What You Give My Words Can’t Hold

This piece is about Frank Ocean’s 2016 visual album Endless. The album is exclusive to Apple Music which makes it infuriatingly difficult to actually watch and listen to. Here’s an official link, and also a Vimeo link of the three songs discussed here which may not be long for this world.

Tell me what you need from me. Gas money.

Frank Ocean has more control over his voice than anyone I’ve heard sing. His larynx is a precision instrument responsive to the most subtle gradations of intent. He modulates his vocal chords to deliver a breathtaking range of emotions, sliding between inflections with ease: now he’s discharging staccato bars from his chest in a cocky bounce over wobbly bass swells (‘U-N-I-T-Y’); now exhaling a raspy falsetto over stuttering trap hi-hats, asking confused unfinished questions about trust, insisting he just needs to sleep (‘Deathwish (ASR)’); now his voice is doubled and redoubled, symphonic, as he drools indecipherable ad libs between clauses (‘Alabama’).

Don’t believe for a second that he’s lost control for even a moment in ‘Rushes’ > ‘Rushes To’ > ‘Higgs’. This three song sequence is built up with astonishing craft and attention to detail. It starts way back in the background – you’ll have to fight the urge to turn the volume up or else be deafened by the combined crescendo of crashing guitars and Jazmine Sullivan’s desperate keens. A single strummed chord. It seems we’ve caught Frank mid thought: his ambitions, memories of a lover, the lessons he’s had to take: all only half visible in a fumey fugue. One very clear memory, a fragment of conversation, jumps into the foreground, with Frank’s voice soft and barely kept together, fuzzy and trembling at the edges:

Tell me what you need from me.

It’s heavy with yearning – for knowledge of another, communion with a lover’s soul. We remember a similarly earnest plea which was screamed from behind jingling bars of piano ten tracks ago:

What could I do to know you better than I do now? What can I do to love you more than I do?

The answer, what his lover needs, is brutally prosaic. Cold and transactional. Frank has guessed at it before he’s been told, so answers himself with a resigned whine:

Gas money.

‘Rushes’ swirls tighter and tighter, gathering disparate sounds as it prepares to assume the instrumental form of ‘Rushes To’. Frank repeats his hopeless incantation with a bite – ‘Wake me up in a week’ – he’s depressed and angry and tired of sympathetic advice. His voices bubble up over each other and the fading guitars. There’s just enough time for a murmured confession of love before the driving beat of ‘Rushes To’ carries us from one mindset, though sleep, to another and ‘Higgs’.

I think that ‘Higgs’ must be the most beautiful song that Frank has so far produced. I think that it’s as close as he’s come to genius. I hope his genius doesn’t end, that he isn’t forced to fall back on average. I think you almost inhuman if your spine doesn’t spark and shiver when he opens up to his fullest range and lets unrefined feeling rush out of his lungs. The rustling movements, a short inhalation, the echoes of calloused fingers leaving strings, the little tap of hand heel on sound board. Frank feeling his way around the great open spaces left by the acoustic guitar, slurring a little into his vibrato. The melody of this opening verse is lovingly pinched from Marvin Gaye. More competent electronic instruments win control briefly. The way Frank sings, ‘It’s all new to me,’ is gorgeous, the second elongated syllable of ‘new’ lost way up there in the ether.

Frank describes himself masturbating to an old sex tape he made with his ex and the feeling of intrusion is unbearable: we’ve become inadvertent but fascinated voyeurs of the bleakest scene. Maybe not so bleak – the recording is transfigured into something empyreal, the lovers’ physical impulse unshackled from thought like ‘sparks of lightning’ that ‘storm’ behind their wet instinctual faces. The metaphor is epic, it makes you think of Greek wrestlers sculpted from marble, all undulating muscle and ineffable expressions. And then – Frank’s always perfect voice slips, he misses a note:

Slip my pants back on
And rewind it backward more
The tape stopped before
I was back alone

This lapse is as calculated as Hardy’s semi colon in ‘The Voice’, where he abandons his rigid metre and breaks the structure over his knee in a fit of agony. The squeak of Frank’s voice is as deliberate as the slip of Van Gogh’s hand over one of the crows in his wheat field. It is Frank inviting us to stare at his bruises, probe them; he has no shame and if he does he wants to share it.

And now he does share it: this is the top of his range, the purest sound he contains pouring forth Frankly. As ‘I’ll be back before’ rips away from him that last sustained note holds within it the image of Frank falling to his knees, tearing his shirt open as he’s overwhelmed by loss. He’s Job hearing that all of his children have been crushed, he’s David learning that his Jonathan, his soulmate, is slain. He’s sackcloth and ashes, weeping and gnashing of teeth. The climax of ‘Higgs’ is biblical in the manner of the prophet Joel:  

Rend your heart not your garments. Return.

Still the strings are plucked calm. Frank confesses: his fantasies of a lost lover are just ‘lavish thoughts’ that ‘don’t compare, no not at all.’ Memory is poor fare no matter how sweet; memories are hazy and flutter at the limits of your vision, eluding your grasp no matter how tight shut you squeeze your eyes under the bedsheets; memories begin to lose their colour and their corners curl with the years, the fine detail smudging into impressions and imagination only. Frank’s voice tells us this.

But look: movement. He’s pushing himself back onto his feet, swaying as he tries to stand. He’s determined to salvage something from this consuming consumed passion. There shall I recover beauty, and impose order upon my raked, my dishevelled soul? Frank knows what to do with the remnants of this shattered relationship, how to transmute life into artistic expression and preserve the bruising force of it, the hugeness. Because he’s steady and mature now, adult not adolescent, he can see how much his lover gave him, how many gifts small and large freely given, and how precious these are, how he’d be a fool to cast them aside now. People leave their thumbprints on you, lovers do so more gently and indelibly. If you try to tease apart the subtle twine of your being I bet you’ll find threads woven in by those you have loved. Not the gaudy outer threads you braided deliberately in response to habits you hate or as a kind of hero worship. Not these. Deeper: the fine strands at the centre, the ones you have to dig to get at and then roll between your fingertips to remember: that’s from her or he not me! That absent minded habit of standing by the window in the morning, warming your palms on a mug, that’s how he used to spend the unmeasured minutes between bed and shower, watching the plane tree and its dappled grey green leaves, elsewhere until you shuffled over and seized him from behind, held your cheek to his to see how he saw. Those books on your shelf, aren’t some of them hers? The new way of seeing that you learned, that past land never visited, but shared, that stays with you still. And all of those happenings, the places you went and the people you met and the senses stimulated by the same sensations – together. The sea air vibrating with purple twilight and diving bats, the sea lambent with the final captive colours of sunset, both of you two wild eyed in the witching hour. Frank has learned the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

What you give my words can’t hold.

What a beautiful sentence to sing. It makes me think of Faulkner: ‘That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at… just a shape to fill the lack.’ A strange way for a writer to feel.

Frank’s been providing backing harmonies for a few bars now, vocals I struggle to describe as anything other than wails. Freeform graceful wails and howls and croaks. The voices combine for an invocation. He just wants to go back. And then ‘Higgs’ ends with a statement left unfinished:

If you’ve never been in love…

You’ve at least never had to lose it? You don’t know the fury Frank’s soul has weathered? You can’t understand the emotive power of this song? The three minutes forty three of Higgs gives you a pretty thorough soaking in the feeling.

That guitar plays us out – there’s the metallic buzz of an imprecisely fingered chord, and then another mistake on a higher string, more nylon tang in texture. Receding echoes bleed into ghostly resonance.

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