Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wallow with Mothers

Stephen Fry - the British actor, writer and tea pedlar - came under fire last week for some comments he made about child abuse victims:
"It's a great shame and we're all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place - you get some of my sympathy - but your self-pity gets none of my sympathy because self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one's going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself."
Now, Mr Fry's decision to scold the victims of molestation is a pretty questionable one, and it's surprising to hear someone who in the past has spoken candidly about his own mental illness suggest that people can simply 'get rid of' their emotions.

"Don't feel those feelings; hold them in instead!"

Besides, I think his assertion that "self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity" is way off the mark. Self-pity isn't a pleasant emotion, sure, but it can be a very beautiful one, and if you don't believe me then I'd strongly recommend that you listen to When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired by a band called Mothers.

Here are some choice lyrical excerpts from When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired:
"Everything you touch turns to gold; everything I touch turns away" (Burden of Proof)
 "I don't like myself when I'm awake" (It Hurts Until It Doesn't)
 "Walked as softly as I could, and still I stepped on all their feet; I want to apologise to everyone I see" (Too Small for Eyes)
If self-pity might be likened to carrot shavings and bacon bits, then this album would be an all-you-can-eat salad cart. Reading those lyrics may give you the impression that Mothers make wimpy, weepy music for people who find Morrissey a bit too intimidating, but many of the tracks on When You Walk are actually pretty rocked up. Check out Copper Mines, for example:

Yet, thanks to this record's raw, hazy production, even Mothers' most invigorating moments have a strung-out, hungover sort of sound. This is music to stagger home with after leaving your friend's house party at 8am; the album sounds like a spring morning dirtied by having stayed awake all night in a living room full of beer bottles that people were using in lieu of ashtrays.

But for all its rough edges and bloodshot eyes, When You Walk is a really gorgeous album, and Kristine Leschper's autolacerating lyrics are as central to that gorgeousness as the wearily glorious voice with which she sings them. Just listen to the stunning Nesting Behaviour (below) - if you agreed with Stephen Fry up until now, then this will be the song to convince you that self-pity can be a thing of beauty when delivered in the right way.

"You say you need me now - shut your dirty mouth!" This is self-pity at its most sumptuous; Nesting Behaviour is the sort of track you can almost bathe in. The emotions that informed this composition may not feel good, but they've resulted in a wonderful, almost soul-restoring thing. No wonder Leschper seems to take a kind of perverse pride in her low self-esteem:
 "I was crushed by the weight of my own ego, but never honest enough to say it" (It Hurts Until It Doesn't)
"What I have to give is small, but at least I can admit it" (Copper Mines)
Taken together, those two contrasting extracts suggest that our narrator used to (pretend to?) think more highly of herself, but has since cast off the shackles of self-confidence and now feels strangely liberated for having embraced her shortcomings. In a way, I suppose the overall message of When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired is the exact opposite of the order that Stephen Fry gave us: don't "get rid of" your self-pity, for it may well be the most beautiful truth you ever know, and the sooner you accept it the sooner you'll be able to channel it into lovely music like this.

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