Hanging On For Something More
The personal importance of Million Dead's A Song To Ruin.
It was towards the end of 2003. I turned 21 and told a girl I loved her. It was also around the time I was finishing up that university degree, taking a step back and with a fresh perspective realising the complete and utter pointlessness of it all — both socially and educationally. I wasn't a designer, I wasn't a programmer (yet) and I still really couldn't talk to anyone without a transfixed gaze on my shoelaces. Meanwhile, my mother was hell-bent on drinking herself to death and I felt as though I was following a similar self-destructive genetic path, with daytime television re-runs substituted with filthy suburban night-club, bourbon-guzzling competitiveness.
So I did what those of my generation seem to consistently turn to as a solution for such woes — I bought a long woollen coat from the army disposal store in Hurstville, packed a suitcase and purchased a one-way ticket to Heathrow.
A Song To Ruin commences with a completely unhesitant guitar riff. A double-speed heartbeat of anxiety, all rushed and void of any quantified decision process. Lead vocalist Frank Turner dissects this with an equally intemperate yelp of anguish. No words, just complete frustration. It reaches the maximum allowed decibels for audio transmissions of the time, fuzzing out at the top of it's hyperbolic arc.
There are no solutions offered on A Song To Ruin. At it's most fundamental level, the spirit of the album is deeply entrenched in a sense of despair. Turner's elastic vocals are rushed, bouncing between ideas, rarely attaching themselves to anything of genuine heartfelt significance. It's all important, but there's just too much to get through to pause for effect. Agitated and upset, yet completely unable to acutely quantify his emotions towards any form of resolution. There's obviously genuine political and social arguments presented on this record, but they're all buried deep beneath that overwhelming initial thrust of anguish and frustration.
Because my savings account contained less than the cost of existing in London for a single evening, upon arrival at Heathrow, I immediately headed north, ending up in the attic of my Auntie's house in a village ten miles outside of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Winter revealed itself about a week later, temperatures quickly dropping to single digits and the skies settling themselves in to the consistent grey hue where they'd remain for the next few months. A bleak outlook that perfectly complemented my own disposition.
A few days after I arrived I got a job via a temp agency, my university graduation obviously affording me the ideal set of skills required for five-pounds-an-hour employment in the field of data entry. The actual business was a small loans office in the city of Gateshead where people, a few dollars short ahead of giro (dole) day, would come in and borrow ten quid for basic survival tools — bread, milk, smokes. In hindsight, it would seem as though I subconsciously chose the most depressing job imaginable as a form of justification for own state of mind.
I was standing in my Auntie's living room when the video for I Am The Party came on during some sort of four-minute "hardcore, alternative" MTV segment. Immediately I was hooked; in a large part because of the band's obvious stylistic similarities to At The Drive-In, who I'd become obsessed with over the previous year. I bought A Song To Ruin on CD the next day. The following weekend I bought a copy of Kerrang magazine because it featured a one-page interview with the band where all they mentioned was their frustration over the negative articles discovered when searching for "million dead" on Google.
Frank Turner's perturbed state of restlessness was the enthralling entry-point. Everything sounded unplanned, completely unstructured. His vocals would take the lead, aggressively manoeuvring between pulpit protests and apocalyptic anguish. It was twenty ideas at once, twenty years of angst, void of any controlling mechanism or ulterior motive. Frank is outraged and struggling to encapsulate his resentment into economical sentences. As such, the music finds itself frequently out of pace with the lyrical purpose. He's forced to catch up, cram in long-winded arguments in spaces reserved for powerful singular quips, forced to break longer sentences over multiple lines. His unedited arguments bury the listener, yet give them their overwhelming sense of purpose. I knew almost none of the actual lyrics, but I immediately knew every single word was incredibly important.
Quickly this initial excitement evolved into an exposure of the record's true temperament — an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Whilst still, at this stage, remaining mostly indecipherable, the lyrics were clearly constructed from a political argumentative state — some form of rejuvenated anti-Thatcher rhetoric. Yet it wasn't packaged as a protest record, but rather a presentation of all things fucked. I felt as though I was completely disconnected from the centrical social themes, yet I still imagined myself as the narrator, sharing Turner's love of playfully tongue-tied justifications, and similarly frustrated by them being constantly derailed by their own complexity. In turn, I found myself beginning to shift the entire viewpoint inwards. This wasn't about the problems of the United Kingdom, the world at large or the destructive consumer-based modern age, this was about my world and it's collapsing state.
The title track comes as a welcomed midpoint refuge. Void of the same veracity of the surrounding chaos, it's heavy metronomic thuds synchronise perfectly with my footsteps as I trudge across the Tyne Bridge for another eight hours of monotonous data entry. It's 8:45am, yet the sun is still reluctantly tucked away somewhere in a more southern part of the country. A fraction of a degree above zero, with the cold winds lifting up off the river below and howling through the steel underpass tunnel, making it feel significantly colder and burning my face in the process. Everything's just a shade of grey. Everything's fucked. And I'm so alone I feel sick.
Two nights later, drunk on the way home from the village pub, I call my girlfriend. It costs me a weeks pay and it's 6am in Sydney and she can barely hear me. The reception cuts in and out sporadically as she attempts to wake up and I try and sober up enough to make sense and navigate my way up the steep hill back to my Auntie's place. They haven't salted the snow-covered street that day and with my level of inebriation it's an almost possible feat. Eventually, after several moments of echoed international transmission, the line completely cuts out, I slip and watch as the Nokia 3110 escapes my grasp, slides down the icy bitchumen and into a nearby stormwater drain. I lie atop the wet footpath for a whole minute in a state of contemplation, before picking myself up and slowly climbing the remaining forty metres up the hill, powered solely by the knowledge the comfort of A Song To Ruin was waiting inside the warmth, paused on my discman in the attic room, at the exact point I'd left it earlier.
I guess it's not as though I had a great deal of musical selections at hand. 2003 was the dawn of the iPod era, yet their adoption was reserved exclusively for those with Firewire adapters and over-compensating parents. I had neither. But I did have a shitty discman with 5-second anti-shock, a handful of burnt CD-Rs I'd brought along on the trip and A Song To Ruin which, due to my crippling financial state, was the only record I'd bought in the two months I'd been in the UK.
Given its prominence within that small collection, it racked up an obsessive tally of listens throughout the winter. During which, my relationship with the album dramatically shifted. Whilst initially forming as a complementary soundtrack for my own depressed state, it slowly became a subservient accompaniment as it's deeper level of complexity, initially restrained by the jolt of energetic angst, began to shine through, with words and phrases starting their rise to prominence.
It was locked in this studious state where I began my personal adoption of the lyrics — often even misinterpreted them entirely. It turns out it's not "I'm a million different monthly movies", but rather "I'm a million Mike Leigh movies", thus, the video store metaphor I'd constructed in my head — where I was desperately in need of affection, but people simply took what they wanted, abusing my trustfulness — was absolutely worthless.
Yet, at the time, I clung on to these lines as the basis of my intense relationship between the album and my own predicament. I ignored the obvious differentiations, instead finding complete salvation within each line that escaped it's hardcore enclosure. "And if I'd known that you weren't so far away" immediately became an accurate summation for my own dissipated relationship with my mother, which had become so tattered I'd felt the need to run away to the other side of the world to escape.
Alone and millions of miles from anyone who really knew me, A Song To Ruin became my solitary compatriot. It's stark exterior — the music that was so bleak and desolate, became a familiar, comforting space. The lyrical heart and soul, initially so insular and purposefully convoluted, was now a therapeutic soundboard of like-mindedness. And all I had was time which, partnered with my naturally obsessive nature, found me slaving over every sentence and measuring its value against my own thoughts. This was a record that understood me better than anyone. And it was all I needed.
Rise and Fall, the record's 14-minute finale, commences in a state of urgency, beginning mid-sentence ("they came from the East") as though time is a precious resource. Not long later it has minutes to murder, spiralling into an extended hypnotically head-numbing loop. A meditative environment, creating the required space for reflection on everything that's preceded it — the overwhelming level of details, the complex dissension and my own selfish analysis of how much every word on the album is an apt dissection of my own situation.
Attempting to calculate how I'd react to hearing this record for the first now is a redundant concern. It remains firmly anchored to a specific time and place, albeit a mostly unpleasant five months of my life and a location that acted as an ideal geographical reflection for my fleeting spirit with it's seconds of daily sunshine and bone-stutteringly cold gusts. For reasons that I'm still not completely sure about, and despite this negative association, this album remains a source of great solace that I continue to this day to share an unwavering bond with.
I told everyone I returned home because I missed my girlfriend, attempting some masquerade of false maturity. That's partly true I guess. But more so, the home-coming decision was based on a realisation that altering your current latitude and longitude co-ordinates is an utterly pointless attempt at resolution. Migrating away from what you believe to be source of your anguish doesn't solve anything. But then again neither does screaming about Charlie Bucket, consumerism and Constantinople. But most of the time we're not searching for solutions, just a little bit of comfort.