At the end of Can’t Live Without… #2 I mentioned how genre could be a beautiful thing. Oftentimes we hear musicians playing with the idea of what genre their music conforms to. They add something bizarre to the mix, interpolate a passage in a style or mood we hadn’t expected. And this shakes us by the collar of our assumptions – ever too lightly worn – and wakes us up. ‘There are other musics, other worlds,’ it seems to say. And this awakening can be a source of real pleasure (1).
But what if there was an artist who didn’t appear to work within any genre whatsoever? What if every time this musician released a record you didn’t have a clue what kind of music you’d get? Folk, drone, rock, pop. Improvisation, song, musique concrète. Acoustic, electric, entirely electronic. Melodic, dissonant, minimal, maximal. Pure and simple, distorted and blurred, recorded in one take or overdubbed cacophonously.
What if you wouldn’t be able to predict what instrument he would use? Acoustic guitar one time, accordion the next, shakuhachi, theremin, dulcimer, a home-made synthesiser… or maybe just the sound of his own voice a cappella.
And the mood of the music would constantly change too: hymnal, abrasive, delicate, strident. Songs of praise one time, of lamentation another. It might be soothing and then wilfully upsetting – sometimes even within the selfsame song.
And of course the music would have to come out on different record labels. There would be a changing cast of collaborators. And the artist would eschew all the usual forms a musical career might take. He wouldn’t compose music with the album-format in mind. He would have no interest in following an album (should he make one by chance) with a nationwide tour and a press campaign to promote it. He would be happy, say, with a day job in a library in Glasgow, making music at nights or on the weekends for the sheer love of the thing – not giving a jot for dreams of fame and fortune. He would embrace the oxymoronic role so crucial to the creation of some of the greatest music of the 20th century: the professional amateur.
But if all the above were true, wouldn’t it amount to a great big unholy mess? You might like one of this musician’s releases but hate dozens of others. You might, hearing of him for the first time, think that there’s no way you could ever get to grips with his output, shrug your shoulders and move on. After listening to a few albums, you might tire of a man who seems to have no raison d’être save to surprise himself and the listener.
But the thing is… No. No. And no. That’s not it at all. Because what unifies all this music is the creative spirit that works behind it. And the honesty in which it’s always made. This is why this man’s music is nearly always essential.
Enter Richard Youngs.
Here, from the album Sapphie (Oblique, 1998; later re-released by Jagjaguwar, 2000) is the distillation of his creative spirit. It comes straight at you, elemental and unadorned. It is seemingly unconsidered – which does not mean that it is made thoughtlessly.
If he eschews genre, Youngs always imposes limits on himself, setting clearly defined parameters for each piece of music. On Sapphie, it’s just voice and a cheap classical guitar with nylon strings: single takes, no overdubs, recorded straight to DAT. Putting limits on music in this way seems to liberate the creative spirit rather than hamper it – and not just for Youngs. It’s as if the imagination needs boundaries to push against. As if the energy that is derived from solving problems created by constraints is something art needs to have in order for it to soar (2).
But even with strict parameters, the outcome of the music should be impossible to predict:
‘I like John Cage’s definition of experimental music: music the outcome of which cannot be foreseen… What I release is perhaps the stuff that puzzles me the most. If I can work it out, it doesn’t interest me.’ (3)
The words, for instance, in Sapphie, don’t seem to want to make a predictable song. They are fragments that have been collected up and offered as they are.
‘With Sapphie I had a load of lyrics written out. I’d kept a journal where I wrote one line every day for a year. Near the close of the year I chose my favourite lines, and it was a matter of fitting them all in.’ (4)
So what we get here is the private thoughts of a year unfurling. Emotions, cares, hopes, reflections. Youngs is not trying to shape them and craft them. And, as a result, there is a great intimacy here that you don’t encounter often. You feel as if he is in the room with you, speaking to you alone.
Then again, even if we could always decipher the words he sings, I’m not sure that they’re important. In fact I’m not sure the effect of the music would be changed if he was singing randomly generated syllables. This is music that is reaching out for a realm of pure, unmediated feeling. And getting there.
Because of this, I have heard Sapphie described as spiritual, numinous, even heavenly music. But ultimately I don’t think any of these descriptions will do. It’s not ecstatic or transcendental. It is rooted to the earth in a way that a man singing to the sky can only be.
Believe me, you need this.
(1) …and also, sometimes, of unease.
(2) For me, Bach is the greatest example of this. The passion of Bach, in all senses of the word ‘passion’, comes from this straining against self-imposed limits.
(3) All quotes taken from Richard Youngs’s interview with Comes With a Smile fanzine, 2002.
(4) It’s often said that Sapphie commemorates the death of Youngs’ dog but this isn’t accurate: ‘Oh, the dog bit was a red herring. Sapphie was an Alsatian that belonged to a friend, Alison. I’d never got on with dogs until I met Sapphie. I really loved that dog – he was so laid back, such a great personality. When he died I was sad. Whenever I go through Lancaster on the train, I think of Sapphie, because that’s where he lived. Anyway, I had these great pawprints, which is the cover, and I wanted to commemorate him in some way, so I named the album after him. The songs don’t relate to him at all.’ (ibid.)