Reviewed: Pale Green Ghosts and The Low Highway

Addictive personalities.

Pale Green Ghosts (Bella Union);
The Low Highway (New West)

John Grant; Steve Earle

Male singer-songwriters aren’t usually encouraged to share their pain – at least, not in the teary, chest-beating sense. John Grant’s 2010 debut, Queen of Denmark, was a rarity, a luxuriant journey through 1970s-style melodic rock (Carpenters, early Elton) studded with sardonic lyrics about being a gay junkie in small-town America.

Grant looked like a trucker but he had the magical mindset of a child: in songs such as Sigourney Weaver (“I feel just like Sigourney Weaver/when she had to kill those aliens”) you could hear a little boy in Spiderman pyjamas upbraiding an adult version of himself. It was a masterpiece of wit and selfloathing. He’d all but given up on music: having slid out of view after fronting 1990s Denver rock band the Czars, he’d been working as a French/Russian interpreter in a hospital when the Texas group Midlake gave him their spare room and a studio.

After the surprise success of his solo album, Grant adopted northern Europe as his home and spent two years on what appeared to be a permanent tour, trackable through enthusiastic Facebook postings (“Malmö, I love you!”). He was wringing every last drop out of his debut with, one imagines, the same fears that occupy any musician in the small hours: what if I can’t do it again? What if they realise that was all I had to give? In the perverse book of rock-and-roll lore, walking into the sea or raiding the bathroom cabinet is a viable way of preserving yourself at your most creative, but rock suicides seem a bit hokey nowadays. So what would John Grant do next? The strange thing is that those of us who liked the album really cared.

At the heart of his music is a personality that engulfs you. Like all charismatic people, Grant is both addictive and exhausting. And though his songs appear to tell you everything – too much, in fact – you still wonder what life is like for him once he’s closed the door at night. That’s a powerful thing in a modern musician, when the private life is technically there for all to see.

The new album, Pale Green Ghosts, was recorded in Iceland and largely swaps acoustic rock for sparkly, electronic minimalism. There are shades of modern classical and ambient music – Satie, John Barry and something that sounds like Brian Eno’s Arena theme tune on “You Don’t Have To” (a song that includes the lines “Remember how we used to fuck all night long?/Neither do I because I always passed out”).

Grant’s melodies are spacious carriers for his distinctively clunky phrasing, which is the centre of both his introspection and his humour. On Ernest Borgnine (named, weirdly, after the Marty star) he considers the game of HIV roulette he played and lost. There is bathos in Glacier, where “pain moves through you, carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes/Nurturing the ground with precious minerals and other stuff.” Grant’s recurring theme, which might be paraphrased as “Why did you leave me? Nothing means anything now!”, refuses to bend, while his self-mockery pre-empts anyone who’d accuse him of flogging the same old horse. In his ability to make his misery entertaining he could be one of the great, debauched literary personalities of our age.

Some of the best male solo artists strike one dramatic pose repeatedly till it becomes a thing of comic genius (Morrissey), while a few, such as Bowie, experiment with transformation. Others play within literary genres, such as Nick Cave or Steve Earle, following the template of Dylan, popping up in film and TV as fictional versions of themselves. Earle’s life was a total and utter soap opera – heroin addiction, prison, years languishing in crack dens – yet he never became an overwhelming personality, even in songs such as “South Nashville Blues”, which came right up against those themes.

Earle started out as an industry songwriter (his work has been covered by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez) and he operates within country music’s griot tradition – it’s either political (anti-Reagan, anti-Bush) or it’s storytelling (“Copperhead Road” was about a Vietnam vet turned drug dealer). His first novel (2011’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive) was a historical fiction about the doctor who administered the fatal dose to Hank Williams. Even the coming autobiography is “a literary work in three acts”. Somewhere down the line, Earle has decided that reflections of his own life are more interesting than the real thing, and after the 12-step programme and 30 years on the road, he’s probably right.

His fifteenth studio album is a celebration of that touring life, “a vast galaxy filled with the brightest of all possible futures or the blackest hole in the universe”. There are two songs – “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” and “After Mardi Gras” – which he co-wrote for the HBO series Treme, in which he played a musician (in The Wire he played a recovering drug addict). “Warren Hellman’s Banjo”, an expert copy of old-time folk songs, dedicated to the San Francisco philanthropist, is another example of Earle’s tendency to disappear into his music despite having had the life to fuel a hundred heart-to-hearts. The Low Highway chugs along on a kinetic country energy sounding just like its theme, the relentless pursuit of the road.

John Grant.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times