James Smythe’s The Explorer has been compared to literary sci-fi greats like Kazuo Ishiguro and JM Coetzee, as well as incredible films like Gravity and Duncan Jones’ Moon. Here he shares the soundtrack behind this tense, claustrophobic and completely gripping book. Listen along with him here on Spotify.
1.Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (Elvis Version) by Spiritualized
Spiritalized is essentially a one-man band, a guy called Jason Pierce. I got into them in the mid-1990s, when I heard that this guy called J Spaceman (Pierce’s stage name) was fronting a band who dabbled in the amazing-sounding genre of space rock. This wasn’t the first song I heard by them, but it was the one that swallowed me: the beeps of lost astronauts; the sad pining of lost love; the swell of the orchestra.
This version was only released recently, as the Elvis sample (which somehow drags you somewhere else, this melody and these words you know to be heartbreaking in another context altogether) couldn’t be cleared in time for the album’s original release. This is how it was meant to be heard, though; you bringing your own baggage to the song for that very first listen. In many ways, this is the perfect song for The Explorer; a true theme, if ever there was one.
“Only fools rush in / but I can’t help / falling in love with you.”
2. Into The Black by Chromatics
This is a Neil Young song originally; for him, it was a squall of feedback and aggression. This Chromatics cover version takes that and twists it; turns what is warm with anger into something cold and lost. The crackle of static in the background makes it feel as if it’s playing somewhere isolated, to you alone, working in conjunction with the lyrics, which have taken on another meaning for a whole generation: “It’s better to burn out / than to fade away” was famously used in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note.
And I used them, in The Explorer. Cormac’s father quotes them to him, when talking about growing old. I first heard the Neil Young version of this song thanks to my own father, a huge Neil Young fan. I can’t seem to escape it, because I put on the new Chromatics album, and this is there, waiting for me: suddenly cold and unforgiving, playing in the depths of space.
3. Always Crashing In The Same Car by David Bowie
Bowie has a lot of songs about space, but this isn’t one of them. Instead, this is a song about – I think, but you never know with Bowie – the predetermined repetition of our lives. Simple lyrics, but the music works them perfectly: repeating, revisiting, reworking them. And Bowie sounds so tired, so exhausted. When he delivers the titular line for the final time in the song, he sound as if he’s forcing himself to get it out; that he’s been doing this for too long, going over and over his mistakes again and again; and the only thing that he can do is cough it out, because if he doesn’t, who knows how that will end?
4. The Ghost Of You Lingers by Spoon
In many ways, The Explorer is a novel about ghosts. Not literal ones, but more the ones that we create for ourselves – and, sometimes, of ourselves. We create these things inside our heads that hang around. That we cannot, for some reason, get rid of. Often, these are in the form of thoughts: events, dreams, something that we can’t shake.
One of the strongest things to do this is isolation. When we have room to breathe, space to think, we can drag ourselves to places so easily that we might otherwise not find.
5. The Thinner The Air by Cocteau Twins
This song is ethereal. It’s a build, seemingly to nothingness; a build from this one simple, repetitive riff that goes around and around, and then things happen to it. It sounds like being lost, like spiraling out of control. It sounds like space, I think; or maybe just a few seconds, unshackled from anything and everything.
We can’t feel that, most of us. We can’t be out there, because we’re stuck here. A dream of space that we might once have had, that now just won’t happen. So it remains a dream; and, when Liz Fraser’s vocals finally come into this, seemingly wordless, all melody, it’s transcendent. This is the sound of drifting.
6. Up To My Neck In You by Mark Kozelek
This is a cover of an AC/DC song. It’s about love. It’s about being so deep in with somebody that you can’t see anything else; and they are the only person that can save you.
“She was my all, my entire, my absolute. When we got married, our vows promised to love and honour and obey, and I broke those last two, a majority number destroyed, because I had plans and dreams and aspirations that I failed to take her into account with. She didn’t want me to leave, couldn’t believe that I would actually go ahead with it. I was always saying things: that I would go to Africa, to do refugee reporting; that I would climb a mountain and write about that; that I would someday like to go to space, or to the depths of the ocean, or to those still uncharted parts of the rainforest where there are those few civilizations that we’ve left alone, to develop naturally, technology free, staring up at the helicopters as they take pictures, wondering what those things in the sky are. I said all those things and she used to cradle my head and stroke along my hairline and listen to my dreams about that, but she didn’t actually believe I would do it, because those things, they’re not the sort of things that people accomplish.”
7. Under The Westway by Blur
I’ve always been a big Blur fan. And when people ask, are you anything like your characters, I’d say that I am like Cormac in one major way: so is he. And The Explorer is, I think – though many might disagree – actually a novel about London as well as space. Two of the novel’s key moments take place in London, as Cormac remembers them; one of them in a restaurant a single road away from the Westway itself. Cormac’s upbringing in London is a lot like mine was; his childhood a lot like mine. For better of worse, he’s probably the character from my writing that I most see myself in. I can’t separate London from Blur, really; and so, I suspect, neither can he.
A lot of Blur’s songs are about the city, but also the loneliness of it; and the fragility of people. And – in what is truly a recurring theme throughout these songs – a sadness. This song has multiple allusions to space, but it’s the last line that rings strongest and longest for me: “Am I lost out at sea / until the tide washed me / up on the Westway.”
8. Your Hand In Mine by Explosions In The Sky
I mentioned space-rock earlier; and listening to stuff that washed over me with guitars. Well, Explosions In The Sky tick both those boxes. They’re about the swelling of music: starting quiet, and building. Becoming something else, something almost so physically powerful that you can’t help but be taken along by it.
I first heard this band when they did the soundtrack to a fantastic film called Friday Night Lights. Every single piece of music that they make sounds epic, somehow; like it’s always on the cusp of breaking or exploding. Every time I listen to them, I’m transported: whatever the situation, it’s suddenly more fragile. It’s suddenly on the verge of collapse.
9. Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair by The Twilight Singers
We fixate on things about the people that we fall in love with; we take features or traits, and they become everything to us. They become the things that we pin our feelings to, because that’s how it works. We cannot describe the intangible, so we take what we can.
One of Cormac’s defining traits is his love for his wife, Elena. She is of Greek heritage, he tells us, and her hair is black; it’s a detail that informs everything he sees about her, even as he starts to confuse her with Emmy, the ship’s doctor – everything that Elena is not. He misses Elena from the start of the novel to the very end; and their story runs concurrent to the main narrative, as it unfolds, and as the reader discovers what exactly his love for his wife means to him. Just as Half A World Away is about that love, so Black Is The Color is directly about Elena.
“I love the ground / on where she stands” Greg Dulli sings over and over at the song’s close. This could so easily be Cormac’s refrain as he thinks of Elena.
10. Black Moon by Wilco
This song seems, to me, to be about recurrences; about being unable to stop feelings reappearing, “under a black moon”.
“Outside, the sky is beautiful. We – that is, those of us in space, travelling here where nobody has been before – we don’t think of it in terms of sky, or even as space. We think in terms of an actual space, of blackness, of The Dark, that which we don’t understand. We over-word it, write about it in terms that we think people will find attractive, beautiful, moving, meaningful. We mystify it: It’s what we don’t know, something else entirely, something abnormal and terrifying and still and completely other-worldly, in the most literal sense of the phrase. Here, where you’re close enough to touch it, it is just space; there’s nothing to touch even if you want to. And there’s no definition of a horizon, no way to tell where we actually are, not really. We can say, Well, we’ve travelled this far – I can say, Well, I’ve travelled this far, I know how much fuel the ship has used, there’s no resistance, the readings must be right – but the relationship I have to what’s out here is nothing. It’s a number. I can’t tell that the orb in the distance is the Earth any more, not without the computer’s help. The ship has this thing that we call the Bubble, built into the ceiling of the main room, a raised dome of impenetrable plastic where we can get a 360-degree view of everything around us – and when they were all still alive I could see it, and they told me what it was we were seeing, what was Earth, when the light was right. From a distance – this distance – it looks white, almost. Shiny, like a tiny coin.”
11. Half A World Away by R.E.M.
In The Explorer, Cormac spends the first section of the book alone and lost. His crew – what passed for his friends – have all died, and he misses everything on earth. The book is, at heart, a love story. I am coming to think that all stories are, in some way. And here, the love is for his wife, Elena. They are separated in every sense of the word, and Cormac’s existence here is driven by a deep longing for her; a desire to somehow reunite with her. It fuels his every decision, whether he realizes it or not.
I listened to a lot of R.E.M. while I wrote The Explorer. I had always liked them, but this book was when I started to love them. It’s when this song – “This could be the saddest dusk / I’ve ever seen”, and every single other word – became a part of the novel itself, inexplicably entwined through the fabric of it.
And I’m not sure that I even know why, but it’s one of the most desperately sad songs I’ve ever heard.
12. I’m So Tired by Fugazi
Fugazi make amazing noise, most of the time. They’re fiercely aggressive, and they constantly sound like they’ve got bees in their fists, pummeling their instruments to get them out (or kill them). This song does not sound like that. Only available on the soundtrack to a documentary about the band, it’s two minutes of piano and voice, unfinished and sparse.
I don’t sleep well. Actually, that’s a lie. 95% of the time, I sleep brilliantly. The other 5%, I just don’t. I get inside my head, and I spend hours and hours worrying about whatever, and then the fact that I cannot sleep, and then what the repercussions of said lack of sleep will be. Rarely does anything bad or intrusive happen because of my tiredness. But that never stops the worry. That’s a trait I moved onto Cormac: depriving him of sleep, letting him worry in that way that you only can when your brain stops working at maximum efficiency.
This song is the soundtrack to that state; over and over, like a lullaby that doesn’t work, and that just… stops.
13. Outro by M83.
Because everything needs an exit plan.
“I can’t move. I can barely see. There’s water everywhere, it feels like, and I try to gulp in breaths through my mouth, but I can feel it twist and move, and never actually get the air that I want from it. This is it. I stare at the window in front of me, at the cracks that are starting to form in the plastic, and at the space; there’s suddenly something in the distance, blacker than the rest of it, somehow. It’s more tranquil than everything else I can see, with no stars, just an expanse of pure, absolute night, so black that it almost looks solid, like I could just reach out and touch it. I’m focused on it when the crack directly in front of me splits, and it pulls the window out. All the sound dulls away, and I feel the clasps attaching me to the chair being pulled at, tugged, yanked. As we reach the blackness of space I come free and I can suddenly hear that blackness, that somehow, here in the vacuum, it has noise, a roar, a filthy, gasping roar, like a whirlpool, a maelstrom, but I’m spinning out of the ship, and out of myself, and out here, in the deepest part of space that man has ever been, it feels like somebody is holding me, telling me that it will all be alright as I take one last breath of air, of actual air, the last one left on the ship, and I swallow it down and let it wash all over me, knowing that it will be the one that I take as I die, and then I regret this, because maybe I gave up too soon, and Elena wouldn’t be proud of me, giving up like this, because she always told me that I was the strong one, and I see the blackness, worse than space, worse than anything, utterly black, and it swallows me whole.”
14. Never Going Back Again by Fleetwood Mac
My favourite albums, when I was younger, all had secret tracks. Either you leave the tape playing, or you let the CD runs its course. Or, in the best cases, you rewound the CD past the beginning of the first track. I didn’t even understand how it worked; all I knew is that there was something hidden that only I had found. I miss that time. I miss those secrets, and those puzzles. Nowadays, we’re so quick to seek answers, and the internet (or whatever) is so quick to give them to us.
But we can’t go back to that time. We don’t get a chance at a do-over, at revisiting something we miss, or that we wish we could somehow take another shot at. Even our memories are inescapable.
So this is a secret track. Pretend you didn’t see it here. It’s more fun that way.
James’ book The Explorer, is available here.