Every now and then, an album or song will come along and look you squarely in the eye, take you by the hand and walk through your mind; it will speak with the words you’d come out with in your own time… if you dared. A period of your life becomes framed in the overall structure; listening to a particular track, you find the starburst of images and emotional connections, and it’s all that you can do to wander off down an alley somewhere, to be quiet and alone, to make sense of it all over again.
I’m a method-writer, and rely heavily on these sensory triggers to re-enact or replicate an emotional reaction to a situation (which may have its place in my history, or someone else’s.) Music is an excellent conduit, leading with words and a mood-colour of the moment. As much as we might cringe at the cliché (Dylan Moran worked this “Song is all about me” phenomena into his Monster tour), it is the familiar resonance of what remains linked to the chords, the lyrics and melodies, which we fall back on when the going gets tough. We look to our pasts to learn how to govern our futures. It’s a bit like going home to stay with the folks, or crashing with a best friend after a bad break-up.
There is no emotion more riddled-up with clichés than Love. I try to avoid them wherever possible, in writing and my personal life, though inevitably will fail in both, because the clichés were born out of some kernel of originality, which is old and dark and far more important than my opinions, or the vacant stare of a fluffy bear haemorrhaging its heart.
Time shares this duality. It is at once a continuum of ghosts on a wild road, a stream of collective conciousness … and a heady flux-flow of emotions bound up in reality, strung like beads along the ribbon of Always be There, and Beyond Death. It is the difference between dust motes drifting through bars of sunlight … and the wind that stirs them away with a footfall. Or better yet, not dwelling too much on Where is this Going? in favour of I’m still with you; and you are You, while I am Me. That’s only my take on things, you understand. I’m not averse to anniversaries, but continuous counting along a calendar tends to feel like heading for an end, rather than a limitless horizon.
Secrets Spill Over, the fifth solo album of artist Paul Gonzenbach and his eighth overall, is a narrative of the continuity of Love and Time, their moments of raw reality. Not so much a nostalgic contemplation, as a fine expose of the mood swings which can be our undoing, when communication breaks down and self-doubt wells up; when frustration boils over.
Every time I listen to it – and it has been on repeat for the past couple of weeks – I find myself walking through the soul of a clock, watching the slide and shine of wheels and cogs and bars; a symmetrical dance that somehow brings form and control to what is otherwise abstract, would remain forever elusive and unknown.
The opening chimes of the guitar ring pure and crisp through the mind, a harmonic overlay of silver bars, which soon prove to be a running motif through the album (with varying degrees of volume-inclusion; they become more noticeable on the softer tracks, which take on an ethereal quality.) These shining silver bars offset the black-fuzz of bass, which in harder songs runs us ragged, burning the heart and filling up every corner of the mind, while the bite behind some of the lyrics is unnervingly belied by the gentle tone of Paul’s voice. It’s a brilliant effect, direct without loss of control, like the dark wind which blows between icicles.
(On a side note: as a synaesthete, I have to say that this album is almost entirely silver and black. Just so you’re not thrown off by my references to cold colours; it’s not a negative slant, only how the music appears to me.)
“An obligation you blew off … Where did the drive go, the sense of devotion? When’s the last time you had that?”
Time. The word comes back to haunt us, with the two-way mirrors of “fault” and “disappoint”; it’s always pleasing to find a narrator who is willing to stand and confess to his/her own flaws and faults, even while delivering an expose of other’s (“You broke up with him by just not returning phone calls … And you have to admit, it’s not like you’re blameless.“) In this, Paul Gonzenbach bears more than a passing resemblance to The National’s Matt Berninger; their narrative styles read like pages torn from a personal diary and thrust under the nose, while there is something of the Ohio/Brooklyn band’s baroque-rock aesthetic, in the use of guitar, drums and fine-angled cello. But while Matt’s chocolate-baritone vocals hold the dust of an open road, the longing for loved ones left behind in pursuit of the rockstar life, Paul wears the iron-smile of one who knows what he is due. The burning-bass intro and echo-effect of vocals in “Consequence” make the hairs stand on end, even before the lyrics have begun to sink in: “Another chance to miss / Another option to dismiss / You haven’t got the sense / We’ll never face the consequence.”
There is the familiar push-pull of individuality and pining, the I need You / I don’t Need You’s which Leonard Cohen once spoke of (“And you know that I stick around for your getaway, even if I say that I won’t.”) Housing developments, drunken dizziness and fair-weather fathers, make those pockets of reality all the more tangible; these are essential for grounding what might be mistaken for youthful laments, in an ageless insecurity and self-flagellation (“It’s all in my mind, and conscience, all the time / I was too much of a coward for you to be mine.“) Frustration jars in the dissonance of chords and vocals, the staccato of drums and the burning heart of that bass, in “Break your Lease” and closing “Say you’re Wrong.”
Of the latter: I’d had it in mind to criticize the positioning of such a frantic track, in what is otherwise a very compact album. Surely the cathedral-ceiling pathos of penultimate “Worse for you than smoking”, would have made a more fitting closure? But further listens shifted my perspective. Following the themes of Love and Time, the album is not linear; it isn’t going to stride off into the sun-soaked distance, having completed its work. It is going to lead us back around, with the exodus/genesis of “Call me in the night, with your eyes wide open”: a demand for responsibility to (at last) be taken for actions. This is another wheel in the mechanism, a recurring theme often found in eye rhymes that give a fluidness to some of the lengthier lines, akin to poetic enjambment (“You fantasize about working the graveyard shift / It’s a grave way not to be missed.”)
Along the same eloquent lines of colloquial-singers Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, each track reads as a short-story or chapter, gathered to a collective whole. While the message is coherent, there is the risk of stylistic overlap about midway through the album, which is prevented by the counterbalance of differing tempos. Written between the recording sessions of its predecessor, Notify your Friends: Everything Ends (released September 2013), Secrets Spill Over employs a slalom-run of pacing that brings relief in a breath-space, before the next adrenalin rush.
In love, no one is ever truly free, or perfect (“I’ll be waiting at the bottom of a pool… And I know that if I surface, I’ll disappoint you again.”) When we acknowledge ourselves to be wrapped about the little finger of someone else’s powerplay, we accept the consequences and get on with it, bringing our own resilience into the mix. The game is set accordingly. Time and Love can be found in the changing faces of the world, in the shifting scenes; but ultimately, it comes down to the hope for continuity to keep us going, regardless of screw-ups and misunderstandings.
There is always time for one more song, for one more page to turn; for one more evasive smile, and forgiveness found in a sigh. Secrets Spill Over is testament to this.
Huge thanks to Matt Foster (@mlpfoster) for putting me onto Paul’s music.