Ennui & Melancholy: Music for the Afflicted Modern Man by Alfonso Gomez

source: Willis Earl Beal

Text Alfonso Gomez
Image Willis Earl Beal

“Could it be malaise, or am I ____?” asks blues weirdo Willis Earl Beal on ‘Monotony’ before consoling himself, “I guess it could be worse – I know it could be worse.”

He’s not wrong – I’ve met worse. But you don’t feel better because there are those who are more clinical; fatigue, insomnia (and hypersomnia), lack of motivation, and general ennui aren’t negated by knowing others are suffering worse, that’d be a shitty thing to feel – like a form of emotional schadenfreude (for want of a better word). You shit person, you. However, the sadsack neuroses of musicians sure do help regardless of whether you can relate with their drug-induced spiral, retail existentialism, and depersonalisation disorder. Empathy is catharsis, so ease yourself against these songs;

1. Camu Tao – Oxycontin 

Along with El-P, Aesop Rock, RJD2, and Cannibal Ox, the late Camu Tao was the definitive Def Jukie during the glory days of the on-hiatus label. Camu was the sort of rap outlier than didn’t quite gain as much traction as his white peers, hip hop – in the ‘00s – wasn’t too fond of black men who didn’t conform to Golden Age standards (read: rappity-rap shit). After all, the man’s life was more the destructive punk narrative of Sid Vicious than anything else. ‘Oxycontin’, produced by El-P, wasn’t received too well when Camu was alive and well, but in hindsight, the depressive, drug-addled track represented the ‘Camu pathos’ the best – that of a doomed codependent relationship. If you ever felt like your “brain’s gone,” listen to this as you speed your car into the lamppost.

2. TV On The Radio – Will Do

‘Will Do’ doesn’t amount to more than an unrequited love song, but Tunde Adebimpe has a flair with words and the acumen to elevate the material with one minor adjustment to the oft-recurring topic; the protagonist of the track is seeking for love in a casual relationship. Ignoring the sex-tinged purple prose of the last verse, it’s his more matter-of-fact lines that resonate most; “I think we’re compatible, I see that you think I’m wrong”, “But you don’t want to waste your life in the middle of a lovesick lullaby”, and the titular “Anytime will do” of the chorus. Listen to this after being told this by the person you just slept with; “Oh, by the way, you know this was just a casual thing, right?”

3. Nouveau Riche – Like Life Again

“If the clothes make you feel good, buy ’em, buy ’em/ If the pills make you feel good, try ’em, try ’em/ Got your zoloft, daparox, vicodin, and do the bottle swallow till you like life again.”

Nikki Jean – prior to her metamorphosis into Lupe Fiasco’s frequent vanilla chorus-provider – was an interesting singer-songwriter in her own right, especially with her then band Nouveau Riche. ‘Like Life Again’ off their Longtail EP proves as much. Opening almost like the intro to a psych rock track, the song quickly drops to an instrumental with twee languor as Nikki sings the most enabling words ever – no sarcasm in her tone, no meaning in her breathy inflection, just her enabling you to “feel real good.” Listen to this during a manic fit and try to like life again.

4. The Clash – Lost in the Supermarket

Punk has always had pop leanings – see: The Clash. That doesn’t deter the fact that they were the greatest band of the late ‘70s though, and the album that transitioned them to mainstream infamy, London Calling, was indeed their best accomplishment. ‘Lost in the Supermarket’ off the LP doesn’t get a lot of love beyond being covered by Ben Folds for a bad animated movie, but it was prophetic in its use of what was to become a genre staple; suburban ennui. In fact, it was one of the first to have warned future suburban dwellers of the ennui that will befall them. “I wasn’t born so much as I fell out/ Nobody seemed to notice me,” Strummer opens, “The kids in halls and the pipes in the walls, making noises for company/ Long distance callers make long distance calls, and the silence makes me lonely,” he ends. Listen to this when nothing is breaking the loneliness you’re experiencing in your suburban home.

5. Orang Malaya – I Just Wanna Feel Real

HOAX’s Orang Malaya probably hasn’t heard of a single track by Camu Tao, but he is his spiritual successor – to me at least. Just like Camu, oftentimes he doesn’t rap as much as he sings off-key in a voice worn out by smoke, liquor, and pills. ‘I Just Wanna Feel Real’ is an affecting cry for help, “I don’t want to feel awake, I just wanna feel real,” is a sentiment most millennials can relate to as they feel more and more depersonalised by the urban space they’ve been afforded with. With the synth-y beat floating in the midstream between real and unreal, listen to this during a particularly bad bout with insomnia.

6. Best Coast – How They Want Me to Be

Bethany Cosentino is wont for simple emotions — but ‘How They Want Me to Be’ is effective due to exactly how basic her intuit for the shared experience of listeners is. Whatever your social standing is, whichever career path you took, or how you present your outward self, most aren’t free of having to live up to the expectations of others and Cosentino’s simplistic repetition of “I don’t want to be how they want me to be” acts as a mantra that you sing in your head while entertaining your friends’ and family’s respective projections of who you are supposed to be. Listen to this one to drown out the voice of others.

7. Frank Ocean – Thinking Bout You

Yes, maybe this isn’t the inspired choice when picking a track off Frank Ocean’s current oeuvre. However, with its conceptual music video and the fantastical reality of Ocean’s words (the song’s structure is seemingly built around the Oz lore), and his coming out not long after the song’s release (giving “You were my first time, a new feel” a whole new meaning), it’s hard not to find the pathos more affecting – alternatively, the song could just be his reminiscing about first love and heartbreak (be it straight or gay relationship). Listen to this when you’re thinking about your first time – a new feel that you lost and will never regain.

8. Robyn – Dancing On My Own

Ostensibly, ‘Dancing On My Own’ is about Robyn bumping into her crush at a party and realising that he already has a partner, to which she responded by dancing on her own. However, two of the many behavioural traits of the clinically depressed – when not so severe that they are rendered inert – are twitchiness and the need to move around a lot in order to drown out their sorrows, sometimes this would include dancing. Being a great dance pop track in its own right, listen to this when feeling depressed and in need to move your two left feet.

9. Busdriver – Dream Catcher’s Mitt

Roadkill Overcoat’s end track, ‘Dream Catcher’s Mitt’, is vastly different from the songs preceding it; Busdriver opts for acoustic guitar riffs more fitting of indie pop as the base of the instrumental and sings with nary a rap line. Not surprisingly, despite still showcasing his predilection for verbosity and difficult lyrics, it’s the most emotionally evocative track – like Tunde Adebimpe with thesaurus in hand. Like most writers – particularly those who fancy themselves ‘clever’ (*cough*) – Busdriver is self-aware, “My journal entries are irony-laden, and tirelessly self-loathing.” Nail – right on the head. Listen to this when writing oddly fills you with self-hate.

10. Willis Earl Beal – Monotony

‘Monotony’ feels like coming to terms with an unexciting, routine life – “Just a life-long phase,” Willis Earl Beal says plaintively. “Monotony is so over me, it merged with me, it can’t hurt me… I’m just strollin’ around in monotony,” he continues his sermon.

Monotony is so holy. I’ve accepted it.

Alfonso Gomez is the neurotic pen name of someone familiar.