[Readings] Heaven or St. Louis, By Patricia Lockwood | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

Heaven or St. Louis

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From an essay that considers the album It’ll End in Tears by This Mortal Coil, and is included in the collection Long Players, which was published in August by Bloomsbury.

Full disclosure: I initially purchased this album for gay reasons. There’s a sort of hot Pre-Raphaelite ghost clutching herself on the cover, and I, a fourteen-year-old girl in suburban St. Louis whose main cultural outlet was the local mall, found myself unable to resist her. Another disclosure: I did not, at the height of my musical listening career, listen to albums in a normal way. My usual practice was to lie down on the floor like a huge fetus, place my ear against the speaker, and pretend I was in a warm aural womb where God was growing me through an umbilicus that could only be described as my own tenuous grip on reality. You might expect this attitude to prepare me to hear Liz Fraser’s voice for the first time. It didn’t.

No disrespect to the many other fine musicians who worked on the album, but for me it was about that voice—rooted, aerial, as flexible in its upper registers as it was rich in its middle, revolving around an unchanging axis of pitch, poured into various blown-glass containers of made-up language. It was like what a woman totally alone on a planet, unexposed either to other human beings or traditional forms of music, might decide to do with a nameless substance she had discovered in her own throat: Play with it, stretch it, see what it could become. Toss it away, let it come back to her; teach it tricks, teach it words; drop it into a dry riverbed and let it flow uphill. Was this what was going on in Scotland?

I paused after her first song and experimentally hooted like a crystal owl. No, I couldn’t do it. Harder than it seemed. Impossible, actually. When the album was over, I uncurled myself from the speaker and sat up to examine the hot ghost on the jewel case, then flopped back down and pressed play again. Forgive the dramatics, but I had never been so completely the target audience for something before—motionless on the floor, gay, made of gauze, clutching myself against a background of dissolving stars, something valuable in my throat, I could feel it.


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