When You Felt Alone - By Volume

Gotta get out, before my heart explodes. Candy Says - Not Kings

When You Felt Alone

Engaging with mental illness through music. Author: on April 10, 2014
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Don't tell me again that it's all in my head.


On closer reflection than I had initially given, it might say something important that I don’t feel qualified to talk about the issue of mental illness as engaged with through music. I spent two years at University without support for, explanation of, or refuge from my depression, and I suppose my standoffish tack makes sense in that regard. As a member of a family which has had a couple of mental health issues tugging at the seams of important fabrics, however, it might be about time for me to confront these issues for what they are, rather than some played-down version thereof. My hesitance might be symptomatic of the way we’re all taught to disengage from the real-world nature of mental health problems. 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health issue every year, but as a result of cinematic depictions, we feel detached. Music is the first way I learned to think openly and clearly about mental illness. It was Ghost Mice that did it.

All We Got Is Each Other spends its runtime clutching hands with a lonely and confused protagonist. Its involved narratives are nothing compared to the brief moments of introspection, the flashes of guilt, that adorn its most poignant stanzas. Through its stories and characters, I found my way into a dimension of self-analysis and self-critique which felt alien but wholly positive. As Chris Clavin sang on “Disconnected” that “they don’t want to see how easy you can sink“, it found its way to the core of me; I flashed through the sharp pangs of some tangible moments of loneliness I recall, and I also felt an abstract guilt about the way I’d reacted to numerous situations in which I’d been on the opposite side of that muted screen. The truth is that I’d never had it explained to me in any terms, let alone knowledgeable ones; Ghost Mice’s direct sharing of their experiences had a profound, revelatory effect on me.

On “The Wrong Train”, Clavin tells the story of his friend jumping from a train because it was going the wrong way. “What could I do? I was on the wrong train. It was going the wrong way so I got off.” As the basic, knowingly simple musical backdrop carried on regardless, the first time I heard that line, I laughed. It wasn’t a nervous laugh, but it makes me nervous now; if there’s a message directly communicated on All We Got Is Each Other, it’s that you should be at the very least forgiving, and almost always supportive, of the parts of people you don’t understand. But there’s more to it than a directly conveyed message; listening to songs as honest and remarkably self-aware as those like “How It Sounds” is a transformative endeavour in itself. By prizing openness and candidness within the usually restrictive structure of a song, we can teach each other that the bits of us that are, or were ugly, are better tackled out in the open world. On All We Got Is Each Other, Clavin doesn’t shy from espousing his instants of guilt; the record, in fact, seems to be about the pressures on that sense of duty, fulfilled or unfulfilled. The way Clavin considers the wider implications of a very personal narrative from within himself is immense.

All We Got Is Each Other bubbles underneath my consciousness of these things, now; every month, perhaps, it serves to keep me open to its themes. When I hear the nigh-on jubilant refrain of the title track and (perfect) closer, it throws at me pictures of people I know. Much of All We Got‘s narrative is muddled, cut and pasted, but the way its closing statement abandons that flood of disjointed memories, in favour of an iota of closure, is warming; the capacity to make that decision alone hints at better times to come. Recently, though, I’ve been plunged into the same cycle of discovery again – this time, by the stellar new Hotelier record, Home, Like Noplace Is There. The title of this piece and the quote at its outset come from that album – it’s an eminently more quotable affair, in the one-line sense, than Ghost Mice’s. It has a remarkably similar bent, though, except its closing line is not one of celebration or togetherness. “Tell me again that it’s all in my head“, is arguably the most upsetting sentiment I’ve encountered in all of the music I’ve heard in my life to date; it strays from torment and guilt to anger and blame, and it’s the last thing the record communicates.

In this way, Home, Like Noplace Is There feels as much a record about identity as about loneliness. “Life In Drag” rages at gender lines, while “Housebroken” analogizes loss of instinct and agency through the story of a pet’s training. But there’s no denying that these questions are closely intertwined; while Ghost Mice come close to the bone, The Hotelier hack at it, tying identity struggles in a specific and a general sense to the loneliness that becomes tragic too frequently. “They’re encased in the losing of a grain of themselves“, goes the album’s opening track. It’s a sentiment that doesn’t really reverberate first time out, unmarred by the light of what follows it, but in this way Home rewards frequent listens. It’s more than the blunt honesty than All We Got — which doesn’t make it better, but does make it complementary. If both records treat similar topics, it helps to differentiate them. This isn’t a “type” of struggle, and it’s insulting to suggest so, in spite of their shared feelings. Home, Like Noplace Is There delves deeper but finds less resolution for it; Ghost Mice, on the other hand, approach the story and its ramifications head-on and settle for the general statement, and its digestible nature is a valuable asset.

If all we have is each other, then albums like these are essential in breaking down the walls we put up, even if they come too late, even if they come laden with regret, and even if they come infrequently. They deny the fundamental tenet of pop music, which is that struggles and feelings are ultimately universal, and the rest is padding; they highlight personal experience and invite us to engage with it as a concept rather than a feigned empathy. There are moments of All We Got and Home which resonate profoundly — “you resolved to make your chaos external“, for instance, or, “I just hope one day someone will love me that way” – but they are, truthfully, asides to the main thrust, which is one of sympathy, of always trying to understand, but knowing you can’t always do so. They scream for a wider heart, even from wide-hearted people; they beg for a more honest friendship, even from the most honest of friends. We need to make sure that if anybody ever feels alone, it’s not because we were too scared to listen; it won’t fix everything, but it’ll be a start.

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