Like all of you, since our first round I’ve been preoccupied with Black Messiah: finding it a respite at first, as Lindsay did, then a challenge, the way Carl heard it, and finally sinking in, as Jason has, to the richness of the text. That’s rich like a roux: D’Angelo stirs his many musical touchstones in the bottom of the pot until they’re red-golden and sticky and hard to separate. I’m looking forward to spending weeks, months, years, savoring this album, discerning all of its details, reimagining whole histories with these grooves as a guide. Maybe I’ll adopt it as my own personal version of SelfControl: a deep-funk antidote to Web consciousness’s Eternal Now.
Now more than ever, hand and brain melded to my smart device as if it were Beyoncé’s robo-glove, I need music to lift me out of that cyborg haze and ground me in homely, mortal details. Like Jason, I’ve suffered some grief in the past year, and in addition, I’ve been battling typical midlife chronic pain with an arsenal of 21st-century remedies (Goodbye gluten! Hello ART!), as well as the occasional old Catholic prayer, raised up during dark agnostic nights. When I’m feeling weary, I often turn to a musical form that’s not very futuristic at all: the singer-songwriter sketch, fleshed out with the stuff of tiny life, the mundane reality that even in this age of avatar-fluidity continues to tether each of us to our own lived-in worlds.
Here’s a song I couldn’t get out of my head last spring: “Matthew Arnold’s Field” by Ben Watt, the English multi-instrumentalist, DJ, and record label head best known as half of the great post–New Wave duo Everything But the Girl with his wife, Tracey Thorn. The 52-year-old Watt, who’s himself dealt with serious illness and the recent deaths of his father and half-sister, recorded this sparse, resonant set of reflections in collaboration with the brilliant guitarist Bernard Butler, who acts as amanuensis while the modest-voiced songwriter shares his carefully constructed tales. But on “Matthew Arnold’s Field,” it’s just Watt and a keyboard recounting the grace and the gaffes that made up a trip he took to the famous picturesque spot above Oxford, his father’s cremains in his backpack. (Jason, your words about making a parallel journey moved me.) “And unscrewing the lid, the weirdest thing I did,” Watt murmurs. “And tumbling through my hands, the ash fell on the land.”* This life passage, so profound, concludes with Watt noticing a couple having tea in their car nearby. Fellow mourners, or just picnickers? The thought distracts. Life continues—part loss, part hope, and part just stumbling while making a path in the woods.
Watt was just one of many singer-songwriters in middle age or beyond who released remarkably eloquent big-picture albums this year. Rosanne Cash’s The River and the Thread retraced her own family’s path through the Deep South in songs that sometimes delved into major historical subjects (her Civil War ballad “When the Master Calls the Roll” is epic), and sometimes go impressionistic and intimate. Joe Henry’s incredible Invisible Hour was inspired by 25 years of marriage; its songs recount different ways people save themselves and each other through the small and larger catastrophes of a shared life. Octogenarians Willie Nelson and Leonard Cohen both made vibrant (sexy, even!) albums expressing what it’s like to stand close to heaven’s door, but still feel earthly desire in every fragile vein. The great soul singer Candi Staton, though more an interpreter than a songwriter, brought a lifetime of insight to the songs of heartache and resilience on Life Happens, her return to Alabama’s soul capitol, Muscle Shoals.
“They say there is no gain without pain/ Well, I must be gaining a lot,” Willie sings in his wry, jazz-wise tenor on “Bring It On,” the first track on his best album in years, Band of Brothers. “I’ll give it all that I’ve got. Bring it on!” I saw Nelson last spring, sharing a bill with 77-year-old Merle Haggard, who’d recently battled cancer; both elders brought more heart and personality to their performances than most of the millennials I caught at South By Southwest. Nelson, in particular, sang and played his preternaturally battered guitar, Trigger, with the joy of someone who is not going to worry, ever again, about what anybody else wants him to do.
I hear the same kind of freedom in the ragged, majestic rock of the Cincinnati band Wussy, which has been crashing toward sublimity for nearly 15 years (and whose co-leader, Chuck Cleaver, led the amazing Ass Ponys for 12 years before that), and whose 2014 album Attica! proved that guitar rock about ordinary people can still be profound, even in our bold new age of soft technology. Wussy’s summertime club gig at the tiny Silverlake Lounge—its first ever in Los Angeles—was the best show I saw this year, partly because Cleaver, his ex-lover and forever bandmate Lisa Walker, and their stalwart rhythm section have been through enough to have put aside all bullshit, and now just go for the marrow of every song.
Wussy makes music about people who wear five-year-old boots and have faded tattoos, and maybe got divorced, and live in affordable places that will never be featured in the “36 Hours” column in the New York Times. People like themselves. “Wussy approach rock and roll as people who are past the age when they look to the music for salvation or as a soundtrack for their rebellion,” wrote the critic Charles Taylor in the Los Angeles Review of Books in May. (Wussy is a critics’ band; sometimes, critics are actually right!) “But because they are fans, because this music has long been their chosen vehicle for expression, they test it to see if it can still provide a kind of transcendence, or at least a way of speaking that will make sense of the life around them.”
A kind of transcendence—the goal is provisional, modest, yet still magnificent. It’s not a solution to the global crises you so rightly mention, Jason. But it’s a way to focus for a blessed moment, and keep feeling. On the hard days I face, and on the shining ones I treasure, I value what these older artists pose: the challenge to keep on reaching, until a loved one takes what’s left of you to the park on the hill and lets you fall.
*Correction, Dec. 18, 2014: This article originally misstated that Matthew Arnold’s Field is above London. It’s above Oxford. It also misquoted the lyrics of Ben Watt’s eponymous song. (Return.)
See all of Slate’s coverage of the best culture of 2014 here.