The singular intensity of voice that characterises both Song for Night and XO is what makes them ambient companions. Song for Night takes a brutally sparse tone, XO is more poetically painful. Both voices exquisitely reflect their environments: worlds irreconcilable in their differences yet equally capable of inspiring these voices to wrench strong emotions from listeners. While discussing the detail of favourite stories or playing much-loved songs to friends can often enrich their meaning, some voices are for private consumption. So I’ll open the door to let these voices ring out, but you must enter their worlds alone.
I picked up Song for Night in the company of trusted friends’ endorsements, but from the first line of text I travelled solo. The lights dimmed around my page, the city’s buzz receded, and I followed a compelling voice into the swampland of a West African nation. For reasons explained in the opening scene, this novella is accessed through a child soldier’s head. As I read the words, adrenalin flushed my veins, preparing my body to fight or flee. I suppose that by continuing to read I chose the fight.
I’ve read numerous non-fiction accounts of genocide in Africa, of children forced from their homes to become soldiers, to clear landmines, to kill their own families. Perhaps it’s their truth that prevents me from connecting with those stories as strongly as I did with this work of imagination. With non-fiction, my brain seeks a way to rationalise the horror, and, finding none, refuses to invest emotional energy in something so unspeakable. Yet Song for Night slipped under this radar with its cloak of fiction, allowing me to plunge into the abyss of the ink-black night — only resurfacing once I was so attached to the boy soldier that I could transfer my empathy to actual child soldiers. It took this fictitious boy to forge the emotional connection between my experience and their reality, because I longed to believe that their reality could never be true.
A beloved friend planted Elliott Smith’s music in my life; like Song for Night, XO spoke to me alone when I needed it most. I once spent a sleepless night drowning in ‘I Didn’t Understand’ — a haunting, acapella raft of tender harmonies — because the song would not release me until I’d sobbed a reservoir of tears. It cleared a path through the debris of my angst. Smith was a talented guitarist with a whisper-sweet voice that tended towards the melancholic. His voice embodied the beautiful laments he wrote (like the aching ‘Pitselah’), while still finding the strength to float above his rock riffs (‘Independence Day’, ‘Bled White’).
When I heard of Smith’s death in 2003, I was adrift in an emotional vacuum. My father had died a few months before, which I dealt with by constructing a shield to deflect the world. The loss of Smith’s fragile voice seemed utterly unsurprising through my bleak winter fog. My later emotional thawing was so subtle that I can’t pinpoint my revival date; I do remember the first time I heard Ben Folds’s 2005 tribute to Smith, ‘Late’. It smashed me with a force that obliterated any remains of my shield. I followed the thread that Folds had spun and wove Smith’s songs back into my life: they’ve guided me through many days since.
Song for Night and XO deserve to be matched because they are spotlights that illuminate a patch of darkness. You can turn the spotlights back on yourself or simply enjoy a seat in the shadows: either way, you’ll find these voices hard to ignore.