The rare fragments of pre-rap U.S. poetry that continue to maintain something close to popular currency can be neatly subdivided into two categories: the nonsensical and the counterintuitive. On the one hand there are the jingles, rhythmic shrapnel crisscrossing the no-man’s-land between Dada and ads: Poe’s viral refrain “Nevermore,” Whitman’s “O Captain! my Captain!” whichever shards of Plath’s “Daddy” that happen to lodge in the memory. The rest, a bit more arcane, are readily translated into riddling ledes: Why My Eating Your Plums Was Actually a Good Idea (William Carlos Williams); Watch This Poet Write a Poem About Disliking Poetry (Marianne Moore); You Won’t Believe What Happens When This Dream Is Put Off (Langston Hughes).
The ultimate exemplar of this latter genre, though, belongs to T.S. Eliot, who inaugurated his lengthy 1922 poem The Waste Land with the dictum, which soon became proverbial, that “April is the cruellest month.” The problem with April is that it breeds, and the problem with breeding is that it degenerates. Judiciously edited by his fellow alt-right precursor Ezra Pound, Eliot’s seminal poem is a prolonged lamentation for a world in terminal decline. Capitalist free trade, European social decay, and irregular sexual variation are ceaselessly equated and then mapped onto natural symbols dominated by mechanical recirculation and an urban landscape shadowed by spiritual solitude. The poet is keenly aware that it’s anything but exempt from the collapse of natural creativity he depicts. His own frenetic innovations in narration, imagery, and sound are marked from the start with signs of nihilism, corruption, and sterility. Nature is a nasty cycle in the vision of The Waste Land, and the most one can hope for is to step out of it altogether. The Sanskrit prayer for peace that concludes the poem marks a longing for distance, immobility, permanence, order — frigidity. From this contrarian perspective, not only is spring the season most cruel, winter is the season most kind. Winter keeps us warm: not because it’s cuffing season, but because the cold keeps people from rotting with desire and dying. With nowhere to go out and no one to come out to, the life of the December seed is purer than the April flower.
Regardless of whether Eliot’s passionate, monastic worldview convinces or not, two things are clear. December really is a time for retreating inwards, and musical artists have had a lot to say about the cold, the indoors, and desire. The end of the year, and perhaps of this year especially, seems an apt time to review some winter-oriented music of the past.
If The Waste Land is the ideal hot take in favor of coldness, then the perfect room-temperature take in favor of warmth would have to be the 1974 Roberta Flack single “Feel Like Makin’ Love:” its first verse runs “Strolling through the park / Watching winter turn to spring / Walking through the dark / Seeing lovers do their thing.” The two works share an outdoor vantage point — both lyricists go out into the world to gain a view of couples. The difference is that the soul singer isn’t repelled by her vision: the thematic harmony between the changing climate, her being outside, the lovers, and the desire for her own lover is as compelling, simple, and pronounced as the actual harmonies of Flack’s voice and the tremulous guitar and confident bass with which it’s paired. “Feel Like Makin’ Love” is a classic illustration of the traditional vision of winter as a state of being to be left behind as soon as possible: once you’re able to go out, and go out with someone, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to follow the example of the natural world.
The renditions of stilted, heartless hook-ups in Eliot’s poem and the confluence of care, love, and sex in Flack’s single are foreign to each other, though of course both have ample precedent within the real world. While it’s hard to imagine a middle ground between the two extremes, something like it does exist, though perhaps not until recently. Just as Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak marked the decisive phase in his transition from the warm, soul-oriented sampling of his previous albums to a frostier, more machine-tooled aesthetic, 808s’ 11th track “Coldest Winter” seems to live at the midpoint between Eliot’s freezing devotion and Flack’s revitalizing heat. Eroded and evened out by Auto-Tune, West’s sung lyrics conflate the mechanical and natural under the sign of loss: The listener has to feel the magnitude of the death of West’s beloved mother Donda and West’s subsequent depression by registering the deliberate absence of feeling in his voice, and this verbal numbness is accentuated by a soundscape as imposing, bare, and unconsoling as tundra. “If spring can take the snow away / Can it melt away all our mistakes?” West asks, then renders the question moot by stating, once more, that “I won’t ever love again.” The song’s conjunction of memories, mistakes, and lovelessness under the rubric of winter evinces a subtle knowledge of how depressions paralyze: Memories linger on mistakes so long that memory itself comes to seem a mistake, and linger on lovelessness so long that not only the past but the future is scoured of potential attachment.
In much the same way that it deserves the honor of Best Album Title of 2016 despite being released in 2015, Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is very much an honorary winter/spring album despite its lyrics never mentioning the seasons: recorded in the winter and spring of 2014, it was released on March 23, 2015, and its chilly, introverted language and austere, claustrophobic production (done by Earl himself) ensure that, despite his native Southern California lacking winter snowfall, the album feels snowed-in nonetheless. He’s got more than enough reasons to stay behind closed doors: like the Kanye of 808s, Earl in I Don’t Like is grappling with the aftermath of a failed love relationship and the death of a cherished female relative (his grandmother), but he’s also in retreat from a prescription drug dependency, his own precocious fame, and hostility from racist policemen. The album’s dark sound, gloomy tone, and black cover are all forceful indicators that making sense of his black cultural identity is a priority for the artist — he’s gathering himself in solitude by sifting through his memories with unsparing contempt: “Never trying me, I’m diving, falling victim to myself / Middle finger to the help / When it’s problems I don’t holler, rather fix them by myself.” The album isn’t an easy listen and isn’t meant to be. Thankfully, it doesn’t waste any time: it’s only 30 minutes long, and there’s an understated progression from stillness to commitment that culminates in “Wool,” a blistering final track where Earl, assisted by Vince Staples, sounds once again prepared to take on the world.
Last but not latest or least, there’s Echoes of Silence, the third installment of the mixtape trilogy released by The Weeknd in 2011: This past Wednesday, December 21, marked its fifth anniversary. The coincidence with the winter solstice is no more random than that of the release date of House of Balloons, the first mixtape, with the spring equinox: The Weeknd of the mixtape era was obsessed with keeping up with natural cycles of every kind, be it seasonal, diurnal/nocturnal, or, most notoriously, the alternations in brain chemistry typical of hard drug abuse. Spring’s lively and inviting House of Balloons marks the beginning of the high, and the forceful and elaborate melodrama of summer’s Thursday signifies its peak; Echoes of Silence, poised on the cusp of fall and winter, represents an especially brutal comedown. The Weeknd was an underground artist in 2011, but Echoes is the only mixtape to take “underground” literally. Dense and stifling, its production sounds as if it were composed not just indoors but in a sub-basement, and the lyrics are nothing if not complementary: “Forget what you know / Make yourself at home / Cause baby when I’m finished with you you won’t want to go outside.” The spaciousness of the “loft music” has given way to a dungeon ambience, and the dance of seduction has slowed to a sordid crawl. The prevailing theme is exhaustion, not elation, and the singer’s angle on the downwardly mobile party girl who functions as his alter ego takes on a distinctly predatory edge: “Her morals worth a cent and best believe I already spent it.”
In the light of all this, it’s no surprise the mixtape’s most aesthetically outstanding track is also its most morally dubious. The lyrics of “Initiation” comprise a sinister melange of urges and manipulations: the party girl, dosed beyond belief on multiple intoxicants, is insistently and cheerfully steered toward a meet-and-greet with the singer’s “boys” so as to prove her love. His voice is distorted, pitched lower or higher in conjunction with his substance intake; the production is zoned-out and dissonant, verging on demonic; disturbingly intricate for R&B, the verses are crammed with internal rhymes, each clause transmitting momentum to the next with a swerve and a jerk:
Don’t mind: all my writing’s on the wall
I thought I passed my peak and I’m experiencing fall and all
I want to do is leave ‘cause I’ve been zoning for a week
And I ain’t left this little room, trying to concentrate to breathe
’Cause this piff’s so potent, killing serotonin in
That two-floor loft in the middle, we be choking on
That all-black voodoo, heavy gum-chewing,
Go on if you’re thirsty, baby if you’re dancing …
You don’t have to feel like making love to do it, and even if it’s not quite the waste land, it’s certainly the land of the wasted. As the winter of 2017 approaches initiation, it’s worth noting that, in some senses, it will never end. The global economy is cool at best and frozen at worst, and the malice, speed, and fraudulence of social media forces everyone year-round to grapple with the most classic of winter dilemmas: how not to get exposed. It’s true there’s a difference between “Initiation” and the years to come, but this difference doesn’t reflect well on reality. There’s nowhere, not even Canada, where people can be safe from the impending turbulence. Like the song, it’s a hopeless fantasy, but the singer can get away with promising a place to “ride it out” because his voice still sounds fantastic while the world, as one has no doubt heard by now, sounds awful.