel that way sometimes. Art occasionally gets the honour of serving a purpose to help people in difficult places, and admitting vulnerabilities on record is a grandly powerful example of this. People listening to music deserve to hear that other people are just as terrified and hurt and desperate as they are, and music is the clearest medium whereby that message can be put across. Singers and lyricists can’t protect you from the things you’re scared of, but they can remind you that you are not alone; everyone else gets scared too.
British Indie Rock was always quite clearly a genre whose fans would by majority be teenagers, and with this comes a duty. For many people these are the scariest, hardest and most alienating years of your life, regardless of whether you’re put on a pedestal as the fittest girl in your year or ignored as a nobody. Teenagers shouldn’t be growing up esclusively with cool, stoic indie rock performed by men and women whose deepest emotions are closed to their listeners, they need more. So my theory is that British Indie rock didn’t die because guitars went out of fashion, or because it’s best bands stopped writing good tunes like they did before. It died because its songwriters didn’t get intimate, and so their fans forgot about them.