“It is good for me that I have been afflicted. I want you to notice that he did not say, it is best for me…”
So begins the anonymous sample that opens Fear of Men’s “Mosaic,” a tale of the ambiguous relationship between brokenness and safety. It’s a reference to Psalms, but for the moment, we’ll let that pass to ask: what is an affliction? Even unmoored from the passage above, the word itself has a Biblical tone. One can be afflicted by love and desire, by existential dread and anomie, by dualistic psychic drives and emotional ambiguity, by plain, un/transcendable physical and mental suffering. Shall we delve a little further into the undergrowth of that topography?
Love: “Little deaths make little lives forget themselves”
Requited or un-, neither wards off the possibility of love as a cause of anguish. These varieties of love form the raison d’être of twee pop. There’s a lot of twee that does this very well — sweet and melancholy tales of crushes, handholding followed by weirdly innocent and immediately bittersweet sex, bedsits — you know the drill. Less often associated with the style, though, is a sense of darkness, of the genuinely sinister, of violence and fear. Which brings us to:
Existentialism: “We’re like twins in the womb and I can’t destroy you/ When we’re born to be dust from the start”
Fear of Men’s influences include Anaïs Nin, Sylvia Plath, Freud (Sigmund and bonus points for Lucian), Jean-Paul Sartre, and Walter Benjamin. They wear these influences lightly but perceptibly, a translucent second skin. Bookishness may be another common indie trope, but, The Smiths aside, in a world where lyrics run somewhere between afterthought and cliché, to see inspiration of this caliber not only declared, but making its way into singer Jessica Weiss’ surrealist-confessional vignettes, is a pleasure that, in light of the subject matter, feels like it should be coupled with the term “guilty.” But let’s be clear, the guilt is that of voyeurism rather than elitism: Fear of Men, by their own account, take their work “as seriously as you can take pop music,” and that feels as it should be. As does the fact that Early Fragments is what it says on the box: a compilation (adorably described as “reverse chronological”) of pieces somehow fully formed yet still in the process of coming into existence, even if that box has been shredded into pieces fluttering to the ground, a phrase reflected too in cover art depicting dismembered Classical statuary. Oh, but there was one other act, enamored of Classicist imagery, who sunk deep into the literature of transgression and brought back what they found for our delectation, wasn’t there?
Ambivalence: “I feed on your insides/ I will digest you while you sleep”
Joy Division, the band that launched a thousand clones, may weigh heavy on the consciousness (and, in some cases, should weigh heavy on the conscience) of contemporary music. But let’s reflect not on the duplications of their sound, but rather on their identification of a particular atmosphere, a pop music that embodied the desperate tension of the love-hate relationship. One way out of the retromanic impasse consists in the rejection of the figure of the descendant in favor of the kindred spirit. Miasma theory returns as atmosphere drifts down the decades: to walk away in silence is impossible. Birth-as-Eros seems obvious, birth as re-production less so, conception intertwined with death and equally vital. Fear of Men move in this lineage, and album standout “Born” is an exploration of the paradox that both mo/ve/ments will be remembered. Cultural memory, a Jungian collective subconscious, carves lines deeper in history, too, recalling gods and archetypes…
Pain: “Til the birds steal the liver I grew.”
Prometheus, fire thief. One imagines that he regretted his act as the eagle’s beak penetrated his torso, and as the diurnal pendulum swung between the torment of pain and the torment of pain’s anticipation. But could he regret the act in itself, for the very reason that fire burns? The quote from Psalms I reproduced in opening offers gratitude for trauma:
It is good for me that I have been afflicted;
that I might learn thy statutes.
The law of thy mouth is better unto me
than thousands of gold and silver.
What falls from the mouth is indeed valuable, in the case of Fear of Men. But did Prometheus too give thanks to Zeus for his agony-as-corrective? Or do we need the psychic interiority of the Axial Age, as well as the visceral interiority of the all-too-human pantheons that preceded it — Oedipus’ forebodings, and his bloody eye-sockets — in order to turn suffering into art?