A Sunday morning, standing on the bath mat, phosphorescent autumn sun flaring through the frosted glass. The Weather Clock by July Skies has been playing while I’ve taken a shower. It’s an album I’ve listened to perhaps twice since receiving it as a gift a couple of years ago. Slow-paced and sparingly arranged, with minimal vocals, it has barely left an impression on me before today. At this moment, it’s perfect. Airborne swirls of water droplets flail and shimmer in the sunlight, slow-dancing with drifting dust-motes and specks of fibre floating from my towel. The detached guitar notes meandering across the bathroom track the particles’ drift, perhaps keep them aloft. Reverb tilts the scene into reverie. For some time I stand captivated.
Not long beforehand, down in the sitting room, I was listening for the tenth or a dozenth time to a new album I discovered just a few days ago: Plaint of Lapwing by Alasdair Roberts and James Green. Its final track, ‘Hallowe’en’, draws its lyrics from a 1921 poem by Violet Jacob, a lament inspired by the loss of Jacob’s son in the Great War. This arrangement of the song derives tremendous emotional power from the stately movement of piano chords under the circling query of the melody. But it was thinking about the story behind ‘Hallowe’en’, while hearing my partner and children playing together in the next room, that started me blubbing.
So much of the way we receive music is shaded by the sounds in the background – personal, cultural, and sometimes literal – that it grows difficult to perceive patterns of sense, to make any definitive statement at all. It’s only a little later that I make a very obvious connection between the otherwise disparate styles of July Skies and Roberts/Green. They are both quiet.
It’s so simplistic an observation as to seem banal. But thinking about the dynamics of pop music throws up some interesting contrasts and questions.
U-turns and the Loudness War
Down the years my stance on quiet vs loud music has been all over the shop. Sarah Records having been my punk rock, I set out very much on the basis that less is more.1 So the use of guitar distortion was pretty much verboten when I formed The Regulars in Birmingham in the late 1990s.
Over time I saw that this policy was unfairly limiting to the two exceptionally talented and creative guitarists who lined up with me in the band. So I relented a little. Then I went further. Reading My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize, David Cavanagh’s epic study of Creation Records, I thrilled to its account of the ear-splitting early days of The Jesus and Mary Chain. When The Regulars’ second single was released I pushed for a flawed but raucous song to replace the more restrained and far superior track that was our initial choice.
By the early 2000s I’d completed a U-turn. Every morning I was psyching myself up to face down my wretched working conditions by listening to the Ramones on my Walkman on the bus. When a small ‘new quiet’ movement seemed to emerge within indie – inspired, or at least epitomised, by the Kings of Convenience album Quiet is the New Loud – I was fairly disdainful. “Going out is the new going out,” I announced on stage with The Regulars one night, before our first song, “and loud is the new loud.” (Not for the only time, I was displaying remarkable insensitivity towards our lead guitarist and my then songwriting partner Rob Harris, who had given me the Kings of Convenience album as a birthday present.)
In a musical evolutionary sense, perhaps quiet made some kind of sense at that point. Grunge had turned punk up to 11, perhaps in an analogous way to death metal having driven rock into a dead end. If you wanted to make louder music than anything that had come before, then in terms of writing and arrangement there was nowhere left to go.
In terms of production and mixing, however, there remained unconquered territory in the audio spectrum. The years to come would see an arms race of volume across the music industry as engineers compressed and amplified as far as they could digitally go, squeezing the dynamics out of sound so that even quiet sections of a song would thump out anthemically across dancefloors and airwaves.2
With the Loudness War came the march of landfill indie, culminating in a sort of paradox whereby the huge studio sound of a band such as Hard-Fi would prove no more than an aural façade concealing from the ear the insurmountable emptiness of the songs behind it. The laddish connotations that loudness was bringing to bear on indie were also setting the genre in diametric opposition to much of what it had once represented, and from which its 1980s incarnation derived such vibrancy and vitality.
At this point, then, something quiet had become not only desirable but essential. Kings of Convenience may have been too polished to gain any traction on my playlists, but now, with all that testosterone-drenched racket going on, I would inevitably adore the contrarian hush of Slumber Party, Tender Forever, Frankie Machine.
Orthodoxy and reaction
While my listening had come full circle, I still surprised myself in 2013 by recording a quiet album of my own. Downbeat and introspective, The Glass Delusion sounded like the sort of music I’d stopped listening to years before. But these were songs written in the shadow of austerity. My plans and security were unravelling week by week, my every life decision coming to seem a fateful mistake. It was no longer an option to rely on the bustling knockabout humour of my earlier solo stuff. The music I was making, as well as hearing, could only pull downwards on the volume slider.
If I’ve been inconsistent then here’s a little self-justification. Popular music is at its best when it’s at odds with the orthodoxies that surround it. Look back over the history and historical contexts of that music. There are times when the way to defy orthodoxies is by turning up the noise, and there are times when the most defiant thing you can do is keep it down a bit.
Forty years ago the boisterous immediacy of punk was a necessary reaction to the long, infinitely noodling fadeout of prog. Quietness then was a head-in-the-sand hippie holding out in the lotus position amid a room of pogoing mohawks. Quietness today is a hand-drawn DIY gig flyer on a wall of Carling Academy listings expensively printed on matt laminate card. Play me one more chorus of idiot landfill indie, its sound and fury signifying nothing,3 and I’ll choose silence.
Of course, you still need to filter out the crap. You need to be wary of self-styled acoustic kooks who are inoffensive enough to write car advert music. You need to keep a critical sense when reaction to cliché becomes clichéd in itself, when fresh thinking tips into puritanism. And yes, OK, there’s obviously no need to see this as an either/or thing. I still listen to the Ramones quite a lot as well.
But either I’m getting old or there is something vital and compelling about well-made quiet music in 2016 which wasn’t there before. Amid the overproduction of corporate indie, the cultural clamour of social media, and the sheer intensity of urban working life and surviving austerity, the sparseness of July Skies’ dreampop and Alasdair Roberts’ folk is at once both beautiful and subversive. When quiet sounds like this, who even needs a new loud?
1. A typically sideways act of manifesto-setting on this point can be found on The Wake’s second Sarah album, where the clanging of bells on ‘Big Noise, Big Deal’ portends some stadium-filling torch song, only to fade out after less than a minute, the track proving merely an interlude.
2. ‘Normalisation’ is a word worth dwelling on here: used as an acoustic engineering term which relates to the flattening out of dynamics, in its more everyday sense it also suggests the crushing and somewhat official homogenisation that is the outcome of that process when overdone.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,