Is there something about music that lends itself as a medium to explore tortured and painful yet romantic and erotic queer longing? From Perfume Genius’ melancholic songs like “Hood” to The Communards’ bizarrely manic renditions of torch songs and even, appropriated show tunes from Broadway musicals such as “On My Own” from Les Miz caterwauled in piano bars, music has a lengthy history as a repository for yearning. Maybe it’s the melodrama that only the auditory can capture that allows music to unabashedly delve into the dark corners of our minds that other genres have, instead, devoted to pride.
In her–often-used here at Filthy Dreams–book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love traces this legacy of longing in modern literature. However, the emotions of, as she interprets, “nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, ressentiment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism and loneliness” can also be found in contemporary music rather than relegated to the separate and shameful literary past when same-sex desire was rendered impossible.
As Love writes of these backward feelings, “Of course, same-sex desire is not as impossible as it used to be; as a result, the survival of feelings such as shame, isolation and self-hatred into the post-Stonewall era is often the occasion for further feelings of shame. The embarrassment of owning such feelings, out of place as they are in a movement that takes pride as its watchword, is acute. It is also hard to see how feelings like bitterness or self-hatred might contribute to any recognizable political praxis” (4).
Of course, Love takes the question of the political relevance of “bad” feelings as a challenge as do many contemporary musicians including Tsinder Ash, a London-based queer musician, multi-instrumentalist and artist.
“I would collapse into you/like a dying star,” begins Ash’s EP The Carbon Of Your Delight, (available here on Bandcamp) which was released in March 2015. What follows in an all-consuming, minimalistic yet expansive sonic landscape that focuses on aching for eroticized self-immolation. With a stark simplicity of instrumentation with simple guitars and sometimes, a banjo, Ash allows his voice, as well as his evocative poetic lyrics, to shine through. Ash’s voice rivals only Anohni’s in his use of vibrato that conveys–at once–a delicate fragility and powerful strength of vision–a perfect combination to fearlessly lyricizing longing, grief and aching desire.
Some of you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, may recognize Tsinder Ash from his appearance in one of our favs M. Lamar’s Badass Nigga–The Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero video that was both shot and featured in Lamar’s last exhibition at Participant Inc. Not only collaborating with M. Lamar, Ash has also worked with iconic performance artist Franko B., who he can also count as a fan of his music (I spotted Franko B. smiling in the front of one of Tsinder Ash’s performances in a YouTube video. With his trademark tattoos and glasses, Franko is hard to miss).
Not only looking forward to a new EP this fall, Ash is also planning an upcoming full-length album The Ecstasy of Making Things Worse, which, according to the press release, will explore the Anthropocene “echoing this sense of foreboding, of bringing mortality to the forefront of consciousness. But amidst the doom there is a playfulness, an almost satirical slant on humanity’s propensity for self destruction.” Sounds uplifting!
As we anticipate these new releases, Ash’s The Carbon Of Your Delight deserves a closer critical look and listen. With its uncanny out-of-time sound, the EP is best heard with the blinds pulled, sitting in the dark–perfect for a late summer day!
Just the album cover invokes a combination of Robert Mapplethorpe’s two main creative interests–the marble-like flesh of the human body and tulips. With a tulip placed in front of his ass and his hand pressed against the skin of his back, Ash’s cover design invokes the utterly Bataille-esque combination of eroticism and death. The tulip is, at once, a sexualized symbol and a reference to graveside flowers.
From the cover image to lines such as, “I would cinder to charcoal/I would crumble to chalk/become the tool that transforms/your face from boy, into skin without essence/a nameless, genderless mold/on which fractal meanings dance/and only beauty takes hold,” Ash is clearly a fan of Leo Bersani’s notion of self-shattering from his seminal essay Is The Rectum A Grave? In a conversation on his website with fellow musician Clara Engel who also sings on the third song on the EP “The Sparking,” Ash describes his poetic focus on this transformative self-effacement. He says, “it’s because those moments of pure desire/beauty/ecstasy are the breaking point where we become radically open.”
Even more than this transcendence through eroticism, when you dig deeper into the four songs on the EP, listeners will find a well of longing. Just the sheer amount of the word “would” in the song’s lyrics indicates the precariousness of the possibility of the acts documented in the songs. These are moments of desire that have not yet occurred and in fact, may never occur. In the opening to “The Sparking,” Ash croons, “I would carry your bones/across darkening plains/to bring pieces of you/back home again” and later, Engel joins in, “To be with you at the sparking/where horizons meet the sea/I would never beg your pardon/ I would only beg belief.”
With this invocation of landscape–darkening plains, horizons meeting the sea and later, in the final song “Antipode,” the waters edge, Ash constructs a poetic environment reflective of the dark romanticism in his music. This mirroring of instrumentation with gloomy seaside references reminds me of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ (ok, what doesn’t make me reference Nick) last album Push the Sky Away. It’s no mistake that the album contains a song called “Water’s Edge.” Like Cave’s lyrical landscape, Ash’s constructed realm is dark and hallucinatory like a daydream–a world that resembles ours but remains more in fantasy.
This imagined space carved out by Ash in his four songs also seems to be the space of longing-longing for a person, desire, act or even, different world. What possible spaces do we create out of longing? And is there a generative political force within these gestures?
For Heather Love in the conclusion of Feeling Backward, she explains, “Many of the bad feelings under review here–self-pity, despair, depression, loneliness, remorse–are in fact bound up with pleasure, with precisely the sort of pleasure that gets regularly excoriated as sentimental, maudlin, nostalgic, self-indulgent and useless. I would suggest that part of the reason that these feeling-states continue to be denigrated is that they are associated with pleasures–even ecstasies–so internal that they distract attention from the external world. While melancholia or the sense of failure may borrow some prestige from philosophical accounts of negativity, when it comes to enlisting feelings for queer political projects, these ones are picked last” (161).
While typically associated with internal worlds rather than external, Ash’s investigation of these bad feelings render them externalized. And as Ash sings in his banjo-laden, dreamlike blues and folk-influenced “Weapons,” “There is power at the bottom.” The song begins with the lines, “Grief is coming for me/in a clatter of iron wings/a chorus forged in the fires of a bloody dawn.” Beyond this apocalyptic war-zone, Ash finds his own weapons internally. “You may strip my flesh/of all defense/you may leave my hope embalmed/but my weapons are/concealed in bone/I will not leave this world unarmed,” he continues.
The song finds Ash putting aside hope for these uglier feelings like grief, despair and melancholy, finding a, while not overtly political, power in the “bad feelings.” This reflects the final sentences of Love’s Feeling Backward. She describes, “Given this state of affairs, the question really is not whether feelings such as grief, regret, and despair have a place in transformative politics: it would in fact be impossible to imagine transformative politics without these feelings. Nor is the question how to cultivate hope in the face of despair, since such calls tend to demand the replacement of despair with hope. Rather the question that faces us is how to make a future backward enough that even the most reluctant among us might want to live there” (163).
Following Love and Ash’s rejection of the replacement of despair with hope or shame for pride, Dina S. Georgis in her essay Cultures of Expulsion: Memory, Longing and the Queer Space of Diaspora also sees longing as an integral political feeling. Her essay focuses mainly on the longing for home and belonging rather than a person, ideal or desire.
Like Georgis’ essay, Ash’s final song “Antipode” deals with a similar type of spatial longing. The chorus follows, “Oh Antipode, what earth has grown between us/that soil that tried to leave us/did go/Oh Antipode, for all the rocks beneath us/that joy that tried to leave us/did go,/ you did go/ you did go.” Ending the album with the “going” of “Antipode,” The Carbon Of Your Delight’s grand finale maintains the overwhelming sense of loss and longing that runs throughout the EP.
But as shown in “Weapons,” this does not mean it is without power. As Georgis writes in Cultures of Expulsion, “The implication of this means that we make a political practice of paying attention to our queer longings, that we reflect on the vulnerabilities which are awakened by such longing, and that we consider how the emotional and psychic geography of the human might re-invigorate our political imagination.”