Ben Watt’s recent solo record, Fever Dream resembles those dark Impressionist paintings where everything bleeds together in the rain. Despite Watts’ cries for love past and present, he seems lonely, distant, and even a bit lost. Musically, he and his musical compatriots (especially Bernard Butler on electric guitar) capture this feeling of modern ennui with sophistication and passion. Listening provides one with the aural equivalent of looking at a masterpiece in a museum and appreciating the stately talent and profound majesty of the work. However, like seeing art in an institutional setting, it can also leave one a little cold.
Watt’s lyrics are poetic and insightful. He sings about family, friends, loves lost and found with remarkable felicity, finding just the right word or metaphor to capture the elevated mood of reflective thought. The lyrics read without accompaniment could stand as personal poetry of a high order. Consider lines such as these from “Fever Dream”: “Like feathers in the road black with rain / All the years are stuck to the years before / What we are is what we were.” The image matches the feeling matches the mental state matches the emotion… The music itself: a quietly strummed acoustic guitar topped by a dampened melodic line and a steady drum beat reveals the insistence of time. We can’t go back. And even if we could, we would be the same because we never really change.
Heavy stuff for a pop song, but Watt understands the power of ephemeral pleasures as inspirational experience. As he sings on his ode to disco, “Running with the Front Runners”, “I take a step into a ritual of strangers / Lift myself out of myself / And join a temporary family / In a liminal collusion.” Dancing with others—not one, but as one with everyone on the dance floor, offers transcendence and communion. We become our true selves when we join with others. In contrast to the music sung about, the instrumentation here gently sways instead of hitting the beats. The joy here is in remembering the dance, not in dancing.
Watt proffers the delectability of reminiscence over taking action on every track. “The past is gone,” he notes on “Bricks and Wood”, but he can’t let go. So he compares his family of origin to the patterns he finds in the one he currently belongs to, the girls he loved to his current passions, the line to the future found in retracing the past. These are noble sentiments, well-expressed in the songs. Indeed, he offers formal feelings of gratifications for the people he has known and the enjoyments they have shared. As anyone who has ever looked back at a pleasurable experience and enjoyed it mentally once again knows, this is more than just diversion or entertainment. It is an essential part of the whole shebang.
However, this is not the same thing as living in the moment itself. The memory of dancing is not the same as dancing; remembering lost love different than feeling love; thinking of home unlike being home, etc. This is one lovely function of art, but as he himself realizes in his own lyrics, being a black crow in a tree is not enough. Sometimes one needs to do more than observe and feel the beating of a human heart.
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