My Weekend Alone with Dave's ‘Psychodrama’

‘Psychodrama’ is a collected tome, weighty and secure in the hand.
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Dave 'Psychodrama' album cover, 2019

“And to speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that fundamentally this is nothing that one can choose to refrain from.” —Rainer Rilke

Before we start this experiment, two things: I hate being alone, and Psychodrama sounds like an album made for me. It is a bare work that defines a generation of music, it is sweeping and haunting. It is a piercing and brave thing. UK rapper Dave is an honest illusionist on the album, his voice gruff and impervious to pain, but every word he spits manages to somehow sop up the dregs of despair.

Now, the alone business. Hate it. I’ve never been good at being alone. That is why music is playing in my apartment constantly, why I am always on Twitter, why I am always yearning to strike up a conversation with someone.

Who am I when I am alone? Someone I don’t particularly like. If Psychodrama’s concept is a window into healing, then perhaps we have a match on our hands that goes beyond my emotional self-indulgence. Perhaps, I will spin this bad boy and learn something about healing, learn how to be by myself. Maybe a little isolation is good for the soul. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Rilke writes that a vast solitude is a good one. I find solace in that. Maybe Psychodrama will be Dave’s letter to me.

I’ve heard Psychodrama but once, and beyond finding it to be a compelling masterwork, I found myself drawn to it for some shapeless reason I hope to work out here, my home, the page. I haven’t revisited the album since its release because of fear of what I may find, but I live a life of fear-facing and anxiety-battling, so come with me as I journey through my solitude with this album in tow.

Three days, just me and this record. No other albums will be played. No one’s around the apartment but me. This is my vast solitude, but as Rilke wrote, the vaster the solitude, the better the art.

Friday

Dinner alone with a can of beer is something out of a Murakami novel. Every Murakami novel. Only my beer isn’t lukewarm and my world is not about to invert. Or maybe it might; I’m not yet sure what only listening to Dave’s album will rightly do to my psyche. It’s Chinese for dinner, by the way, and the album just came on. Hearing Dave talk about not wanting to be saved on the open makes me think of my worst fear: succumbing to myself. I do want to be saved, but do I want to do the work? Not always, I can admit that. Already, we have lessons.

Off the top, I appreciate how Dave speaks on the fleeting nature of happiness: “N***a probably battlin' with manic depression / Man, I think I'm going mad again / It's like I'm happy for a second then I'm sad again.” These are the woes that seep out when I am alone. Perhaps I wanted to avoid Psychodrama because Dave so easily speaks the thoughts I rather keep to myself.

It’s easy to feel fear and happiness in the same turn, and even easier to become embittered. When you spend so much time low, the high of contentment can make you manic and panicky. How embarrassing to have something wonderful terrify you. How to explain that to someone with a straight face and be taken seriously? The task Dave undertakes with this album—solving himself and overcoming the insecurity of sharing—makes him into a hero, and makes you want to be your own hero. Mostly, too, it makes me want to drink.

As I shift uncomfortably from the gravity of the album, I realize that Psychodrama is a collected tome, weighty and secure in the hand. Something you’re given and when the time comes, you crack it open despite the settled dust and decaying gnats, and you soak up the wisdom. From Dave’s own trauma, I have the impetus to unpack my own. As he spits “I'm presenting you the future, I don't fear my past” I think on all of the shame I carry, and the guilt, and how I have the permission now to let it go. I am the only one ashamed of myself.

My dinner listen has taught me that there is so much about myself I am still uncomfortable confronting. I am still so insecure. I am coming to learn that discomfort is rightfully a feature of healing. The final therapy session of Psychodrama is marked by the doctor saying “You can never stop learning about yourself.” Let that be the lesson of the night.

Saturday

Every weekend, I wake up early to traverse the stillness and cold of morning. I make myself an espresso and sit quietly in the kitchen, taking in the peace of an untouched day. The walls of my apartment building are thin, so I’m often accompanied by slamming car doors, arguments, and this morning, the sound of children playing outside with sidewalk chalk. There is no drama to early morning. This seems like the perfect canvas upon which to juxtapose Dave’s Psychodrama. I want to challenge the peace of the day, to see where that discomfort can push me. So with espresso in hand, we’re pressing play.

One thing about listening to Psychodrama on a beautiful morning is you’re forced to sit in a feeling the morning is otherwise helping you escape. I don’t mean to say I feel trapped or helpless; I feel responsible while listening to this album. Confronting things is the best way to live, and by not giving myself a choice, I like to imagine I’m becoming a stronger person. I’ve chosen to meet the album halfway and brewed the most intense espresso blend on hand.

Against the sun-bleached skies, the looming production is all the more efficacious. Psychodrama has a cogent, coiling, and choking quality. Something about it makes it hard to breathe. It’s a royal purple void you can reach into and keep reaching, and reaching, and you never stumble. The production brushes the line of oppressive but releases us at just the right moment. Psychodrama is forgiving in that way, with moody keys and beat switches coming in to ease the maelstrom of Dave’s delivery.

These beats are so lithe, too. There’s an unexpected bounce despite the mood that I find myself wanting to escape. There are pockets of Psychodrama the listener can hide away in, but that’s not the right spirit, is it? Compared to the rest of the album “Purple Heart” is a heated blanket of a track, soulful and immaculate. The same conviction Dave brings to his pain, he brings to his pleasure. Dave gives us an exit strategy with excellent features as well. In particular, Burna Boy’s feature on “Location” had me dancing in the living room.

What I’ve learned about this morning listen—it just became overcast, too—is that Psychodrama is an incredibly layered project. Dave knew exactly what he was doing when he stepped into this emotional arena and he does everything in his power to make sure the album is not overwrought. It might even be inviting. At the least, I feel invited into his psyche, and conversely, invited to examine my own. I am learning that I need to be less fearful of the lows because they can be as temporary as the highs. No emotion is forever; nothing is as trapping as it appears.

Now for this afternoon listening, I want to talk about “Lesley.” The sun’s been put out by massive clouds and it seems like the right time to get deeply serious. By this point in the day the loneliness has really caught up to me and I’d rather be asleep than awake, but I want to discuss Dave’s 11-minute opus. You’d think that listening to a track dedicated to depicting the terror of domestic abuse would spoil my day, but the power and heart behind every word lifts my spirit. There’s still love and empathy in this world, is what the track communicates. “Lesley,” despite its horrific content, is a promise that everyone is worthy of compassion. That makes me feel less alone.

Moreover, “Lesley” is a miraculous feat of storytelling. It’s incredible that across the entire gruesome tale Dave weaves, not a word is wasted, repeated, or presented as contrived. Much like the production, “Lesley” is testing but not oppressive. “Lesley” is a masterful short-film shot on tape, without the gloss of a big budget, presenting an ugly reality with a deft hand. The story is seamless like a day is seamless, and the pain is mechanical and grinding, but not inhumane to the ear. Dave accomplishes more in one track than some rappers will go on to accomplish across their careers.

I listen to Dave while casing a bookstore and later while cleaning the kitchen. The album is becoming less of a project removed from my life and more of a feature of my day. Listening to Dave has me feeling eager to open up—I fire off a few texts to close friends. Because of the bare nature of Psychodrama, Dave’s voice has become a welcome addition to my idle time. The album evolves into table talk with a troubled friend.

By the time we got to the dinner listen—grilled chicken salad and rice from the Mexican spot around the way—my mood had been soured by the sun going down and the great expanse of my solitude. Feeling morose, each downtrodden key on Psychodrama cuts me down and splits me open. Dave’s pain becomes my pain. I empathize with his haggard voice. I commiserate with Dave and his sullen tones. He becomes a hand on the shoulder as the sun sets and the day tightens into the evening.

There is an obvious give and take to the record, depending on how you position yourself when you press play, you could receive Dave as a wounded soul and nurture him by listening, or you could give yourself to the music and nurture in the inverse. Either way, the project is founded on a belief in healing. With every listen, that belief strengthens.

Sunday

This morning, coffee in hand, I want to talk back to Dave. He concludes Psychodrama with a slew of questions that deserve answers. “If you saw God what would you say to him? / If given the chance would you have taken it? / If you could rewind time what would you change in it? / Do you believe in what an angel is? / Furthermore, do you believe in what the devil is?” he spits in that hollow-eyed tone I’ve come to appreciate.

For one, if I saw God, I would ask her if she’s sure things are going to be alright. I ask everyone this question. I’m always liable to get in my feelings and fire of a “Will it be okay?” text to a confidant. There’s desperation and silent suffering in the question, the same tentative misery that commands Psychodrama. I am so certain that Dave and I understand each other now.

Now for the second question, given this is a song about his brother’s incarceration and absence, I take it to be Dave asking if his brother—and now me—would take the chance to do right. I would love to say I always take the chance to do right, but I am woefully imperfect. Yet, that is the bigger lesson of Psychodrama: imperfection is a universal promise. There is no negative value statement for our trappings. With that, I wouldn’t rewind time, as much as I’d like to. I could never bring myself to undo even the worst of my circumstances because I have to believe we land exactly where we need to be. As for angels and devils, certainly. I’m spiritual enough to believe in anything, which is likely a virtue.

My Sunday morning listen of Psychodrama has me seeing the album as a lot more hopeful than it presents. There are a lot of moments where Dave presents healing as a tangible thing available to everyone. He survives, after all. 

I finally catch a bar on “Voices” that moves me, too: “Made so many wrong decisions / 'Til I fell in love with optimism.” I realize that Dave could not have sat down and made Psychodrama without some emotional distance from all the hurt. The very presence of the album signals that he is in a better place. His love flourishes, so to say.

Not surprisingly, locking yourself away with an album is a very worthy thing. Not once did I experience fatigue, which is a testament to Dave. Every day, new lines and themes jumped out at me and I found myself watching the album evolve into a breathing thing without much effort on my part. Psychodrama nicely filled the silence of an isolated weekend.

The record was dynamic enough to bring a new personal revelation to every listen. Making a project of attacking this album and my insecurities in the same turn filled my days and made sense of my vast solitude. The more alone you are, the better the art, and I like to think Dave and I made some worthy art together.

In the end, Psychodrama strips back layers, shreds masks, and calls to arms a populous to be better. It’s also exceptionally moody in quiet ways. It cobra strikes at your chest and the venom is this viscous truth serum that, just… I mean, this record is really fucking good.

Psychodrama is an album about being neurotic and on the verge of disrepair. It’s an album about retooling yourself in spite of everything. It’s an album that was decidedly made for me, I mean. We had a good weekend; here’s to many more.

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