Marcus Berkmann

Taking a break

Taking a break

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Tired. I am exhausted. For one reason and another the workload has been intense recently, and the pressures have been unyielding. After a while you wander through the days in a numbed haze, faintly aware of passing deadlines, and thinking only of pillows. The occasional hangovers hit as hard as Mike Tyson circa 1988. Look in the mirror in the morning and you see the way you will look in ten years’ time. Look in the mirror in the afternoon and you see that this is actually the way you look now. I even dream of sleep, which is a little weird.

What is the soundtrack to this strange state? Years of unquestioning belief in the fundamental tenets of pop music — tunes, rhythm, guitars — seem to have been swept aside overnight. Too many of my CDs suddenly sound fusty or overdone or, simply, too loud. Radio is intrusive: the cheery northerners of 6 Music are like nails on a blackboard, and even Terry, and Ken and co. on Radio Two seem rather demanding. If I still had the taste for it, classical music would probably do the trick, but to my ears now most of it sounds like the bones of music, the flesh having long since withered away. An hour spent listening to Classic FM felt like the afterlife, plus adverts.

In the event, the most unlikely music has provided solace. Elderly Eric Clapton albums, the ones with languid blues workouts where songs should have been, enabled me to finish a particularly knotty project, but the day after, when I just wanted to listen to something, they just sounded ridiculous. (Has any rock performer ever been in greater thrall to his own legend? When he sings a proper song Clapton sounds almost apologetic, as though he is doing it because he should and not because he really wants to. But the likes of ‘Lay Down Sally’ still sound great today, while all the rock-god guitar heroics have dated very badly.)

Then came the Norah Jones phase. I have never quite understood the appeal of the elfin one’s music: it was all too delicate, lacking highs and lows, concentrating on getting to the end of each song without upsetting anyone. But in my haze I listened to Come Away With Me over and over again, and fell under its gentle spell. Isn’t ‘Lonestar’ simply the most beautiful song? The highs and lows are there if you look for them — or rather if you sit back and shut your eyes and let them look for you. It probably helped that I didn’t have the energy to get up and change the CD once I had put it on.

Quietness is easy to find in pop music: it usually comes in between the loud bits. Quietness with substance takes a little more searching out. A dozen or so years ago something called New Age Music was launched amid a characteristically muted fanfare: it was music that wouldn’t frighten the horses, in essence. But it didn’t catch on because it wasn’t interesting enough. After a while you forgot you were listening to it at all, which can’t have been the point. I feel the same way about some of Brian Eno’s ambient adventures, which, to be fair to him, are not actually meant to be listened to as such, merely absorbed. (Although I did once hear Music For Airports at Heathrow, which felt wonderfully comforting after eight hours in cattle class. Apparently, it was only an experiment. They should have it on a permanent loop.) But in my haze I listened repeatedly to Apollo, which Eno recorded in 1983 as the soundtrack to a film constructed from real footage of the moon missions. It’s music you can melt into, which somehow gives you permission to relax when no one else will. (My five-year-old daughter, currently going through the bad-dreams phase, likes it for much the same reason.)

As I lie on the sofa ingesting all this beautiful music, I realise that I am thoroughly enjoying myself. With small children in your life there is no such thing as a holiday (as my friend Kate always says), just new places in which to be exhausted. But I think this past week has qualified as a sort of internal holiday, a vacation for the soul. Think of this article, therefore, as a postcard. Next week, back to work, but for the moment, a David Sylvian album, I think...