Vinyl In Alphabetical: 329. Harry Nilsson's 'A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night' (Written By Susannah Young)
HEY I WROTE THIS THING ABOUT HARRY NILSSON
Hey guys. Andrew again. For the second time in a week—and in an artist’s discography—I am having one of my URL friends cover an album in my collection. This time it’s my friend Susannah Young, who has written at Pitchfork, Under the Radar, and was consistently one of my favorite writers…
A team rarely ever truly represents a city, but the Grizzlies — and Memphis — weren’t normal in the least.
I dearly love Memphis, but I’m tired of people mining this angle on every editorial that appears post-Tigers or Grizzlies choke, or any other time Memphis disappoints us. The city’s grit and imperfections are a huge part of its charm (and a huge part of why I love it), but I feel there’s a danger in glorifying that too much in pro-Memphis talk. Please don’t make a place I love into a Manic Pixie Dream City that’s all MY PROBLEMS MAKE ME QUIRKY AND ENDEARING SO I DON’T EVER HAVE TO ADDRESS AND FIX THEM
Magnolia Electric Co. played in the background of nearly every creative pursuit during the last half of my junior year of college and most of my senior year. Most of what I painted and drew, most of what I built in the set design shop for work/study, many a long run (kind of a dour album for werkin’ it out, but long songs are the only slick trick in my limited Keep Exercising bag). It feels EXTREMELY selfish to be thrown for a loop by the death of a beloved musician and know that the primary reason isn’t just for the incredible body of work he leaves behind — that it’s also because his music played such an instrumental role in all the hours I put into creating, discovering and gaining confidence in my own abilities to create and discover.
But I guess that’s part of the beauty of his songs; the lyrics are concise, specific and extremely vivid, yet there’s always enough room in them to find your own story. Beautiful music aside, I’m sure that’s why I clung so desperately to this album. I mean, I know it’s weird to post a song Molina doesn’t actually sing as a tribute — but “Tell ‘em that every day I lived/ I was trying/ To sing the blues/ The way I find ‘em”? Guhhhhhhhh.
Jason Molina was so instrumental in helping me (and a legion of other sad twentysomethings) learn tell my stories; it’s heartbreaking to think he wasn’t more invested in taking care of himself and spending the next few decades creating more of his own stories.
Susannah Young on Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) and Fiona Apple’sThe Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
(Rdio, Spotify, iTunes / Rdio, Spotify, iTunes)
In 2012, I turned 30 and decided to start therapy.
Various “adults you trust” had suggested for years that it might be a good idea for me to take steps toward taming the anxiety beast, hoping that it’d make me a happier person and therefore more pleasant to be around. But for many years, I was totally not on board.
I’m obviously not alone in getting suspicious and dismissive when people start casting aspersions on a woman’s mental well-being and trying to solve what’s “wrong” with her. Calling a woman “crazy” is a weighty matter; for centuries it’s been a convenient and socially-sanctioned way to invalidate women’s opinions, dismiss their actions, punish them emotionally. As a label, it’s not only isolating—it keeps you focused on your behavior and, in doing so, prevents you from moving past any issues you might really have. Slapping the “crazy” label on a woman is an quick fix, a way to immediately immobilize a situation that was escalating beyond your control. It’s a label that sticks, and a way to ensure women stay stuck.
The problem is, no-nstop anxiety is its own immobilizing force. Your attention is constantly divided and you’re never completely out of your own head. There’s always at least one part of your brain devoted to re-living something awful, or thinking through every way a situation could go wrong, Choose Your Own Adventure-style. Nothing is ever completely fun; you’re never completely present, and it makes you feel selfish—yet another thing for you to feel awful about.
Before I began therapy, I expended too much brainpower considering whether or not I wanted to or legitimately needed to take this step—which, not all that ironically, was its own source of anxiety. Would the therapist actually listen to me? What if I could be so much happier if I did this, but I never actually did it?
This was the leitmotif that lurked in the background of just about every moment in 2012—and as a result I didn’t really care about listening to any music where the artist held you at arm’s length. I flirted with Channel Orange, but throughout the year, Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and (y’all saw this one coming) Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do were constant companions. For both, discussion of them as women frequently preempts discussion of their work (“crazy over craft,” as Sady Doyle so eloquently put it). But even though music functions as far more than a coping mechanism for each artist, both of them can turn a phrase that captures an emotion succinctly and in a thoroughly crushing way, and both use songwriting to untangle a lot of mental snarls in their own distinct way.
Time and again on Fox Confessor, Case creates a character, situates him or her at a point in time that merits rumination but requires action, then trepanates that moment, bringing its full emotional scope to life, albeit from a safe distance. I suppose you never outgrow feeling safer and more comfortable using a conduit for emotions, as if by externalizing the problem and writing someone else into the situation, you’re ultimately able to make better decisions. Isn’t that why people start writing in the first place?
For me, Fox Confessor is fraught with uncomfortable nostalgia; it was released right after I graduated from college and slayed me then, so it’s a little embarrassing that it’s still such an emotional wallop seven years later. Right after college, I found myself alone in a city that had turned from “Finally Familiar and Friendly” to “Indifferent”; most of my friends moved away and moved on yet I was still stuck there. Although I wasn’t exactly in the same situation last year, there were a lot of times I didn’t want to be who I was or where I was—a thought that was often completely overwhelming and thus a source of paralyzing anxiety.
All the protagonists on Fox Confessor are either stuck in moments where they should be taking action—the little girl on “Star Witness,” the woman chastising herself for being damaged goods on “Hold On, Hold On”—or impartial observers of something beyond their control, like the omniscient narrator of “Dirty Knife.” Ouch, man. Anxiety yields stasis. You think the world will reward you for thinking things through, but when you overthink a situation, you do nothing improve your standing or make things different for Future You. It’s preparing yourself for the worst while doing nothing to actually prepare yourself.
But sometimes anxiety provokes the opposite response. Idler Wheel is the pot boiling over, Apple’s thoughtful, mature skewering of her relationship with Jonathan Ames. Emotion might float closer to the surface on Apple’s earlier albums, but on Idler Wheel it actually feels like there’s less distance between you and her. She’s not burying her feelings under fifty-cent words as much; the shades and shadows undulating in her perception are replaced with straightforward talk: “super guys,” “great guys,” “I don’t even like you all that much anymore.”
Idler Wheel is a woman walking the line between self-loathing and self-affirmation, jumping into either pool as she sees fit. Moody, sure—but also mature. For all the blame Apple heaps onto those who jilted her, she’s equally willing to shoulder her responsibility, as she does on “Werewolf.” And for the emotional range on display, she never comes off as messy. She’s able to shove that raw emotion into the ol’ brain-grinder and exude something that’s not just personal, but also completely capable of inspiring empathy. It definitely floored me. “Left Alone” is the best, most succinct encapsulation of what it’s like to feel anxious all the time and no way to shut it out: “My ills are reticulate/ My woes are granular/ The ants weigh more than the elephants.” Here’s a person whose attention is constantly divided, who’s constantly worrying about the wrong things, compartmentalizing problems and situations until they seem like they’re getting more manageable but are instead each gathering their own magnitude.
Apple spits anxiety and cultivates melodrama, but she does so in ways that always resonate and always seem to help her move forward—in her growth as a person, and in her evolution as an artist. By giving voice to thoughts like these, you often appear emotionally obsessive and emotionally possessive to others—but in actuality, you’re freeing yourself. Crying “crazy” is a way to control women, but action and expression are means of fighting back, exerting control over your situation. There’s no “fixing” anyone—we all know the fiction of that particular fix—but in the end, I’m a sensible girl. Time to step across the line.
Susannah Young tells nonprofit organizations what to do on a full-time basis, sometimes writes about music and tweets like once every three months.
I wrote this! Warning: contains “feelings.”
- I realized one of the major reasons I was considering filling one out at all was because I felt like some people out there wanted to see what my albums would be and I kind of wanted that attention and validation but didn’t know if forcing myself to complete a task I wasn’t personally fundamentally interested in for its own sake would be worth it or if it would just kind of be tedious and soul-crushing
I don’t know that anyone would be particularly interested in what albums I selected, but the latter part of the bullet pretty much sums up why I didn’t submit a Pitchfork People’s List either. Although I’m an organized person, I’m not on an archivist grind. I find it tiring and thoroughly unenjoyable to categorize and scrutinize anything I truly love in a way that will never communicate anything emotionally charged about it, or situate Thing X That I Love in some kind of larger context that might inspire someone else to go exploring and maybe form their own thoughts about it.
This is why I haaaaaaaate music lists: the analytics are never sound enough to be real-deal quantitative since they’re all rooted in someone’s opinion, and they remove the best things about music writing: a solidified opinion that bridges the gap between the personal and the cultural, a conversation-starter that prompts opinions, is open-ended and encourages new ideas and tangents. Arranging music into a list only incites nitpicking, arguments and opinions that don’t really have a life outside of the context of the arbitrary-to-begin-with list. It’s inwardly-focused, navel-gazing criticism masquerading as something with larger social meaning.
Also, I am an includer to the nth degree and second-guess myself constantly so throw another log on that torturous fire. But! Given the tenure of this past week, I’d much rather read a depressing statistic about women not being so hot on making music lists than one about old men deciding what to do about vaginas and how to tell if one’s been TRULY violated.