As I have written before, I’m truly fascinated by the well-documented alienation and anomie young people felt in the 1990’s. What’s more interesting to me is how well these confused, sad sack youth were able to express their malaise in song. English Shoegaze band Slowdive were one of many such groups, creating chronicles of languid yearning that echoed those of their American counterparts with eerie fidelity. Among their best expressions is “Alison”, a towering, ephemeral cathedral of narcotic wonder and muted despair.
From today’s perspective, dyed-in-the-wool 90’s songs like “Alison” tend to sound like anachronisms – strange mumbles from an existential crisis that simply does not translate to the digital age. Nowadays, it’s almost taboo to be off the grid of social networks. If one wants out, they must create and maintain excuses for why they are not tweeting their boredom, facebooking the lives of others, or otherwise creating and maintaining some persona and presence to represent them in the allegedly interactive spaces of the internet.
The isolated castle of the suburban home now stands completely breached. Social networks have pluralized generational uncertainty and crowd-sourced soul searching. Only the very stubborn and the very foolish still try to figure things out on their own.
And so the situation the narrator of “Alison” finds himself in may seem quaint, even out of touch. But there is something tangibly haunting here, a feeling too genuine to ignore. Closed off from the eternal nattering of the internet, from the constant distractions of smartphones, Alison’s bedroom becomes its own faintly tragic universe. Context is suspended, and small details grow large and mysterious meanings.
Our narrator is a modern Carraway – one who seems to be avoiding some deep turmoil of his own by hiding out in Alison’s room. Self- admittedly “floating” and “lost”, our narrator sees the signs. “Alison I said we’re sinking” he warns. And yet, he is a bystander, fascinated by his and Alison’s gradual failure. “With your talking and your pills, your messed up life still thrills me” He confesses. Together they drift ever further from society, cocooned in an isolation unique to youth, crooning out from across a gulf as yet unbridged by technology and its patina of togetherness and optimism.
There is a slow and stately beauty to the doomed arc of these woebegone souls. “Alison” is both gorgeous and troubling, like the exquisite colors created by a space shuttle breaking up in atmosphere and tumbling in tongues of gradient fire all the long way back to earth. “Alison I’ll drink your wine, I’ll wear your clothes when we’re both high”, mewls our narrator in a moment of complete vulnerability, in a flowing current somehow deeper than love. He will dissolve his personality and give himself over completely to the trusted hands of Alison.
In the end, we never really get to know Alison. To our narrator’s warnings “She laughs, and tells me it’s just fine.” She sounds for all the world like a patron saint of 90’s casualties – bright and imaginative youth with extraordinary depth of feeling who for whatever reasons, found life to be unremittingly painful and hopeless. Almost-weres kept alive only in nostalgia-colored, hazebound recollection. “I guess she’s out there somewhere” sings our narrator, in poignant semi-eulogy, as burgeoning, reverberating tones diffuse patiently to purpled twilight. I guess she’s out there somewhere.