Alive Again, Following Dreams
Melancholy is the quintessential human emotion. It is many things and classically, it is the complex wistfulness and longing that stops just shy of the deep, groaning longing that characterizes mourning. It simultaneously has more depth and complexity than mere desire. Melancholy is also a wounded beast, connoting a deep and healthy longing coupled with regret, with sadness in most cases, and with a gentle austereness that characterizes life. An austerity which borders on the ethereal in its profound nature and simultaneously plays itself to even a hint of self-righteous pompousness that perhaps wouldn’t be possible in any other emotion. As an emotion, it takes it many forms and evolves into many things: mourning, depression, sadness if the wistfulness wins and anger, rage, and jealousy if the austere capabilities of melancholy prevail. It is both a beginning-in that it can evolve-and a logical end, in that oftentimes it proves to be the last step in an evolution of emotion from form to form.
If there’s any one thing which describes melancholy though, it is a windswept landscape which juts out to sea. A tremendous point of rock and mud and ancient slate which is itself the end and the beginning. In its tremendous capabilities as the logical last movement, but also as the beginning of something entirely and incredibly new, it defies a certain logic about not only emotion but land itself as well. So to the rock we look back. There’s a certain amount of history to any thing which juts out over the horizon and overlooks either sea or shore or city or even more mountains and rolling hills of which it once was a part. In the dramatics which characterize the object is the mystery which belies the object and belies melancholy-in what way did this form and how to resolve it? However, melancholy is not something we necessarily fix of our own volition. We wait for a resolution and we don’t try to arrest the attempt to change it. While weathering and erosion-aging, simply-take their inexorable toll on an object, the new things which it can create also drive a resolution.
Music also works in a similar fashion on just about every scale. In the simple single, there’s always an introduction, then the telling of the story or the communication of the message or the pithy drama which makes up pop music nowadays. Then the bridge-some sort of dramatic conclusion-follows this story, which it seems nowadays is always along the lines of “I moved on” or “I took action”, and finally the fade out which provides the final resolution or simply a recap. The popular single isn’t, and never will be, characteristic of any emotion or any singular mood; its fleeting nature is just too short to be evocative of much of anything.
The symphony or a chorale or a song cycle has the opposite of this problem. A conflict can be explained, addressed, brought over, thought out, and digested for the sake of not only clarity, but the listener as well. Among the obvious pitfalls, or at least so it seems to me, is the problem of conflict. Multiple themes and conflicts can’t be explored, can’t be seen fully due to the overarching theme that is required for coherence. The human species craves multiple things in its consumption of art such as coherence, clarity, and depth. Depth is one thing that proves impossible to realize in a long-form situation where every note, every line, and every passage has to be focused intently on one end goal, one end point, and one thematic element which shows itself to be the one true one. Yet as much as depth rules popular music consumption beyond the single (which never, it seems, had as much emphasis on depth and some theme than even medium size works like the symphony), this is the one form which defies complexity. The dichotomous interplay between emotions and themes in music is dying.
Jackson Fanger of Santa Clara University wrote this for Odyssey Online regarding the last few decades in the music industry: “In many cases, the priority was no longer to write a seamless, profound story over the course of an album.” It’s not a wholly incorrect statement, if only due to the role of the world at large in this break down of large scale storytelling as we see it through the album. Though, recently this form has made a comeback, largely through the idea of the concept album. Almost exclusively seen in rap, sometimes it’s not necessarily clear where things are in terms of a story with this particular form of album. Thus, the concept album and the idea of a musician-storyteller sees varied results from the almost fanciful Drogas Wave by Lupe Fiasco to the stolid and passionate To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar and his true narrative albums in DAMN and good kid, m.A.A.d. City. But the problem that arises within these albums is the lack of a coherent narrative. While there are clear As and Bs, it isn’t incredibly often that albums move in a linear narrative. In the context of the traditional storyteller, this would be the the relation of a history or an alternate history rather than the uniquely and unapologetically lived human experience, there is indeed a requirement of a somewhat semi-linear narrative, even if said semi-linear narrative is as choppy, but eventually coherent as something like stream of consciousness.
Running in tandem with this lack of storytelling depth, or even in many cases an absence of true storytelling, is a stunning lack of emotional depth or exploration that used to be the norm with popular music. That’s not to say that every album produced in the past must necessarily have been an emotional rollercoaster, but to say that certain albums are more edifying emotionally is certainly not an exaggeration. It’s also not an exaggeration to say that popular music has shifted, especially in the 2000s, from more of an artform which moves people to simply edifying people for three or four minutes. Take for instance the difference between something like “Beautiful” by One Direction and earlier popular songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke or even “The Girl from Ipanema” as recorded by various artists. The difference is inherently that the earlier pieces convey more complexity and strive to say something, rather than replicating a sequence of notes and lyrics that are kitschy but exhibit a shallow message.
The blend of storytelling and emotion is a problem that runs throughout our popular music currents nowadays, be it the single or the album. That’s not to say that certain albums haven’t lived up to the challenge of depth and musicality that inherently makes an album great; To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar is actually a great example of this. Especially to someone who’s not necessarily a music producer or a critical student of music, the concept of an album which probes many facets of life isn’t necessarily something that can, or should be, appealing. Still, Lamar makes the exploration of life in 2010s Black America on To Pimp A Butterfly into a meaningful work without sacrificing artistry. Yet, when I discuss music that conveys a story as well as emotion, it’s often hard to describe rap music as singularly emblematic of both. While I think that To Pimp A Butterfly, similarly to DAMN, conveys a story to its full bearing, there’s nothing cathartic or moving about the album. I don’t feel roused to some action and I certainly don’t feel as though there’s anything other than true neutrality. The deeper, more ponderous moments that Kendrick creates on tracks like “The Blacker The Berry” and “LUST” contrast with somewhat more audacious tracks like “Alright” and “HUMBLE”. Contrast is often a good thing; contrast which annihilates something or somethings, is not.
The idea of the proper mix of storytelling depth and emotional movement brings me to the band Runrig. Runrig were originally founded in the early 1970s in the island of Skye in the Highlands of Scotland. The initial band, for the most part, stayed together from their founding until 2016 when they conducted their final concert after the release of their final album. Two notable departures played a significant role to the character of the band, but both were made up for in due time. Donnie Munro was the first lead singer of the band; he left in 1997 and was replaced by Bruce Guthro of Nova Scotia. The other notable departure a few years later was Pete Wishart, the drummer, who is definitely better known as the MP for Perth and North Perthshire for the SNP.
Runrig in their early days, that is, pre-departure of Donnie Munro, were a folk rock band in the classical sense; while they ventured into the ballad occasionally, most of the time, tales of love and loss were kept away from their recordings. Post-Munro Runrig was an entirely different beast, a band which embraced the ballad as a primary form on their albums. Of the final five albums that Runrig recorded, only Everything You See can reasonably be called a true rock album in the classical sense.
Runrig’s challenges after the departure of Donnie Munro were extensive, first in re-founding their identity in a way which would be true to the history of the band while also establishing a new path forward for the Scottish group. The first album they released after 1997 was an album called In Search of Angels, which captured truly, in my opinion, the spirit of the album. I’ve always been partial to albums which rely on the ballad, but it is an ethereal light this album shines with.
“Maymorning”: the lead song of the album of a group which saw two very significant departures isn’t some kind of gut punch. In fact, it’s an aerie tune, the expression of hope of a new identity, a new season. The first line of the song: “I’m alive again on Maymorning/gonna wipe the slate clean/follow my dreams” sums up this hope. It’s not necessarily an aerie tune in the sense of something which conveys happiness; there’s a definitive melancholy which shapes this piece, rising like the crag on the coast from earlier.
Ethereal light is something which all truly great albums have. Some might call it character or a uniqueness that sets them apart, but mostly, ethereal light is a rawness of emotion which surveys the vast majority of the human experience. That’s not to say that an album will necessary cover or convey emotion explicitly, but that the feelings one experiences while listening to an album will be a wide range of those which humans normally experience.
“The Message”: an upbeat piece in the sense that any piece on this album is, this song characterizes the drift from the past that Runrig made in the run-up to this album. While this song, I think, is the weakest on the album, it still displays hope in the face of adversity, which is the core of this album.
Another aspect of a great album is having hope as its central theme. To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar has the hope for life changing for African-Americans at its core, identifying key issues in a bid to simply expose the issues. In Search of Angels is all about hope. It is about finding a way to return home and to one’s roots while also pressing forward. Sure, there may be parts of the road ahead that are lamentable, but part of the journey is change. Change, after all, is all about hope, expectancy for a new day and a new horizon to come.
“Rìbhinn Donn”: The first true ballad on this album, and also the first song sung exclusively in Scottish Gaelic. The translation of the title is supposedly “Brown Haired Girl” and the song conveys a deep lament over something lost. Most ballads even in the American lexicon focus on the lost-take for instance songs like “Stardust” and “Misty” and the folk song “Shenandoah”. This piece conveys a different kind of emotion from the first part of the album, different altogether too from messages to come, but it is a piece which defines a central piece of melancholy: catharsis.
Catharsis is also an emotion that defines life, and too often we avoid it. Too often, too, do we associate this with sadness, instead of anger. Rage is something that can be soothing in and of itself, but the experience of sadness is something different. It is remembrance of what one has lost. Oftentimes, melancholy, in my lived experience, is directly preceded by expectant hope, but the crushing of those hopes is the true catharsis.
“Big Sky”: While in music there is the idea of a tone painting, often evocative of the late Romantic period (if you’re familiar, think of Bedřich Smetana’s “Ma Vlast”-at its core a paean to the Bohemian landscape and thus a rally for Czech nationalists), there is very rarely the idea of imagery in the literary sense. “Big Sky” is the perfect example of imagery in the literary sense applied to music. The windswept landscape of the Hebridean island of Skye, almost treeless save for pine trees and firs, it’s a land I’ve always wanted to visit. “Big Sky” describes the homeland of the band. We’re back home again.
Following catharsis in my experience is another deep emotional experience: homecoming. Not in the traditional sense that we all think of in American football, but the physical act of returning rather than some contrived point at which everyone returns. Homecoming takes many forms, just like many other emotionally charged times. While it can mean the physical act of returning, it can also mean returning to something from the past, though not, of course, eschewing the present.
“Life Is”: To thrive in a balancing act is something that all of us do everyday, whether it be work and school, work and family, or any one of a number of things that define participation in multiple communities. “Life Is” is a sign of the traditional balancing act. The lines are evocative of homecoming, and also melancholy, by serving as the beginning and the end. A few lines from the song read: “Morning dawning with life abounding/But in time we all must fall/And it seems to be this way/Hearts change and brightness fades/And it leaves you facing the days/When your hope is blown apart.” We all experience change, and many of us experience change that breaks us utterly. This song is arguably the most traditional rock ballad on the album, but that doesn’t detract from its uniqueness in the experience of the band to this point and as a sign of what’s to come.
Backbreaking change is something that if you’re fortunate to escape, you’re incredibly fortunate to escape. The final three lines from that section: “hearts change and brightness fades, and it leaves you facing the days, when your hope is blown apart” describe the experience I had in losing a very dear friend of mine. You can’t change a geographic difference, you can’t change a difference in life goals and priorities. It’s impossible to do so, and a fool’s game to try. However, “life is hard” in that sense. While a business is simultaneously harder and easier to reprise at the end of something traumatic than a person-it is after all, vastly impersonal-big change can be difficult to overcome.
“Dà Mhìle Bliadhna”: The translation of the title of this song, also sung entirely in Scottish Gaelic, is “Two Thousand Years”. In many ways, it’s Runrig’s answer, twenty years early, to To Pimp A Butterfly. The song does not convey rage, but rather frustration, much as To Pimp A Butterfly does. Rage at a lack of progress and at not being heard, rather than a rage due to neglect or abuse or outright betrayal. Voices not being heard is definitely something that this band was passionate about; most of the members came out in support of the Vote Yes campaign on Scottish Independence.
In many ways, the emotional rollercoaster of an album also relieson having “seen through” the listener-not necessarily being applicable to everyone, but definitively connecting with lived experiences. While the members of this band were only softly political, music is at its base an art form susceptible to political use or manipulation. Part of modern rap music is as a sort of protest voice which, as well as the counterculture movement of the 1960s and especially the music of Bob Dylan, brought the idea of music as a voice for much more than expression. Music provides a voice for the voiceless and expresses voicelessness.
“This Is Not A Love Song”: The seventh song on In Search of Angels is also a rock song, though perhaps without the rough edges of “The Message”. The story of a failing relationship, or at the very least of a strained one, is emblematic of this band’s history in the way the rock songs of this album are-: hopeful, yet also characterized by the bitterness which defined the departure of Donnie Munro. At the end, the band turns the piece back into a hopeful one looking forward to the future. Letting bygones be bygones is, after all, another necessary skill.
I have never been particularly good at the skill of letting bad times or experiences go. One reason, including a distaste for cake in general, that to this day I will not eat strawberry cake, is that I got sick from it on my fourth birthday. Whether it’s the shock back to a bad experience and revulsion or fear or simply anger, association is something that makes it hard for me to internalize this lesson very well. The story that Runrig tells throughout the album is that it is possible to have a new phase, which is yet colored by the past, and only characterized by what one does in the present. The point, as it were, is something which is a story; a simple message like loving thy neighbor as thy friend are still difficult for some to internalize. The broad range of emotions also define the human experiences, disparate and broad.
“A Dh’innse na Fìrinn”: The translation of the title of this song is “To Tell You The Truth”. Highland culture is as ubiquitous in the music of Runrig as depictions of beer and Friday night lights are to American country music. It’s impossible to separate the two. Shock and disbelief are also concepts which fit neatly into the history of the Scottish Highlands. The world outside’s disruption has been something which works splendidly with the rather insular world of the Highlands and Islands. “To tell you the truth, I could not believe the words,” shock and disbelief, parts of life and parts of a story.
The history of the Scottish Highlands has always been wrought with the knowledge of shock and awe. Disruptions to daily life were always met with derision, if not outright disavowal. The Highlands last to embrace the Kirk of Scotland, though in many cases it took a hundred years or more, and forcible imposition, for the Kirk to take hold. Infamous in the histories of the United Kingdom and Scotland are the Clearances when men and women from across the broad swath of land known as the Highlands were forcibly removed from their lands and either sent south to work in the factories, to Ulster to farm, or as in most cases, shipped direct to America never to return. While Runrig never covers the issues the Clearances brought, it does explain the pride and the tranquility that make up life in the Highlands.
“All Things Must Change”: It’s hard to describe the “no turning back” without a reference to Christian music. There’s a popular song among Evangelical Christians that focuses on, and repeats, the phrase “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back”. The divine is clearly not what Runrig means here when they refer to change. “All Things Must Change” stands as a rebuke to “A Dh’innse Na Fìrinn” as the collection and progress directly follow the disbelief. Moving on is the integral message of the album, new phases and new lives.
If you ever listen to In Search of Angels, and I hope that maybe I’ve convinced you to, you must do it before you listen to any other Runrig album. This album was the change album for them, as I mentioned. This album was the fleshing out of a new identity, different from what came before, and certainly less focused on moving the listener than albums which came afterward. When In Search of Angels was first released, it was widely panned, largely due to the fact that it was very different from their previous works. However, re-evaluation has led lots of fans of the band to rank this the best album of theirs ahead of The Highland Connection and The Story, which many also rate very highly. “All Things Must Change” is the song which provides the album with its heart and tells the listener that they must embrace change as well.
“Cho Buidhe Is A Bha I Riabh”: Or in English, “As Yellow As It Ever Was”. This song kicks off the first of three straight emotionally gripping songs which end the album. This song specifically focuses on reunion and the joy that it brings. The cycle of a relationship, the blossoming of a new life followed by regret, remembrance, and finally re-connection, however far apart the participants in that relationship are. Parting ways, but coming back together again.
Re-connection is a choice. It is an abject choice made by the people who chose to break the connection in the first place. While emotional distance can remain, it can at least lead to some kind of rapprochement. Re-connection can also lead to a fundamentally stronger relationship than there had previously been. I’ve been on both sides of that coin. I know many of us necessarily haven’t, but it’s the ability to show an expansive view of experiences while providing some depth that defines an album’s greatness. A survey of the possibilities also creates a quality life, in my shortly lived opinion. We always talk about finding new things-; sometimes, the best new things are the ones we already had.
“Travellers”: This song has made me cry at least twice. “Travellers” reminds me of the last song this band ever recorded, “Somewhere” on their album The Story. Both describe departure from the past and an aimless move towards the future, standing on the precipice with two ways one can go. None of us want to jump; we like the past, we like what we’ve had, and what we don’t want is the future. Transition is all over this album, but it’s always been described in the context of A to B, not A to somewhere uncertain. “And all our lifetimes drifted through the trees, to that place of moments where all was certain” is certainly a line which shows calm and puts a neat cap on the story of transition.
I’m always on the lookout for haunting music, be it religious pieces like Alexandr Sheremetev’s arrangement of the Orthodox Eucharistic prayer “Now the powers of Heaven do indivisibly with us serve…” or even secular pieces. Songs which define my place in life are also something I look for. Even in periods of flux, I’ve never been one to look forward with breathless expectancy and hope like in “Maymorning”. I’ve always been someone who’s apprehensive about change, in fact. “Travellers” is my view toward change-not dread necessarily, but not great happiness either. As with transition and moving forward, one is colored by the past and characterized by the present, not the other way around.
“In Search of Angels”: The album’s eponymous song and its final one. This song defines the phrase “tepid hope.” While this song does not contain the loose and free hope that defines “Maymorning” or the near fear that “Travellers” conveys, it is a hope that many of us know well. This song is the band’s rallying cry for the future. However different they may be without Donnie Munro, it is impossible to say without certainty that there are new and perhaps better days ahead.
The end of this album is not the end of an era. Rather it is the beginning of an era. Tepid hope is the recognition of something new which could be better, or could be worse, than in the past – hope without expectations. No specific goal, just a knowledge that tomorrow is another day, a day that’s nothing more or less; just new. A new phase of life that could go either way, and might just be better.
As for Runrig, this album would be their fourth to last. The Stamping Ground would follow, which intertwined a return to good old folk rock with the ballad style that defined the group after 1997. Then there would be Proterra, an album of entirely ballads which fails to have the same impact that In Search of Angels did. Everything You See mixes the conflicting styles, but doesn’t necessarily find the perfect balance. The self-aware last album for the group, The Story, is a highly emotional album that mixes ballad and rock in the perfect mix in the same way that the album Runrig released seventeen years prior did.
Runrig made, in my estimation, the perfect album with In Search of Angels in many respects. As one of the later albums of the 1990s, it breaches the gap between the old and the new, between modern popular music and older trends and traditions. Driving melancholy and hope together and promising a new day and a new life was a concept, and remains a concept. Most albums devolve into sulking or into joyful noise or rather serious introspection. It’s hard to find the right mix without being discordant. In Search of Angels finds it and knocks it out of the park.