There is this particular feeling of safety – a safety that’s narrow and lonely and more like dried up tears and living by books than like finding a safe place for yourself, more like escape from life than escape from danger, that is – and there is England. And the two are connected, through one of those mystical jokes the universe plays on us when it ties knots between threads in places you would never guess. This is about that connection, and Girl Ray has something to do with it. Earl Grey has something to do with it. I’ve got something to do with it to, too, and so do the people who are protagonists of my life (but extra’s from the universe’s perspective), and that strongly suggests that those knots are actually just tied by me.
To explain this, we have to go back to The Kinks, if only because that’s what Girl Ray’s ‘Trouble’ reminds me of: ‘Waterloo Sunset’. The latter is a nice song, with a sunset and two lovers meeting on a bridge and descriptions of London that even make the nasty parts sound nice. But those are appearances, deception. There is a terror in the line “I don’t feel afraid / As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset I am in paradise”, the operative part of it being “as long as”. After all, a sunset is fragile, fleeting by its very nature, and what happens when the sun has set, or if the spectacle is obscured by a newly erected high-rise building (this being London), or if I simply look away? Behind that sunet, there is a intimidating world of impressions and obsessions: “People so busy, make feel dizzy, taxi lights shine so bright”. This Waterloo Sunset, then, isn’t one of the niceties of life, it’s one of its necessities; it is a vital hiding place. Waterloo Sunset represents safety, but of the most fragile and passing kind. It represents, indeed, Paradise. If this fragile sunset is broken it symbolises the fall from Paradise, and we know that that’s no innocent thing. Paradise is not the kind of place you can freely visit and it contains no ecstacy or bliss; rather, paradise comes with certain imperatives, with temptations we are all too familiar with (through scripture and through life), and it offers not much more than a temporary suspension of time, a brief respite. Finally, there is a pleasing irony in the fact that for the listener (for me), ‘Waterloo Sunset’, the song, becomes this hiding place paradise, with the vocal harmonies acting like the actual sunset over Waterloo Bridge as a fleeting refuge.
This feeling of safety is thus connected to England already because of The Kinks, and therefore to Girl Ray because they are connected to The Kinks, but also because Earl Grey is, the way I hear it, a decidedly English record. The title says it all. (Safe-tea? Hah). The record is indeed inspired by British music of the 60s and 70s, The Kinks and The Beatles and The Pretty Things and The Who and who else, of course, but also prog-rock musicians of a generation later. Prog-rock, of course, has always been a decidedly English kind of rock, a form of rock that was, despite its various tropes of masculinity (guitar solo! drum solo!), ever so polite – even its eccentricity managed to be understated. You could hear the “Please” and “Thank you”s. Girl Ray taps into this history, not least by making the title track 13 minutes long – but not most either, since they’ve infused the whole of Earl Gray with vocal harmonies like you haven’t heard for so long, jazzy guitar parts like it’s Canterbury 1971, and little melodic complexities that sound like they’re from a time at once more complicated and simpler than ours.
There are a few more knots to (un)tie. This feeling of safety I alluded to, it’s perhaps connected to England too because England is my hiding place (and what a hiding place it is! Borges once commented that the world is the greatest labyrinth, and that’s especially true of London). But to understand that, I need to mention A Word Child, a novel by Iris Murdoch, which Kim gave me to read before I ever went to England, and in doing so she introduced me to my hiding spot (without me knowing it) there and then. A Word Child is about someone who, troubled by his past, surrounds himself with rigid routines – dinner with his friends every Monday, countless times of riding on the Circle Line all the way to the end it doesn’t have – and those routines or rituals are to him what the Waterloo sunset is to Ray Davies and ‘Waterloo Sunset’ to me. They aren’t comforting, just as Paradise isn’t comforting. (Had we still lived in Paradise, we would’ve just lived there and it would be normal and not grand; but now that we don’t live there, Paradise is what we aspire to in order to escape the dangers of life and so it won’t help us attain bliss either way).
Such is the carpentry of the universe; so lie the knots that tie it all together. But I’ve already mentioned that I have tied those knots as much as anyone (although I have also been tied into some, for the carpenter here is part of the carpet). Have I tied Girl Ray into my carpet of safety, and do they belong there? Has a misheard similarity to The Kinks set off the wrong train of thought? Most reviews of Earl Grey write about the band’s youth and their translation of teenage feelings. That’s not what I heard, but I submit that my safety is quintessentially teenage too: it’s what comes after the insecurity, it’s what gets you out. In any case, Girl Ray don’t have much of a choice, they’re in my net now and if I’ve succeeded, if the knots I tie carve nature at its joints (as they say), they’re in yours now, too. Tying those knots is as much as I can do while writing about music, but it’s as much as music can do to me too – a pleasing symmetry.
-- Caspar Jacobs, August 15, 2017