On The Record: Ben Philipps

Ben Philipps 1 March 2019

I first came across Michael Nau as the frontman of so-called psychedelic folk band Cotton Jones. I Am The Changer, a six-minute admission of inconstancy and the most hauntingly melancholic testament to ambivalence since Strawberry Fields Forever, appeared one week on my Discover Weekly, and, in a moment of optimism, I gave it a listen. Then, in 2017, Nau released Some Twist, his second solo album and the first of which I was aware.

Reviews often draw comparisons to Fred Neil and Tim Hardin, which might suggest the sort of elusive, laid-back-yet-emotionally-charged mood of his music, but as was immediately apparent from first hearing Cotton Jones, Nau’s true genius lies in exploring the troubling underbelly of psychedelia. Some Twist sounds like the end of the Sixties and the end of the world rolled into one. Its first track, Good Thing, blends Abbey Road-esque white noise apocalypse with Nau’s smoothly liquid vocal performance, and the result is pretty unnerving.

The line that most stands out to me comes about halfway through, after an instrumental break:

“It occurred to me, as the sky was falling down,

You really miss the flying when you’re standing on the ground.”

Therein, I think, lies the tension at the heart of the song. “It occurred to me” is reflective, meditative, almost pedantic; it’s not what one would expect to think when, say, the sky is falling down. The obvious conclusion is that the sky isn’t really falling down, but if it’s a metaphorical doomsday, and something to do with emotional intensity, why then does Nau shy away from expressing his emotions? Why does it only “occur” to him, not hit him with the force of collapsing heaven?

Most of the song is veiled in metaphor. “The bird flies light in a heavy frame” is obscure to the point of Dylanosity, and the “shivering rivers” we hear about in the first verse are no easier to unravel. When the final line comes, then, it packs all the force of the concrete.

“Maybe you just learn to be alive and not regret the pain.”

After this, we have a long instrumental coda, to the extent where it feels like Nau is being deliberately silent, rather than having finished saying what he wanted to say. Just as we get our clearest view, we are shut out again. It’s an abrupt ending in the tradition of Won’t Get Fooled Again, in that we are left feeling a lack of closure, wondering how to re-emerge from the world of the song into reality.

For all this dissection, much of the song’s residual power and beauty (and for me, at least, it has these qualities like almost no other) lies in its slipperiness. As mentioned, the end of the song leaves us wanting more; we feel we’ve had a glimpse into a mind darkly glimmering with thoughts half-formed, submerged, yet somehow floating. Listening again to the beginning, the way in which meaning is gradually and incompletely revealed sets the tone for the rest of the lyrics:

“Got a good thing
Got a good thing
Got a good thing going
Got a good thing going
Got a good thing going wrong”

One word is added every two lines, so that a new and different sense arises as the music builds. It’s like looking at a piece of abstract expressionism, or reading the most experimental of Modernist literature – we see, and feel, and hear the artist in the process of creation. In this case, in the process of trying to confront head-on the inevitable rest of their life.

I’ve always tried to have an answer ready when someone asks me what my favourite song is. This is probably because I want to appear like someone who thinks about these things, who listens to music in a profound way, in doing so avoiding the worry that I’m listening to it wrong. I have flirted with the idea of naming this my Official Favourite Song – it certainly can make me feel things that very few pieces of art can, and it’s one of the only songs that, no matter the occasion, I will stop and really try to listen to. However, I decided not to. It’s a song that is often uncomfortably private, one in which the listener can feel that they’ve glimpsed something too raw and personal to be stared at. It is also, unavoidably, the first track of an album. The tension is left unresolved.