Fragility is the idea-x-feeling from which this Jeff Duff offering arises. To start your journey with it, see this jolly news item at David Bowie’s site. And then you just have to get it. And so it arrives, firmly bound in thick cardboard, twice or three times over. It lies within there, fragile, feather-light, a fragile leaf within the folds.
Like all of JD’s offerings, listening to the entire album all at once, in one sitting, is likely to be too overwhelming. The voice is fragile, ethereal, floating, taking off, in gasps and fountains, unto ever higher flights. There is little in the music, in most songs, to keep you grounded. Minimal approximations of their purposes. A couple recordings are but fragile echoes of themselves. Others express the blessedness of the firmamental. Some others quietly encounter that space where there is only your mind to reflect the light. Take each as its own unique cup of tea. Drain the pot all at once to be totally gone like Major Tom.
This song offers something of the aethereal feel of the whole album, the spaces it makes for silence and its stairs to subliminality. It is also the most “song-ish” song in terms of lyrics, chordal stride and feel. Actually, it has a Bowie-type of chorus, shipping you over melancholic hope to some shut-up truth about every desperation of life.
Here is to hear the most beautiful phrases of all ages – like this one:
I guess I woke one dream too soon – to kiss the stars and hug the moon.
And how about the very thought of being blinded by the dark? Did you not suspect, all the time, while being darkenly seduced, that your sight was more truncated than elongated? No: “there’s more to life than summer skies,” than falling prey to demons petrified by light, to the jaundiced harbingers of dawn.
There is something of the beauty of Bowie’s Lady Stardust in here, and then again of his The Loneliest Guy, but with just a touch of their Garland excesses. The beauty of a small snow-suffocated world, of a final thrust of the sandwich-man’s spirit as he alights the bar-stool. It could be the sell-out song of the century, if it weren’t so over-laden with beauty. Its purpose is to quieten with a blessing all silly desparate hopes, flailing fists, adamant blindnesses, objectless furies … When launching the album at The Basement, Duff told of how he wrote the song some years ago about the turn of some people, at the end of a gig, to the snow-rush …
Have you been hearing angels? If not, this is your perfect start. If so, soar along. It’s easy from the start, with the opening shuffles of an assembly, then a kind of ethereal bell and bass-man droning. Set into this monastic life, Duff’s voice then breaks through the overtones with a call of “Kyrie Eleison”.
Is this the start of a Gregorian chant? It’s the epitomal meaning of singing, anyway: to be inspired—or, as Duff sings, with a “choir inside my mind”. It’s a song self-reflecting about the meaning of song …
Still, it’s more than that—not jut a gifted “vision”, and even more than Shakespeare reckoned in writing his sonnets. There’s a sonnet of Shakespeare this song seems to refer to: of autumn-stripped and bird-nude boughs, those “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang“—a sonnet where Shakespeare wrote of the death of inspiration, fearing he’d spent a lifetime of mere chirping. Shakespeare’s was inspired, he confessed, to mere “sweet singing”—a purely pleasing, naturalistic, infantile thing. And it was removed from his own self—Shakesspeare pictured the “sweet song” to be outside himself, as if seen through a window, even witnessable by the person he addresses. He found no way to make another type of art.
Duff’s choir is different, and is the art that Shakespeare failed to find, that Shakespeare aspired to. Duff’s choir, singing this opening chant, is “a voice inside my head”, unshared, and never explicitly represented in the music. Now a modern poet would reflect on how she or he is so alienated from that vision—but Duff, like a monk of old, activates it; to “search for a better way,” and then “a brighter day”. So he raises the tones and sings of “climbing up the stairway to the choir”—compelled to lift his spirit toward the figure of his inspiration. But that’s not all …
Why, then, does Duff do all this with a plaintive and fragile tone of voice and music? Duff relentlessly exponentiates the meaning all over again (other poets long ago expired on the quest). Our singer has been searching for something “better” and “brighter.” Okay, so let him now leap toward this, and let’s hear the choir, and let the music change, give us a burst of hope! But no, the choir, the singer tells us, is too quiet—there’s something “wrong” with it; quietness is like a nuclear bomb. That’s an over-determined association, by which Duff reports, for all his adventurousness, something is wrong, and the mind is askew, and there is cause for alarm.
Explaining this further, after describing his climb toward the choir, Duff’s assimilates this as a “fall into the darkness”, when he will be “afraid of what I’ll find.” It is as if when he has reached the top of the stairs, the heights of what his mind is offering him, he has no recourse but to return to where he came from. Actually, this curse is immediate; not over a lifespan (as Shakespeare reflected on, in Sonnet 73), but entangled within the inspiration of a moment itself; the cost of evolution is a fall. So the poet might, we might think, just as well have never left his state of searching, and had done better to deafen himself to this “choir inside my mind.” But the strength of what is confessed here, in the end, is in knowing that the singer recognised the absence he was feeling, found a promise of fulfilment within himself, and accepted it not by compulsion or surrender but by his own will—all the while knowing that he had something to pay for it. But at least there was, in place of a mere song about endless frustration and yearning, had he not left his spot and followed the choir’s call, this beautiful song to sing of a momentary meet-up with the inevitable perils of inspiration to the person.
Is this a 3-act play? Duff describes stuff that could fit a classic 3-act structure: the want, the hope, the fall. From disequilibrium, to equilibrium, and back again: like a plain old, one of the 2 or 12 or 36 possible narrative structures available to human minds, at least until we start mating with Martian girls. Thing is, Duff’s poem about this choir cuts through the temporal bonds of this ancient structure, in spite of his song having all the elements for it. So we get the hopeful call straight up: “Kyrie Eleison, I head a voice …”, are the first words of the song. This call is repeated another 5 times, ahead of all the other confessional lines. This call from Duff’s voice is like a bell, or a real choir, chiming out the call of salvation with a rhythmic certitude. Although the “meaning” of what he’s saying might make us think “delusion,”, the music of what he’s singing is just compelling. Like a dog in the night.
Entanglement is key to getting your mind about the temporal structure of this natural song. Athough there’s an “issue”—of searching, waiting—and then there’s a hopeful resolution—the choir—and then there’s a cumuppance—the unknown—the lines all about these ideas are interwoven across temporal divides. The effect is spoken of ahead of its cause, or the effect and the cause are mutually respectful, equally recognizable events. Duff’s song is an evolution beyond poetic traditions of religious song. In fact, his song is purely atheistic—can be appreciated as a secular confession of the imaginate soul. After all, thoughts of choirs and angels and ethereal stairways are beautiful, and who should deny any man such fancies? There’s a difference between beliefs that are rational and common, and beliefs that are poetic and special, but all beliefs are the same when it comes down to banging on about truth. It’s that reality of mind and organ in which Duffology is created and experienced.
+ a review by David Bowden on theangle.org [defunct page]: “a rich and generous record which cuts no corners in presenting its world view,” “wrapped in Duff’s gorgeously plaintive voice,” “a mature, serious and beautiful statement from one of Australia’s more unique performers,” “a meditation on sadness and a celebration of the possibilities an imaginative life offers” … plus more evocative intros to this album.