Okay, deep breath. I’m going to try and put into words just how much I love my all-time favourite song by my all-time favourite singer and songwriter who isn’t called David Bowie.
Sad songs are everywhere, and I’ve listened to, experienced, cried to, dreamt to and been knocked out senseless by so many of them. Of course I also love happy songs, I love songs that I can dance to (badly) and I love weird shit too, but given that I find music the sweetest of all artistic tonics and it’s what I turn to when I need solace and comfort – sad songs in particular can be that indescribable embrace I need the most when I feel lost. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Then there are those sad songs that encapsulate turbulent, shattering and heartbreaking emotions so well and with such power that they end up being strangely kind of ecstatic, euphoric, utterly life-affirming and vital. They make me feel deliriously ridiculous and out of my mind with pleasure and sheer sensation.
‘Hell and Back’, a highlight amongst nothing but highlights (doesn’t make sense, I know) on the amazing 2017 LP Stellular by the fucking spectacularly talented Rose Elinor Dougall, is probably my favourite example of such a song.
I mean, it is very bloody sad indeed. But there’s a kind of defiant, passionate sweep to it that means I actually don’t want to curl up into a ball when I play it – I want to sing with it (badly) and then some. It is an an incredible, miasmic and breathtaking gut-punch of a song that boasts the kind of melodic (vocal and musical) shifts that make me want to weep with awe. It so good it just makes me want to knock on people’s doors like a bloody Jehovah’s Witness and ask them if they know about the Book of Rose – I mean, how can a song this astonishing not be loved by everyone? What the fuck is going on here, people?
And that’s the thing about Stellular, the thing that makes it so essential is its sheer richness. It sounds so fucking alive – it is an incredible production, a living, breathing, existing thing – it makes me want to live. It wreaks havoc with this heart of mine (to quote another Dougall song), it breathes life into the devils and demons in my soul and reminds me just how precious and essential the sheer act of existing is.
Compared to the modest (and very lovely) sound of Dougall’s first album, Stellular tears through the speakers in spectacularly exciting style. The beat, the pulse, the pace, the sweep – all of a sudden Dougall’s music was thrillingly widescreen, cinematic and yet so intensely intimate – sometimes a band or an artist can sound like they’ve had more money thrown at them but something ends up missing in the process. Not here. This album sounds like a million quid but also sounds utterly vivid, urgent – right there in the room with you.
It’s also the kind of all-killer/no-filler pop rush that the old days of vinyl demanded – there’s not a moment wasted here. It’s almost like a greatest hits that never was – every song delivers a colossal wallop, and yet it’s not exhaustingly high-octane either. The album moves through a kaleidoscopic range of tones, emotions and paces. Wind-tunnel, high-speed pop like the title track shake hips against utterly heavenly ballads (‘Take Yourself With You’), wrenching torch songs (‘Answer Me’), dancefloor funk (‘All at Once’), motorik-fuelled duets (‘Dive’, with co-producer Oli Bayston on guest vocals) and best of all, ‘Hell and Back’.
Everything about Stellular is brilliant, but above all else is that voice. It’s the voice I’ve been waiting to hear on record all my life – so relatable, charming, seductive, heartbreaking, powerful, subtle, beautifully restrained when necessary and, thanks to Dougall’s own creativity in the studio, wonderfully malleable and stunningly treated so that it becomes a kind of instrument in itself. I can listen to this voice all day. It has ten times the impact of other, lesser singers who always think more is more, that louder is better. It isn’t. Of course it isn’t. Dougall’s voice is stunningly layered, versatile and it’s getting better and better too. One listen to her new album A New Illusion is staggering proof of that – but that’s now. I’m talking about then.
And I need to get back to ‘Hell and Back’ in particular – starting with, er…squiggles of synth (sorry writers, producers and performers, I tried my best with that one) and a drum beat that leads into those first lines: ‘In this world, seldom few contentedly make it through’ – we all have suffered, we rarely get through life without being burned, without avoiding the fucking dreadful pain that life can throw at us. Later talk of ‘black dogs’ suggest depression is a key subject matter here. Hey, I can relate to that. I’m on anti-depressant meds, have been for over a decade-and-a-half now – they’ve been part of my life so long that taking them in the morning (and evening) is as natural as putting the kettle on and waiting for it to boil to make my first tea of the day. I’ve suffered intense anxiety, OCD, depression in the past and wow, it’s a bastard. Yet it’s also made me stronger than ever because I’ve had to fight so hard to come to terms with it and I’ve learned to cope and live through it, and with it. Songs like ‘Hell and Back’ hit me hard because of this.
Dougall sings, ‘I walk that jagged line’ – I’m not sure if this means skirting the line between a what one would consider a normal life and one that one would consider ‘ill’ or ‘depressed’ – you know, seeming fine on the outside, but terrified that one might slip and fall into the abyss of depression at any time soon. It could also mean the euphoria and despair of feeling intense emotions, feeling like you can take on the world one moment and feeling there’s no hope at another. This is followed by ‘dance alone or out of time’. I’ve danced alone – sometimes, when you’re content with a night in, a glass of wine and your favourite mix playing, that can be great, but dancing alone can be the pits if you’re in a club and you’re with someone you feel no connection with or if you’re not dancing with the one you really want to dance with.
Obviously, I’m just taking what I’m personally taking from the song – there’s no definitive meaning to a song, ever. As for dancing out of time, well I’m going to assume that Dougall’s a good dancer (anyone who wrote ‘All at Once’ has to have a sense of rhythm) and that this is more to do with just feeling totally out of sync with everyone else. Feeling disconnected. Alone at the party. The music during these verses simmer and tremble with tension – sadness, an intense, longing and nerve-wracking kind of sadness, tightly wound by the coiled playing. It’s an incredible performance by the band, and proof of Dougall’s superb songwriting and grasp of structure. With verses like these, the tension can only last so long – something has to give.
The chorus is that very give, and it exudes a strangely determined passion – ‘let’s go to hell and back again’ – there seems to be a choice being made here, a statement of intent. Maybe let’s surrender ourselves to the pain, and if we see it through together, then maybe it will be okay. But who’s Dougall singing to? A fellow sufferer? Herself? Is she looking in the mirror when she’s singing this, prompting herself to carry on?
Yet ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ makes me question the line immediately before. Maybe Dougall’s not the one singing the title. Maybe it’s the demon on her shoulder, tempting her to fall into darkness, and ‘no matter how I try, they always win’ could be a surrender to that darkness. Now this chorus is, without a doubt, my most beloved moment in any Dougall song, and believe me, it’s up against formidable competition. What I love about Dougall’s songs is that they are, as well as being magnificent compositions as a whole, so full of extraordinary moments that I do the silly thing all the time and rewind my fave bits of the song to experience them all over again and again.
I’ll tell you which bit in the chorus absolutely kills me – every time. It’s ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ – especially, that bit I’ve put in italics. Oh my god, all I can do is sit down and just fucking keep it all together, lest I just fall apart over its unimaginable beauty. And the come down of ‘they always win’ ends the chorus (and indeed the song) on a frightening, uncertain note. This is not a song with a resolution.
‘Hold my breath, even count to ten’ – are these methods, attempts to hold off anxiety? Maybe an OCD ritual, an exercise? It doesn’t seem to work – ‘the dark clouds descend’ immediately afterwards. Thinking about these words are fucking killing me, to be honest. They’re so sad. That feeling of hopelessness – ‘it’s no use’ – it just breaks my heart. If this indeed is what Dougall’s singing about, then I can relate to that sense of despair.
The next line – ‘will you be my sole one partner in crime?’ is delivered with such a yearning, emotional wallop that it makes me want to fucking cry. Who is this partner? If it is Dougall singing in the first-person at the start of the chorus, then the sole partner must be that same person she’s singing to. A best friend, a lover – someone who she needs here with her. ‘Partner in crime’ is a fascinating way to put this, too – it gives the whole song an almost darkly romantic air, that together the two of them can find some kind of escape, like outlaws on the run, maybe? Yet unlike the almost determined ‘let’s go to hell and back again’, Dougall’s question (and delivery of that question) is less a hand outstretched to join her on this journey and more an intensely hopeful, pleading proposal.
The black dog, that famous signifier of depression arrives immediately afterwards, that blasted, incessant, heavy and intent beast that spoils it all, that tells you nothing will be alright, that you’re right to worry, to doubt, to feel bad. ‘Here comes the black dog’ – Dougall awaits her arrival, she’s been here before, it’s happening again. ‘Feel her running wild’ – not ‘see’, but ‘feel’ – because the dog is obviously not literal, its actions, its behaviour can only ever be felt. And don’t I have a lazy imagination for being taken aback when Dougall refers to the black dog as ‘her’ and not ‘him’? For me I’ve always pictured the black dog as male, but when a girl or a woman is suffering from depression, why the fuck would they picture it as male? I’m an idiot. Maybe it’s because most exposures to depression that I’ve encountered first-hand have been from men. That’s no excuse, though.
The chorus comes again, and like all brilliant second choruses, it takes the first and builds on it – in this case, backing vocals come in (are they Dougall’s?) doubling ‘devils and demons’ and adding ‘oh I have tried’ to the relevant foreground vocals, and the effect is almost like a taunting, deceptively innocent nursery-rhyme being sung by a playfully malevolent chorus of singers. It’s totally devastating.
Then there’s the amazing middle-eight, where everything builds and builds and swirls and swirls: synths come in, at once pulsating and insistent and also moving around and over the listener, and soon Dougall’s vocals do the same– multi-tracked so they mirror this whirlpool of sound, where they become a kind of instrument in themselves. I like to think of it as a less disturbing version of Tim Buckley’s incredible vocals-only experimental piece ‘Star Sailor’. Unlike that ‘song’, where the effect was pretty fucking terrifying, the effect here is like being intoxicated, or maybe something like hurtling through the stargate at the end of 2001 – absolutely remarkable production here. Few songs have conveyed this sense of sheer sensation – it takes the song to another level entirely.
With expert sleight of hand, it all stops, with nothing but a bassline, minimal percussion, and of course Dougall’s voice singing the chorus. It’s disarming and makes you double-check yourself. The second half of the chorus sees the whole band come back in and once more, the devils and demons win, and the song stretches out for a few more moments before stopping abruptly. It’s the perfect ending to the perfect song. Brilliantly, the song that follows – ‘Space to Be’– is cut from the same emotional, despairing cloth as ‘Hell and Back’, but something close to sunshine and wild determination breaks through here, a fiery yearning to be free from it all which makes it a far more positive song, and the absolute rush of energy the music provides delivers that positivity. Together the two songs form a mind-blowing double impact.
‘Hell and Back’, no lie, is in my top ten songs of all time. It just encapsulates absolutely everything I love about music, how it can take me away, how it can take sadness and make something truly exhilarating, incredible and astonishing from it, how it can make me want to cry, how it makes me want to just want to sing, scream, sigh and swoon. Nothing beats it. Fuck it, I think it might be my favourite song ever.