Sunday, January 29, 2012

Azita – ‘Disturbing the Air’

Listing William Hazlitt’s ‘brilliant passages’ last time, he seemed to emerge as a more forthright, and a far cooler presence than he does from the essays themselves. His acute critical sense does tend to lay waste to his subject, and he doesn’t spare himself. ‘On the Ignorance of the Learned’ is one of the most vicious essays in Table Talk, and there is a thread running through the book suggesting that if you say, or ‘fix’ something, you kill it: ‘The ideas we cherish most exist best in a kind of shadowy abstraction’. That he fixes so many of his shadowy abstractions is to our benefit, rather than his own. Elsewhere he draws a line between actor and celebrity:
An actor, after having performed his part well, instead of courting further distinction, should affect obscurity, and ‘steal most guilty-like away,’ conscious of admiration that he can support nowhere but in his proper sphere.
This is one of my favourite ideas, one which always makes me think of Kristin Hersh’s sleeve notes to the In a Doghouse compilation, in which she says:
the idea was always to leave a big, fancy present on the table and tiptoe out of the room
And now it crops up again, in a fractured song thrust through the fabric of this record in three places, at the beginning, middle and end:
Disturbing the air
Every time you move
Always on a slightly lower, more minor piano chord than you had remembered. It’s insane modesty in one sense (‘do I dare disturb the universe?’); in another an exaggerated, paranoid sense of contingency; in another a description of depression, when to move a limb through the heavy air seems all but impossible.

The thing I most want to say about Disturbing the Air is, it’s a different type of record to anything else I came across last year. There’s a risk of making it sound precious and self-absorbed, in comparison to those other albums which, when they are sad, want consolation, knowing that things will get better; when they are tender, it is with hope; when they are dark, it is with glee. Like Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career in 2009, Disturbing the Air casts aside these crutches. All it wants to do is document, with wit but without laughter, the shadowy abstractions of an attachment which mustn’t fail, but which has failed:
Sweep these ashes from my soul, I need my rest
You had to cut me down once you knew you were the one I loved the best

I have staked my soul more than I could afford
It struck me, how rare it is for anyone to remind me of Mark Eitzel, whose command of this kind of situation is more recursive than most – it’s not just that you see that I love you, and therefore hold me in contempt; it’s also that I see your pathetic reasons for rejecting me, and spurn them. Compassion is saved from smugness by abjection. There are hints of this kind of thing from Azita: beyond the initial anger (‘see you in hell’, she snarls, in ‘Parrots’) is compassion for ‘my love’’s unfulfilled promise in life, which is anything but bitchy:
Say you’re the finest up why don’t you rise high and shining
Everyone waited for you
(‘Say You’re the Finest’)
Jon mentions, in his fine review which I’m trying not to be too influenced by, that there is a shift about a third of the way into the record, when despair gives way to impressionistic metaphor, and the tone lightens somewhat. Emotionally, the shift is from anger to reminiscence, from reaction to review, and here are circumstances which can’t be killed by fixing, because they are already dead. Fixing them is an attempt to preserve them, but once done, the relationship, twice killed now, begins to erode the singer’s identity in a second shift:
When I step into that silence I too will disappear
(‘Ghost (When I Are You)’)

Should I be other
Or not at all
All of those years piled up
Bundled and burned

Should I be lost to you
That can’t be me

Who could be there but not there?
(all from ‘Should I Be?’)
When did a ghost ever disturb the air?

In closing, the peaceful ‘Keep Hymn’ piles up more of the religious references (‘Close your eyes with holy dread / And pray for peace’) which are scattered through the other songs too. They appear as an extension of unreality, the loneliest, most impersonal crutch. This record is remarkable for its beauty, ‘acoustic chamber music’, another review calls it, which is about right – despite the nature imagery, it never takes you outside, unless it’s to an unlit ocean at night (in ‘Stars or Fish’). And that beauty comes from its control and its singularity of purpose – despite the agonies on show, it never occurs to the listener to feel sorry for Azita. Disturbing the Air is a deep dark well from which to draw strength.

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