Put Me On A Feeling I Never Had: Frank Ocean’s nostalgia,ULTRA. brings me to my knees song by song


It must have been March.  I was heading to the grocery store for yet more Dr Pepper, and I told the music blog I frequent that I was popping in a mixtape by a member of then-rising hip hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.  Frank Ocean’s place as the token R&B hookslinger (is that a common token?) in the Odd Future gang seemed a little novel.  Back then it was Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin that would surely change everything.  “Threesomes with a fucking triceratops” was the sort of genius these dumbass misogynists would spew, and surely they’d take over hip hop.

So it was around eight in the evening and it was already getting dark.  I began biking while listening to nostalgia,ULTRA.  Notably, this guy cared about women.  This guy cared about people.  He wasn’t the uncaring Shiva that would destroy everything in its path that his other boys were, but he had enough of that to include “Hotel California” in its entirety to back one of his tracks.  I came back and reported to the blog that what I heard was pretty good, but probably nothing major.  But make no mistake; nostalgia,ULTRA. is some visionary shit.

Back then I preferred The Weeknd’s wicked games to Frank Ocean’s virtue.  Back then I assumed he was a heterosexual, but everyone who did that with me can hardly be blamed when he tries and feels so hard for his women subjects.

Time went by.  I called nostalgia,ULTRA. the best album of 2011.  I listed it in my top twenty-five albums of all time.  I came to adore every single song, but the funny thing is that each song popped for me individually.  I remember in which order I fell for each song, the first in March 2011 and the last in March 2012.

I’ll recount my separate epiphanies that led me to each song on this magnificent album.

Entry #1, Track #6, “Songs for Women”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVDojFhnW2I

Around the time I heard this track, I had recently overcome some stage fright to sing Pavement and Replacements songs at open mic nights to impress a girl I fancied at the time.  After singing “I Will Dare” and letting people hear my singing voice the first time, a friend noted that some girls’ eyes popped open.  I’m not sure how much I believe him, but when I know what he means when Frank Ocean promises “I’ll give you chills harmonizing to Otis, Isley, Marvin,” because nothing makes my heart sit up and take notice like the right voice.

What really caught my ear were the encounters in the chorus, with someone asking if he sings songs to get at women.  Frank laughs when it’s asserted that his music is so potent at lady-getting that it’s cheating before laying down his best boast: “Boy, don’t judge ‘cause if you were me you’d be singing to her like la dah dah dah dahhh, la dah dah dah dahh, la dah dah dah dahhh.”

But Frank changes his tone from verse one to verse two.  No longer doing cutesy things with his girl like flipping through vinyl, battle rapping, and learning to slow dance, Frank is So Far Gone (ha!) when his girl plays Drake or Trey and his Songz (ha!!), both artists that he couldn’t compete with that he can now call contemporaries.

So back when he was younger and thought of girls as “bitches,” Frank would wonder about what he pursued through his music: pleasure or romance.  Most miss it when he trails off: “Now I’m singing about heartbreak/Now I’m singing about love lost.”

So I played “Here Comes a Regular,” a Replacements song about a sadsack alcohol addict, during one of the sadder weeks of my life at an open mic night that April, and I sympathize with Frank Ocean.  His music is helplessly intertwined with his relationships, his life, and his wants.

Entry #2, Track #3, “Novacane”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9nduwzwEuI

Going into nostalgia,ULTRA., all I’d heard was “Songs for Women” thanks to its Best New Track  status over at Pitchfork, which had become a highlight reel for the blossoming careers of the Odd Future crew.  After floating through the surprisingly pretty “Strawberry Swing,” I kept biking to the grocery store, listening to Frank Ocean’s album for the first time.  Suddenly, the music started hopping in a cool and confident way, and I wondered if maybe Frank’s connection to Odd Future might start making more sense, and he let me think that.  “I blame it on the model broad with a Hollywood smile/Stripper booty and a rack like “wow.”  But then…

“Brain like Berkely!”  As listeners are ogling this girl with their ears, he pulls the rug out from everyone and gives her a brain, tells us she loves music enough to go to festivals, tells us she has big career aspirations (dentistry) and a way of reaching them (pornography (“at least she working”)).  He tells a story of how they met that gets you high the second he mentions that ice blue bong.  Here I was expecting casual misogyny, and instead I got Frank Ocean developing a female character better than most feature length films can manage.

Like a fuck on ecstasy, this girl gives Frank Ocean a high he can’t get back, but boy will he try.  I always think of the “candy for breakfast?!” Reese’s Puffs ad campaign when I hear the adorable little “cocaine for breakfast…yikes!”  Then the lines about Frank shooting Kubrikian porno tie the tale together of Frank chasing the pleasure he used to know.

Like his porno-filming protagonist, Frank Ocean aims for “visionary shit,” and with “Novacane” he stuffs it with classic lines, lets Tricky Stewart texture it like a hazy trip, and fleshes out bizarre characters to put in bizarre scenarios.  Frank puts himself down at the beginning about his “pitch-corrected computed emotion,” but his quick laugh afterwards might indicate that Frank is all too aware that despite telling the tales of “Novacane” with indifference and detachment, his sense of humanity is hardly lacking.  “Novacane” sounds like him struggling with an overabundance of it.

Entry #3, Track #12, “American Wedding”

http://soundcloud.com/nmemagazine/frank-ocean-american-wedding

I was just unlocking my bike, groceries in my backpack, when this this one came on, and it took me a few seconds to really believe it.  By the time I realized he’d left in the guitar solo, I just couldn’t help laughing.  He’d lifted a backing track and put his vocal over it, not unusual for the hip hop universe, but he’d messed with (improved) a song near and dear to Eagles’ Don Henley.  Hip hop culture finally stood to bother rock traditionalism in a serious way.

“American Wedding” certainly gets your attention, but its novelty might obscure its true mastery, with all its vivid images that lace Frank’s tired recollection of a rushed matrimony that left him sour on the whole institution, though his ex-wife believes in the land of the free, turning in a thesis on Islamic virgin brides, arranged marriage, and polygamist husbands (those poor un-American girls!).

People fall in love.  Then they change and exchange property.  Also, same sex couples still are fighting for the right to marry.  Maybe that’s one reason the ultra-romantic Frank Ocean doesn’t see the beauty in weddings, but without the promise of permanence, Frank Ocean seems to be questioning the idea of eternal love altogether.

After the guitars are done, Frank Ocean leaps into soaring, boasting harmonies that I like to think make Don Henley feel farted upon.

Entry #4, Track #7, “LoveCrimes”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G293dd11wg

I’ll open by saying this is the worst song on the album by default.  Devoid of any moment where my eyes rush wide open, a tiny arrow penetrates my heart, or Frank’s wordplay forces a smile every time, “LoveCrimes” is a song where Frank talks about his penis.  A lot.  Like, really a lot.  Frank’s love crime remains unclear, but after bopping around Rap Genius it’s somewhere between having sex with a protective father’s daughter and getting her pregnant.

But yeah…back to Frank’s penis.  It’s a gun.  With one bullet left (?!).  It’s also a getaway car, and Frank loves it when the ride is smooth (I’ll assume that, despite possibly wanting to impregnate this girl, that means he enjoys wearing a johnny).  So knowing that if Frank really flexed his muscles (both brain and bishop), he’d make a way better song about his dick, there’s still that bouncing piano riff that could stand without Frank’s penis.  To get you thinking about Kubrick more, Frank also includes some dialogue from Eyes Wide Shut, which causes me to ask Frank, “you’re very, very sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

Entry #5, Track #2, “Strawberry Swing”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvFtbjIngkY

I’m so out of touch with fine-where-they-are soft rockers Coldplay that it took me a while to realize that they were behind that backing track that seemed to give me an ultra burst of nostalgia on Frank’s “Strawberry Swing,” which, unlike with his MGMT or Eagles rips, retains the name of Coldplay’s original.  Funny, the moment that always hit me hardest was Chris Martin coming in with “Could be blue/I don’t mind/Without you it’s a waste of time,” but after making sure Frank didn’t just borrow a feeling from Coldplay, I can tell you that Frank’s leadup is what makes it hit.

Between pleasant recollections, Frank imagines an atom bomb almost fondly.  What more romantic than two lovers terrified of an apocalypse?  As Frank stays on the doomed earth and his love leaves it, you realize that Frank’s simple lines are what really smack you on this one.  “I have loved the good times here.”  “We are all mortals aren’t we?  Any moment this could go.”  “Cry, cry, cry, even though it won’t change a thing.”

Then things start buzzing, and Frank wakes to Chris Martin singing and punches the clock.  It’s the sort of dream you want to live in a while more.  Find out who the girl (?) was.  All I know is that even though his romance was severed and he was doomed, Frank sounds a bit upset to be awoken from his nightmare.

Entry #6, Track #9, “There Will Be Tears”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m24b1gMc4sU

I still hadn’t figured out I loved this album (figured it a strong A- type, #15 or so in a year) when I was designated driving my brother and his friends back from Soundset hip hop festival and they all demanded I play nostalgia,ULTRA. instead of, as I was demanding, some Jay-Z to pump me up.  I’d spend the next forty-five minutes making the trek from Shakopee back to Woodbury being too soothed by Frank’s voice to stay awake very well.  The late May atmosphere was too peaceful, and maybe three times I found that I had fallen asleep for a second or two.

Up until this point, I’d squeeze in nostalgia,ULTRA. where I could, hearing everything up to “Songs for Women” and dropping out at about “LoveCrimes” to attend to less musical affairs.  Even while driving so dazed I probably should have pulled over for a while, I managed to absorb “There Will Be Tears,” a song name that Chris Martin would take gladly.  The gentle echo of Ocean’s voice is joined by gentle whirrs as he dreams of his father telling him “I can’t be there with you,” each time responding “but I can dream.”

Both sections of the backing track, from the quiet, innocent machinery of the intro to the triumphant wave that surfs above it, are possibly my favorite that Ocean’s used.  “My granddaddy was a playa!” stuck out as a moment I could recall from the album before I had really acquainted myself with it, but the song is less a celebration than a lament of his fatherless lineage.  “My friend said it ain’t so bad/You can’t miss what you ain’t had,” Frank recounts, but gee, he never sounds as sure of himself as when he validates his pain by continuing, “Well, I can/I’m sad, and there will be tears!”  Frank screams to his dead, playa granddaddy or his missing father that a warning would’ve been nice, but the level on which Frank feels leaves me guessing that wouldn’t spare him from being devastated by an absence everyone around him just shakes off.

Entry #7, Track #14, “Nature Feels”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTIaZSWZxtM

My brother and I downloaded Watch the Throne the night before my family took a four-hour car ride to Lake Superior’s North shore.  Along with some listens of Fountains of Wayne’s Sky Full of Holes, I must have heard Watch the Throne ten times that day, with Frank Ocean’s sections on “No Church in the Wild” and “Made It in America inspiring me to throw on nostalgia,ULTRA. shortly before we arrived at the cabin.  The album’s closer, “Nature Feels,” convinced me that, finally, I had a 2011 album I loved more than tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l or The Weeknd’s House of Balloons.

Maybe I hadn’t noticed it because using an MGMT song right after using an Eagles song might dampen the effect, but “Nature Feels” is the third example of Frank’s expert thievery, turning indie rock at its most innocent into a song so sexy that Andre 3K (who comes in for the sex song on Frank’s follow-up) should retire his trousers.

Whereas “Strawberry Swing” comes in at the end of the world, “Nature Feels”’ Garden of Eden (“Feeling like Adam when he first found out this existed/Me and my Eve trying out our first position”) fuckfest starts at the beginning.  “Playing in the dirt, wrestling myself inside ya,” “tell me how my nature feels,” and more would surely get the cutesy pop brigade of MGMT blushing, but “Nature Feels” makes its sex sound like a spiritual, Biblical necessity.

Entry #8, Track #10, “Swim Good”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKkZIcnjhJY

My picture of 2011 finally forming under Frank Ocean, I began heavily texting my noise boys Nick and Ryan about our favorite music of the year, draining my new smartphone’s batteries while my family and I embarked on hikes, dinners, and more on the North shore of Lake Superior.  We were still all figuring out how much we liked Watch the Throne, but we all agreed on my fresh favorite, nostalgia,ULTRA.

Lying down on the beach one evening by my cabin, I was listening to the album (like I had been for the entire short vacation), and texted the girl I was chasing.  I’d come back to school in just two and a half weeks, and I was growing more and more pessimistic about my outlook, judging where things might be heading from conversation and, of course, Facebook photos.  I told her what I was listening to, that I was writing a song, that I was at the beach with my dog.  After I sent it, “Swim Good” came on.  My dog Bjorn tried (and not for the first time) to swim in the lake, practically whimpering and hurting himself through the water’s coldness.  I told Bjorn to get the hell out of there (he was in no real danger, but I always have to tell my silly dog to cut out the silly things he does).

I’ve hated the water for a lot of my life.  It’s not a phobia.  I just don’t like it.  I hate getting my hands wet and used to abstain from washing them on the way out of the bathroom.  I don’t really enjoy swimming, particularly in lakes, but water’s always been a helluva thing to look at.  So I kept sitting out there.

Frank Ocean’s song of broken hearts, black suits, and funerals, backed by a beat that sounds like someone rhythmically shaking a large bag of coins, finds Frank both at his darkest and his most fun.  He feels like a ghost, but then interjects “NO SWAYZE” and classically fucks a rhyme: “I’ve got this black suit on/Rolling around like I’m ready for a fyoonuh/RUHL.”

I could cite most any line in “Swim Good,” Ocean’s most densely clever song alongside “Novacane,” but what makes “Swim Good” so special is that it portrays its darkness with a lightness, and as I mentally prepared myself to get my heart seriously broken, “Swim Good” always could make me crack a smile.

Entry #9, Track #11, “Dust”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrxMICtU8i0

“What would this place be without my muse?  Nothing special.”

My existence in the summer of 2011 was fueled by the pursuit of a girl.  Every action I took was made with virtue and the optimization of my success in mind.  I wasn’t sure where life was going to take me when I moved back into my apartment at college, but as the days counted down, I became more anxious.

I showed up to my apartment.  I moved in.  I moved right into the apartment next to hers.  I collapsed on my bed and went on with my day, taking off my t-shirt and putting on my newly bought “BE KIND TO ANIMALS” shirt I got from seeing The Flaming Lips the night before.  Inspired by the concert’s finale, my brain filled with senseless optimism, I texted her “Do You Realize??” as confetti threatened to fill my lungs if I sang along.

And then I heard it.  She was holding hands with a new rose.  I practically knew it was going to happen, but I saw her last relationship fall apart, and I wanted to be the next one (“’cause the next could be the last one,” I continued in an unpublished song).  It was a devastating moment, hearing that I never had a window of opportunity.  I don’t remember how long it took to sink in, but eventually it was evening.  I decided to go biking to my favorite spot in town: a small wooden bridge with a gorgeous view of Morris’ two wind turbines and the evening sun reflecting off the lake.  My music was important: No Age’s Everything in Between was in the process of being adopted as music for me at my most contemplative.  When I arrived at my spot during “Fever Dreaming,” I laid down and sprawled out until the album ended.  I didn’t cry, even though, if this makes sense, I tried.  It ended and I turned on Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and biked back to my new apartment. “These albums understand me,” I texted an in-the-loop Ryan.  I just stayed in bed for the rest of the night, listening to Arcade Fire’s Funeral.  “They say a watched pot will never boil/I closed my eyes and nothing changed/Just some water/Getting hotter/In the flames.”

“Then you ripped out a page/And set that shit on flame/I quit writing.”  I woke up the next morning realizing that everything I had done for the past however many months was no longer something I could build my drive around.  I had responsibilities for the upcoming school year.  I had to run a newspaper.  I had the same, devastating academic load as always that I would surely handle fine but just barely.  Now I couldn’t see myself doing any of that.  I let myself collapse and relied heavily on my friends to catch me, and while she was still laughing in my library, I found “Dust,” a song on nostalgia,ULTRA. so small and tucked away that you might try to slight it just because so few will notice how wrong you are.  “When the pages turn to dust, so will we” might not provide a lot of impact, but it ends Frank’s metaphorical tragedy by lamenting the frailty of an artist-muse relationship.

I spent the semester learning to be proud of myself again, weaning myself off a dangerous obsession, learning to be proud of myself in spite of all my effort proving futile in this disaster, and finding the will to resume writing.  I kept living.

And as my relationship with my favorite Frank Ocean song demonstrates, I kept loving.

Entry #10, Track #4, “We All Try”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6Q6HYJOo2M

“If you try the best you can, the best you can is good enough.” – Thom Yorke

How do you take this Radiohead chorus, strewn in amongst senseless and chaotic imagery?  Frank Ocean tags it to the end of his own song about effort, and his is a song I’ve loved really since the first time I heard it.  Biking on that March 2011 evening, I obviously raised my eyebrows at “I believe Jehovah Jireh” and “I don’t believe our nation’s flag is on the moon,” but I nodded my head approvingly at “I believe a woman’s temple gives her the right to choose, but baby, don’t abort” and “I believe that marriage isn’t between man and woman but between love and love.”  Alas, smacked between my two favorites at the time, “Novacane” and “Songs for Women,” this obviously simple, gorgeous, and revelatory song wouldn’t truly find me until a year later.

In January, I fell in love.  When talking about the start of the relationship, I always call it a “duh.”  I imagine people would have been more surprised if we’d never dated.  Despite kinks at the beginning, the relationship stabilized for a while, and I can honestly say that I was the happiest I had ever been.  This is not to slight the dysfunction that would later be revealed to have run throughout the whole affair, but even in the midst of highwire acts of meta-relationship conversation, my smile and comfort would never break.

Like one Friday night.  She prompted me “I just wonder if in the back of your head you’re formulating this idea that we’ll be together forever.”  I stared into her eyes for about ten seconds before confessing, “I really do.”  She softly responded, “That really scares me.”  We broke each other’s gaze and I held her for a few minutes before heading off to two parties by myself as she went to bed, contemplative as hell but still optimistic.  When Frank Ocean sings “Or do you not think so far ahead?/’Cause I’ve been thinking ‘bout forever” on “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” does he feel foolish?  I would.  Maybe he should.

Next Thursday morning, after an incredibly stressful night of assembling a newspaper, controversially endorsing a candidate for student government, being host to my little brother on his visit to where he’d be attending college next year, and me taking a test at 8 a.m., I caught her on Facebook.  There was this awful moment during the night where I was feeling incredibly stressed.  Approaching her for a hug, she whipped around, snapped “don’t give me that!” and apologized and hugged me just in time for me to not break down in tears.  I almost broke up with her after that moment, but instead here we were on Facebook, and things needed to be said.

My little brother was in the back room, taking a nap before his day of touring the campus and sitting in on classes.  We talked.  We typed.  She told me that it obviously wasn’t a good time for her to be in a relationship.  She told me that she’d been horrible to me.  The first thing I did was make sure that she didn’t believe that.

After asking variations of “why?” I could gather that she thought our lives were in such different places, her current self isn’t suited for a relationship, and that she just didn’t have time.  And I kept asking why, almost as if to insist “just take a fucking crack at me, already.”

“I don’t believe my hands are cleanly/I can’t believe that you would let me touch your heart.”

I stayed awake until my brother left with my dad, and I tried to hurry them out of there as quickly as I could.  I wanted to hyperventilate and drench face in salty water while gasping, but I didn’t want to wake my brother.  I refused to tell either of them what had just happened and ruin their brief visit.  Then I took a nap, woke up at two in the afternoon, and hobbled out to the on-campus restaurant (Turtle Mountain Café) absurdly self-conscious, making every move as if everyone was watching and people could detect sadness.  I had entirely forgotten what it was like to be out in public.

At dinner with my brother and father, I was sour, short tempered, and wanted to leave as soon as possible.  Later, my father, after he learned of what had really happened that day, told me that he drove home wondering why I hated him so much.

I also promised to show my brother the monthly open mic night Thursday.  At first I asked her to not attend because I feared I couldn’t handle it, and while she accepted, I later felt I had to do something better and asked if we could do a song together.  With two hours to spare we figured out Green Day’s “When I Come Around” and played it for everyone, but not before a drunk attendant could go “They’re a couple!  It’s on Facebook!” before being quietly corrected by one of only a few people who knew at that point.  I took the second verse: “So go do what you like/Make sure you do it wise/You may find out that your self doubt means nothing was ever there/You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right.”  Afterward I sat alone on the state and sang Pavement’s “Range Life”: “I want a range life/If I could settle down, then I would settle down.”

Things would get uglier.  She started moving on, and I sure didn’t.  I kept calling us best friends, but we were really just exes trying to make something work.  I’d get cut to the bone every time I saw how easily she rid herself of me and then become furious at myself for not being able to accomplish the same.  I’d offend her, I’d tear myself to shreds, and I started to hate myself.

One day I picked up nostalgia,ULTRA. again after about a week of listening to Green Day, and the instant I heard it, “We All Try” became my mantra.  I was reminded that the effort I put into my situation was noble despite my failings.

“I still believe in man/A wise one asked me why/I just don’t believe we’re wicked/I know that we sin/But I do believe we try.”

Frank’s examples of what he does or doesn’t believe in aren’t so much the point.  Instead, Frank is saying that we all search for truths to hold to, be they as silly as lunar conspiracy theories or as beautiful as free love.  Despite the towering masterpieces and perfect pop Frank Ocean has churned out, “We All Try” is his most beautiful sentiment set atop music that weaves itself into eternity.

I couldn’t believe it when I said that I lost all faith.  I must believe in something.  I believe in valuing the virtue in my own effort.  I believe that I don’t deserve to feel guilty for actions that I’ve learned my lessons from.  I believe in forgiveness, patience, understanding, and love.

I try to believe in myself.

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Published in: on July 29, 2012 at 11:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

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