Untitled 1. Untitled 2. Untitled 3. Untitled 4. Untitled 5. Untitled 6. Untitled 7. Untitled 8. I watched the
friend, he did not know much more, other than what was already appearing, copied over from his hard drive. 8 untitled tracks, an untitled album and an artist called Privacy.
I listened to it properly for the first time that evening. Just one female vocalist and a gentle acoustic guitar. The voice is ridiculously soft, to the point of cracking. Barely discernible enough to impart itself on the record, it’s so light, with a even lighter brushing of an acoustic guitar behind it. It wasn’t remarkable, but felt personal, as if recorded on a phone in a bedroom. The occasional sound of a passing train only heightened that feeling. I’ve never listened to a more fragile record – as if the record could crack whilst it spun on my iPod.
When the album finished, I listened to it again. Then I went to bed and put it on my speakers as I slept. According to my iPod play count alone, I’ve done that over 400 times since then. This is despite the fact it’s far from being my favourite album. Not my favourite, but by far my most played.
There are many reasons we fall in love with music. A lot of is dependent on the music itself and how we associate with that. This can be in the lyrics, the music, the voice. Maybe it’s the personality of the artist like with a John Lennon figure. Maybe it’s the aura like Leonard Cohen. Maybe it’s the backstory like when Justin Vernon made For Emma, Forever Ago. The list can go on and on and for every person it’s a personal thing, which can be utterly unique to them. Music is made for people to respond to it in different ways and find their joy in those different ways. Yet none of those normal reasons are why I fell in love with this album. In fact, I fell in love with it for two reasons that have never defined why I love an album before.
The first, more simple reason is linked to sleep. The album has become a trigger for me. I can put it on, and it will instantly send me to sleep. Be it on awkward coach journeys to quick power naps, this album is my saving grace – a sure-fire method to get me to sleep. It’s become almost a safety blanket, a secret weapon I can pull out at any opportunity to unlock a unique power. Stephen Fretwell’s Magpie once had a similar effect on me, though not to this kind of devotion. It’s a logical reason, though unglamorous. Entirely linked to the hushed vocals that lightly hum throughout, it makes a natural sleeping companion.
The other reason is more complicated, the reason why I analyse my relationship with this album right now, and a reason I’m not sure I really understand. A few days ago, one of my housemates saw the CD version lying on my shelf and picking it up, asked what it was. Considering I have spent so much time sending music recommendations his way over the years, he was surprised he had never heard of it. He was even more surprised to learn that it was my most played album ever. Rather than subsequently overly eulogise about it, instead I was somewhat coy about the record and explained a brief history of it. This is unusual for me. If anything, I love to bore people to death on the background of an artist or album with annoying glee. To a point of smugness, I like to share the history of an album – what certain lyrics are about, where it was produced, the artists relationships. Basically, anything and everything until they ask me to stop. Yet with this album I was nearly silent. I didn’t want to say more.
Now this was not because I still knew nothing about the album. I had moved on from the untitled days and with a bit of internet research I found out that the album was called Without Mercy and the song names ranged ‘Poem from Cummings’ to ‘Poem from Carver’, ‘Pining to ‘Waiting’ to ‘Passing’. I also found out that the singer was called Laurel Knapp and that it was produced by Marriage Records. I found a few scattered reviews and a more publicised second album, aptly called ‘Songs.’ Though not able to find a wealth of information on ‘Songs’, it did receive this one endorsement from Bradford Cox of Deerhunter:
‘I was given a test pressing of what I think is one of the most beautiful and haunted records I’ve ever heard. Only one person, Laurel Knapp, delivering fragmented songs with only a nylon guitar and her voice. I actually wore out the test pressing. It sounds very “alone” and evokes dust, crystal radios, and gin. My favourite thing I have heard all year.’
I did not feel the same kind of affinity to Songs as I did Without Mercy, but it felt like Cox had stumbled into the same kind of relationship with the record as I had with the previous. As if he too had unlocked this hidden door.
Still, this was where my research ran dry. There were a few scratchings of live gigs here and there, but otherwise I could not really find anything despite my best efforts. Now I am sure there is a wealth of information about Privacy somewhere. In fact, I am sure someone more skilled than me could find out a lot right now and it would be here in seconds. But weirdly when my initial research came to a halt, I was happy to stop. I didn’t want to know more. For what can only be described as quite odd reasoning, this album suddenly felt more like it was mine – meant for me. In a similar way that people love to say how they listened to The Strokes or The Arctic Monkeys or whoever it was before anyone else, I found this same sort of ownership with Without Mercy.
It was almost as if no one knew about it and as a result I wanted to play it more and more because it felt unique to me. In the book Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby you see the opposite, more well-known route. The over obsession with an artist to the point of over analysing their lyrics into stupidity and feeling like you know them better than they know themselves. Dylan probably has the biggest cult following of anyone and the famous Newport Folk Festival highlights that feeling of fan ownership more than anything.
Only for me it was the opposite and that was an attraction. In this modern world, everything is at our fingertips. Type most questions into the internet and you can find an answer. Want to know about an actor’s personal life and you’ve got it in seconds or a recipe to some obscure Moroccan dish or a diagnosis for your illness. Yet here was something where I couldn’t access any more. I was at a dead end. Even the lyrics in the songs themselves were at times hard to make out, stopping any sort of Searching for Sugarman styled hunt. One mention of going to ‘Honolulu with a flower in her hair’ was as close as I got.
As a result, my love for it pieced together. The album was originally given to me by a friend that I met in a village in Guatemala. We lived together for a small time and I’ve rarely appreciated chatting about music more than I did with this person. This combined with the untitled track listing, the struggle for information. It all built up a weird mystique that suddenly felt exciting in a world where so much has been discovered.
And from that it made me think; why can’t we do that more? Is this overabundance of information always a good thing? Does every poem need to be analysed to the letter, every sportsman rated on their performance, every film on its aggregate review score? Maybe sometimes we could just sit back a bit. Sit back and take things for what they are, appreciate them on surface value. Appreciate the simplicity and not call out for more. In an overcomplicated world, maybe everything can be a bit simpler. That’s what Without Mercy was for me. Simple in everything that it was and, in that simplicity, that lack of information, a new relationship was born. It’s not an easy path in this information age, but maybe sometimes we can learn more by not learning anything at all. Take a step back and let albums become our most played without over thinking it and writing an essay on why.
And so, in writing this, I realised that maybe Laurel Knapp was ahead of the times. That Privacy was a very deliberate name of a choice. That it was made to be an album shrouded in secrecy. That she second guessed us all before we even asked the question…And then I wanted to go to research once again, to determine if this is the case. And so the needle hits the record once more and the record spins again and again and again.
By Ben Crisp