All Songs [(Post)Romantically] Considered

This summer’s been a contemplative one for me. Packing up and moving to a new city to start my second program in two years has been cause for self-reflection. Such is the nature of moving right on from the M.A. to the Ph.D. (now ‘repping Northwestern, exchanging the #B1GCats for the Oregon #GoDucks). Recently, a thought provoking listen to NPR’s All Songs Considered–in line with some work I’m doing on music for my ICR paper–catalyzed a key moment of self-realization. I began to think back to how my trajectory into Romantic studies was, in fact, launched through music. It’s a great episode, so I highly recommend checking it out (

Broadly, in this post, I look to sort through some issues of scholarly development in dialogue with a close reading of the alternative artist Brand New’s song “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows.” Importantly, though, I hope to generate some comments that look to different points of departure into the field. It was music for me. Was it music for you? Or was it something visual, literary, or a different medium or some other circumstance entirely?

As already mentioned, the discussion on this episode of All Songs Considered reminded me of how my own intellectual interests were formed. It also alerted me to a function of contemporary music in line with Romantic poetics. Notably, the last person featured in the program discusses the way the group Fun. speaks to her in a language that she simultaneously knows while opening her up to new experiences in fresh ways. The music, for her, is a means to think through and habitually fall “blissfully in love with her life”–as she I think so profoundly puts it. At the core of it, for this person, listening to Fun. generates a headspace that forges a comforting emotional connection between band and listener that parallels what Coleridge famously describes as the defamiliarizing functionality of poetry in Chapter 14 of the Biographia. Poetry shatters what he describes as “the film of familiarity” whereby “we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” Music, like poetry and art, can manifest a medium through which to clarify a sense of self-identity and  perception of one’s relation to the world. Granted, this is always historically situated, but nevertheless potentially purposeful.

Brand New performing at the Academy, Academy 1, Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photograph by Natalia Balcerska. 23 June 2009. © Natalia Balcerska Photography

I can’t help but think. Isn’t this precisely what is operative in Romantic art, both literary and visual? For me, in this respect, it was coming of age in the early- to mid-2000s that engendered a sense of the satisfaction of exploring emotionality in an intellectually charged way. The group Brand New, who’ve been charged by various critics and listeners as “the American Radiohead,” did this for me. Music in the period, generally, but Brand New, specifically, captured a deeply felt affective intensity. To my mind, Brand New’s sophomore effort Deja Entendu (2003) expanded artistic vocabularies of musical expression in especially important ways. It brought new influences into play that went beyond mere musical predecessors. I recall being particularly struck by the allusion to Picasso’s painting Guernica in the title of one of the songs–thereby connecting the psychological tumult of the track to the chaotic aesthetic underpinning the famous Picasso canvas. Deja was a record that directed the listener beyond itself in extraordinary ways.

Centrally, to explore a concrete example, the artistic self-consciousness of singer/songwriter Jesse Lacey’s lyricism is what catapults Brand New’s art into a rich interspace between music and textuality (See: “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” from Brand New’s VEVO page on YouTube). Now, as when I heard the song for the very first time, the opening verse strikes me: “We saw the western coast / I saw the hospital / Nurse the shoreline like a wound / Reports of lovers tryst / Were neither clear nor descript / We kept it safe and slow / The quiet things that no one ever knows.” Initially, I was immediately drawn to my sense of Lacey’s unusual diction. The rhyme between “tryst” and “descript” elevated lyrical content beyond what I knew to be everyday language. The “western coast” signifies melancholy emotions, intersecting the direction in which the sun sets. The speaker’s woundedness is underscored both by seeing “the hospital” and the metaphorical turn towards “nurs[ing] the shoreline like a wound.” What I found to be Lacey’s brilliant poetry sparked an ember of interest in me for the literary.

Now, “deconstructionist me” can quite clearly see the intersections between all of this and the forms of Romantic literary and visual culture we’ve all come to know and love. In Lacey’s song, the “reports” the speaker alludes to are positioned in an impossible breach, being “neither clear nor descript.” The song therefore confronts the impossibility of resolution in the face of an intense set of emotions: specifically, an emotional knot between loss and a projected wedding day wrought with boredom. In doing so, it generates a polarity between description and clarity that’s impossible to resolve. Such an aporiaic play in Lacey’s lyrics accords well with tropes in Romantic art and literature, as I’ve realized in my graduate studies in both Art History and English at Oregon.

In any event, in looking at the present, I may have seen too much in the past. There may even be some over-intellectualizing going on. I’m not sure. Also, and perhaps mercifully, my tastes have certainly since evolved. However, it’s been interesting to see how past engagements inform present interests. In closing, I’d definitely love to hear from you all what experiences from the past connect to the work you’re doing in the present.