Edward Hopper, Silent Spaces and ‘Putting On Airs’ by Erin Rae

The external becomes the internal, the political becomes the personal and vice versa. One bleeds into the other until it’s all muddy and messy and we don’t know where outside influences begin or where we end.

In Erin Rae’s album Putting On Airs, co-produced by Dan Knobler and Jerry Bernhardt,(Single Lock, 8th June) the personal hits up against the political and societal rules and expectations, specifically in the American South but the shadows could fall on anyone in any community.

The album’s artwork depicts strangers at a small bar seemingly in the American South. A smattering of Rae’s lyrics are scribbled over the walls. From the angle of the illustration it suggests Rae is the one sitting at the table in the right-hand corner of the bar, partially cut off in the frame, observing her subjects.

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The above illustration by artist Harry Underwood, seems to be a homage, whether deliberate or not, to Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’; a 1942 painting of four strangers in a bar in 1940s Manhattan. Hopper’s paintings are described as “short isolated moments of configuration, saturated with suggestion”(1994, Strand), and “his silent spaces and uneasy encounters touch us where we are most vulnerable and have a suggestion of melancholy, that melancholy being enacted”(2007, Avis). Something Rae also creates in each song on the album. Each line an eerily accurate portrait of the psyche, an isolated moment, each resonating with you no matter what season of your life you happen to be in.

‘Bad Mind’ is the individual clashing with the political and the social. The song has the feel and sound of 1970s singer-songwriter (think Carole King, Don McLean vibes) with Rae’s layered and vulnerable vocals and the space created in the production. There’s a gentleness to the sound, a sadness of what might have been had prejudices, both personal and societal been removed from the situation.

Rae has said that this song is about her coming to peace with her own sexuality as a gay woman in an environment that stigmatizes and punishes that way of being. As with her Aunt, whose own daughter was taken away by the state because she was in love with and living with a woman.

“Maybe cos they took her away/ Little girl from a good mother/ Just because she had a woman for a lover.”

Rae also talks about the masculine influence and the unconscious bias and pejorative slang that got banded about when she was growing up.

“Or the influence of my brothers/ With the harsh words I heard others throw around.”

The external eventually sinking in no matter how liberal and accepting your home life is. The bleed of one into the another is no less heart-breaking than in the last verse where Rae paints a moment from her own story.

“Remember when you tried to hold my hand/ And I acted like I thought you were playing/ But I knew just what you were saying/ You looked so pretty at the prom/ Yellow dress, long hair swaying/ Never had the courage to tell you/ Until now.”

Rae’s overwhelming strength is writing lyrics that are not only eerily accurate to the human condition but also effortless in their simplicity of conveying emotions that are anything but. Her words are bookmarks to file against your own experiences; translations for feelings you couldn’t make sentences out of. Her words are bookmarks to file against your own experiences; translations for feelings you couldn’t make sentences out of.

The opening lines to ‘Grand Scheme’ hit you with the juxtaposition “Let’s talk until there’s no hard feelings/ And quit until they come to us” and ‘Can’t Cut Loose’, where Rae sings of various bad patterns we all pick up as adults, that tie us with weights to the ground. The song is a longing for that childlike simplicity, ease and lightness before things became complicated or rather, before we had to stand waist deep in those complications. It was the line that drew me in, because don’t we all want that? To be free.

 “Wanna be free like we once were, honey/ But can’t cut loose.”


The Art Institute of Chicago where ‘Nighthawks’ is hung describes it as “an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated.” It has become a place to go, even in just your imagination, where you can be alone with your thoughts all the while not being alone at least not in the physical sense.

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The same could be said for the diner on the album artwork and by extension the music itself. You can be alone listening to it but there is a solace in that the character felt like you did once and that others are listening to the song too, and though they maybe miles and miles away from you, you are not alone. Like the three customers in the bar; they have all come to be with their thoughts but not be with them alone.

‘Like The First Time’ is edgier and angrier than the rest of Putting On Airs and it fits perfectly into place with Rae’s succinct and cutting words. With its distorted electric guitars that perfectly take the place of the choruses, Rae has created her own bar and diner for you to go and get lost in your own thoughts. Thoughts about wanting to leave a relationship but feeling like you need a real reason to go. As if love or rather the not being in love was thereason to go.

“Thought I owed you something somehow/ For the love that you had sweetly shown/ So I let you lay beside me now/ Certain loneliness of its’ very own.”

Putting On Airs closes with ‘Pretend’. A cello opens the track followed by an acoustic guitar and Rae’s vocals, weaving in and out of the notes laid down by the strings. The song gives you as the listener a feeling of closure to the story. As if you entered the all-night diner lost and alone, battling your thoughts, and sitting with strangers engrossed in their own inner turmoil becomes your life raft. Then by 2 or 3am your storm inside your head has calmed and you are beginning to come to terms with who you are, even if who you are disappoints the rest of them.

“On and on the record spins/ Those songs we used to sing back then/ The way I dreamed our life so grand/ But sadly I could not pretend.”

Art Institute of Chicago (2013), Essential Guide, Art Institute of Chicago (http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/111628)
Berman, Avis (2007), “Hopper the Supreme American Realist of the 20th Century”, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2007
Strand, M (1994), Hopper, Knopf Publishing Group

 

 

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