I have likely said it before and will no doubt say it again before the year is out, but making decisions on what artists not to include in the fifty available slots for this series has been a challenge. Musically, there are any number of artists and songs that I could have chosen. There could easily have been fifty songs for every year. Ponder what that playlist might sound like. Wow.
Rules is rules, however, and in reality there was never any doubt that Animals That Swim would make the cut for they are one of those groups whose body of work never fails to thrill me whenever I might choose to dip back in. They left us a clutch of glorious singles and a trilogy of near perfect albums. Every one of them still sounds rich with sound and lyrical vision, and I admit that when I think about it I oscillate wildly between wishing they had made many more records and cherishing these unblemished relics they left behind.
Their 2001 ‘Happiness Is A Distant Star’ set might have turned out to be their swan song, but naturally it is never less than exquisite, where our definition of exquisite is very much couched in notions of kitchen sink drama. In my head I have always fitted Animals That Swim’s songs into the same universe inhabited by Shena Mackay’s early novels, like ‘Music Upstairs’ or the oddly surreal ‘An Advent Calendar’. Perhaps others can see the connections. Perhaps not. Certainly the ‘All Your Stars Are Out’ single still sounds if not novelistic then at least as a short story and there are few better short story writers than Mackay.
‘All Your Stars Are Out’ is folk music that isn’t Folk; is country music that isn’t Country; is urban music that isn’t Urban. It’s a song that perhaps says there is nothing wrong with moving out to the suburbs, for we take our daydreams with us and make them what we want them to be. The sound of the suburbs need not be a deathly toll. Instead those sounds might be as sublime as those made by Animals That Swim.
So ‘All Your Stars Are Out’ is classic Animals That Swim. In other words it is a song of words, where words paint the pictures and the pictures are polaroids of all the delicious details of the things you love. It’s what the song is about after all: Fantasy and reality; celebration and the faint tint of regret and melancholy. If only. It can be. It could be. It won’t be. Love in a time of poverty when we never knew we were poor. Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Trust your heart. Something like this.
Everything will be okay.
I have not been to New York for many years but if I should have opportunity to return I would very much like to visit the High Line park. From the photographs I have seen it certainly looks like a fascinating example of urban regeneration. And yet… and yet… I admit that there is a significant part of me too that rather wishes that the High Line had been left as it was when Joel Sternfeld took the photographs that were collected in his 2001 collection ‘Walking The High Line’. Comparing these with contemporary photographs of the park space is startling and forces us to ask all kinds of awkward questions about the beauty of neglect and the aesthetic of abandonment versus practical re-purposement. The paradox that says to save something you love you must irrevocably change it. Is it better to let something you love die or to continue its life yet risk losing the very values you loved in the first place? When we are talking about urban structures of course this naturally too leads to issues of regeneration cloaked as gentrification; corporate investment and directives versus community co-operation and equity. These are complex issues and difficult questions which perhaps have no easy answers. Or at least no answers that can be universally agreed upon. But then again, can anything?
Perhaps though we can agree that Sternfeld’s collection of photographs of the High Line is one to cherish; one whose images are individually beautiful and collectively cohesive. Sternfeld’s photographs are landscapes whose success depends as much on the built environment as on natural forms and whose structure is imposed largely by the boundaries of the disused elevated railroad. At times, most notably when the photographs capture the growth of Summer’s height or the buttercup blooms of Spring, the photographs can summon notions of post-apocalyptic cinema. Yet there is always the human element that cannot be ignored: Nature may be taking over here but it is still hemmed in by the human hand.
If it is this ebb and flow between natural growth and imposed structure that makes Sternfeld’s photographs so successful then perhaps too this is what makes the environment he captured in 2001 so much more appealing visually (and intellectually?) than the regenerated 2016 High Line. In 2016 has the structure of the human hand finally suppressed nature’s sprawl? Or is it just another temporary cessation of hostilities? Perhaps one hundred years from now the High Line will once again be a forgotten space, discovered and celebrated as a secret garden. Perhaps not.