Adam Theisen: Our bodies, our ‘Blonde’ selves
Lyrically, “Here, There and Everywhere,” off Revolver, is the most physically immediate and intimate song The Beatles ever recorded. Over quiet, calming guitar strums and girl-group backing vocals from his bandmates, Paul McCartney sings lines like “to love her is to need her everywhere” and “watching her eyes and hoping I’m always there” in the calmest, sweetest voice. But as tranquil as he sounds, there’s almost unbearable pain in a desire that tangible and deep. On Frank Ocean’s latest album, the long-awaited Blonde, the young singer picks up and intensifies that unique kind of pain of being human, creating a record as purely honest as it is difficult to hear.
“Here, There and Everywhere,” which Ocean explicitly references on the song “White Ferrari,” is a moment that brings the old Beatles back for a few minutes — a very down to earth, physical human feeling on an album more often interested in altering consciousness and transcending everyday life. While they had dipped their toes into the mind/body divide with their previous record Rubber Soul, Revolver is the first that really fractures The Beatles. It presents them as more than just a physical entity, using studio experimentation to add to the band’s mystique and make tangible their visions and hallucinations, as well as creating songs that would be physically impossible for a four-piece group to perform live.
Revolver is a good album to listen to when you hate the way you take up space in the world. It’s a stereotypical go-to for when you’re high, but more than that, it’s truly a reimagining of what music can be. It’s one of the first rock albums to break the rules of commercial music, to be a cohesive work of art more than a product or collection of would-be radio hits. And while that may sound boring, Revolver is actually playful and fun, filled with the thrill of newness and exploration. Its sound makes you dream beyond and smile through your tangible self.
The sequencing of Revolver is wickedly smart, because as powerful as “Here, There and Everywhere” is, you get about four seconds of silence to process all its difficult meanings and implications before Ringo Starr barges through the door of your mind without even knocking: In the towwwwwwn, where I was born … and suddenly it’s impossible to think, because Zooey Deschanel’s favorite Beatle is having a party 20,000 leagues under the sea.
Blonde, by contrast, doesn’t give that relief. It feels the same limitations but decides to linger on them rather than escape, and so it’s an album that is impossible to enjoy when you hate your physical presence. Ocean mostly eschews drums, the most physical instrument, in favor of ethereal keyboards and not much else. Blonde seems to exist best at 3 or 4 a.m., a time when even the best of us might not feel like the world as we know it is totally real. It is, depending on who you talk to, a mature, complex masterpiece or a scattered, incomplete work of art from an anxious genius.
Either way, I feel this impossible to salve pain inside me when I try to listen to Blonde. The slow tempos, the ambient background synths, the fact that with only the subtlest rhythms it’s impossible to dance to, all force you to listen intently to each deliberate note. It’s beautiful, but it’s too much. I listen to Blonde and my mouth feels dry, I can’t keep my hands steady, and I worry that my heart will stop beating any second.
In “Nikes,” the opening track, Ocean meditates in a high-pitched inhuman voice on the tragic deaths of Pimp C, who died at 33 from syrup, and Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was murdered at 17. Knowing that he could die at any moment, knowing that he looked just like Trayvon, Ocean detaches from the materialistic world and drifts through a hook-up, singing “I’m not him, but I’ll mean something to you.”
There are occasional wry moments of humor on Blonde, like the end of “Nikes,” where he tells the hook-up “You got a roommate, he’ll hear what we do / It’s only awkward if you’re fucking him too.” But if you’re uncomfortable at all with your body or your physical existence, it’s an intense, unpleasant experience. There’s a debt owed to Revolver and The Beatles, which Ocean acknowledges, but where The Fab Four aspire to freedom and preach escape, Ocean’s stripped-down music forces his listeners to confront themselves and their most personal feelings.
When Blonde surprise-dropped a few weeks ago, it was a terrible time for me to hear it. I’ve been uncomfortable with my physical self for quite a while now, and last month was a particularly intense time for that feeling. I hated the way most people saw me, and it left me constantly exhausted, alone, scared and needing a change. I needed art that I could lose myself in — representations of others that I could disappear into, not minimalist music that invaded my mind and forced me to look inward. Blonde made me feel like I was drowning in my own anxieties.
Since then, I haven’t tried to tackle Blonde unless I’ve felt 100 percent up to it, and I’ve instead tried to get the same, but slightly easier, experience out of The Beatles. Blonde is fascinating and important, but it hurts. Revolver, its spiritual ancestor, tackles its themes of bodies and the pain of the physical and the transcendence of life in a more bearable, optimistic way.
It’s fitting that Blonde came out as the 2016 Summer Olympics closed, just as we were wrapping our minds around the seemingly impossible physical tasks achieved by athletes like Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles. Blonde recognizes the beauty of life and humanity, but it’s also a counterpoint to the beauty of the games in Rio, because it knows that just having a body can be the most painful experience in the world. Whether it’s our race, gender or sexuality, or anything else, being uncomfortable or feeling alone because of your own body is a nightmare, and the stress of lust and loneliness and mortality take an awful toll on both the listener and Ocean over the course of Blonde. Ocean is forcing his fans to embrace their true selves, no matter how much it might hurt and scare us, and to properly listen to Blonde, you need to be ready to love yourself and feel it everywhere.