It's Sunday morning and I’m getting choked up at the kitchen table. I'm only halfway through my first cup of coffee. It’s that song again, folding me into a hug till my throat cramps. Big Thief's ballad “Masterpiece”, the solo acoustic take. When I retreat into my music-critic mind, I feel embarrassed at how effortlessly the songwriter has snipped through my heart's yellow perimeter tape ('crying scene - do not cross'). Simple guitar chords. A pretty but uncomplicated melody. No production or compositional sleight of hand. An acoustic guitar, for bob's sake. Have I always been such an easy mark?
Back in the mid naughts I served on the editorial staff at Paste, which had a special fondness for singer/songwriters, folk and Americana, disproportionately so in the company’s early years. Three chords and the truth, an acoustic guitar. That sort of thing. We got savaged routinely for promoting music that our critics described as “boring” or “beige” or – if the nuclear strike was to be called in – “safe”.
Why am I getting weepy then? Why do I feel so vulnerable listening to this song? Isn’t that the opposite of safety? Isn’t that the very definition of risk? And if I feel vulnerable even listening to this song, how must the singer feel singing it?
“Years, days, makes no difference to me babe / You look exactly the same to me / Ain’t no time, crossing your legs inside the diner / Raising your coffee to your lips, the steam.”
The coffee-sipping woman in the diner arrives and all of a sudden I picture my little girl grown. The same girl running through our kitchen shirtless in her underpants while I type these words. Rowan, five years old, not yet banished from Eden snake-bitten and self-conscious.
The economy of the song’s details pare flesh with scalpel sharpness. The affection of the word ‘babe’. The neutral ground of the diner table a world away from the intimacy of the kitchen table at which I’m drinking my own coffee. Rowan doesn’t even drink coffee yet. She calls it a “daddy drink”. Some time has clearly passed but a parent always recognises a child. The pair in the diner, perhaps it’s a strained relationship. The crossed legs might suggest a defensive posture, the lower-body equivalent of folded arms.
“You saw the masterpiece, she looks a lot like you / Wrapping her left arm around your right / Ready to walk you through the night.”
'Masterpiece', what a lovely bit of name-calling. Liam, you are a masterpiece. Rowan, you are a masterpiece. The fact that you look a lot (or even just a bit) like me is something I hold dear. That outward clue to our ineradicable kinship.
Tears come more easily as I get older. Maybe it’s parenthood. Maybe my defences are getting weaker, less stubborn. Or maybe I’m actually getting stronger – in my ability to plunge myself into difficult, unsettling feelings. Maybe it’s because my own parents are getting older and the cycle of existence, birth and death, is never far from my mind. I want to experience life free of illusion, hold the milk and sugar.
Over the past year I’ve started drinking my coffee black. Was it fair to say that I liked coffee if it needed all that sweetening and cream before I could appreciate the flavour? I’ve grown to appreciate the hint of bitterness. Life without the assurance of God, of heaven, of rapture, has been the same. A brew too bitter for many, though one whose character you can grow to appreciate.
The experience of listening to music can function in the same way. If you strip away all the production and instrumentation and aural confection that sweetens the taste, sometimes you’re left no escape from the truth. As "Masterpiece" reminds, our children will become adults in the span of time it takes us to blink and reopen our eyes, an experience Frans Hofmeester mirrored so poignantly in the timelapse he made of his daughter's journey from newborn to teenager. After leaving the hospital room hosting our welcome party, it can feel as though we get little more than a stroll around the block before we're back in there for the send-off.
“Old stars / Filling up my throat / You gave 'em to me when I was born / Now they’re coming out / Lying there on the hospital bed your eyes were narrow, blue and red / You took a draw of breath and said to me
"You saw the masterpiece, she looks a lot like me / Wrapping my left arm round your right / Ready to walk you through the night.”
Stars punctuate the darkness. Not by a lot. They’re small specks, to be fair. But their glow is reassuring. Sometimes a bit of milk starlight is all you need. The milk of human kindness, one person's arm wrapping around another's. Not all is dark. The coffee is bitter, the mug is warm.