Monday, 7 December 2015

Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe (2013)

In July 2014 I returned to my then home in Atlanta after eight months overseas. I spent six of those months in Tashkent, researching my dissertation in archives and libraries, thumbing through crumbling manuscripts and tattered books in search of ʿAlī Shīr Navāʾī. I was trying to pull together fragments of his legacy and influence upon later writers in an attempt to illustrate (or was it demonstrate?) his ineluctable influence on Central Asian culture.

After several years of graduate school, I though I was prepared. I knew the languages. I navigated daily life in Uzbek, but when I went back in time, I read Chaghatay Turkic (the precursor of both modern Uzbek and Uyghur). I had sat through hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of lectures, seminars, and workshops on the highways and byways of Islamic Central Asian history. I knew the names of long-forgotten classical texts and their equally neglected authors.

But for much of my time in Tashkent, I was a lonely, scared mess of a man. A creature of habit, I restricted myself to a handful of restaurants, teahouses, and canteens. I only frequented two bars. One was a German-style beerhall on the other side of the railway tracks that skirted the south of the city. If you followed the tracks eastwards, you reached Almaty in Kazakhstan. Westwards, and you came to Samarqand and then Bukhara.

The beerhall was popular with foreign workers and their local colleagues, usually employees of the few remaining multinationals who hadn't been driven out by the government's paranoia and incessant harassment. My other watering hole of choice was a Georgian restaurant in a old-style central neighbourhood. Most of the old city of Tashkent was levelled in the earthquake of the 1966, but this neighbourhood still consisted of the single-level houses arranged around a central courtyard that are the stock feature of older Central Asian oasis cities.

I kept myself to myself. There were few foreign researchers and scholars about. The government discouraged anyone from doing research on anything other than the safest and potentially least embarrassing or critical topics. I had no problems there. Navāʾī is the national poet of Uzbekistan.

I suffered through a brutal winter compounded by infrastructural problems: exploding boilers, failing heating, powercuts, uncleared roads ... Some nights I curled up in bed in thermal underwear, pyjamas, a cardigan, woolly hat, and scarf. Only a reliable and steady wifi network, a small library of DVD boxsets, and endless streams of Grateful Dead(!) live recordings kept me moderately sane.

An article by Nick Paumgarten on the fanatical taping habits and obsessive cataloguing practices of Deadheads had proved bizarrely inspirational, as I believed I saw similarities between the manifold differences of manuscript copies of the same work by Navāʾī and the bazillion variations of Grateful Dead concerts. Several recordings might exist of the same show, depending on whether they were recorded by the sound engineer working through the soundboard, or some geezer int he audience holding a microphone above his head. Here was my theoretical framework.

At the end of April 2014 I returned to the United Kingdom, to see family, conduct more research, and take a long overdue holiday with my wife. I did the first and third of these, but the second was cut short when my father was taken suddenly and unexpectedly ill in late May. He died three weeks later, his long-faulty immune system finally unable to beat off a common viral infection.

After burying him and helping my mother wrap up the strands of his life (the paperwork! the files! the bank accounts!) I returned home. I felt I had to simply get on with life. I had to write a paper for a conference in Montreal at the beginning of August. I had to return to Bloomington to teach in the Fall. I had to begin preparing my job application materials.

But amid all this, I forgot that I had to save my marriage. One of my promises for the year had been that I wanted to discover new music. As a teenager, I avariciously read the music papers and 'zines. In this moment, I thought that reactivating that passion would bring fresh stimulus to my life. I half-remembered a review of an artist who went under the moniker Blood Orange. More particularly, I fixated on their most recent release, Cupid Deluxe. Sasha Frere-Jones described it as "one of those albums that spawned a single radio hit and then fell out of print."

As my marriage then crumbled and dissolved and we separated, Cupid Deluxe became what I recently described to a friend as "my divorce album." I listened to the whole thing (and still do) the way people used to listen to albums: in one sitting. At home. On the bus. In airports. In the car. I proselytized (and continue to proselytize) for it. Frere-Jones's description seemed perfectly apt. No-one had heard of it.

One track came to encapsulate that time and is still the song that I play for friends and potential converts. "High Street" combines the vocals of Dev Hynes (the driving force of Blood Orange) with the flow of Skepta. Although Hynes should be best be described as a citizen of the world (parents from Guyana and Sierra Leone, raised in London, lives in Brooklyn) this particular song is a resolutely London song.

"Driving down Ilford Lane, going home ... "

British hip-hop or r&b does best when it stick to home turf, lyrically and melodically. Although I'd fallen out of love with London many years before (I left, friendless, in a white removal-van) "High Street" reminded me of the dirty glamour of daily London. Pushchairs. Sidewalks. Stolen phones. Traffic lights. The roar. Hynes and Skepta erect a moving monument to the daily grind from prosaic foundations. As crappy though I felt my life had become, I remembered that homes are not built in the stars, but start in the gutters.

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