Scanning the Skies for Solace: Anathema - "Untouchable Pt. 1" and "Untouchable Pt. II"
The first two tracks off of Weather Systems serve as the first of many emotional rollercoasters, bursting with touching lyrics and gripping arrangements.
In my introduction to this series, I said that Weather Systems is the most beautiful, affective, and honest record I’ve ever heard, so before I get into the dissection of the music itself, I’d like to begin by discussing the first time I ever heard it (as I often do when I introduce it to people). Many have said that my voice commands conviction, humility, and awe as I tell the story, like I’m speaking of a cherished religious text or a life-altering experience. They’re certainly onto something with the latter quip.
At the time, I was newly single, having ended a relationship of over four years the previous summer. Needless to say, I was still pretty confused and sad about it, and those emotions were only heightened on that fateful night in March 2012, when I wound up hanging out with a few friends from college in my ex’s hometown (a place I never thought I’d see again). Dozens of adored memories flooded back as every sense detected reminders of the life I used to have with her. Anyway, I had received my promo copy of Weather Systems earlier in the week, and I knew that it would provide the perfect soundtrack for the drive home that night. I turned onto I-95 South just after midnight, feeling introspective yet peaceful amidst the empty, dark lanes on my journey back to Philadelphia. I slipped the disc in the player and took a deep breath.
An hour later, I exhaled; in-between, I was left speechless, having heard my innermost sorrows, doubts, joys, and hopes replicated verbatim via powerful and prophetic music, dense harmonies, and poignant lyrics. In fact, my jaw dropped several times in the process; I just couldn’t believe how beautiful, touching, and universal this LP was. It seemed like the band was speaking for me, as their words echoed the wishes, worries, and reflections that I’d held for months. When I finally arrived home, I was shaking. Nearly two years (and at least a hundred listens) later, Weather Systems still gets to me like no other work.
Of course, I mention all of that not to dwell on the past or infer that I’m still bothered by the loss (believe me, I’ve moved on), but to set up a proper context for why Weather Systemsmeans so damn much to me, as well as most fans. I’ve heard countless stories from other listeners about how Anathema has managed to pinpoint their suffering and optimism with unbelievable accuracy, grace, and compositional brilliance on this full-length. As I said, it resonates with a lot of people.
When we spoke for the second time (in July 2013; now published in issue #197 of Rock Society Magazine), I told Vincent Cavanagh the same story I just told shared here, and he responded with an interesting mix of pride and empathy. He explained that the band had intended an adulterated exploration into life, adding:
[It’s] a direct path into our feelings…there’s no wall between our songs and our feelings anymore. If you do lose somebody…how do you deal with it? How are you there for them? The truth is if you go through something really deep early on in your life…it gives you a philosophical outlook on the rest of your life…it helps you deal with things. I’m so much stronger now having gone through the life that I’ve had...
The emotional weight and eloquence of Weather Systems overwhelms its listener immediately with the two “Untouchable” pieces. ”Untouchable Pt. I” starts off with a mournful acoustic guitar arpeggio (courtesy of Daniel Cavanagh); it appears isolated, declaring defeated angst and begging for urgent closure with its downward progression and panicked picking. Shortly after, strings swell as Vincent utters his regretful inferences with a fragile tone and encompassing melody. Lyrically, the verses are wonderfully poetic and heartrending, with sentiments like “And I guess now I’ll just be moving on to someone” and “But my love will never die / And my feelings will always shine” echoing perfectly the outcry of anyone who’s still in love with someone they no longer have. Lee Douglas helps accentuate these words with her harmonies, creating a transcendent coating.
The second half of the song is much heavier, with percussion, electric guitar, and several other effects culminating in an explosion of fervent finality. Cavanagh belts out the following words with his token passion and timbre: “Because I’ve never seen a light so bright / As the light that shines behind your eyes / And when I dreamed / I dreamed of you / Then I wake / Tell me what could I do?” The music swells and crashes around his words, and when he and Douglas utter the final reaction—“I had to let you go / To the setting sun / I had to let you go / And find a way back home”—listeners are left speechless and wrecked. It’s incredible.
”Untouchable Pt. II” emerges out of the aftermath with a gentle piano arrangement as Cavanagh asks, “Why I should feel this way?” before stating his core conclusion: “I feel you / Outside / At the edge of my life / I see you / Walk by / At the edge of my sight”. Clearly, this remark represents anyone who feels tormented by the notion that their lost loved one (be it in a romantic sense, a familial sense, or in terms of death) is just out of reach, as if the life that used to be is just beyond an unbreakable barrier. Afterward, fuller orchestration decorates the landscape, and Douglas offers her variation of the same template. Eventually both singers combine their voices to reprise/modify certain stanzas from the first track, which is an ingenious way to connect the two songs in order to craft a more-than-the-sum-of-its-part bit of conceptual continuity. Douglas ends the track alone as the crescendos dissolve into calmer fare, which is the perfect setup for the stunning sonic assault that comes next.