by Jade Curson
In the last 15 years, I’ve become a pretty good curator of my own emotional states, heightening them to the most extreme version through the music I picked to accompany them. There’s no feeling too big or small to be soundtracked. Modern Baseball’s tribute to spoiled brats ‘Going To Bed Now’ was a comforting presence during frequent standoffs with an old flatmate about whose turn it was to take the bins out. Childish? Perhaps. Did passively-aggressively blasting it from my room convince her to do it? Absolutely not, but it felt like solidarity to hear the frustration expressed by Ewald singing “please leave my house” as I once again dragged the bags to the chute. When I was stuck in a job I hated with my life, Turnstile’s Time & Space stopped me walking out into traffic on my commute. When I first listened to Jamie Lenman’s ‘Mississippi’, I was on the train home to help make arrangements for my grandmother’s funeral – I played that song on a loop for the entire journey, clinging to someone else’s words about loss and regret at a time when I wasn’t ready to grapple with my own.
You get my point. The problem with treating all of your emotional wounds with salt, though, is that it leaves you thoroughly unprepared for a time when what you actually need is anaesthetic. And earlier this year, after a lifetime of listening to music which drew out the most intense version of what I felt at any given time, I found myself in desperate need of numbness. I spent months without music at all: everything in my library was too sharp, too loud, too much a reminder of the thing I was trying to forget. Silence was also unbearable, so I filled the space with podcasts about old TV shows, the American justice system, and the finer details of recycling. What I would have given for just one record that maintained an emotionally neutral ground.
The answer, it turns out, was staring me in the face – or should I say, gazing me in the shoes. Sound over story; emotional white noise. A synthetic nostalgia for the original grunge and shoegaze era that I was technically old enough to live through, but not to remember. And while Nanami Ozone can’t really be categorised as purely shoegaze, their sophomore album NO is a 35-minute slice of hazy indie so perfectly crafted that it feels timeless – like an unearthed classic from that early 90s heyday rather than a new release. The record blends grunge-tinged earnestness with a calculated detachment that all reinforces the effortlessly cool vibe it emanates; the kind of record your teenage self would start smoking in front of, in the hope it might notice you and be impressed.
NO is a rarity in that it really is a record for all seasons. The dreary soundtrack to winter blues and apathy found in ‘The Art of Sleeping In’ segues seamlessly into ‘3 Mile Drive’, a perfect summer road-trip jam. There are moments, such as closer ‘Think Of Me None’, that thrive on sparsity, as the surrounding instrumentation gives way to the cold loop of the guitar refrain, you can feel the numbness in the tips of your fingers from long winter walks spent contemplating those things – a loss, a mistake, a grief – that are too painful to examine in the warmth and the light.
Musically, it contains multitudes: Nanami Ozone aren’t afraid to play with space, drawing out a minimalist interlude several bars longer than you might expect before bringing the rest of the band back in to play. It’s not emotionless, exactly; rather it hints at an emotional depth without ever really reaching out and examining it in any depth. There are flashes of lust and hunger and pining, but those wounds and wants don’t feel fresh enough to really tug at your heartstrings. When Sophie Opich drops a casual bait and switch in “Scoop me up in your arms // no, spit me out in the yard // I just wanna be something to you”, it feels like it should cut, like it should evoke an emotional response: but the combination of that back and forth, with the overarching dispassion in the delivery makes it feel almost mocking, a derision of that sort of indecisiveness. The fact that it lends the song a Kim Gordon-level air of curated disinterest… well, that’s just gravy.
It’s strange to try and describe a record through the lens of feeling nothing while listening to it, without making that sound like a criticism. In this case, though, it’s a testament to the strength of the songwriting and overall style of Nanami Ozone. How many records can lodge themselves into your brain with such ease, without having an acute emotional attachment to something else in your life? It’s hard to imagine any band would be stoked to hear their music described as ‘emotional white noise’, but hear me out, Ozones. The importance of a record that brings you back to yourself at your worst moments cannot be overstated. When I walked out of a hospital earlier this year with a scary potential diagnosis, listening to NO brought me back from the brink of panic, to a place where I could process and plan for whatever future I would have. When I walked away for the last time from an unhealthy relationship I still hadn’t been quite ready to let go of, NO was something that could be solely mine, when all other records I’d loved had been shared with someone who was no longer in my life and were therefore tainted: it gave me the space to focus on what freedom I’d gained, rather than what I thought I’d lost.
The idea of making music as a form of catharsis is so prevalent that mentioning it in a review or feature often feels redundant. But what about the rest of us schlubs who don’t have the talent or capacity to vent through writing our own songs? Bitch, I have depression – any day that I can get out of bed, take a shower and get to work on time is a victory. Learn an instrument? Write a song? From my brain? From scratch? Forget about it. One of my favourite things about music – no matter your poison, whether it’s fist-throwing punk music or soft, sad indie-folk to cry along to – is that as well as serving as an emotional release to the creators, listeners can also draw a sense of catharsis when our own emotions are too confusing or too big to process by ourselves. Those who can, do; those who can’t, leech.
There’s a tendency in some circles to look down on personal essays as something frivolous or insubstantial, especially in contrast with the supposedly more serious, more objective medium of music criticism. What is it that makes a detached analysis of lyrics, instrumentation and influences more culturally valued than an in-depth exploration of how a record impacted you? I have a theory – the short version is ‘misogyny’ – but that’s a conversation for another time.
That’s why I find essays about albums, bands, shows, or any fleeting moments of personal significance are the most interesting to read, and to write. They’re unique, emotionally rich, and unlike reviews, if some nerd tries to correct you on a Reddit thread, instead of coming out looking more knowledgeable, it just makes them a straight-up dick. Someone’s personal relationship to a record expands the universe of that art, instead of ascribing one narrow interpretation. And let’s be honest – given that no one can afford therapy anymore, we should be enthusiastically backing anything that can act as a placeholder, even temporarily. A little less “how does this sound?”, and a little more “… and how does that make you feel?”