here was something in the rolling, rickety ramshackle of the trains. Something in the stretches of plains and plateaus, the patches of waterlogged agricultural greenery juxtaposed with whole hectares of sparse tropical vegetation. Also something of the detached; the touch of the voyeur and the partial—the leg-space, air-conditioning and vacuum-sealed meals—I was there and I was watching and learning and experiencing, but was I truly living? I was, but the double-layered glass and the velocity (from a to b, quick as you can, no time to soliloquize on the undeveloped or consider the man in the little wooden shack at the bottom of his rice field) seemed to suggest otherwise.
Above all of this, though, there was something in this music making that connection. Something that forged a hole in the glass and let in the country air, put my bag at my feet, straightened my chair and fed me nothing but bowls of noodles. Perhaps it deluded me; perhaps it flattered me—nursed my grazed knee with its magic sponge and told me, “You’re doing good, Colin. You’re playing well.” No. Music has always provided solace for people, taken them off to worlds unimaginable, goals unattainable and lives unlived. But I suppose this album went one step further. It removed me from this—the comfort zone of the voyeur—showed me a tropical country half way around the world and reminded me, with a reassuring laugh and a pat on the back, “You’re already there, mate.”
The only true element of consistency was the rolling, shrugging bass. With its off-cut fills, stoned lulls and spastic bouts of boundless activity, the lower frequencies connected with road and rail in a way that other records just didn’t. The opening track, on one level introverted reassurance and on another a celebration of the possibilities of life, love and the road—had particular resonance. What’s to be scared of? I’m alive, healthy and happy—who cares if I don’t know what’s around the corner, if the driver is a lunatic, if the road is dust track or even I arrive at the expected destination? The electro-pop sea change of the last two minutes challenges the listener—by now, surely, the traveller—to take this ethos to the nth degree: if you don’t care too much about which town you’ll be in next, then why not approach the international question with the same fluidity?
It was with these thoughts I headed north, eventually (and completely unintentionally) crossing into Burma for an afternoon with some friends on a visa run. The scenery on the way up was spectacular—green and earthy in the foreground, with cardboard-cut-out mountains lining the horizon. Having reached the end of the train line, this section of the journey was completed on a series of buses ranging from air-con comfort to rugged, rickety “local” buses (so called because, well, everyman just can’t afford to travel in the style of the faràng [Westerner], not even in his own country). The music appeared to adapt, to become organic. The second song urges the weary backpacker to stay connected with home, to never refer to the motherland as “the real world,” because this is the real world. It doesn’t get any more real.
The roots are English, of course. There’s a Moroccan atmosphere too, one that couldn’t be further removed from my present location, but that’s hardly important. Fuck locale. Community rules all. Whether you’re staring incomprehensibly at a childish Communist manifesto on the dirty wall of a village shop or enjoying a beer with your fellow backpackers in the garden of some run down guesthouse, you’re coming face to face with, and participating in, a community.
I think back a few weeks: in India, men commonly refer to each other as “dai” or “bai”; the former if the recipient is older, the latter if he’s younger. Both words come equipped with the suffix “brother”, and so your addressee is either your older or younger male sibling. It’s a respect thing—and it’s a grave insult to use either term incorrectly. Even this is here—addressed six songs in, and though it may only be me listening through a set of headphones, the music still makes you feel a part of something wider. Kerouac? He couldn’t even bring himself to seek solace in being directionless. Salinger? Maybe, but he only goes so far as to represent backpackers in their foetal stages; way before packing a change of clothes and buying a ticket ever became an issue.
What makes this album different from those writers is the here and the now. This music both derives and delivers an incomparable pleasure from imperfection. Never have I been so content with the trivial, banal disappointments of everyday life (being told a bus is late, an expensive hotel has crippled your budget, or yes, you can go, but no, not until the morning) as I have when I’ve been travelling. Don’t misunderstand me—this is not the best record I’ve ever heard, not even close. Track three is awful. But the album on the whole is evocative of something far greater, something so relevant to my life here in Asia. As I peer out of the reinforced glass, readying to leave yet another country I’ve told you almost nothing about; these musings come to me one by one, song by song. Tired and alone once more, I’m grateful to have travelled around Thailand with Blur’s Think Tank.
By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2005-05-18