Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Slow fades can be a blessing

Janelle Monae performs in Las Vegas earlier this year. Picture: Getty
Janelle Monae performs in Las Vegas earlier this year. Picture: Getty
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AS A pop music obsessed teenager, I was frequently apoplectic with utterly pointless rage at the way so many pop songs gradually faded out rather than bothering to come up with a proper ending. I could have written them a great one, if only they’d asked.

Recently and unexpectedly, I fell in love with a fade-out. It’s on Janelle Monae’s album The ArchAndroid, and it concludes one of the most audacious opening sequences on any pop album I’ve heard. First comes the arch orchestral album intro, Suite II Overture, which even Trevor Horn might think was a bit OTT. Then, three breakneck paced dance tracks, Dance Or Die, Faster and Locked Inside, each of which begins before the one before appears to have finished, like a DJ tripping over their own feet. And then, just as you’re thinking the whole album will be like this, the music fades out.

I love it because it suggests that, while Monae is singing track five, the slow, pensive Sir Greendown, the party kicked off by the previous three songs is still jumping somewhere else. Any moment, just out of earshot, another equally upbeat song will sprint in to grab the baton from Locked Inside, the same way that Locked Inside grabbed the baton from Faster.

In other words, it ends but it doesn’t end at the same time. This, probably, is the key to a satisfactory ending, particularly when you’re telling a story. Leave too much unresolved and the result is frustration and disappointment. Wrap things up in a neat little bow and it doesn’t ring true because life isn’t like that; endings are invariably messy and complicated.

The reason I never liked fade-outs, I think, is that they seemed to be copping out of attempting either solution. But now I’m reconsidering, Perhaps, if they somehow acknowledge the imperfections of both, they can offer something more satisfactory – more true to life as it is lived – than either.

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings over the past few days, for two reasons. The first reason is that I’m quitting journalism at the end of this month, probably for good (try to contain your disappointment). So I decided a while ago that I should write about endings today, as a neat little gimmick for my last ever column in this newspaper.

And then, just as I was trying to think of a funny and clever way to do that, my elderly father collapsed and was taken into hospital. This is not an ending as such; his condition is not terminal, not yet. But in the days since, it has become increasingly obvious that he will never be the same again. And it’s reminded me that endings are often fluid and drawn out. They can take years and years. Dad was already confined to the house, having lost much of his memory, his strength, and his ability to look after himself. Last week’s collapse – a stroke, we think, although at the time of writing tests are still in progress – just accelerated that process a little. Before it happened, we couldn’t talk the way we used to. At the moment he can’t talk at all. He might stay like that, or he might not. Either way, his ending looks like it will be a slow fade.

Something they don’t tell you about grief is that it can begin years before the person you love is gone. BBC newsreader Sally Magnusson has written a very moving book on this subject, published at the end of this month. Her mother, Mamie, had dementia. By the end, she didn’t recognise her daughter at all and, on one occasion, flew into a rage when Sally came near her. There’s a particularly poignant description of how, just before Mamie died, Sally and her sisters had a joyful, celebratory evening at her bedside, sharing stories with each other. Mamie, unable to contribute anything, was absent but also present. It was an ending but not an ending, and Magnusson describes the moment beautifully.

I stumbled across an extract from the book on a long train journey back from hospital last week. It helped. As painful as it can be, in life the slow fade can be a blessing. It reminds you to treasure all the moments remaining. My dad is very ill, but he still knows us, he is still with us, and we’re all holding on to him, and our other loved ones, a little tighter.

I’m struggling to come up with an ending for this now. If it was possible, ideally I’d just like the text to fade out, and for a song by Janelle Monae to fade in.