“People have been writing about the same few emotions and scenarios since the beginnings of time, so how can something that has become so cliché be innovated in a way that it strikes us as completely original?”
On Healing Through Music
The first time I heard the song “Human Sadness” by Julian Casablancas+The Voidz, I was lying in bed with two of my closest friends because we were all exhausted with restlessness, and it was too late at night to fall asleep. At the time, I was sick in love with a girl who I was certain loved me back but would always pull away every time there were any concrete indications of progress in our relationship. My friend was going through a difficult time herself, perpetually stuck between dead-end flings and feeling like she would never truly find anyone. My other friend, in a committed and stable relationship, listened to us lament and wished she could feel what she described as the “torment of love” again. The three of us lay in bed missing people we once held, wanted to hold, would never hold again. And then this track came on.
“Human Sadness” is the 11-minute single off of Julian Casablancas+The Voidz first studio album, Tyranny (2014). In contrast to his work as the front man of The Strokes, this album veers away from the classic garage rock ambiance of the indie/alternative genre and delves more deeply into the territories of experimental and noise rock. The transition has been met with mixed reviews by critics and listeners alike, but the general consensus seems to be that Tyranny is an album not made for easy listening and requires multiple listens and much conscious thought to digest. The song was on a playlist I stumbled across purely by accident through a friend of a friend, mostly featuring slow tracks and ballads, so when this song came on, all we were all taken aback. For me, it was an immediate captivation. Although I have minimal knowledge of theory, I play many instruments and have always had an ear for music. However, I was instantaneously transfixed by the chord progression, which both sounded familiar and seemed to strike me with its novelty. Composed of four basic chords, Dm, G, C, and Am, the track follows a circle of fifths progression, which is known to be the most common and effective chord pattern found in musical arrangements across all genres. The bass line, which persists through the opening movement and returns intermittently throughout the rest of the song, is tender and grounding as the piece gradually becomes more chaotic and unstructured. Tension continues building until about four minutes in, when the mood abruptly relaxes to a suspended, more ethereal sounding interlude featuring airy synths reminiscent of funeral organs. At about ten seconds past the five-minute mark, a mix of overpowering guitar riffs, desperate wailing vocals, and conflicting disparate noises raises the tension to a guitar solo climax at seven minutes, lasting a full minute. Then, at eight minutes, the bass line returns for the song’s final verses, a sequence that follows the same basic framework as the opening verses but is now amplified and skewed with more distortion. Finally, at around 9:20, the track settles into a dreamy coda which bears resemblance to the previous interlude and concludes the piece with a hopeful ending.
Like many art pieces, “Human Sadness” draws upon a conglomerate of preexisting works for inspiration. The four chords that constitute the base of the song were sampled from Mozart’s unfinished composition, Requiem in D Minor. Alex Carapetis, the drummer, had brought the sample to Casablancas who was at once moved and began to write melodies over it. The crux of the track is centered on a line Casablancas adapted from Rumi, his favorite poet (Casablancas, “Q&A”). “Beyond all ideas of right and wrong there is a field, / I will be meeting you there” echoes hauntingly throughout the entire song, almost completely masked by an 8-bit, autotuned sounding guitar lick. Both of these elements better contextualize the impetus and meaning behind the creation of this song, which is quite literally a requiem to Casablancas’ estranged father John Casablancas, founder of Elite Model Management who passed away due to cancer in 2013. Additionally, the piece opens with a spoken “Put money in my hand / And I will do the things you want me to,” which reinforces the album’s underlying themes of corruption and greed.
Curious about everyone’s first impressions of the song, I asked some of my friends for their opinions. My friend Terry Park told me after her initial encounter with the song, her immediate reaction was one of disconcertion—the title seemed a little self indulgent. She said, “To name a song [after] something so general and expansive, yet powerful, can come off as contrived. However, upon listening and learning more about the song, it seems much more appropriate.”1 My friend Sam Smith (not the English singer-songwriter and multiple Grammy Awards recipient) said something similar: that at first, the title to him felt too obvious, as if the artist wasn’t giving his listeners enough credit and allowing them to infer what the song is about on their own. The abovementioned girl I liked always teased me for my sentimentality.2 The first time I played the song for her, she said, “I bet you love that.” I asked, “What?”, and she replied, “That a song can encapsulate human sadness.” She was right. I’ve always liked it, although I guess it’s different for me since I listened to the song before discovering its name. And upon finding out, it was like I suddenly gained the ability to view it in a different dimension and thus to appreciate it on a new level. But that only proves the song is successful in its ambitious endeavor because it manages to overcome pretension and banality. That, too, is part of the fascination. People have been expressing the same few emotions and scenarios in art since the beginnings of time, so how can something that has become so cliché and threadbare due to familiarity be innovated in a way that it strikes us as completely original? How can “sadness”—an emotion that billions of people have made the subject of their art, that no individual is a stranger to—become startling, exciting, new?
The answer is undoubtedly complex but in the case of this song, perhaps it has something to do with how the arrangement operates as a narrative. Every time I listen to it, I can envision an infinite number of stories that would suitably complement the song. Much like experiencing grief, the long and twisted journey of losing someone, or another scenario that creates a similar pain, is tumultuous and multifaceted and ever evolving. Through all the discordance intermingling with harmony, you can hear the progression of emotion clearly expressed throughout the song. There are small moments of melodious beauty amidst all the disorder. Despair mutates into anger mutates into longing mutates into rage and so on, until eventually, into acceptance. It is something akin to watching a film about tragedy that has an ending open to interpretation but that ultimately hints at a favorable outcome. Furthermore, in terms of trauma, this serves as a microcosm of the greater impact this song leaves on both the artist and the listeners. For Casablancas, writing a song about an alienated relationship with his father was most likely, at least to some extent, a therapeutic process. Here exists an interesting parallel between Casablancas and Virginia Woolf, who wrote To the Lighthouse about her mother, who had died when she was thirteen. In her collection of autobiographical essays Moments of Being, she states, “I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. I supposed that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest” (81). In a similar manner, Casablancas expressed that writing “Human Sadness” was a highly taxing process. In an interview with The Guardian, he said, “It was very intense to work on. I’ve never worked on a song where the people [musicians recording the song] were close to tears. [. . .] It’s like being on the operating table—you’re working on making it emotional. But this was a rare time when I felt swallowed up by it” (Casablancas, “Julian Casablancas”).
Thus the motivation of the artist to create this piece, and the motivation for the audience to listen, ostensibly stems from the same place—the song acts as a kind of catharsis. The artist can write about a traumatic event or relationship thereby giving themselves the time and space to process it and then move on. On the other hand, the audience can listen to the song, identify with the lyrics and take comfort in the solidarity, hopefully understanding that what they’ve experienced isn’t singular. And the song itself, a product of misfortune, is a mark of survival, proof that hardship won’t last forever, also that there is always a possibility something good might come out of it.
Art and culture rely on a collective memory in order to create connections. As American philosopher and author of Art as Experience John Dewey states, “A poem and picture present material passed through the alembic of personal experience. They have no precedents in existence or in universal being. But, nonetheless, their material came from the public world and so has qualities in common with the material of other experiences, while the product awakens in other persons new perceptions of the meanings of the common world” (86). Before my friend Sam read the lyrics in full and learned what the song was about, he told me that, listening to it, he was overcome with nostalgia without knowing why, along with helplessness, desperation, and that it made him feel like a child. Without any previous context, the song was able to aurally elicit these strong emotions simply because we are able to recognize certain aspects like the sharp, uneven geometry of the distorted guitar and jagged vocals as elements of distress. It’s the unusual idiosyncrasies that capture our attention at first glance, but it’s the lyrics, the context and meaning that establish a lasting attachment. After countless replays now, Sam has memorized every word, yet never seems to lose his astonishment. He’ll tell me, “This line.” We listen. He clutches at his heart, “Devastating.” The new perceptions Dewey refers to, for me personally, are not only greater patience and appreciation for music that is at once off-putting and unfamiliar, and an increased willingness to explore discomfort in order to gain insight, but also a reminder of complexity that I habitually need. What I mean is, listening to this song, hearing the Rumi verse over and over again, reminds me that rarely in life are things ever black and white. The people we love will hurt us over and over and we will hurt them because loving each other cannot be separate from hurting each other. Rarely do we find closure. But, as Casablancas sings, “Don’t empty your canteen out on the desert floor”—there is always room for hope because sorrow, like any other emotion, is only ultimately temporary.
And so, writing about this song as an experience rather than a static art piece seems the most appropriate. There is something utterly transfixing about the piece that every time it comes on, all conversation in the room gradually fades out and my friends and I all tune in, quietly singing or humming along. For everyone it’s different. Interviewing Sam Smith, Terry Park, and another friend, Ramsey Bouari, I had the opportunity to find out their favorite and least favorite parts. Although at 11 minutes long, listening to the entire song requires some commitment, Ramsey was the first to tell me about parts he often skips.3 I’m kind of a purist myself, so it is somewhat inconceivable to me to omit any part of the song. I agree that some sections are extremely discordant, almost to the point of discomfort, but I also think that’s part of the ingenuity and the intention. The song itself is supposed to emulate the darkest sides of desolation, and anguish isn’t a pleasant emotion by any means; it’s not always even bearable. But it’s that ugliness, the disorder and raw desperation that cuts so deeply. Then, when it all resolves, the starkness by contrast makes the harmonious sections even more poignant. Songs more than any other medium of art, have the ability to rapidly reshape. Because of a unique accessibility—thanks to the integration of music into everyday life, entertaining us on long commutes and keeping us company during study sessions—there is almost a utilitarian quality to it. So since music is always present, it is ever evolving as you yourself change. In contrast, for example, your feelings for a painting you’ve seen once or twice at a museum would be better preserved in time, as otherwise they degrade, just like a letter that gets removed from then returned to its envelope every day will get more creased and faded than one that stays protected in an archive.
For me, this song is a mausoleum of memories. Some agonizing, some euphoric, some mundane. I realize that every time I listen to it, I am adding to the collection. However, my present feelings at the time of listening also have an influence on what I’ve felt every time I’ve listened to it in the past. Which is to say, if I listen to it after I’ve achieved a better frame of mind, I’m more equipped to confront painful memories, which then allows me to move past them. Listening to the song allows me access to those recollections whether or not I welcome them and so, too, the chance to process them. This song works because it realizes one of art’s great capacities; not only does it offer insight but also provides comfort and heals you. By using other mediums of art as inspiration, as well as a plethora of his own devices, Julian Casablancas was assembled a beautiful and bittersweet opus that is just as complex as the human emotion itself and, in doing so, helped others as well as himself come to terms with trauma.
In short, it was the whole girl-tells-me-she-had-feelings-for-another-girl cliché (an incredibly convoluted situation, trust me—object of affection is her ex-girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend whom her ex-girlfriend was still in love with and had broken up with her twice for), and I had no choice but to try not to vomit and confess, too late, my feelings for her. She didn’t confirm or deny anything in any way and said only that she didn’t want to lose me, which honestly felt worse. For a week straight I listened to only this song, convinced if my insides could make music, this would be what it would sound like. Sometimes in passing, as I was walking home or to class, I would feel so crazy I’d start running as fast as I could, but while running would feel equally liberated, knowing that someone must have felt the same kind of crazy. If there is one song to sprint like a maniac to, this is it.
Now as other moments are constantly flooding in, I’m looking forward to the day when I can listen to this song and feel no real pain—only the methodical elation evoked by deep musical appreciation and at most the soft melancholy that accompanies past memories honeyed by nostalgia. I think I’m almost there.
Casablancas, Julian. Human Sadness. Julian Casablancas+The Voidz. Shawn Everett, 2014. MP3.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Berkley Group, 2005. Print.
“Julian Casablancas: ‘I Have Nothing against Gentrification.’” Interview by Paul Lester. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 9 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
“Q&A: Julian Casablancas On His Weird New Album, Dysfunctional Democracy In The West, And The Future Of The Strokes.” Interview by Chris DeVille. Stereogum. SpinMedia, 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
Woolf, Virginia, and Jeanne Schulkind. Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. N. pag. Print.