My Aunt’s funeral is taking place in just over two weeks. I am going to say a few words at the service and yesterday I wrote out what I’d like to say so that the person officiating the (secular) service has some idea of how long I’m going to speak for. I’d prefer to speak without notes but I’m not sure whether or not my memory will allow me to do that without stuttering and failing to recall important things.
My section of the service is called “Memories of Joyce” and since her death I have been trying to unlock the doors in my memory beyond which lie the recollections of my encounters with her. Talking to my sister and my wife and looking through some old photographs, I have begun to retrieve some very pleasant, meaningful and fun times that Joyce and I spent together.
But what is memory? Some scientists regard memory as being more complex than simply an awareness of past events. We like to think of our memories as being fixed but experts consider our memory to be an ambiguous system of ever changing processes. Some neuroscientists claim that memory transcends many of the dualities that we consider to be fixed. We should not be regarding memory as a battle between head/heart, or thinking/feeling, or here-and-now/there-and-then. Memory is a moving target and impossible to describe in these ways.
Marcel Proust wrote about memory in his 4000 page novel, “In Search Of Lost Time” (“À la recherche du temps perdu”) which was published in seven volumes. He coined the phrase “involuntary memory” as containing the “essence of the past,” claiming that it was different to voluntary memory. “In Search of Lost Time” describes the narrator’s childhood and adolescence in French high society at the turn of the 20th century. A particular theme of the novel is how time slips away meaninglessly. When the narrator eats a madeleine, soaked in tea, he recalls a similar experience from long ago in which he was with his Aunt. This triggers other memories of his childhood home and the town in which he lived. Throughout the book, different sensations remind the narrator of previous experiences. Marcel Proust called these “involuntary memories”.
The second song on Beth Orton’s amazing new album is called “Friday Night” and the opening words are “Well I’ve been dreaming of Proust all in my bed and he speaks to me in my sleep and he takes me to the other side, with his madeleines and friends.” She had recently been listening to recordings of “In Search Of Lost Time” on her headphones when trying to sleep at night. She recalled “I liked the fact that I could drift in and out of consciousness and still somehow keep up. I found it very calming, that sort of fragmented thinking.” The rest of the song recalls a memory of being with her best friend when they were both 14 years old and living in East London. They would go out on a Friday night and get “absolutely trashed in the city streets, drinking away the pain“. Her friend later died of alcoholism. The words are compelling but the instrumentation is wonderful. A dreamy musical landscape is populated by Alabaster dePlume’s improvised saxophone.
Alabaster dePlume’s birth name is Angus Fairbairn who has an eccentric personality. He has been described as a genuine and honest person and when he speaks, each sentence is gently considered and peppered with mentions of ‘love’, ‘encouragement’ and ’empowerment’ and that’s a perfect description of his saxophone playing on the album.
“Weather Alive” is Beth Orton’s eighth album. Her first album, “Superpinkmandy” was released in 1993 and this is her first album since 2016’s “Kidsticks”. She is best known to me for a song called “Stolen Car” from 1999’s “Central Reservation”. In 1997, she sung lead vocals on The Chemical Brothers’ single, “Where Do I Begin”. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 17 and this, along with drugs and alcohol, may have been responsible for “partial seizures that were more like auras.” She moved with her husband, the musician Sam Amidon, to Los Angeles in 2013 where the seizures became so severe that she couldn’t really function. At their worst, the seizures made her feel as though she was living overlapping lives. One minute she was a mum cooking dinner for her two kids, the next she felt like she had been yanked into an alternative timeline. “I thought I was fucking psychic! Like, Jesus Christ, I thought I was seeing the future. Now I know that the brain can function like a record that skips in time. What’s really happening is that it’s just reliving experiences one step behind what just happened.”
Shortly after finishing “Kidsticks”, Beth Orton and her husband moved back to East London with her ten-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, but found that it was too expensive to live there. Although she yearned for the quiet life she lived in Norfolk until the age of 14, she prioritised her children’s settled schooling and they moved to a rundown flat in Tufnell Park. “The place was a fucking wreck, my husband could not believe it, but we slowly made the place a home and it turned out to be the best of all worlds, in a way.” She became able to control her seizures with medication and with her children settled in school, her mind turned back to music. Browsing around Camden Market, she bought a shabby old piano which had a peculiar resonance in the strings (she later discovered that the case was full of soot). She set it up in the garden shed she was using as a studio and found that playing it brought back memories of making up her own piano tunes as a child. This experience released “a tsunami of emotion” that had been building up inside her and the songs flowed. “I started to be able to remember things without falling into a hole. Memories had become a very precious experience, so it was beautiful and kind of bittersweet to be able to access them without it making me sick. It was like watching home movies in my own head. It just seemed that each time I went to the piano a memory was evoked quite strongly. It felt very atmospheric.”
The longest track on the album is the seven-minute album closer, “Unwritten”. Beth Orton has said that “I don’t think it’s outside the realms of possibility that we are all living on many planes at once” and the description of an old man standing by the side of the road, regretting that he didn’t get on a train to meet his lover, sounds as if she is describing herself in another dimension. The twinkling pianos and synths floating above the live bass and brushed percussion make me feel like I have been transported to another world, another time, another place. It’s stunningly beautiful.
The title track, “Weather Alive”, sounds like the latest in a long line of beautiful, jazz inspired folk music as perfected by Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks“, Tim Buckley’s “Happy/Sad“, Nick Drake’s “Five Leaves Left” and Talk Talk’s “Spirit Of Eden“. There’s an overwhelming dichotomous feeling of comfortable silence overlaid with busy, subtle flourishes. Having played the album non-stop for the last six hours, I feel that I could listen to it forever while my own memories surface and resonate on every possible plane of existence.
“In the morning, all is dawning in the stillness of the day. Mist is rising, jewels aligning and the shadows fall away. The world calling out to me, but the world out beyond my reach.”