March 9th, 2005


The Friendly Album: Stranger Than Kindness

Outline your perfect pleasure scenario for us, Nick!

Okay, I'll try. Hmm, let me think... I'm getting pictures. I'm seeing Japanese imagery. I'm digesting a long, slow meal I ate about an hour ago, which included some very soft, tasty white fish and a lot of little plates of pickles and seaweed and things. I've just soaked in a hot spring bath, a public bath up near the summit of a volcano. There's a very starry sky, I feel young, I feel free, anything seems possible. I've been pummelled by jets of water, I've lingered in a room smelling of marshmallow steam and filled with ferns, I've dipped in cold water and I've dipped in hot, I've lain in a computer-controlled massage chair for a while feeling clean, being buzzed and shaken into complete relaxation. Then, in a room empty but for painted screens, tatami mats and scatter cushions, I've made love with my girlfriend. Once I've come, a record of Renaissance lute music begins to play, and my girlfriend gently scratches my back as I lie in a state between reverie and slumber, my head swimming with delicious imagery. There. I'm very, very happy.

Pleasure for me is embodied. It's body and mind in legitimate harmony. I say "legitimate" because, although I'm quite aware that the bliss I outline above is largely chemical in nature (the product of hydrogen sulphide, the chemistry of food, digestive juices, sexual secretions and the post-orgasmic release in the brain of natural dopamines and opiates), it's important that I don't cheat my body by triggering reward mechanisms I don't deserve. I don't do drugs, and I've never done drugs, because I've been wary of peace of mind that doesn't come from a good relationship between myself and the world. Just as vitamins can't replace food, drugs can't replace the natural well-being the body feels after exercise or sex. Nothing can simulate the peace of mind we feel when we're genuinely pleased with the way our lives are going. There are no hidden side effects to that high, no post-comedown depressions, no long-term health risks. How to feel good feelings? Do good things. The moral, relational, intellectual and physical are all connected. You can't tweak one with chemicals and hope to feel good if the others are out of sync.

Let me go back to the music. When I imagine the music of pleasure, I imagine static music. There should be no yearning, no tension in this music. It has arrived at a plateau of pleasure. I can put a record of it on -- or, regally, command a lute player to strum away in my royal bedchamber -- and I expect it to decorate the air with elegant scrolls, but not to develop in any way, or build expectations, or dominate me. It should be self-effacing music, music which defers to my pleasure even as it subtly structures it. I'm thinking of a specific record, actually, a record I played this morning on my old East German record player. It's called Lautenmusic der Renaissance. I have no idea who the composers and performers are. But the music is very lovely. Sometimes I play it at 16 RPM, sometimes at 33. At 16 it lasts longer and rings deeper. It's music from the morning of the world, simple chords which balance almost banal progressions with subtle flourishes and a deep understanding of the elegance of form. Every culture seems to have this kind of music, though I think of it as particularly Islamic or Indian, a cool, classical, aristocratic music which works best in hot places, a music which understands pleasure and sensuality and colours the passing of time in a respectful, restrained way. There's no singing on this music, no focal point. It's almost ambient. It doesn't seem to have a beginning or an end. There's certainly no attention-grabbing music star here, no virtuoso performer taking the solo, no pouting sex symbol trying to provoke erections, no menace or grandiosity or commercial guile.

Most of the civilisations which made this kind of music -- in fact, most of the civilisations which truly understood the value of pleasure -- have disappeared. But I do think Japan still clings to an understanding of this kind of pleasure, at least insofar as it holds fast to its courtly traditions. If I search for a modern equivalent to this lute music, I think of Lullatone, for instance -- an American who lives in Japan and seems to have integrated the gentle static self-effacing pleasure which is part of Japan's low-stress culture much better than I have.

I cringe now when I think of how I tried to introduce Protestant-Romantic dynamism and aggression into Japanese pop in Kahimi Karie songs like Lolitapop Dollhouse: "I'm going to tear my playhouse down" indeed! I should have been learning from Japan's serenity, its avoidance of conflict and protest, instead of introducing cod-feminist defiance into those songs -- a defiance paradoxically yet all-too-typically taught, Henry Higgins-style, by a guilty western male to a compliant (but soon to be cod defiant) eastern female. And now that Kahimi is making her own songs, are they defiant? Not at all. They're "static", serene. Has she learned from me? Thank goodness, no. But it's not too late for me to learn from her.

Or rather, to learn from Japan. Because each time I visit Japan I reel at how different it is -- from the rest of the world, and from me. The difference can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but it's something to do with concensus, self-effacement, other-orientation, friendliness, horizontality, politeness, pleasure, self-sacrifice combined with sensual group-indulgence (never pour your own drink, someone will pour it for you!)... In the words of, ahem, Nick Cave, there's nothing "stranger than kindness". I'm so imbued with opinions, with radicalism, with protest, with satire, with moral struggles and endless questions... And Japan, more concerned with content than with content, is so much the opposite of that. What else could it seem to someone like me but strange? Strange, sometimes suspect, but usually, increasingly, finally, terribly wise.

I'm planning my next album, "The Friendly Album". And I want to make something as static, as friendly, as consensual, as self-effacing, as Japan itself. It will be a feminine record and a friendly record. It will -- it should -- contain the deep sensuality of Renaissance lute music, or bossa nova. You should be able to put it on and just let it hover in the background all the way through, structuring your contentment in a self-effacing, classical, cool and elegant way. I don't know if I'm capable of making music that serene and sensual, but I want to try. Perhaps it'll turn out terribly banal, 15 takes on Don't Worry, Be Happy! But that's a risk worth running. Because the values of pleasure and friendliness, modesty and elegance seem more important than ever to me right now... and, in a world dominated by "aggressive normality", perhaps evoking strange kindness is the most subversive, interesting and challenging thing an artist could do.