“As they neared the shore each bar rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand. The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. Gradually the dark bar on the horizon became clear as if the sediment in an old wine-bottle had sunk and left the glass green.”
However mercurial it may otherwise be, for Fear of Men, the sea is always green. And always the devouring maternal, the merging place as final respite, the putatively childish and anti-modern transcendental. This is true on the pebbly beaches of their native Brighton or in the lachrymosely liminal spaces of “Green Sea’s” coastal shelves, but also in the irresistible tidal pull and nightblooms of “Luna” and the breaking waves of “Tephra”: volcanic ash cooling on the seashore, while petrified bodies lie among the ruins of frescoed brothels and bakeries. “Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”
Or perhaps there were no gods, but only monstrous Titans, devouring their own children, pre-Axial yet persisting in/as time. The grinding textures into which various of Fear of Men’s indie jangles disappear on Loom, their first album proper (and not coincidentally the instrument of the Fates) may be both the crashing of the breakers and the grinding of Chronos’s teeth. If, in the indie canon, The Sugarcubes were blue-eyed pop, here we have pop green-eyed and monstrous.
Fear of Men speak with clarity (for all their lo-fi charm) through the idiom of twee and jangle pop. But in an era of Sorcerer’s Apprentice retromancy, they also stand apart, a 21st-century Ozymandias (and, we might add, despair is their work). How so?
The absence of an inquiring and voracious mind — an absence based on a concept of authenticity that sees authentic emotion as possible only at the expense of the intellectual, and denies the common humanity of the latter — is a flaw of much otherwise-praiseworthy popular music: a comprehensible if lamentable match-made-in-heaven with the everyman listener whose refrain runs, “I don’t really pay attention to lyrics.” But what of “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide?” Or, to take a more democratic and nondualistic perspective, Everyman, I am thee and will be thy guide… Until the guide is no longer a necessity (see below) but only a matter of unalloyed pleasure.
And though the lament is an important aspect of Fear of Men’s work, they are unafraid to deploy the intellectual visceralities of thinkers who’ve explored Self and Other/s and the expansion and contraction of the space between. Where their first album release — the aptly named Early Fragments compilation — quoted Sartre (Loom itself re-presents the tracks “Green Sea” and “Seer”), this album’s track “Vitrine” seems more akin to Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar but with a Victorian twist, clinical blown glass given the bittersweet proto-feminism of a Goblin Market. In a modern age of alienation and ennui (as Momus had it), the siesta of reason gives birth to monsters of love, progeny of the unholy union of Rackham and Kafka: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
Which brings us to death, the non-Being toward which all Being tends, the sunset horizon we drive off into which portends no happy ending (though no tragedy either, necessarily). And, in that sleep, what dreams may come, Fear of Men ask with Shakespeare on “Descent”? But the affects sung so sweetly yet so needlesharp by Jess Weiss remain universally identifiable (“Vitrine’s” contrast between surface and interior, “Tephra’s” Faustian price to pay) without losing the telling and unique turn of phrase, the punctum that allows them to wound.
It’s not only their cerebral quality (clear fluid and grey flesh, after all) that (contrary to popular belief about emotion and reason) allows them to go deeper. After all, emotions are fundamentally felt as and expressed through clichés, which is their tragedy. What Fear of Men accomplish that also sets them apart, in their own moss-verdant terrarium, is their approach to gender. We inhabit an age in which psycho-sexual transgression has become an artistic and cultural commonplace, shoring up and doubling down on oppressive gender mores while having the profitable appearance of radicality, rejection of convention, danger: “everyone seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid.”
But these self-destructive paradigms tend to express themselves through the same well-worn channels, flowing to the well of Self-vs-Other loneliness: women’s aggression directed inward and at the Self, even when that aggression is being putatively reclaimed as empowering; men’s directed outward and at the Other, even as that rage also eats up the inside. There is, of course, a certain instrumental ventriloquism at work in many narratives of chosen (the distinction is important) self-harm — an instrumental seeking-out of one who will make one an object (just to feel something, just to feel that one exists). The pattern, however, remains that of patriarchy covered with a thin veneer of faux-liberation that consists solely in an outdated view of sexual radicality and of the act as content, never a questioning of the process, of why we desire what we desire rather than how to achieve it.
Having bled from alternative to popular music ever since punk (and inasfar as that distinction holds), this paradigm obtains in both cases — but Fear of Men give the lie to it as they demonstrate how a world of trauma and intimacy can be inhabited while sidestepping completely the equation that sees transgression only in zero-sum subject-object binaries. This is perhaps best exemplified on the ambiguities of devastating closer “Atla” (which turns the seductive edge of opener “Alta” into another wave and another Titan). “Atla” is, simply, an “I’ll Be Your Mirror” for an age in which the underground has been thoroughly excavated: when you think the night has seen your mind, what dreams may come? Deconstructing this tired trope, the murky psycho-sexual topography Fear of Men reconnoitre is always experienced as an endless tension in that wandering and wondering space between self and other, as interpenetration across membranes variously literal and metaphorical:
“Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!”