I'm On Nights
, April 20th, 2016 19:42
Failure is a discomfiting prospect, one that's rarely confronted with candour. When art seeks to explore failure it's often underappreciated because it leaves the desire for a neatly conclusive narrative unassuaged. With the escalation of social media dependency, it often feels as though an illusory void of veneered self-affirmation conceals real, underlying feelings of self-doubt and modern malaise. Better to frenetically post sterilized hi-res shots of avocado on toast and neutralised 'ideal' showroom interiors, if only to stave off the lurking sense that the prospect of failure is all around us.
With Tom Shkolnik's muted 2012 film The Comedian, the experience of unfulfilled ambitions is explored with a rare and forthright honesty. Set in North London and centred around Ed, an aspiring comedian, the film gradually charts his setbacks with an unflinching Dogme realism, in some instances to the point of unremitting humiliation. His exasperation with his day job working at a call centre, his dashed hopes of realising his creative potential and his climactic regression (returning home to live with his parents) are personal but broadly familiar experiences which have become only more relevant to a present day milieu.
In 2016, with the combined suppressive effects of arts funding cuts, rising rents, and a debilitating high cost of living, compromised creative hopes are increasingly typical. While Shkolnik's film holds little in the way of conspicuous optimism in this context, there's compensation to be gleaned from its bravery. In portraying failure in such a frank and faithfully realistic way, the film intimately encapsulates the difficult modern contentions facing many of us in the current climate. The same courage in confronting doubt and failure pervades the latest long player from The Pheromoans; 'I'm On Nights'. But whereas Shkolnik's execution is in a direct vérité mode, 'I'm On Nights' is characterised by the scruffy, quotidian, underdog lyricism of Russell Walker, a style that vacillates between the everyday and the surreal, often interlacing the two and consequently contorting the former with the distortions of the latter.
On 'Depressed Thunderbird' Walker relates a time working at a pub 'where the regulars don't like me', a job that leaks into late night bedroom drinking sessions where the bartender becomes his very own 'best customer'. Like the desperate though revelatory resignation of Ed at the end of The Comedian, the protagonist in this instance is bereft, though more comically attentive, at least to the dark irony of his situation. Ed is a comedian who isn't funny. This protagonist is an unpopular bartender who likes to drink. Not a recipe for success in either case.
It's a vignette that sustains the focus of the band's previous work, which has often been prone to absurdist amusement amidst a dishevelled DIY essence. But whereas in this instance and in previous work they've seemed content enough to clown, inventively warping the banal and the routine, tracks like 'In Freefall', 'ION' and 'Cones Hotline' find Walker in a much more fateful, contemplative mood. In a similar sense of transition, the music that accompanies him is more polished than 2014's 'Hearts of Gold' and 2012's 'Does This Guy Stack Up?'. Synths and drum machines are more obviously foregrounded, yet even with an incremental synthetic gloss and more dramatic profundity in effect, there's still a crude and askew shape to the sounds made that appropriately mirrors the nature of Walker's lyricism.
The overall abiding appeal rests not only in its off kilter nature but in how grounded this lyricism remains. On 'Cones Hotline' for instance, the setting for rumination is situated within mundane confines: "in the waiting room / staring at the walls / asking ourselves where did it go wrong?" 'ION', an eponymous, rudimental, ersatz-lullaby for night shift dissatisfaction, meanwhile is set in a 'damp bungalow', yet amidst this dreariness comes a disarmingly poignant deliberation: "my books and albums cost so much money / but when it's said and done / will they cry for me?"
It would all be insufferably miserable if it wasn't for Walker's self-effacing scepticism, delivered with a tone which sounds like he's in the thralls of a perpetual hangover. Walker has spoken of how "It was at J. Sainsbury (Produce) in Uxbridge where [he] discovered the joy of working alone at night unimpeded and free to delve further into [his] hitherto unexplored imagination", something emblematic of the wry mock-grandeur he reserves for prosaic minutiae. There's the sense of a warped everyman pushed too far, treading into offhand, half-realist, half-nonsense poetics in response to a modern English life that doesn't lend itself to rationality or romance.
Although 'Wizard Thing' and 'Rodent Costume' are hewn from a more absurdist disposition, again they unravel similar themes. Substandard small talk ('lift spiel'), departments marching to work canteens, a colleague "who dresses like Noddy" who it seems can expect some retribution for eccentricity in 'the chat room'; the customary inanities and occasional incongruities of a working day are presented as a tiresome cause for derangement.
'Rodent Costume' is another story entirely, though arrives at a likeminded conclusion through warped fantasy. Delivered in a Dickensian pisstake narration, it comes from a parallel Twilight Zone of misfiring electronics, within which a desperate malcontent relates a bedsit confessional. In spite of its bizarre divergence, the narrator unloads more angst in keeping with the anxieties divulged elsewhere. After deploring a missed job opportunity ('with K. Henry Biggenhide and his telephone repairs') the story culminates in a rhetorical desperation ("am I destined to be rebuffed?") and a farcical allegory of dislocation: "my father is lost in a complicated network of caves. He's been lost for the best part of a year now. We knew how he felt didn't we? We too feel like that sometimes. Like lone madmen trudging around..."
It's much more aberrant than the skewed humdrum expressions of before but the central preoccupation remains; failure, the fear of failure and the doubt that both entail. Peculiarly enough, a film entitled The Comedian holds little in the way of humour in confronting such a fate, whereas 'I'm On Nights' seems to hold it up for illuminating exposure and even a tragic sort of gallows humour, concerning itself with things usually considered too dull, plain and depressing for subjects in 'song'.
In The Comedian, there are scenes of nightbus altercations, daytime TV indolence and back-of-the-cab meltdowns/revelations. 'I'm On Nights' draws from the same modest real life interludes, presenting a character beset by a similar state of anxiety and disillusionment. It's the sound of a self-deprecatory 'elderly indie band' engaged in a perverse, corrupted strain of bare-all self-help therapy. Moving through 'the misery' to get past it, coming out the other side with some newfound clarity, or simply the ability to somehow process the common underplayed absurdities and regular fallouts of the everyday. The incidental becomes essential, the usually omitted becomes disclosed and the apparently ordinary becomes significant.
Like Shkolnik's film, it draws from day job discontentment and everyday ennui, finding poetry where there's very little cause for it; within the grip of the night shift, in dead end temp work, in the subsequent inevitability of deferred creative fulfilment. Walker presents an unlidded internal monologue which muses on flawed characters, shit jobs and marginality. In a climate of compromise and compulsively sheened social media narcissism, its unflinchingly free-spoken, roughhewn nature feels strangely valiant.