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A mate of mine said something really funny and interesting about getting wasted. He pointed out that as most self-knowledge is built up from pictures a few years out of date, half-remembered mirror-checks and optimistic guesses about our smiles, we don’t never see what others see; apart from very occasionally when we reach a stage of absolute out-of-it-ness, catch ourselves in the mirror, and stare at what we actually look like.
This is the pose of ‘W’. Knife collaborator and Berlin-based performance artist Janine Rostron’s second album as Planningtorock, a record obsessed with looking inside herself, poking at her mind, and finding something far stranger than we ever speak about. Planningtorock is the name of Janine’s project, but it could just as well be Janine’s subconscious, her black dog: a creature with a pitched-shifted baritone that only comes out at 5am. “I know my feelings,” she sings to herself. “Under my deep skin.”
It’s one of many moments that induce shivers. It’s not fun, looking in, and you’re never going to get easy answers. The songs on this album – pronounced, let’s not forget, Double you – carry titles like Doorway, The Breaks, Living It Out. Paraphrasing that great writer of the mind at night, Bruce Springsteen, she intones “There’s a freight-train running through my brain,” on Milky Blau, but with queer disinterest, as though “My Brain” was a small town where Planningtorock used to live. One of the most bracing moments on the album is her cover of Arthur Russell’s Janine, with Planningtorock telling herself, “Don’t go with those guys,” submerged in a thick beat that sounds like a dense pulse running through the inner ear.
“I’m a believer in secular love,” she sings on Manifesto, and secular is a perfect word for the music on this album. Stripped of mythology and mumbo-jumbo, it’s about the austere truth that our souls are all we have; of looking inside, carving the self into ever-tinier fractions, and finding that nothing is small, nothing is normal down here. Lesser artists would cloak such a self-reflective record in sonic niceties. But the astounding thing about ‘W’ is how unsugared the pill is – her subject is her body and soul but her tone is forensic, not fleshy. Entirely synthesised, the record taps the peculiar ability of digital music to sound both epic and non-physical. Opening track Doorway uses stabbing strings starkly over an epic beat not a million miles from Underground Resistance’s Punisher. The sounds you hear are hard. The chords on Milky Blau are not sketches but statues, self-portraits carved in marble. The tracks work very well as pop songs, but they sharpen the senses, turning the mind brittle, awake. The highlight of the album is The Breaks, whose plucked piano line drives through its epic breadth, its dreadful certainty carried over with a beat that pulses like her heart, your heart. It sweeps you up, almost against your will. This isn’t going to be easy, it promises. But it will be good for you.
The artwork of ‘W’ is blue, which is the colour of dawn skies, cigarette-smoke and sleep deprivation, and it reminds me of the morning brittleness of staying up way too late and not feeling too young. Martin Amis said the night turned us all into babies and poets, wrestling with existence. This is an album of that idea: as morning’s fierce blue light floods the room, we’re all babies, desperate for easy affection and mushy food, and all poets, on the doorstep of absolute clarity. Planningtorock is both, and she’s there with us. Let’s face it – if you’re in the state to stare at yourself anew in the mirror, you can barely stand, let alone cry or write. But Planningtorock is there, singing.