There are few things more exciting than a shopping centre on the day it opens. It will never get any better than the day of the big reveal, when everything looks exactly as it did on the architect’s table and, in the melee, a brass band goes about its business. Window displays will never again be this impeccable. Someone from the TV has been handed a giant pair of scissors with which to cut the ribbon. On this one day, the fanciful name given to the new development – in my hometown, it was The Pavilions and, nearby, The Palisades – will not seem poignant or silly. Today, every letter will be intact and every light bulb inside every letter will work. The water in the fountains will be clean. Today is all about civic pride.
It doesn’t matter where you’re from. We all grew up a bus ride from a place like that. Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, it turns out that Daniel Knox developed a similar fascination for his local equivalents, with their utopian names that take flight in your mind and turn into something else entirely. “Wow, those words are so beautiful,” explained Daniel Knox, when asked about his song White Oaks Mall, “It sounds like it should be a poem. But it’s a fucking mall full of kiosks and shuttered things that are no longer open or have been turned into a Dick’s Sporting Goods.”
Not on Knox’s record though. On Knox’s eponymous album, released in February 2015, White Oaks Mall finally gets a monument that corresponds to the promise of its name. Its protagonist is driving back to the scene of childhood memories and the closer he gets, an increasingly insistent cello mirrors his mounting anxiety. “Ten years from now,” sings Knox in his caramel-rich baritone, “I try to get back/I don’t know how/White Oaks Mall/The signs are gone/I can’t see line/I don’t know the song.”
Where ‘Daniel Knox’ is concerned, this is a good place to start. Many of his songs are spent looking for places that don’t exist – at least not in such a way as you would recognise if you visited them. His main instrument is the piano, which he learned to play in the late 90s. By this time, he had moved to Chicago and dropped out of a film course at Columbia university. Clearly at something of an impasse, he became the lead in the art-house movie of his own life, slipping into the bars of downtown hotels and picking out simple melodies on the pianos at these places. Speaking to the Chicago Reader earlier this year, he recalled some of those places: “The Drake, the Westin. The Art Institute has a piano. And in the back Board of Trade room. I got kicked out of a lot of places. But the thing is, the turnaround in a hotel is so huge, the staff is so big — it's never going to be the same guy kicking you out. You just leave graciously and come right back in the back door.”
The songs on ‘Daniel Knox’ make these nocturnal investigations all too easy to imagine. Over a pretty music box motif and an ever-present fug of synth, Blue Car returns, dream-like, to a simple childhood scene that the author’s logical adult mind has yet to resolve: a memory of seeing a driverless car pull up to your house before driving away, unseen by no other soul. When I interviewed Knox earlier this year, he explained that this is what he remembers having seen. “I assumed… the future me [had] come to pay me a visit. But, as we know, when you time-travel you can’t see your future self or your past self.” The spell further intensifies with a second verse that vividly reawakens the crushing scepticism of grown-ups when you have just confided experiences that feel far too real to be a mere product of your imagination: “You can’t win/The beast will appear/But only to you and no-one/Believes you/No-one.”
Knox doesn’t elicit easy comparisons – not musical ones, at any rate. It’s telling that the seeds of his long-time love of David Lynch are as rooted in Lynch’s use of music as they are in his films. At the age of 13, a friend gave Knox the soundtrack to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, he was so transfixed that his obsession with the movie began practically the minute he began to watch it. Fifteen years later, when Lynch visited Knox’s local cinema, Knox was working as a projectionist there. At the event which paid host to Lynch, Knox didn’t miss the opportunity to impress him. On the cinema organ, he opened the evening with an instrumental overture. In that moment Lynch declared himself a fan. Knox’s lyrics are often mere intimations of narratives whose ramifications are too overwhelming for the protagonist to fully itemise. On High Pointe Drive, the “action” spiders out around a house of a hundred rooms bought by his father and his addressee’s mother and an incident which involves spying on “the girl next door, who would brush her sister’s hair a hundred times.” He doesn’t need to tell us that things will ever be the same again. In the indigo half-light of the music, the lyrical shadow puppetry does enough to plant that realisation firmly in your gut.
Here and elsewhere, percussion and guitar – the twin engines of most rock songs – are mostly absent. It’s hard to imagine Knox’s music working so well if he yielded to those conventions. On the brooding baroque ruminations like Lawrence & MacArthur and David Charmichael, Knox’s role is both that of cameraman and narrator, pulling further and further back on a still life, revealing details that subtly change the emphasis of the story. Texturally, everything is exquisite. Shaded in by Knox’s dutifully impassive piano and string arrangements, and synthesisers that portend some unspeakable reckoning, Knox’s sound-world on this album exerts a gravitational pull that holds you more captive with every passing song, reaching – as all albums should – a state of grace in time for the final two songs.
The first of these songs, was originally aired alongside Blue Car as part of an audiovisual collaboration with Chicago photographer and film-maker John Atwood. Perhaps the prettiest piece on the whole record, Car Blue jettisons Knox’s voice in favour of flickering piano and dark brush strokes of cello. Further relief comes in the form of the song which also lent its name to Knox and Atwood’s collaboration 14 15 11. “You can’t win,” Knox sings once again, echoing the opening line of the opening track, only for a human tide of harmonies to rise up and meet him, before itself being drowned out by engine noise. The effect is something akin to seeing dawn reveal this decaying gold rush town. No-one in their right mind would call it pretty, but it’s home.
'Daniel Knox' by Daniel Knox was my favourite album of 2015 (although Laura Marling's Small Movie ran it close) and is available from Carrot Top Records