Olivia Laing's The Lonely City, an exploration on art and loneliness, often returns to the central paradox of our societal treatment of loneliness. For whatever reason, we avoid the lonely and refuse to give them the companionship and compassion, although they are the people in our society that need it the most.
Music can be a gorgeous exception to the paradox Laing considers; it can create a space where loneliness isn't avoided, but rather articulated and shared. Loneliness not only becomes acceptable but can be the central attraction for music. This idea sat in my mind as I listened to the xx's new album I See You. The xx's music initially gained acclaim for its sparse, hushed intimacy, its delicate loneliness. They created a unique sympathy; listening to them, you could be alone, together.
That introspection remains at the heart of their new album, but it reaches further than any of their past albums. After the success of Jamie xx's solo album In Colour, I See You allows Jamie to expand the band's sound to include his diverse and more upbeat sample repertoire. It sounds bigger, and it also sounds better. Lyrically, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim also step out with a bit more clarity and confidence.
This big, confident album was rolled out with a press tour focused largely on how the group overcame personal struggles, primarily with regards to Sim's alcoholism. It's what lends the album its integrity, and frames the xx's new sound as less an artistic choice than a natural articulation of their personal growth.
This, however, makes the new album, and the group's progression, seem like a given. Of course, they grew up and so did their music; that's what people do. This notion is false. Growth can be smoothed over into a clean narrative, but that should not diminish its radicalism.
Being an artist (or any worker in a post-industrial economy, but that's for another time) has to allow their identity to be commodified. In other words, your work and your self are synonymous. So, it would follow that any move to care for yourself create a change in the commodity. This is problematic in that this change is not market-driven, and therefore may not be rewarded by the market. Is it worth changing yourself if no one buys the new self you're selling?
The notion of self-care has taken root in the past year, particularly with minority groups threatened by the rise of a politics violently ignorant of their wellbeing. Self-care is most easily seen as a defensive movement, of self-preservation. However, it is also an act of resistance; caring for oneself is often in direct opposition to a political economy primarily interested in your exploitation and subjugation.
For Sim and his bandmates to acknowledge his problems, care for him, and allow this care to take hold in their album not only denotes personal growth but radical resistance to the musical industrial complex that commodifies the artist, often at the expense of their personal wellbeing. They cared for themselves, for their own sake; that this also created a gorgeous album was simply a nice by-product, for us and them.
These ideas, of loneliness and self-care, also crossed my mind listening to Kid Cudi's Passion, Pain, and Demon Slayin'. Cudi offers an interesting parallel to the xx; both rose to popularity around the same time, and both became highly influential. Both focused, largely, on aesthetic.
However, where the xx has found a way to maintain their core aesthetic while moving beyond it, Cudi falters. Demon Slayin' is slightly better than his recent work, it's still lonely, stale, and grating. I have found it, more and more, to fall in line with the paradox Laing denotes. Kid Cudi's work, along with his public battles with mental health issues, show that he is one of our society's lonely, one who deserves sympathy and care. But, because I don't like his music as much, I don't know how to give it.
In theory, I think, most of us would like to help the lonely, the mentally ill, the addicted. In practice, we simply don't care enough for these people. Acknowledging this clarifies why those who get better (like the xx) deserve more praise, and those who have not yet sustainably done so (like Kid Cudi) deserve more of our concern. And this raises difficult questions of how we show that concern. How can a consumer show sympathy beyond consumption? How can we help someone get well outside of the systems that often hinder that wellness? These questions won't get answered anytime soon. But a good start is to acknowledge that the lonely shouldn't remain alone, and that self-care shouldn't have to be something that one undertakes by oneself.