At Latitude last weekend, the incomparable John Grant gyrated his way across the stage and opened his set with the searing ‘You & Him’, a song that makes you laugh and wince at the same time as it creeps towards comparison (‘you’re so cute, but you remind me of somebody else / it’s on the tip of my tongue, no it’s not Orson Wells’) before the detonation of the chorus:
You and Hitler oughta get together
You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters
You oughta learn the finer points of decoupage
You oughta spend your weekends clearing out the garage…
Even if I didn’t already admire John Grant’s deft lyrical and musical skill, you can’t help but take your hat off to someone who has the audacity to get away with lines like: ‘you probably went to Chernobyl for your honeymoon / you probably acted surprised when they showed you the room.’ Whether you cringe or giggle, it’s bold.
After the song, as a brief silence settled over Henham Park, Grant simply said:
“That’s a song you could sing if you were angry.”
I hadn’t thought about it before, but one of the things I’m drawn to in albums like ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ and ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is their understated outrage, the way they lasso fury with wit. It’s the same thing I love in Richard Thompson’s lyrics, in the taut irony of a song like ‘Put It There, Pal’ (‘you shot me down with friendly fire….the rope you threw me was made of barbed wire’).
It’s an obvious thing to say, but I’ve never had a problem with stating the obvious: anger is a difficult emotion to write. You risk seeming self-righteous, hectoring or even dull (even to people who agree with you). At the moment, there’s a lot of anger being bottled up, expressed and exchanged in the UK. Rage against politicians, rage against each other, rage against threats we don’t have a name for. Rage against ourselves, our own impotence. Rage at the TV screen, rage on social media. There’s a whole tide of rage on Twitter and Facebook, in fact, not all of it particularly targeted, because sometimes anger renders you almost incoherent.
When I think about the power of restrained anger in poetry and song, it takes me back to one of the first poems I ever loved, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’ with its impassioned plea: ‘Move him into the sun…’. At first sight, ‘Futility’ doesn’t seem like an angry poem at all. There’s a kind of naivety in the narrator’s apparent belief that the sun might have the power to wake the dead (‘if anything might rouse him now, / the kind old sun will know’). The real frustration, the real futility of the poem is kept for the last three lines, their searching despair:
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
to break earth’s sleep at all?
When I read ‘Futility’ now, I sense a certain irony in Owen’s ‘kind old sun’, a compassion more akin to the ‘old friend’ in Richard Thompson’s ‘Put It There, Pal’:
I know you mean well, call me a sentimental fool
I know sometimes you’ve got to be kind to be cruel….
Of course, Owen knows it isn’t the sun’s fault either. He’s just angry. Climber Reinhold Messner once said that “mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.” The same sometimes feels true of life. There’s a place for words of undiluted anger. But it can be far more interesting to ambush someone with humour or irony, find a way of telling it slant.