By Mark Mordue
The Rolling Stones song ‘Emotional Rescue’ is a seduction song thinly veiled in romance. The urgency and strut that it exudes, Mick Jagger’s startling use of falsetto - it’s all about getting a woman to leave her husband and join him in bed.
By surrendering to her desires and to his, the singer will come to that woman’s emotional rescue. It’s likely to be a very temporary liberation, however. As Jagger hints early in the song, “Don’t you know promises were never meant to keep.”
There are often gaps between what we say and what we mean, of course. Some conscious, others subconscious. Our listening can involve similar arts of opportunity and self-deception. There are messages we don’t want to receive. Others we need to have, whether they are present in what someone says or does – or not.
Our emotions are rarely singular, and pass over us like one cloud hiding another and perhaps another again. The argument would be we should use our mind to read that weather more clearly, to make sense of those feelings that impel us, and then to see ourselves and perhaps act more wisely. Or to surrender – because we want to surrender – to something that at first glance is irrational, wild, destructive or thrilling, as the case may be. To be rescued, as it were, from the rational world that dulls us and even imprisons us.
Art is a kind of tarot for our feelings, a set of stories and symbols through which we can see ourselves. In Shakespeare’s time the connection was more ordered and universally understood, a universe of bodily humors from which character and all human destiny stemmed.
Though we lack such an elaborate and living map of the self today, I find I am still able to read another map, a map that is not fixed but somehow flowing, visible within the arts available to me. And that through these encounters I can examine what my feelings are – and even reinvigorate them by listening to music or reading a book when modern life seems to extinguish those sparks.
In a recent interview, Laura Marling – the young English singer most often compared to Joni Mitchell – declared herself to be an anti-romantic rationalist, to be all about logic over feelings. Marling is a woman barely 21 years old who’s produced a supreme second album entitled A Creature I Don’t Know (oh the irony). It’s hard to recall a record of such up-tempo and annihilating dispensations emerging since Chrissie Hynde appeared on the scene with The Pretenders some 30 years ago. Though arising out of an English folk-pop background, Marling’s voice also echoes the smoky, side-on snarl of Hynde at her best. Her lyrics are not only literary, they venture into a dark yet ultimately optimistic aloneness that seems rare: neither soporifically happy, nor darkly cliched. She works towards stripping away illusions about romance while sustaining a deep poetry and sense of mystery to her lyrics.
At the same time I started listening to her new record and absorbing her world-view, I found myself hurled backwards – somewhat nostalgically – by the documentary Autoluminescent. A depiction of the life and loss of former Birthday Party guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, Autoluminescent takes some of its hard-edge romance from the influence of 19th century French poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, both of whom Howard echoed in his looks, lyrics and ambience.
In the documentary, Howard talks about writing his first important song, ‘Shivers’, when he was only 16. He had noticed his schoolmates indulging in their emotions to hysterical extremes. It was all too much. Thus the withering lines of a jilted young man who might well be Howard himself: “’I’ve been contemplating suicide/but it’s really not my style.”
Howard could look back at the song and laugh at his own bravado, and his insight into excess emotion. “Says me”, he observes wryly in the documentary, “a guy who has always had a glass heart on his sleeve.”
Howard died last year of liver failure brought on by complications wrought by hepatitis C, contracted from intravenous drug use as a young man. Ultimately Autoluminescent is about promise unfulfilled, but it’s also about the great things Howard gave us as a musician and songwriter. It’s a legacy at once genuinely tragic and yet luminous, leaving you with a far-from-singular feeling – one that might best be described as ecstatic grieving.
A great artistic encounter brings something truthful to how we feel about ourselves and see the world. It’s a mysterious tension – an overlapping, contradictory richness – that somehow makes sense without ever reducing things to an easy answer or summary. It may be this is the only emotional rescue we can ever count on. In the meantime, we continue to seek our freedoms in the strangest ways – as often as not in spite of ourselves – jolted back into awareness by a wave of music, a line of poetry, a painting, a song … then continuing on our way.
Mark Mordue is the 2010 Pascall Prize Australian Critic of the Year. He is currently working on a biography of Nick Cave.