Little Post: The Promise of the Beach

by tigermanifesto

The second entry in my Challenges of Discernment Series awaits publication next Wednesday. In the meantime, I have been thinking about the beach.

Approximation of the beaches near me at this moment.

Approximation of the beaches near me at this moment.

Not even a week after the New Year began, and my mind is fixated on the beach. Perhaps it was a visit to the local beach with a few of the Hungry Ghosts, who were wading out far into the lake to search for minnows. When I asked them whether they had ever found them, they said that of course they hadn’t. Millions of years of ghosts passing through this realm had left the seas devoid of most life. Algae and seaweed, dank curtains of slimy green velvet that bloomed near shore in the summer. Now it was winter, and in the winter, especially in the few moments where the gusts of wind quieten, there is a sublime feeling of cold. The lake is not inviting but steely and alienating. This led me to consider a few songs in my music collection that related to the beach, often in a surprisingly political fashion.

The song above is called “Sleep: Murry Ostril [They Don’t Sleep Anymore On The Beach]” by controversialist “post-rock” band Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE). It was to this song that the dreariness of the local beach directed me first. The more I think about it the better I understand the reason why winter is a season for nostalgic and sentimental holidays. Christmas is thoroughly child-centred and saturated with family memories and melancholia. New Year’s Eve is both celebratory and funereal, a time for trying to put the previous year in neat compartments, to assess what it meant and why it was worth living in spite of all the evil in the world. At the same time, people are trying to bring order to the coming year through ritual television viewings and New Year’s resolutions–the latter in particular is a practice that confounds my feline mind to no end. In February, Valentine’s Day is a season of chocolate-coated affection so sweet that there is a contingent of Valentine Scrooges whose size belies the minor nature of this holiday.

In the same vein, I immediately thought of the opening monologue from this track. The narrator laments the changed nature of the world, a loss of innocence and apparent security. People used to sleep on the beach, he tell us. They certainly don’t do that anymore. GY!BE is fascinated, no, obsessed with decay. The sickness of the winter beach is mirrored by this track, both in the opening spoken-word section and the aching instrumental progression of the rest of it. Take it as a cure for residual Christmas cheer if you must, but stick through it the whole way. It’s well worth it.

The second track I thought of is “White Flag” by Gorillaz. Two of my favourite British grime MCs, Bashy and Kano, contribute probably the best song from the band’s Plastic Beach LP. Opening with orchestral Arabic music, the track becomes a raucous back-and-forth between the two rappers, laying down in no uncertain terms the manifesto of their paradise island. No war, no guns, no Corps, just life, just love, no hype, just fun, no ties. It’s a hedonistic Eden. Here the beach represents infinite promise rather than decay. It was certainly therapeutic after the disaffection of Murry Ostril. It reminded me of the summer beach–peace and love.

Finally, I will spare a few words for the most minor and yet the most bouncy of the three tracks. Vampire Weekend is a band to which I have an ambivalent reaction, but that does not extend to this track. “Holiday” is a song that, like most of their works, works in opaque references and irony more than straightforward lyricism. Beneath the surfy happiness of the music, there are some unsettling tones in the “republic on the beach.” Invasions, bombs, war, and other party-spoiling drama undercut the carefree nature of the beach imagery. Nicely done to this tiger’s ears.