These are the operations of a mind that can't
tell the difference between music & anything.
— Dana Ward
Records that help you be alone are sacred. I don't mean music that fades into the background or becomes attention-sharpening wallpaper, but rather albums that are so quietly, breathtakingly alive on such monumentally original planes that you want to search for your own no matter what it takes. These bespoke records push me towards my center, which is writing alone, the most perfect earthly act I know, when I become what Joan Didion called "a lonely and resistant rearranger of things" or an "anxious malcontent," a comfort that has not betrayed me yet. Only in notebooks can I hope to collect myself, and so I can only hope to collect myself alone. Records like these are guiding lights. They sound like the full moon or heavy sky, so epically unknowable until they arrive.
The world told me think or die
It did not protect you either
But I am thinking hopefully of
nothing beyond all the emotions
I will process this calendar year
When Frank Ocean released Blonde in 2016 I knew he'd gone there. Blonde sounds so ecstatically alone, made the air feel electric, stopped time. Ocean's epochal R&B opus Channel Orange, from 2012, established him as a pop-music auteur of meticulous detail and enormous consequence---and then here was a collage mixing gauze and moondust and beats that rattled in accordance with the stars. Instead of singing about outsiders Ocean now found that he was one. If Bowie's spirit of bemusing oddity entered the universe that year then Blonde absorbed some. Ocean seemed to put R&B in dialogue with the fragmented, destabilized logic of post-punk; as if to emphasize the point, he sampled Gang of Four. "You see me like a UFO," he sings on "Self-Control" and this sounded like an Earth landing, supreme eloquence, an hour that billowed like a cloud. Blonde radiated "comfort in melancholy," as Joni Mitchell sang of on her otherworldly Hejira, another miracle record in which solitude becomes romance.
Did my Saturn Return peak just now
when a friend in town with a band
called Mystics gave me a poster of
a rainbow titled "The Wheel of Destiny"
and I bought a one-way ticket to LA
Blonde is Frank Ocean's fourth, third, or second record, depending how you see it, but it's first in my heart. A challenge and a balm, Blonde never moves straight---and just as Ocean references Trayvon Martin and queer love and Hurricane Katrina, these realities recalibrate his unhurried sound. Conventional logic could never serve Ocean and he subscribes to little here. Blonde is defiantly nonlinear. The sublime "Close to You" is an interpolation of Stevie Wonder's interpolation of the Carpenters classic, a Xerox of American culture. The immaculate Carpenters are a potent foil to Ocean---beacons of American normalcy and order and what critic Karen Tongson calls "anxious perfectionism," which Blonde upends. In contrast, there is no hierarchy to Blonde. It was then no surprise to learn in a recent New York Times profile that the poet Ocean Vuong has a Blonde LP hanging in his Northampton home. "I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because," Vuong writes in his novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. "But I wasn't trying to make a sentence---I was trying to break free."
On a Monday night I am at the tile table alone
in my loft watching Jonas Mekas on YouTube
and the JMZ clatters past the window "As I was
moving ahead occasionally I saw brief glimpses
of beauty" "it took me so long to realize that
it's love that distinguishes man from stones,
trees, rain, and [...] I've been so completely lost"
Joni released Hejira 40 years prior. By 1976, the 33-year-old had spent a decade writing poem-songs about the emotional sacrifices of her life as a renegade woman, about quiet epiphanies and inadequate men. Already she had moved through a legendary string of classic '70s albums---Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns---which mapped a journey from folk-rock prophet to inquisitive shape-shifting aesthete. On her eighth album, Hejira, Mitchell's music turned sprawling, wintry, epic, as if painted with charcoals, and the fretless bass playing of jazz fusion icon Jaco Pastorius made it feel borderless, infinite. There are lyrics about freeways and cafes and motels and hitchhikers, about the implications of "possessive coupling" and living within "the breadth of extremities." Mitchell famously wrote the album on a solo cross-country car ride, apparently without a license and often in disguise, an ode to "the sweet loneliness of solitary travel." Music rarely sounds so isolated, or skeptical, or questing. "I was getting away from romance, I was getting away from the craziness," Mitchell has said, "and I was searching for something to make sense of everything." Its Arabic title means to run away honorably.
There is a wrongness to everything real
Maybe it is pure coincidence that makes Blonde and Hejira such corresponding pillars in my mind. Maybe it is because Mitchell and Ocean are unrivaled as the most emotionally sage lyricists of their generations. Maybe it is because they are Scorpios. Surely it is their unusual rhythms, flickering, like real life. I associate these records with walking, flying, driving, riding the train, but mostly with floating, my primary state of motion at 29. Their ambient elegance and visionary strength make a case for floating as a way forward.
On Hejira, an austere six-minute ballad takes the form of a conversation with Amelia Earhart---a message "from one solo pilot to another," Mitchell has said, "reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do"---and as she sings of the burning Arizona land and vapor trails and how Earhart was "swallowed by the sky," the whole forlorn song seems to go that way. Blonde itself feels suspended in air. And since its release there has been no song I want to hear on a descending plane more than "Nikes," so attuned to the reflective key of an airport post-flight, after you've been quiet.
Blonde and Hejira are sparse, searching, cracked wide open, and they have been the unequivocal soundtrack of my Saturn return: that period of extreme late-20s and early-30s upheaval when Saturn is approaching the place in the sky it occupied at one's time of birth. Ocean released Blondeat 28 and Joni was 33 with Hejira. The sheer existence of these alien-like records has been assurance that I, too, will land in kind, after this solitary chaos. In the wake of their respective formal masterpieces, these alone-sounding records are inspired deconstructions, and that's what a Saturn Return is like: facing the parts to see how they might be assembled again. Towards the end of Blonde, on the drifting "Seigfried," Ocean declares he can't relate to his peers, quotes Elliott Smith, breaks into glittering disorder. "Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dreamer that thought that could think of dreaming and get a glimmer of God," he spirals like a shuttering flash, or an acid trip, or a recurring doubt that keeps you awake. A dream is rearranging itself, and then "Godspeed"---it goes on.
"I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me/The start of nothing" — Frank
"Amelia, it was just a false alarm" — Joni
If you see this post five notes with no context
Blond v blonde — the feminine e — the in between
When it is overcast
Nature is laughing
Men are going to be apologizing to me forever
When it hurts I take what I can
They both mastered pop, then tore it apart. Scholars of the human heart, California mythologizers from elsewhere, both visual artists: Frank a photographer obsessed by Peter Hujar, Joni a painter in the style of Van Gogh. Last November Frank set his Instagram public and it revealed two posts dedicated to the English painter David Hockney: Pool With Two Figures and Domestic Scene, Los Angeles. In February, a technicolor photograph exploded the internet: Hockney, 81, and Mitchell, 75, holding hands in a Los Angeles gallery. Hockney is another constant negotiator of abstraction and pop formalism. Mitchell was visiting Hockney's show and an attendant with a camera took note — of existential harmony, of collapsed time, of royal blues and lemon and the fact, per Ocean's magazine Boys Don't Cry, "The whole world as we experience it visually comes to us through the mystic realm of color."
While making Blue Joni was so vulnerable, she has said, that "If anybody looked at me, I'd just burst into tears."
Ocean writes in Boys Don't Cry: "I don't think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years [...] It's surprisingly my favorite part of life so far."
If I'm working on lyrics," he told Gayletter, "I might as well be in a vacuum-sealed container.
And he sang, like a prayer, "Solo/Solo."
And Joni sang, like a movie, "We're only particles of change/I know I know/Orbiting around the sun."
Where am I going now? Well, where was I ever going then. Hejira and Blonde feel like the desert: spacious, philosophical, heavy, outside, adorned with unusual signs of life. They show how endless everything can be. They are assurance that the things I worry over aren't so worrying at all---someone else has turned that corner without seeing past it before. In the aloneness of these records, grace. And in their darkness, illumination.