"Something I Made": Nicholas John and Mozart in the Jungle

Never am I more conscious of the time I’ve spent studying fiction writing than when I try to talk about a wholly different art form and feel the safety nets of technical understanding and jargon fall away. I stop being able to name concepts and tools, lose some crucial awareness of how a piece is working on me. But that blindness sometimes serves to make me that much more appreciative of the magic—and that much more willing to call it magical, though there’s magic at work in good prose too.

I’ve had Mozart in the Jungle on my mind lately, after the most recent season plunged me right back into love with its characters and its fearful awe/rosy worship of Creativity. As a sweet highbrow-soapy melodramedy about classical music, Mozart stacks multiple art forms that I can appreciate and map enough to name the formulae at work—to squint at the how as I enjoy them—but the technical workings of which I don’t deeply understand. Then this new season added modern dance to the mix and I was really at sea. But the show began to narrow its focus onto this very question, of genre and form and purpose, of joyful participation in art and life at every level of expertise. It’s been meditating on engagement and creativity and the magic that comes out of them all along, with speeches on amateurism and “playing with the blood,” and it felt like something beautiful came to a head in the montage between Hailey’s conducting debut and Rodrigo’s improvisation of his Ballet for No Audience. John Cameron Mitchell’s choreographer was a kind of trickster god who intimidated me almost beyond understanding via his hair alone, but after a season of wondering how seriously Mozart meant for me to take him I was happy to throw that question away—or perhaps to consider it answers—and to join Rodrigo in his dance through the park.

The main new music I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks is Something I Made, by Nicholas John. It has me dancing through a lot of the same joys and questions as Mozart in the Jungle, though the musical tradition is folk rather than classical and most of the "dancing" is happening on crowded subways at rush hour. Some of its pleasures I have the words for: the lyrics are varied in mood but always grab you by the lapels, each song’s speaker full of feeling and insistent on being heard. Desperate folks more than down on their luck—heartbroken and suicidal; deep in the grip of a gambling problem; near the end of a willfully untreated illness—trade tracks with a Guthrie-style burbling parable; a knee-slapping ditty sung by a cat with no regrets; a lovely final track with verses that slide from the gory realism of a hospital-bound “scalped knee” to the Looney Tunes dream logic of eagles snatching the singer as he falls from a plane. There is also the melody of “Aquaphobia,” the first song on the album, which I’ve woken up humming on multiple occasions recently, and which springs to mind in meditative moments on the subway. There’s the timbre of John’s voice, which he bends to suit the tone of each song, and runs ragged on diesel-raw ballad “Gold Mine (Nineball Dave Gets His Revenge).” There are the countermelodies that float to the top of certain choruses and become background-centerpieces though some kind of alchemy I don’t have the vocabulary to understand.

Something I Made is a lovely album, sad and funny at once and as it means to be, and moving between listening and getting current on Mozart in the Jungle has me happy to be an amateur appreciator of so much in this life, and happier to be a student on my way to learning more.