Just when you thought new music couldn’t move you any more…


Just when you thought new music couldn’t move you any more…

A wonderful new album, discussed with a friend during a brief foray into Stellenbosch's barren bubble of privilege, reminds FRED DE VRIES of the days when the world seemed full of possibilities.


STELLENBOSCH, oh Stellenbosch! What happened to the place I once knew? Gone is the little bookshop on Dorp Street, with its exquisite mix of new and second-hand, where I walked away with works by Haruki Murakami, Breyten Breytenbach and Jack Kerouac. Gone is Protea Books that sold me a fantastic work about the origins of American racism. And, more relevant for this column, gone is the music.

I remember Stellenbosch from Dorpstraat Revisited, Valiant Swart’s album from 1996. I remember Stellenbosch from the stories of Koos Kombuis, who partly grew up there. I remember reading about how the Voëlvry tour set Stellenbosch University, or at least the students, alight. But when I Google “Voelvry tour Stellenbosch”, I only get references to sites that organise wine tours.

I was back in Stellenbosch a couple of weeks ago to do a story about the elegance and sophistication of die dorp that people in the townships call “Little Europe”. There was indeed plenty of sophistication, I have to say. Schoon does excellent fresh bread and croissants. Platō serves a superb flat white. In Bartinney Wine & Champagne Bar, I sipped slowly from a glass of cabernet sauvignon that set me back R90. And in Blix, I stared at the unapologetically colonial interior while enjoying a well-crafted cocktail. Next, I got annoyed at a very loud and drunk (it was a Thursday, about 4pm) birthday party in De Akker, and in the evening I watched a recording of the Champions League final in Kapstadt Brauhaus. All good, but the only music I heard was pumping dumb techno, the unavoidable restaurant muzak of Jack Johnson, laid-back jazz and the odd snatch of Astrud Gilberto.

Then someone told me they sold vinyl albums at Stellenbosch Books, on Andringa Street, so I checked that out. The staff were more than welcoming but the music choice was restricted to six or so very pricey albums. Behind the counter was a larger selection of old vinyls. These were not for sale, explained the young woman while lifting the needle from a scratchy Beatles album. She advised me to go to Cape Town if I wanted to buy music. “Have you heard of Mabu Vinyl?”

I know young people use streaming services and don’t do much reading any more. But Stellenbosch is a student town and should have at least one second-hand book store and a decent music shop, or maybe a place that combines both. After all, young people profess to love records. We owe the whole vinyl revival to them. But I guess young people in Stellenbosch have their own particular issues. A friend who teaches at the university told me over lunch that she finds the students surprisingly demure. “There’s much less mischief and much more self-medication than before. And there’s a lot of wroeging, not so much existential, but in terms of ‘have I said the wrong thing?’”

On my final night, Saturday, I met my friend, poet and journalist Danie Marais. We go back a long way, to the days when Danie still lived in Pretoria and won the Ingrid Jonker Award for his poetry debut In Die Buitenste Ruimte (2006). At the time, he introduced me to a lot of great music, interesting bands such as Ben Folds Five and The Handsome Family. The other day, I came across a CD with some of the mixes he made for me, which I had labelled Danie Mix 1 and Danie 2. These discs must be 17 years old but they still sound fabulous.

We had booked at Decameron Restaurant, a place said to be frequented by the informal club of local billionaires who have been labelled the Stellenbosch Mafia. If they were there that Saturday evening, I didn’t see them. But to be honest, I would never recognise Whitey Basson or GT Ferreira. Danie brought a bottle of Kanonkop Kadette, which went down very well with the osso bucco (him) and salmon (me). We talked about Stellenbosch and the apparent dearth of culture. He said Bargain Books in the mall occasionally had interesting books. We briefly brainstormed our plan for a music podcast, and wondered who would sponsor it. Then Danie touched on something interesting. He said new music doesn’t move him as much as it did when he was in his late teens and early twenties, a time when everything is exciting and new and life hasn’t pushed you onto tracks you swore you’d never take. He was talking about the days when the world was a treasure trove of hidden possibilities and all dreams were there to be pursued. Before life lost its elasticity.

OK, maybe we were too romantic then — too impressionable, too naive, if you like. But we both remembered how music could move us beyond words, how songs hooked themselves onto your soul and you could sing every word, knew every note. How music managed to amplify any mood, from anger to sadness. How music conjured uncharted territories, made you feel you were alive. And I told him  I still remember exactly where and when I acquired certain records, 40-odd years ago. How I carried them in a plastic bag, how I looked forward to playing them when I arrived home. The ritual of removing them from the sleeve, checking for lyric sheets, admiring the shiny black vinyl. Ag, maybe we were exaggerating, getting carried away on that tricky buzz of great red wine.

Anyway, we often disagree on music, me and Danie. He loves Springsteen, I’m quite indifferent about The Boss. He thinks the Rolling Stones are better than The Beatles. I, despite my profound love for Keith Richards, tend to disagree. I love John Coltrane and Miles Davis, he can’t stand jazz. But that Saturday, we discovered an unexpected bit of common ground: The National, an American band that was formed in Brooklyn, New York, in 1999. Given that they all hail from Ohio, I had always dismissed them as dour mid-Westerners. Not that I had ever seriously given them a chance. I had heard a few songs and someone had given me a CD which I may have played once. It did nothing for me. I found them particularly dull. The singer's weary voice, especially, made me feel tired. I dismissed them as “typical despondent Generation X’ers”. That was until I heard their latest album, their ninth, with the intriguing title First Two Pages Of Frankenstein. For once I listened attentively, and was completely sold.

No, let me phrase that slightly differently. I first read a long piece about them in The New Yorker, written by Amanda Petrusich, one of the best American music critics. The piece was called The Sad Dads of The National. It blew me away. It proved once more how important music journalism can be, how much more insightful than any social media hyperbole. Petrusich talks about the “ambient sadness" that The National and their music embody. A feeling that “no amount of Transcendental Meditation, Pilates, turmeric, rose quartz, direct sunlight, jogging, oat milk, sleep hygiene, or psychoanalysis can fully alleviate". Part of it is existential, the kind of stuff that’s fairly easy to point out: basically related to death. But another part, she says, “feels more quotidian and incremental, the slow accumulation of ordinary losses". She mentions small things, such as a friend leaving town, losing touch with someone you love, the cutting down of a tree near the house you grew up in, losing your dog. In one of the songs, singer Matt Berninger sums it up as “the weird goodbyes".

And there The National got me too. And they proved me and Danie wrong. Occasionally, music can still really move you, even if you’re way past your mid-twenties, even if you’re supposedly wise and certainly cynical.

The National are an awkward band that never really fitted in with the cool Brooklyn scene of the early noughties: The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol. They consist of two pairs of brothers (Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who are twins, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf, who aren’t) who play the various instruments and singer Berninger who, before this album was recorded, went through a scary bout of depression and anxiety which paralysed his singing voice and writing skills. In his own words, “I froze". This situation lasted for nearly a year. He tried every remedy, medication, therapy, exercise, staying completely clean — nothing worked. He had hit a very dark, bleak spot. “The sparkles weren’t coming from my fingertips," he told Petrusich.

Berninger is a complex man, prone to depression — manic and melancholy, childlike and mature, but like his heroes Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, not without a self-deprecating sense of humour. In Conversation 16 from one of the previous albums, he sings: “You’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think." Eventually, he wrangled himself out of the deep, dark pit, resurrected, moved on up. He found it hard to explain how he did it. The band, his best friends after all, surely did all they could, and so did his wife, who also helped him with the lyrics. Slowly but surely, his world regained some colour.

First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is the result of this extended drama. And what a mesmerising album it is, from the first words Berninger mutters, “Don’t make this any harder", to the last whooshing keyboard sounds. The instrumentation is a mix of understatement and craft, with plenty of pop hooks to lift the music from the ominous gloom. The short, poignant guitar solos on Eucalyptus, Tropic Morning News and Alien are moments of pure joy and release, even though Berninger is still “looking over the edge, describing the fall".

My current favorite is the second track, Eucalyptus, a song about a break-up and how to divide the once-cherished shared possessions (as a man of immaculate taste, Berninger even questions who will get the Cowboy Junkies album). But opener Once Upon A Poolside, New Order T-Shirt, This Isn’t Helping (with Phoebe Bridgers) and The Alcott (with Taylor Swift) are strong contenders, beautifully crafted songs. That the album loses some of its suspense after the first seven songs (Grease in Your Hair reminds me of the pomp of Simple Minds, and Ice Machines is Berninger and his band on automatic) is a blessing in disguise because it makes the last two songs stand out again. Your Mind Is Not Your Friend is, as the title predicts, a fantastic description of a mental breakdown (“You’re crawling under rocks and climbing into holes"), while Send for Me is the perfect slow and quiet fade-out, which makes you want to listen to the whole album all over again, like an endless cycle where time no longer matters.

So there we were, me and Danie, in hedonistic Stellenbosch, with its wine bars, fancy restaurants, drunk students and sauntering tourists, a bubble of astonishing affluence and conspicuous consumption in a country that’s coping with multiple crises, pretending we were in Brooklyn or some other godforsaken bohemian hideout, discussing literature, music and regret as if we were living in a song by The National. At 10pm, we left an empty bottle on the table of an emptying restaurant and stumbled into the freezing Boland night.

Later I realised that what dragged me into the world of The National is the fact that the band, by means of melodies, sounds and words, has captured a mood that many people our age must be going through: the accumulation of loss, small and big, combined with the knowledge that these things will never come back, no matter how hard you try. Acceptance is key. But here I have to add a small, almost contradictory observation. Listening to this album conjured all kinds of memories for me, largely memories that had been hidden deep in my brain, some good, some bad, some happy, some sad, but all of them together giving life some much-needed and welcome grace.

♦ VWB ♦

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