Considering neither The Manic Street Preachers or Lupe Fiasco were scheduled to release an album in 2019, I don’t think I was looking forward to any record this year as much as Ms Van Etten’s fifth. Her fourth, ‘Are We There’, was one of the three albums released in 2014 that were legitimate GOAT contenders and all kinda given my joint album of the year. It was such an amazingly accomplished and powerful record, one that moved the more eloquent reviewers to state that it was “an absolutely devastating Sturm und Drag bulldozer of emotion, a sharp piercing blade of hopeless heartache that is as heartbreaking and moving as any movie you’ve seen since ‘Toy Story 3“. I have to assume that Toy Story 3 was still totally a topical reference point when that prodigiously insightful yet dangerously sexually alluring reviewer wrote that. While I spend all of my time excruciatingly droning on about how artists/people should be constantly evolving and pushing their sound/personality forward, I often catch myself just hoping that artists responsible for my favourite things will just do those favourite things again! Hey, Jazz Cartier, why isn’t the new album just Red Alert ten times?? Hey, Tegan and/or Sara, why aren’t you just giving me Walking With A Ghost?? Lil Yachty!! Why are you… why are you… Why are you doing any of this…? I… I’m not sure what exactly I want from you… But do that, please. Do Minnesota again, that’ll cheer me up. Sharon van Etten! I can’t wait to see where you take your sound and evolve your music on this new album! But, having said that, please make it exactly the same record as ‘Are We There’! You can, I dunno, add a few trap beats to a couple of songs and have track eight heavily influenced by Hardware, but make sure that, at the base level, it’s exactly the same as ‘Are We There’!! Give me those exact feels! Reach into my bloodied chest and tear out all of those emotions like you did in 2015!!
‘Remind Me Tomorrow’… isn’t that record. It’s an incredible reimagining of what weight, muscles and undeniable gall bladders* her songwriting can achieve. Synths blast all over the place like the sounds of invading forces damaging the outer wall of the claustrophobic shelter she’s built herself to evade the apocalyptic terror of her mind outside. The first line of the album is ‘Sitting at the bar I told you everything/You said “Holy shit, you almost died!” and the following songs act as almost a flashback, telling the listener exactly what these near fatal experiences were. It’s an amazing album. Look above, it’s the eighth best album of the year. It was considered for number one, but holy shit, you’re about to see how hotly contested that accolade is this year. Like I said, every top ten album is merely different levels of essential. Buy them all, you cheap fuck.
(*in my White Lung review- where’s that new album, you motherfuckers?!- I was dismayed at how saying something ‘had balls’- optionally ‘great big balls’- was so gender specific, and I noted how the Chinese describe this sort of courage, guts and power as having a ‘大 胆子‘ (da dan zi), or ‘large gall bladder. I’ve been trying to push this alternative phrasing for the past five years now. With limited success, admittedly)
But… I found it so hard to fall for this album. It wasn’t a complete retread of ‘Are We There’. It was Sharon van Etten actually pushing her sound forward and trying new ideas and evolving as an artist! ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ is the musical equivalent of the HBO Watchmen series. Absolutely, unanimously agreed works of stellar art… But secretly, we all ache for a little pandering fan service…!
While I was still struggling to emotionally commit myself to ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’, I bought two tickets to see her play the Albert Hall in Manchester.
It would be a ticket for me and a ticket for Hugo. Unfortunately, soon before the gig, Hugo discovered the depth of feeling and emotion in my continued relationship with Hejjy. I, of course, wrote a blog post about it as soon as I could, as that’s always the most important thing to do. I then faced the horrific realisation of how few options I had to take Hugo’s place at the gig. None of my friends live in Manchester. I spent my 20s travelling the UK and China constantly looking for more intense drugs and more varied forms of sexual validation. It was a fun time, you should try it. But that has meant that my closest friends now live all over the fucking place. In London, in Hertfordshire, in Great Yarmouth in Liverpool, in China, in Korea (can’t remember if it’s North or South. Which one’s the Blade Runner one?), in Thailand… I can communicate through WhatsApp and rarely have to look at their faces. It’s perfect. But it means that going to gigs, which I frequently do, more than often has to be a solitary enjoyment. And anyway, at many of my friends’ ages (y’know… my age) they have family and jobs and responsibilities, the stuff I’ve avoided all my life, so they can’t commit to going to something as embarrassingly juvenile as a gig! What am I, some spotty teenager going to see Mudvayne at the Witchwood because I know that’s one of the few places that’ll serve me beer? Pathetic! The fact is, after you reach a certain age the only new ‘friends’ you meet are girlfriends. Being with Hugo had offered me a nice little ‘friend’ for a while to execute all these important ‘friend duties’ like standing next to me at gigs while I complain that I liked the last album better. Now, I was set adrift.
I thought about inviting one of my volunteers from work, they’re largely young university students, still as hip and as damn swank as I am. They go to gigs, they livestream the experience on SnapChat, they describe the performance in cool new youth speak, saying that Sharon was really ‘humming’ tonight and the music was ‘totally protruding’.
But, yeuch, no. We’re getting dangerously into ‘Bill Clinton’ territory here, and I might be (accidentally! Honest!) inferring that this is a date and because I’m technically your superior the underlying suggestion is that you must do what I say! Or not one of my volunteers wants to go, which is just… ouch… I’m technically their superior! They have to go! And if they don’t they must hate me!! I decided not to open that Pandora’s box, realising that whatever the result was it would become a similar ‘Sturm und Drag bulldozer of emotion‘ to ‘Are We There’ and would very likely ruin a number of people’s lives. I would just go on my own, the extra ticket would simply be an extra £20 to Sharon van Etten. I illegally downloaded ‘Are We There’ so, I dunno, she kind of deserves it, I suppose.
On the day of the gig though, the extra ticket weighed heavier in my pocket. I thought about the power I had. I could just walk into a bar before the show and announce that I had ‘FREE SHARON VAN ETTEN TICKETS!’ and watch the patrons flock around me in excitement. I thought of the cultural power that would imbue in me. I thought of all the women whose interest would be piqued. Here’s a man offering me a free concert. It’s not a date, we don’t even know each other, but because of this gig I may as well get to know him, and then… Who knows…? Yes. That’s definitely what I’m going to do. I spent the day imagining what narrative the evening would take. It would be a cool anecdote to tell our kids how we met:
“Who’s Sharon van Etten?”, little Janelle would ask.
“Aw man, it’s all about her fourth album, yeah? Though having said that, her fifth was difficult to get into at first once you accept what it is you’ll discover it’s an epic, atmospheric and emotionally complicated record, that…”
“Dad, I’m four years old. The fuck are you talking about?”
I researched what bars were near the Royal Albert Hall. When I was a drunk, I could tell you every place that served pints from Wigan to Rochdale, I could tell you the prices of the cheapest pint and I could tell you the average drunkenness of the female clientele. My Greater Manchester geography was unmatched. Now sober, I pretty much don’t have a fucking clue where anything is. And why would I? I know where the library is, I know where Town Hall is, I know where that shop in Affleck’s Palace that sells old wrestling toys is, I know where Home cinema is, and I know where I work. When you don’t drink, few places are worth going to. So I Googled ‘bars near albert hall’ and my attention was drawn to the Alberts Schloss, which definitely sounded like the kind of place that insufferable but hot hipster women who like Sharon van Etten would congregate (‘…every week we make a 1,500 mile round trip to the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzeň, just outside Prague, to fill the 4 x 900 pint copper tanks that dominate our main bar area…’). On the walk there, I devised the strategy. Would I just walk in and shout ‘FREE SHARON VAN ETTEN TICKET MOTHERFUCKEEEEEEEEERS!’ and await the crowd that would spontaneously flock around me? That might bring too much attention, and I might have to tell people to their face that they wouldn’t be the person I’m taking. They’d ask why. Because that woman is so much cuter! It would reveal me to a be a hideous old creep, which I generally like to keep secret. No, I would walk into the bar, scan the clientele, and approach the people who were obviously more ‘suitable’ for the offer. I didn’t want to go to this length, be this considerate, only to give the ticket to some neckbearded fatty called Brandon. What could I possibly get from Brandon? No, this is a ticket to be my Hugo replacement for the night, and I believed that I had the right to be picky.
I entered the bar just before seven. The doors to the gig opened at seven, and I thought it was important to always have the option of just going to the gig after we met, no long silences, no awkwardly trying to remember if we’d already asked whether we had any brothers or sisters, just straight into the gig. I’d be in my element there, so much ice breaking potential and- because it was me taking her into essentially my place- the power imbalance is properly restored. When I opened the doors, a wave of indecipherable noise burst out into Bootle Street. There wasn’t a spare inch of space in Alberts Schloss. Even the stools next to the bar were full because there were no other places to sit, which necessitated an awkward line of people cramming behind those sitting there and trying to make drink orders over their heads. It was wall to wall with the kind of people who’ll tell you that they’re ‘Big fans of craft beer’, when really they’re just ‘Big fans of getting pissed’, like the rest of us, but obviously come from backgrounds where admitting to a drink problem is frowned upon so you have to intellectualise it slightly to be excused. Lot’s of loosened neck ties and macho laughter, the kind of laughter that men do that isn’t really to show appreciation of a joke, but to remind everyone else that, despite the other person’s funny line, they’re the real centre of attention here. The big, booming macho laugh isn’t for his friends, it’s so the rest of the pub can hear it and sees that he loves a joke and, wow, maybe I’d like to have sex with him. The macho, finance workers, hedge fund managers, play the housing market, 401k, yeah but what about Clinton’s emails energy of the place was a little overwhelming, and I began to lose all confidence in my gracious offer. I don’t want to try and get a bloke’s attention and then try to fit an offer of tickets in between his endless spiel about how his Volvo XC60 would make a better Arsenal manager than Unai Emery. I know what blokes are like, if I offered him my spare ticket he’d take it as an affront to his own sense of charity, and proceed to buy tickets for every gig for everyone so that any woman watching would know that he’s the most charitable one. I wanted a woman, but what women?? From where I was standing the place looked like a bigger sausage party than Mount Athos, until…
Until I saw her…
As my eyes scanned the deluge of office after work drinks, I caught her eye. She turned her gaze away quickly, but her eyes were trained on mine as I looked around. She was already looking at me! Something about the way I had entered Alberts Schloss had already piqued her attention! Come on! Even before I had mentioned the free Sharon van Etten ticket the ice had been broken! I subtly made my way over. The woman didn’t turn her head to look at me again, so she didn’t realise to what extent I was checking her out. I didn’t want to look like I was staring, so I was sure to turn my attention to some other bro down every couple of seconds, but I would always turn back to take in every aspect of this woman’s physical identity. She was in her twenties and maybe even early thirties. She didn’t seem to be ridiculously too young for me. She had long, curly blonde hair and was wearing a light brown and black tie dye t shirt with ‘K-X-P‘ emblazoned across it. I didn’t know what ‘K-X-P’ meant, and because of the scarcity of words beginning with either ‘K’ or ‘X’ I couldn’t even think of a good joke*. This woman was into stuff that was so cool that I hadn’t even heard of it! The shirt was far too big for her, and was billowing around her upper body but brought under control by a belt around her waist, so she was wearing it more like a dress. Was she wearing anything under the shirt?? Any jeans or skirt or hot pants covering her legs. I couldn’t see as she sat at the table, I changed my angle slightly to get a better look, forgetting to break up my staring with intermittent gazes at the work dos surrounding us. Surrounding her and me. I suddenly had to know what her legs looked like, this became very important for reasons I couldn’t explain. I was really close to her table now, trying to find the right angle to ascertain her exact lower body constitution. I looked up, and she was looking at me again. Understandable, as suddenly I was this weird stranger standing next to her table trying to look under it for some reason.
(*Kicking…. Xylophones… Party…? King X-Ray Poops! No… Klicking… Xanax… Po… Jesus fucking Christ, Alex, give it up!)
OK, forget about the lower body, Alex, it’s game time. She was evidently slightly bemused by my actions, but not obviously repelled and disgusted by me. I was still an acceptable distraction. I just had to think quickly. Don’t ask about her legs don’t ask about her legs don’t ask about her legs don’t as…
“Yeah, you know them?”
By that point, I did. As soon as I’d read the name embellishing her chest I had googled ‘k-x-p‘ to know exactly what I was dealing with. I knew that they were an electronic rock band from Helsinki. I knew that they’d released four records, with ‘IV‘ coming out earlier that year. But I couldn’t take that knowledge to the woman, I had to be wearing the same cloak that I was wearing when I entered the bar earlier.
“No… Are they a band?”
She smiled, making me think that referring to a group of artists as a ‘band’ is adorably old fashioned terminology.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that. Kind of trancey, electronic rock, y’know?”
“Ah yeah, they definitely sound like the kind of band you’d wear a t-shirt of to show people how cool you are”
Oooooooooooooooh, dangerous play. I made a depreciating joke about her. I was smiling the whole time, I was essentially holding up flashing neon signs saying ‘JK LOL!’, but in the few milliseconds after I said it my heart began to sink as I worried about whether I’d busted my flush just as I began my play.
But she laughed. We’d made eye contact, she’d laughed as something I’d said: I was essentially two thirds of the way there.
“Ouch! Yeah, alright, you got me! Whereas I guess you think wearing a Fever Ray shirt would make people think you’re really cool?”
She recognised my Fever Ray t-shirt! The t-shirt that came with the live CD that I’d recently bought. A CD I’ve never listened to because I realised the CD drive in my laptop had broken. So I told her this story. I also told her how I’d bought tickets to see her at the Manchester International Festival last year before she had to cancel it because of mental issues. I said some pretty funny lines that demonstrated both my amazing sensitivity and yet also my astonishing sense of humour. I can’t remember them exactly, but they killed, honest. Like, not ‘rolling on the floor laughing my arse off’ or even just ‘rolling on the floor laughing’, which I believe are both important states for people her age. But little giggles, smiles, she didn’t obviously want me to leave her alone I also mentioned how I’d seen Janelle Monae headline that year’s Manchester International Festival and that she was amazing. She said that she was jealous, because she would love to see Janelle Monae live. She loved Janelle Monae, which was important. Firstly, she loved the correct things. I couldn’t see much of a future for us if, rather than liking the correct things like Janelle Monae, she liked incorrect things like Ed Sheeren and Queen (either the band or the head of state) and Mrs Brown’s Boys and fascism. Secondly, it would now make far more sense to call our daughter ‘Janelle’.
“I actually saw K-X-P at the Yes room recently, and they were amazing. If you ever get the chance, you should definitely see them. I actually brought this shirt at that gig, so maybe afterwards people will believe you’re as cool as me.”
OK, we’re talking about gigs now. I made sure to smile to appropriate levels in response to her last statement, but we’d been talking for a good few minutes now, there’s obviously something there, but now I needed to land the centrepiece.
“Listen, the reason I’m in this bar tonight isn’t just to learn about cool Finnish electro rock bands…” Shit, did she ever mention that they were from Helsinki?? That might sound really weird to just come out with! She might cotton on to the extracurricular reading that I’d done! That might feel weird! I don’t want to look weird! I’m not weird! Just push on, don’t give her time to think about it “…although, of course, I’m very grateful for that- I’ve actually got a spare ticket for the Sharon van Etten gig tonight, and I was wondering…”
She reacted. She definitely reacted. It all happened in slow motion to me as I attempted to read exactly what was subconsciously intended with every muscle movement, every eye widen. She was surprised, I could see that, but she wasn’t obviously disconcerted. She didn’t look appalled or disgusted. She exchanged glances with the other two women she was with, obviously searching for validation that this wouldn’t be an insane decision. It wouldn’t be insane! I’m not a weirdo!
“Wow… I… Listen, I would really like to, I actually really like what I’ve heard of Sharon van Etten, and I love going to gigs… It’s just…” she exchanged looks with her friends again “It just might be a bit weird…”
No! I am not weird! But I don’t completely lack self-awareness, I know how it might look to her friends if she dropped everything to just run off with some strange guy. Perhaps she has plans. It’s not me that’s weird, it’s the situation. I had to show her how aware I was of the situation, had to show her I was safe, had to show her I wasn’t weird!
“Because I’m a strange guy asking a girl to just go to a gig with him?”
She beamed at me recognising the situation.
“Exactly! I’ve kind of agreed to go out with my friends tonight, and you’re asking me to…”
“To dump them and follow some weird guy that you don’t know?”
We both laughed and giggled, and there was a precious few milliseconds after the laughter was settling down when we were just smiling and looking into each other’s eyes. There was definitely something there! You know what? Taking some random woman to this gig maybe was a little weird, but there’s something here that has to be clasped onto.
“Alright, I’ll admit, maybe this is a bit weird, I understand, but…” I scratched the back of my head, trying to silence an itch that was never there “…are you going to be here all night?”
“Yeah… I mean… probably, yes”
“So maybe I’ll see you later?”
“Maybe. Who knows. Listen, thanks at least for calling me a ‘girl’, there have been issues with that tonight!”
I nodded my head and bid her adieu, exiting the scene as cooly and as alluringly as I could, keeping eye contact as much as possible as I drifted away. Soon I was dwarfed entirely by the alpha male pissing contests all around me and could no longer see her and…
Wait… ‘Thanks for calling me a girl’…? So…? She’s had problems with…? Some people don’t…?
My future wife is transgender??
Did I go back to clarify? No. That’d definitely be weird. I don’t want to seem weird. I’m not weird.
She seemed so feminine to me. She looked beautiful to me. How could anyone not think she’s a woman. I imagined all the points that I’d be earning for correctly gendering her. I was one of the good guys! Maybe she knew that I was just sowing my interest, underneath it all, but she was thankful that I’d shown that interest! Suddenly, I wasn’t a lecherous old creep trying for the chance to gaze inside her panties, I was verifying her very femininity with my lascivious attention! She’d probably be gazing into space now, her two friends chattering over her as she absentmindedly drifted back to a few minutes ago when a man chatted to her and awkwardly tried to pull her like he would any woman! She’d be so smitten just by my attention, now she’d be daydreaming about all the places that evening could go. A man, who objectified her just like a woman! But that objectification is actually good, because it proves how well she’s passing!
By that point, I had wondered into the Royal Albert Hall. The second ticket lay forgotten in the back pocket of my jeans. I hadn’t wanted to ask around Albert Schloss to see if anyone else was interested, to try and tear bankers’ attention away from competitive drinking and casual racism. Suddenly the gig itself was inconsequential. All I could think about now was what the woman and my future together would held. I took a seat on the upper floor of the Royal Albert Hall as I tried to decide whether this tryst with my new transgender girlfriend would just be for tonight. She would be grateful of that, surely? A (mostly) heterosexual man being as sexually excited by her as if she was a biological woman? Wouldn’t that be the highest compliment I could pay to her? Wouldn’t it be the complete acceptance for her gender realignment? Confirmation that she truly passes?
The support act came on, but I didn’t catch who they were, I was too busy mentally plotting the transgendered girl and my future life. Our life? What if we were to stay together for a long time, what if she really was not just the replacement for Hugo, but for every woman who’s ever been in my life? For Hejjy, for Samantha, for everyone? We would be together, it would be normal, it would be a very 2019 relationship. How would I introduce her to my parents? Would I say anything about her gender realignment? It’s none of their business, for sure, but would we be happy for the rest of our lives to be acted out over the ceaseless chatter behind our backs? The constant speculation and gossip? Perhaps it would be best to get it all out in the open as soon as possible, lay our cards on the table for everyone to see. We loved each other, and there was no shame and no secrets in our relationship.
When Sharon van Etten came onstage, I started to think about what he naked body would look like.
The naked body of my transgendered future life partner, I mean. Not the naked body of Sharon van Etten. I mean, no more so than usual.
I wondered how much she would shave her body. I wondered if she would be close to hairless underneath her beautiful explosion of blonde curls. Was that even her actual hair? When we got back to my flat, would she simply remove the wig before we went to bed together? Maybe she never takes it off. Maybe it’s a close to permanent ‘fake’ head of hair. I would tell her that it always looked so gorgeous to me, that I always considered it to be real to me. I would keep validating her with everything I said. What would she look like without the wig on though? Without these various accoutrements that she’d had to perfect over much of her life, would she just look like some sad old drag queen in a bald cap? If that’s the case, I might still give our relationship at least the one night she might be hoping for, but she would understand that was it, she would know that I wasn’t quite ready to go there yet. But what would tonight involve? How far along the transition is she? Would I be expected to try and make love to someone with a body covered in fluff and be forced to negotiate a disgusting swinging cock and balls between her legs? Maybe that’s too much too soon, maybe she would just have to pleasure me tonight, maybe with all of her cosmetics still on. She would still feel so appreciative of this loving attention though, she would still feel so validated.
I joined in the applause for the end of Sharon van Etten’s set, and made my way back to the Alberts Schloss. You would have really liked it, I would tell her later that night, you really should have come. Alberts Schloss was, if anything, even more gridlocked with alpha male quasi friendly competitiveness than it was earlier. Now it was past 10pm and all the people getting drunk earlier had now more than achieved that goal, and been joined by many more people targeting the same goal. I pushed my way through. Yeah, I really enjoyed it, but it would have made it perfect if you were there. The crowd eventually opened up enough so that I could see the seat on which she was sitting before I left for the gig. Yeah, I had a lot of fun, and Jupiter 4 ecspecially hit hard, but I was thinking of you the entire time.
She wasn’t there. Sat at her table now were a group of drunk, balding men who I assumed were talking about recent blows to the FTSE. I spun around and moved my eyes to every corner of Alberts Schloss that I could see, every corner that wasn’t blocked out by yet another group of male friends having fun, laughing with each other. I began desperately pushing my way through the crowd, waiting to see my woman suddenly appear in front of me, hereunto swallowed by the crowd. I crisscrossed the bar for two minutes, three, five, ten. I eventually found myself near the bar and managed to get the bartender’s attention after what felt like years shouting over the tops of the heads of people sat there.
“Hey! Hey! Hey. I’m looking for a girl”
“Oh yeah, what’s her name?”
I thought for a second. She must have told me…
Or, maybe I just want to the gig with Hugo a long time before we split up (come on! The dates don’t match at all!) and I just felt like writing a little piece of fiction about very 2019 toxic masculinity? Up to you to decide